Venice is a mixed bag this year—but maybe it always is. There is some very good and some inexcusably bad, and far too much to see and do, but that, of course, is the fun of it. During the preview week, you can't walk five steps without bumping into someone you know, and if you're there with your baby, you will tap into an astonishingly large network of fellow crazies who consciously chose to make the trek over the canals and in and out of palazzos with their pre-mobile offspring in tow. My four month old son, Mosi, swapped business cards with the children of Arsenale artists Mark Leckey, Varda Caivano, Marialuisa Tadei and more as he took in the sights. If you aren't there with child, there are many, many family-unfriendly events to pass your evenings at, so you win either way.

In addition to the Biennale itself (I'll come to it shortly), there are numerous exhibitions taking place around the city that are absolute must-sees. Prima Materia, a curatorial effort from Michael Govan and Caroline Bourgeois of approximately 80 works from the Pinault Collection, is on view at Punta della Dogana and should be at the top of everyone's list. It really is a pleasure to walk around this show—highlights include the mini-solos by Theaster Gates and Thomas Schutte, and the display of Mono-Ha and Arte Povera artists in conversation. Afterwards, hop on a vaporetto to Rudolf Stingel at Palazzo Grassi. I haven't met a single person who wasn't blown away by this sumptuous monographic exhibition. Palazzo Grassi is also screening films by Anri Sala, Loris Greaud and Philippe Parreno.

I'm not usually one for gimmicky theme shows, but Fragile at Fondazione Cini, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, which pays tribute to Venetian glassmaking artisans by exploring how glass has been used by everyone from Gerhard Richter and Rachel Whiteread to Marcel Duchamp and Matias Faldbakken, is unexpectedly well done. It is also an easier show to digest than the one at Fondazione Prada. Germano Celant, Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand don't succeed in their efforts to take us back to Bern Kunsthalle in 1969 with their physical recreation of Harold Szeeman's landmark show Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Forms – the presentation feels labored, stale and ultimately unnecessary. The roster of artists, however, which counts Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Richard Long, amongst others, can hardly fail to disappoint. Their work, not the shape of the rooms in which it was originally shown, is what makes this show matter. There is also an interesting series of cabinets in the ground floor rooms filled with 1969 show paraphernalia and correspondence between the artists and curator—don't miss that.

So many of the exhibition spaces in Venice are so breathtakingly gorgeous that it can be difficult for any one to stand out, but the Peggy Guggenheim Collection does, and more. Located in Peggy's former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal, the museum is currently showing Robert Motherwell: Early Collages and the Hannelore B. and Rudolph B. Schulhof Collection. I walked around these shows during the party for the US Pavilion and wish I could have made it back to see them in a quieter setting—both are impressive. If you want to fit in even more less-than-contemporary art while you're here, I highly recommend Manet at Palazzo Ducale and Tàpies at Palazzo Fortuny.

Back in the 21st century, Ai Weiwei—as a name, face and personality—has become so overwhelmingly ubiquitous in the art world that at times it feels like the actual artwork takes a backseat. Not in Venice, however. As the three large-scale works on view during the Biennale remind us, there is some serious substance to the heavily hyped showman of Asian activism. The line to gain entrance to Bang, an installation comprising 886 three-legged wooden stools, in the German Pavilion snaked through the Giardini, and those who waited were not disappointed, but even more impressive was Disposition, a two-part exhibition spread across the Zuecca Project Space on La Giudecca and the church of Sant'Antonin in Castello. At the latter, S.A.C.R.E.D. recreates to powerful effect Ai's infamous 81 day detention in 2011 by way of half-scale dioramas in large iron boxes, while in Zuecca, an expanded version of Straight, a magnificent sculptural work that pays tribute to the 5000 children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, is on display. As with so much of Ai's work, Straight is well-executed, well-presented, critically and historically significant, aesthetically exciting, commercially viable and imbued with a strong socio-political message. If that isn't good art, what is?

Now for the actual Biennale. The standard of the national pavilions in the Giardini is very uneven this year. The best were Denmark (Jesper Just), France (Anri Sala), Spain (Lara Almarcegui) and Austria (Mathias Poledna), far outshining the US (Sarah Sze) and British Pavilions (Jeremy Deller), which were both horribly overhyped. Joana Vasconcelos' floating Portugal and Richard Mosse's infrared Ireland are the off-site stars – they aren't as easy to get to (well, it depends on where Portugal is docked), but don't leave Venice without seeing them!

Pavilions, Prada and political artists aside, the keynote show, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, is the centerpiece of the madness. This time around, over 150 artists fill the sprawling exhibition spaces of the Arsenale and the Padiglione Centrale at the Giardini with works in all manner of media. Unfortunately, Il Palazzo is heavily flawed: Massimiliano Gioni's curation frequently feels flippant, the obsession with obsession quickly becomes exhausting, and some of the art is just plain bad. That's nit-picking, though; there is a wide range of work here that is more than worth seeing. The best in the Arsenale is mainly sculptural and comes courtesy of Phyllida Barlow, Matthew Monahan, Alice Channer, Hans Josephsohn, Roberto Cuoghi, Paul McCarthy and Jimmie Durham (these latter two are in the section of the show curated by Cindy Sherman, a highlight in its own right), but the two-dimensional works of Pamela Rosenkranz and Wade Guyton in Room 12 are arguably some of the strongest (and most commercially viable) pieces in the entire exhibition. Mark Leckey and Danh Vo, meanwhile, shine with two very different, but equally effective, installations. In the Padiglione Centrale, Richard Serra, Enrico David, Cathy Wilkes, Lynette Yiadom-Boake and a series of anonymous Tantric paintings are some of the more inspiring voices. Surprisingly, or perhaps fittingly, given the exhibition's glorification of randomness, the star of the Encyclopedic Palace is actually a Viennese insurance clerk's collection of model buildings. Peter Fritz's painstakingly hand-crafted gas stations and apartment blocks capture obsession with obsession at its finest.

Written by Elisa Carmichael (@elisacarmichael)

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Images from Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (the Arsenale and Padiglione Centrale), