City guide: what to see, do and eat in Venice
By Katie McGonagle | 18 Nov 2022
Venice might have stopped bigger ships from sailing down the Grand Canal, but its art, architecture and irresistible food and drink are as alluring as ever for a pre or post-cruise stay
Visits to Venice tend to go two ways: either it’s your first time in the floating city and you head straight for the big sights, milling around in St Mark’s Square or joining the (long) queue to peek inside the Doge’s Palace, unable to resist the lure of those much talked-about attractions.
Or you try to outsmart the other tourists, making a beeline for the backstreets to soak up the rarefied atmosphere of the city’s lesser-seen spots or stop at tiny, tucked-away bars serving cicchetti – the Venetian equivalent of tapas – to in-the-know Italians.
Situated in the Venetian Lagoon, which along with part of the city is a Unesco World Heritage Site, Venice is actually 118 small islands, separated by canals and linked by more than 400 bridges. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was a major maritime and financial power.
The city was conquered by Napoleon’s forces, endured a cholera outbreak in 1850, and in 1966 a terrible flood destroyed many of its most historic buildings and treasures. But despite the challenges of rising sea levels, Venice is still standing, and remains one of the most exciting and enticing cities in the world.
With changes to the way cruise visitors come to Venice – last year, larger ships were banned from sailing down the main Giudecca Canal, plus the city is set to levy a charge of €3-€10 for day-trippers starting from January 16, 2023 – it would be easy to forget its many merits. But whether it’s your first visit or your 50th, there’s always something new to see here.
What to do on a cruise excursion in Venice
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a bit touristy in Venice. Everyone strolls the banks of the Grand Canal, taking selfies with the Bridge of Sighs in the background – so called because it was the last route prisoners took from the palace to the prison – or ducking inside the unsuspecting entrance of the grand Hotel Danieli.
Provided you skip the corny gondola rides or notoriously overpriced cafes lining St Mark’s Square, it won’t matter if you stare open-mouthed with the rest of them.
You won’t see all of Venice in a day, but from a starting point in St Mark’s Square, follow signs via the shopping streets of the Mercerie to the Rialto Bridge to see the famous food market in full swing. Along the way, pause to admire carnival masks in shop windows or crunch on crispy shell-shaped pastry sfogliatelle stuffed with sweet pistachio paste.
Cross the bridge to the San Polo district and make your way through its narrow lanes towards the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, whose rather plain Venetian Gothic façade hides a wealth of treasures inside. Not least of these is the great Assumption of the Virgin by Titian, which dominates the altar, along with a triptych of Madonna with Child and Saints by Bellini, making the €3 entry fee an absolute steal.
What to see and where to stay in Venice
Another district worth spending time in is the historically Jewish ghetto Cannaregio, where a guide can explain the maze of side-streets and the troubling stories that lie behind them.
Better yet, if you are confident about finding your way around via the well-signposted water buses, pick up an unlimited day pass for €21 (pre-book at veneziaunica.it for better prices in advance) and explore independently.
If you’re spending a few days pre or post-cruise, then it’s even more worthwhile to master local transport and escape Venice proper for a day or more exploring the other islands in the lagoon. Murano, home of glass-blowing, is like a relaxed version of Venice where you’ll still get the novelties of a city on the water without as many crowds.
Visit the Museo del Vetro for insight into how the island’s world-leading expertise in glass-making put it on the map, or go behind the scenes at one of the factories to watch a master craftsman at work – Ars Cenedese is a good, family-run option.
Murano is also a quieter spot to stay if you want modern accommodation and more space than the historic centre allows. NH Collection Venezia Murano Villa opened in late 2021 in the former Fornace de Majo glassworks, and shows its heritage via exposed concrete and abundant artworks. It’s even better than its four-star rating suggests, with plenty of attention to detail, spacious, well-appointed rooms and lovely lagoon views (from €200 per night including breakfast, plus €3.60 city tax, nh-hotels.com).
Where to eat in Venice
There’s no shortage of good spots to stop for a bite to eat in Venice, but Al Pesador Osteria is notable for its fantastic location and traditional cicchetti menu. At six pieces for €18 it’s not the cheapest, but the creamy cod, tomato-stewed octopus and anchovy-stuffed courgette flowers are delicious, and if you nab a table by the canal to watch the gondolas going past, it’s a sublime spot.
For a sit-down meal that won’t break the bank, Antico Pignolo is surprisingly good for a location so close to St Mark’s Square, with a pleasant ambience and a reassuring number of locals among its customers on any given evening.
Which cruise lines call at Venice
The list of cruise lines calling at Venice is a who’s who of international cruising, though it’s worth looking closely at where they dock: following the rule change in the Giudecca Canal, most have switched to Ravenna, Trieste or Venice’s commercial port of Marghera.