13 Free and paid things to do in Venice, Italy (and whether they are worth your time and money or not)
Venice is a highly popular international tourist destination in Italy and is well known for many famous attractions, particularly its canals and gondolas. This article covers a non-exhaustive list of things to do in Venice, both free and paid, and whether they are worth your time, starting with the things that are most uniquely Venetian at the top of the list. If you are not already in Venice, now is the time to go.
1. Visit St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)
Cost: Free, entry to the Basilica and Bell Tower costs extra
St Mark’s Square is one of the most famous, if not the most famous place within Venice and instantly internationally recognisable. This is the one landmark attraction that is single-handedly most specifically representative of Venice, so if you only have the opportunity or time go to one place, this is the place (although you really should be planning a longer trip to Venice). The best thing is, the square is free if you are on a budget or for any reason, do not want to pay to enter the basilica and bell tower. A photo here and it will be absolute proof you were in Venice.
Thus if you can only see one place within Venice (within the Venice islands), it is St Mark’s Square. Even though it is simply an open paved public square, so-named because of St Mark’s Basilica at the premise, for an attraction that costs nothing, you can admire the facade of the basilica (even if you do not enter), the Bell Tower, and enjoy the views of the waterways.
Tourist trap warning: Do not sit at the chairs outside the cafes and restaurants in the square, thinking you want to rest for a moment, even if they are unoccupied. The businesses there charge a service charge, or cover charge, also know as a seating charge, per person, simply for occupying their seat. While some people did sit there early in the morning when I went to shoot pictures at sunrise, the restaurant had not opened yet so there was no one to police them, but the same cannot be said if it was in business hours.
2. Visit St Mark’s Basilica
San Marco Basilica was closed for renovations during my visit, but when it is open, you can pay to enter the Basilica. Simply admiring it from the outside is still impressive and is free.
3. The Bell Tower
Like the Basilica, you can pay a fee to climb the Bell Tower, however, you can also view the tower from outside. The Tower offers high vantage point views of Venice, however there is also a free alternative, below.
4. Free 15 Minute rooftop viewing of Venice
A place to see Venice from high up for free? Yes please!
This is perhaps one of the best kept secrets for tourists: You can book a free 15 minute rooftop viewing of Venice session at the DFS Duty Free shopping mall, also known as the Fondaco Dei Tedeschi shopping mall (on Google Maps: T Fondaco Rooftop Terrace). This allows you access to the rooftop of the mall, accessed by elevators and lifts and a short flight of steps to the viewing platform. From the rooftop you can see the open water of Venice and the buildings along it, plus the rooftops of the buildings around the mall as well as a portion of the Rialto Bridge, where the mall is located near.
Each session must be booked in advance and in peak times they book out days in advance. The sessions are well organised – there is a limit to the number of people allowed per session to 20, and each session starts and ends precisely on time, which is great since you know you won’t need to wait long and the queue length is also predictable, everyone in the queue is guaranteed to go in.
To keep it well organised and an enjoyable experience for everyone, you should arrive on time, a few minutes early will be good too as the door to the roof is closed after the people waiting goes out.
To book, go to their direct website via this link.
5. Visit Murano and Burano island
Cost: Free entry but you must pay for the ferry ride
Though not within the main Venice historical islands, the nearby islands of Murano and Burano are a must visit if you have already made the effort to go to Venice and are staying in Venice for more than 2 days. Both islands are well known for their colourful houses, handcrafted glassworks and in the case of Burano, laceworks.
Both are highly photogenic locations and entry is free. It is also free to look at some of the glasswork sold in the shops there. Be aware that many shops charge visitors extra to see glass-blowing demonstrations. Whether you want to pay for this or not is your own choice.
To get to the islands, one needs to take the ferry (Vaporetto) from Fondamente Nove ferry stop in Venice islands. Ferry tickets are not cheap and if you are travelling to several locations, it could be worthwhile getting a time-valid unlimited ride ticket.
6. Visit the Rialto Bridge
The Rialto bridge is another highly popular destination within Venice and is easily recognised as Venetian. It is simply a stone bridge and easily accessed from the street in the main part of the city. There is a ferry stop there too by the same name, so easy to find.
However, to be honest, given the reputation, the Rialto Bridge is at least slightly overrated, and can be seen on a stroll through the right part of town (and is near the DFS Fondaco Dei Tedeschi mall) or during a ferry ride on the right line, which is why it is lower on the list. In other words, unlike the other locations already mentioned, the Rialto Bridge requires less of a special effort to get to. Nevertheless it is still worth a visit: you can get some nice pictures with or without people at the top of the bridge, which is a popular vantage point for photos of Venice with the water and buildings in the background. Tip: Visit early in the morning (around 7-7:30am) to avoid crowds. During summer seasons, this is not a problem as the sun rises early.
7. Visit during the Biennale/Go shopping for Venetian masks
The annual Venice Biennale is a seasonal event and not a permanent attraction in Venice. During the Biennale, apart from the art installations and events, you can see people dressed up in typical Venetian masks and fancy dress.
But: If you visit Venice outside of the Biennale season, you can always have a look at the masks in the shops. Window browsing is free wink wink.
