by Anne Hanley, The Telegraph, November 21, 2019
You don't have to spend lots of money to enjoy Venice, the city is so interesting architecturally, historically and culturally that you can easily spend the day marvelling at the sights and attractions around you. From watching free glassblowing demonstrations in Murano, and wandering markets of Rialto, to spending a few hours at the Lido and exploring the many churches, here are a few of the best free things to do in Venice, by Telegraph Travel destination expert, Anne Hanley.
Take a look inside St Mark's Basilica
From its four great bulbous domes outside to its one-and-a-half square miles of glimmering mosaics covering the splendid interior, there's nothing understated about Venice's mother church. Queues lengthen scarily once the basilica opens for tourist visits at 9.45am, but you can avoid the wait by booking a timed entry slot through the website. The main body of the basilica is free to visit, but there are areas where a fee is charged, the best of which is the upstairs loggia (the Museo di San Marco, €5/£4.60) which affords spectacular views over the piazza.
Contact: 00 39 041 270 8311; basilicasanmarco.it
Opening times: Mon-Sat 9.45am-5pm; Sun 2pm-4pm
Vaporetto stop: San Marco-San Zaccaria
Wander St Mark's Square
Piazza San Marco is an elegant colonnaded square lined with swanky cafés, jewellery stores and glass shops, dominated by the dreamy domes and glittering mosaics of St Mark's basilica. The only free-standing building in the square is the Campanile (bell tower, €8), which provides wraparound views over the city and lagoon. It's also worth also making time for the Museo Correr (€25/£23, includes Doge's Palace), a museum charting the Serene Republic's rise and fall, and the fascinating Torre dell'Orologio (€12, booking essential), where you can observe the workings of the elaborate clock that still marks the hours in the piazza.
Opening hours: Piazza open 24/7
Vaporetto stop: San Marco-San Zaccaria
See where the ships used to be made at the Arsenale
The Serene Republic's shipyard, or Arsenale, occupies a large swathe of eastern Venice. Founded in 1104, this huge city-within-the-city of docks, warehouses, rope walks and workshops was a marvel of the pre-industrial world. In the 16th century, it employed 16,000 people on an assembly line that was able to turn out a ship a day. The Arsenale is not regularly open to the public, but parts are used as exhibition space for Biennale shows (ticket prices vary). At other times, you can admire the four mismatched marble lions outside the glorious Renaissance main gate – war loot from crusades and campaigns.
Opening hours: Varies with event
Vaporetto stop: Arsenale
Let off some steam in the Giardini Pubblici
Beyond a few frustratingly unreachable private gardens, green space is in short supply in Venice. If the children need to let off steam, or you do, head for the eastern end of island Venice, where 19th-century planners factored in a public park. By the Giardini vaporetto stop is a kids' play area with swings, slides and climbing frames. Beyond, the Giardini della Biennale is open only during the Biennale shows. It's dotted with national pavilions, some (like Alvar Aalto's Finnish pavilion) designed by big names. Nearby, in leafy viale Garibaldi, a former greenhouse is now bar-restaurant La Serra dei Giardini.
Contact: For Biennale entry, see labiennale.org
Opening hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset
Vaporetto stop: Giardini
Look at the incredible artwork in San Zaccaria
Dedicated to the father of John the Baptist (his body supposedly lies under the second altar on the right), this church was begun in Gothic style in the 1440s but completed in Renaissance style 50 years later by Mauro Codussi. The interior has two unmissable works of art: Giovanni Bellini's masterful, harmonious Madonna and Four Saints, and Tuscan artist Andrea Castagno's saints and putti on the ceiling vaults of the San Tarasio chapel, perhaps the greatest Florentine early Renaissance fresco that's not in Florence. The quiet square outside is a good place for a picnic.
Contact: 00 39 041 522 1257
Opening hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-12pm, 4pm-6pm; Sun, 4pm-6pm
Vaporetto stop: San Marco-San Zaccaria
Visit the original Ghetto
'Island Venice' is a cluster of islands – city blocks separated from each other by canals. In 1516 Venice's Jewish community was confined to one such island called the 'Ghetto', as this was where iron was gettato (smelted). Still the centre of the city's small Jewish community, this tranquil district centring on the square of campo del Ghetto Nuovo betrays little of the hardship of life here in former years. In the square, the Museo Ebraico offers guided tours (€10) taking in three ancient synagogues dotted around the campo. But a restful independent wander around the atmospheric area will be just as rewarding.
