Spoiler alert: Spending Christmas in Venice was never part of our original central Europe Christmas market itinerary in 2018. On our last night in Nuremberg, Tom and I were talking about how easy the two week trip had been. We were scheduled to end our trip after spending Christmas in Munich. We started searching how far some of our favorite destinations were from Munich. Tom’s favorite city is Venice. He asked me how much his favorite hotel was running, just out of curiosity. We marveled about how close everything was and didn’t think anything about it.
The next morning, we were enjoying a breakfast with my mom at the Nuremberg Christmas market when she said something about the cold. I snapped, “Well, we could be in Italy in a few hours…” Her eyes lit up. (I took my mom to Italy in 2010 and she’s obsessed, too.) Within 30 minutes, we were on our way to spend Christmas in Italy instead of Munich. Throughout the drive, we oscillated between Venice and Florence, but Venice ultimately won out because the hotels were significantly less expensive. Christmas in Venice it would be and we would drive back to Munich to fly home on December 26 (or so we thought).
Since 2018, Tom and I have returned to Venice for Christmas a few more times. It is always just as magical as that first Christmas in Venice was. I completely stand behind my recommendation to visit Venice during Christmas. I don’t know if there’s a more magical time to be in Venice.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for tours and products I love at no additional cost to you. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
What is Venice like at Christmas?
Due to some traffic around Munich, the drive took quite a bit longer than we expected. By the time we parked our car at the tronchetto, we were tired and ready for dinner. No problem, I figured. My favorite restaurant is one bridge away from one of our favorite hotels in Dorsoduro. Wrong. Gianni and friends close for the Christmas season. He would be back on February 13, just in time for Carnival and Valentine’s Day in Venice. I was a little nervous at that point. What if I had steered us wrong? Could we still go to Florence? We ended up at an empty restaurant next door.
After a good night’s sleep, we headed out to explore Venice. It turns out, winter in Venice is glorious! The weather is crisp but not too cold. The city, while beautifully illuminated for the holidays, is beautifully quiet. In the days leading up to Christmas in Venice, it feels as if the crowds are completely gone. We rarely heard English, only Italian. The locals doing their shopping are in great spirits. I dare say the Venetians are cheerful even.
Christmas Eve vs. Christmas Day in Venice
Christmas Eve is unexpectedly quieter than Christmas Day in Venice. While the morning is busy, it feels very local. We’ve learned to do our grocery shopping in the morning. Many restaurants are only open for lunch on Christmas Eve. On our first trip, we visited San Marco in the mid-afternoon and spent part of our day atop the Campanile. That evening, Tom and I roamed the canals from one side of the city to the other. We observed cozy dinners in restaurants, and nearly silent and still canals. (You must get dinner reservations as most restaurants in Venice are closed.) Just before midnight, we heard the bells from Piazza San Marco celebrating midnight mass. It was perhaps the most magical evening we’ve ever had in Venice.
Venice on Christmas feels different. On Christmas Day, we took a vaparetto ride around the Grand Canal. We eventually got off near Rialto and that’s where we found the crowds. Surprisingly/unsurprisingly, many stores that cater to tourists were open and many tourists had descended on the city overnight. We headed to Cannaregio and the Jewish quarter and found many things open as well. There was quite a bit more energy to the city on Christmas Day, and we didn’t expect that. When we stay in Murano, we find that Christmas Day is very quiet. However, several glass shops are open.
Things to Do in Venice at Christmas
In the days leading up to Christmas, we did what we do on any Venice trip. We explored the city and took a few walking tours. (Here are some of our favorite tours of Venice that we recommend.) We spent a lot of time wandering the city and appreciating the views.
Because Venice in December is quiet, we did not need to jockey for a position on the Accademia or Rialto bridges, wait in line to take the elevator up to the top of the Campanile for a view of Venice, or even to see San Marco. December is a great time to truly enjoy seeing Venice for its beauty. The sharp contrast of the colors against the gray skies is mesmerizing. I wanted to take advantage of the shorter days as much as I could. However, I also found that I loved to stay out in the evenings. The skies, whether clear or foggy, made for some magical photos.
Attend Christmas Eve Mass at Basilica San Marco
On our third trip to Venice for Christmas (2022), we decided to make our way over to the Basilica San Marco for Christmas Eve Mass. This was nothing short of incredible, and we are already planning for Christmas 2023. The entire basilica is lit up, and it was difficult not to gawk at the ceilings. It was really difficult to find information online about the service. You’ll want to keep an eye on the basilica calendar as Christmas approaches. Here are some important things to know if you plan to attend mass though:
Tips for Attending Christmas Mass at the Basilica San Marco
- You are expected to stay the entire time. It is mass, not a sightseeing visit. The guards were very clear. You must stay for the entire 2+ hours or come back another time. We saw them actively try and turn people away who didn’t seem to be there for mass.
- You may be required to stand the entire time. A lot of people attend mass. If you want to sit, you should get there in advance of the start time. In 2022, the mass started at 9:30. In previous years, it started at 10:00. Plan to get there early. There are screens where you can see what is happening, and you should be prepared to stand.
- The mass is conducted in numerous languages in Italian, German, French, and English. This makes it an extra special experience; not everything is translated into every language.
- It is mass and they do request that you refrain from taking photos. You will see people with their smart phones out, but try to be respectful of what they ask.
- Once the mass is over, a lot of people will rush to the front of the basilica to see the manger before they turn the lights out.
- Vaporettos will run on the abbreviated night schedule, so once mass is over, you should head to your vaporetto stop OR plan to walk back to your hotel. We were staying in Murano, so we couldn’t walk back to our hotel. If we had missed our vaporetto, it would have been an hour wait for the next one. Check the schedule and plan accordingly if you are relying on public transportation to get around.
Christmas Shopping in Venice
My mom and I enjoyed shopping for Murano glass and she was able to finish up her Christmas shopping. She found the most beautiful wine glasses. I purchased a Murano glass Christmas ornament for our tree. We also shopped for a Carnival mask and she found a handcrafted mask to bring back as a gift. I recommend checking out Gianni Basso for stationary, Papier Mache for Venetian masks, San Gregorio Art Gallery, Jade Martine (for lacy things for ladies) and Veteria Pisani (for glass). I really enjoy gallery hopping in Dorsoduro. (After 7 years, I finally purchased my first Giovanni Pulze painting!) I find that the 10 Best book has great local shopping recommendations.
If I had been more on top of it, I would have tried to see the Venice Christmas Markets before they closed on December 24. The largest (and most delicious) market is the Christmas Village at Campo Santo Stefano. We, however, did watch the ice skaters on evening in San Polo. If you have more time in Venice, I recommend taking a trip to Veneto to the see Verona Christmas market. It’s one of the sister cities to the Nuremberg Christmas market. We noticed that most of the Italian Christmas markets were open on limited weekends and for shorter periods of time than their Central European counterpart, so you’ll want to plan accordingly!
Christmas Lights and Coffee
I believe that the “living room of Europe” is beautiful at any time of year, but San Marco is truly magical at Christmas time. This year, there were millions of golden lights lining the porticos. Each year, the Christmas tree in St. Mark’s Square is different, and I always look forward to seeing what the Venetians come up with! The very modern tree in 2019 grew on me after awhile, but I LOVED the traditional tree in 2021!
In the evening, we would warm up at Caffe Florian. (The Cioccolata Casanova, mint hot chocolate, is delicious.) If you have time, take the vaparetto out to Burano. It is beautifully lit up as well. The Rialto Bridge is also illuminated with chandeliers, but it wasn’t my favorite Christmas light installation.
Tips to Truly Enjoy Christmas in Venice
Plan Your Meals & Where to Eat in Venice at Christmas
While the more expensive hotels will offer tourist menus and meals for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it’s not necessary to limit yourself to your hotel. You will, however, want to work with your concierge to find which restaurants are open for the holidays and get a reservation. Finding good food in Venice is challenging enough in April and September. Christmas is even more challenging. Make reservations in advance. We had a list of small restaurants that Tom wanted to try and all of them were closed or full.
That being said, here are some of my favorite restaurants in Venice as of December:
Easy Meals & Cicchetti Bars in Venice
- Barcaro Quebrado – This tiny restaurant has the friendliest staff in Venice. I love their extensive chicchetti menu (especially the stuffed olives) and the pasta is divine. I recommend going early or getting a reservation unless you want to be turned away. We spent Christmas Eve here in 2022, and it was absolutely lovely.
- Bar Puppa – This is a great little restaurant for a drink and a pizza. They were extremely accommodating and prices are very reasonable.
- Antico Forno – While you can get your pizza to go, my favorite thing is to order a slice of the focaccia pizza and enjoy it at the kitchen side bar. Tom loved their beer with the pizza, but I opted for an Aperol spritz. The staff warmed up to us when they realized that we loved their food.
- La Bottiglia – This wine bar is incredible. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a meat and cheese platter so fresh. It was served with warm bread. Tom opted for a beer and I ordered a couple of different wines by the glass. Everything was incredible. There’s not a single thing that we had here that I wouldn’t eat again and again.
Bonus: Nico (the best gelato in Venice) is open!
On Christmas day, we usually take advantage of the delicious breakfast at Palazzo Veneziano. We usually stock up on bread, olive oil, wine, prosciutto, and salami on Christmas Eve and have a picnic dinner in our room. We love buying from Alani Casa del Parmigiano, which was recommended to us by a Venice wine bar owner.
Get a Vaporetto Pass
Regardless of how you arrive in Venice and where you stay, you’ll need to get to your hotel with your luggage. The most cost effective way is to purchase a Vaporetto pass for the duration of your stay. Rides are 7.50 euro each. That can add up quickly. Since the crowds are more manageable at Christmas time, it can be fun to do this DIY audio tour of the Grand Canal. Just download the app, pop in your head phones, and board the #1. You’ll also want to use it to visit Murano, Burano, and even Torcello if you’re feeling adventurous.
You can book this tour of the Venetian islands, but you’ll have more flexibility to stay and see the Christmas decorations if you use the vaporetto pass.
Enjoy Slowing Down
As you can tell by most posts, many of our itineraries are busy. We used this time in Venice to travel slow. We took a lot of long, leisurely walks through the canals. Because of the lack of crowds, shopping was enjoyable. (Tom’s favorite story is how the Italians were helping him choose bread at the grocery store and how they got on to the guy who took the bread they told him to get… lol.) We were able to spend as much time as we wanted seeing the things we wanted to see. The slower pace is nice.
If you need a more lively city, spending Christmas in Rome is a bit more happening, but I found the crowds much more overwhelming.