8. Go for a walk and appreciate the city sights
Venice the city is a destination by itself because it is one a few cities that is built on water: instead of roads, it has waterways. No vehicles are allowed, not even bicycles, so people get around by ferries, or “water buses” (Vaporetto or Vaporetti, Italian plural). Even the ambulances are boats, and the streets are connected by numerous bridges. So the whole point of going to Venice is most likely, to see these unique sights of Venice. And the way to do that is to simply go for a walk.
There are many traditional houses built with traditional materials like brick, timber and stone, with colourful windows, window sill flowers, walls and ornate doors along stone paths and neighbourhoods. Turn a corner and a footbridge or water is not far away. Just take a walk through the streets and enjoy the sights. No two bridge is the same and there are different and beautiful buildings around every corner.
This is lower on the list because it is not a specific destination or attraction that requires special planning or booking and is easily achieved while doing another activity such as walking to your hotel, a ferry wharf or an attraction, but nonetheless worth taking your time to have a stroll to observe the city sights.
9. See the ambulance boat and hospital
Definitely not a must-see, and I do not intend to hype it up at all like the way the Spanish Steps in Rome are, but if you have done everything else you want and still have some time left for a small, low key thing, you might consider walking to the hospital. The hospital is built on solid land which is no different to every other land-based hospital, so I didn’t go inside, but like everywhere else, since there are no roads, the ambulance outside is in the form of a boat and this might be of interest to some people. To be completely transparent: you’d just be walking along the water and seeing a boat outside a building on the water.
10. Ride a Gondola
Despite common misconception, gondolas are actually not unique to Venice, (there are other places in Italy that have canals and gondolas, and there are other cities in the world built in or on the water) but Venice is the most well known place to get a gondola ride. This is lower on the list because they are more of an ‘experience’ for the sake of it, or a tourist gimmick than a transport method, and at 80€ per gondola in non-peak times, it is an expensive gimmick at that and the most expensive experience you can get in Venice. At 7pm the price promptly jumps at least 10€ per gondola and even more expensive when pre-booked via ‘experience booking’ sites.
Gondola rides are low on the list because it is quite cliched and I prefer authentic experiences. While you might be expecting a romantic ride, realise that gondolas are much, much lower than ferries, even lower than street levels and the standing gondolier, so you are essentially eye level with the gondolier’s knees or possibly lower, and with the bottom of every wall you pass. You won’t even be able to see the street level or the feet of people walking on the street.
That is not is not to say it won’t be enjoyable, but at 80€ per gondola for anywhere from 15-30 minutes ride one way, it is really a tourist experience and definitely not a method of transport and there will be no space nor possibility to move luggage with it. Personally I don’t think it is worth it but this is different for everyone. For some, their Venice bucket list is not complete without one. The only unique thing I can say about a gondola ride is that it can get to narrow canals that the ferry (Vaporetto) cannot get to and you can travel under the footbridges (but so can water taxis).
Note that getting on and off might be a challenge for some people and the are not wheelchair or stroller friendly.
10. Eat Cicchetti
Cost: Varies, a few Euros each
Cicchetti are Italian appetisers, like Spanish tapas but are served cold, like cold cuts of meat, bruschetta, crostini, breadsticks etc. These are typically served in Venice but low on the list because realistically they are simply bread topped with some meat, vege and cheese (How hard is it to slice some crusty bread and slap on some ham and cheese and a slice of tomato?) and I like good value experiences for my time and money, but if you need a small snack, you know this is a Venetian option. They can be purchased from cafes and bars for a few Euros each, you can see them on display in their display counters.
11. Visit the Giardini Reali (Royal Gardens)
While you should definitely prioritise other things, this quaint and lush garden is a nice place to have a rest. The planted arbours provide cool shelter in the summer, and there are water fountains that provide free potable drinking water.
The garden is located next to St Marks Square right near the water. If you have some time to kill or are nearby and want to have a rest, or just want a place to sit down to enjoy a bite (bring your own food), this is the perfect spot. Note that the garden is not open 24/7. This is low on the list because it is not worth your time going there specifically, when there are other things you should prioritise in Venice. Gardens after all, are not unique to Venice.
12. Eat gelato
Cost: a few Euros per scoop
If you don’t already know, Gelato is “Italian ice cream” and it is better than ordinary/American ice cream because it is a lot more dense, intensely flavourful, fruity, and is less artificially tasting and has less air than ordinary ice cream, making them have a much better mouth feel and enjoyable eating experience. With less air, you get more for your money and it melts slower than say soft serves which is essentially cold cream mixed with 50% air. Instead of a mouthful of cold foam like what you get with soft serves, gelato is a dense scoop of cold, flavourful icy treat.
Even though gelato is not unique to Venice, it is definitely worth eating in Italy and at a price of 1-2€ for one scoop, it is affordable and there is no better place to eat some gelato while walking along the esplanade with a view of the water or strolling in the streets of the old town. A must-do when visiting Venice in summer.
13. Eat squid ink pasta
Cost: around 14€ per serve
Squid ink pasta is simply pasta that is black in colour due to addition of squid ink. I have not personally tried it, and it is not unique to Venice, in fact, being a seafood dish, you can get it at other seaside towns, like Cinque Terre. One good thing is that the price of the dish doesn’t seem to vary much from restaurant to restaurant so if you decide to try it, you only need to pick a restaurant with good reviews.
Hope this is enough to fill your trip to Venice. Book your flights to Venice now with the search form below!