Vaporetto stop: Guglie
San Polo & Santa Croce
Explore the markets and soak up the atmopshere at Rialto
Venice may look flat, but it's an illusion. Rivoaltus ('high bank') – later shortened to Rialto – was settled early in Venice's history in the fifth century, because it was (relatively) high and dry. Spanning the Grand Canal here, the Ponte di Rialto was designed between 1588 and 1591 by the aptly named Antonio da Ponte (Tony Bridge) to replace a series of wooden predecessors, the earliest of which was a 12th-century pontoon affair. Visit for the daily produce market, which has been held here since 1097. Or drop by of an evening, when the market area becomes a buzzing nightlife hub.
Vaporetto stop: Rialto or Rialto Mercato
See the Santa Maria della Salute
Dominating the final stretch of the Grand Canal, 'La Salute' is the uncontested masterpiece of the Venetian Baroque. With its playful scrolls supporting an airy balloon of a dome, the church has an ineffable grace, a lightness that plays against the huge bulk and scale of the thing. It was built to give thanks for the city's delivery from its final plague epidemic in 1630. Health ('salute') and light are built into the very fabric of the church. It was designed in the round, in homage to the 'crown of twelve stars' of the Virgin Mary. In the sacristy hangs Tintoretto's busy masterpiece Marriage Feast at Cana.
Contact: 00 39 041 2411 018; seminariovenezia.it
Opening hours: Daily, 9am-noon, 3pm-5.30pm
Vaporetto stop: Salute
Giudecca & islands
Visit the lace-makers at Burano
The jauntily-hued houses of this fishing island in the northern lagoon look like the result of a bunch of children let loose with a giant paintbox. The sheer prettiness of the place tempts plenty of visitors to make the trip across from Venice on the number 12 vaporetto, as does the island's tradition of merletto (lace). A couple of delightful lace-making ladies are generally in residence in the mornings at the Museo del Merletto in the main piazza, where the church of San Martino has an early work by Tiepolo.
Vaporetto stop: Burano
Admire wondrous Venetian glass
There's something calm about the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, its church dominating the lagoon view from St Mark's. Up close you're struck by the harmony of Andrea Palladio's 1565 design. Inside are two fine canvases by Tintoretto (don't miss the cat peeking into a basket in The Last Supper). The view from the adjacent bell tower (€6/£5) sets Venice in its watery context as a series of islands in the lagoon. The former monastery buildings behind the church house the Cini Foundation, which organises exhibitions, and the Stanze del Vetro (free) which stages exhibitions of wondrous Venetian glass.
Contact: lestanzedelvetro.org; cini.it
Opening hours: Church and campanile: Daily, 8.30am-8.30pm. Fondazione Cini guided tours in English take place several times a day; see website for details
Vaporetto stop: San Giorgio
Take a quick dip at the Lido
Nowadays Venice's seaside strip, the Lido, is more of a dormitory suburb than the elegant haunt depicted in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. But this unfussy quality is part of its charm. Walk 10 minutes down the Gran Viale, the Lido's main street, to the sea-facing side of this long, thin island, and you can be making sandcastles in no time. Alternatively hop on the number 11 bus or hire a bicycle and head for the dunes at Alberoni at the south end of the island. The sleepy Lido wakes up for 10 days in August-September during the Film Festival.
Vaporetto stop: Lido
Visit the Museo del Vetro's collection of historic glassware
It's fascinating to see glass being blown in the workshops on Murano, but remember: any excursion offered 'free' by your hotel comes with serious pressure to buy. Far better to make your own way there. Murano's destiny was written when glassmaking activities were transferred here in 1291 because of the fire risk in central Venice, but there's more to this island than glass. After you've seen a demonstration, head to the church of Santa Maria and Donato to see its glorious 12th-century mosaic floor alive with animal and plant motifs. The Museo del Vetro boasts an important collection of historic glassware, including some Roman pieces.
Vaporetto stop: Murano Colonna, Murano Faro or Murano Museo
Learn the history of how Venice began
Venice began here in the fifth century, when citizens of Altino on the mainland fled here to escape Barbarian invasions. By the 14th century, Torcello was the most populous island on the lagoon, but the rival settlement of Venice soon gained the upper hand. Today this sleepy island is a poignant witness to past glories. Two handsome 11th-century churches remain: the ancient Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta (€5), simple on the outside but richly decorated inside with mosaics dating from the 9th to the 12th centuries; and austere Santa Fosca, a perfect, unadorned Greek-cross church from the 11th century.
Opening hours:Santa Maria Assunta and Santa Fosca: Mar-Oct, daily, 10.30am-6pm; Nov-Feb, daily, 10am-5pm
Vaporetto stop: Torcello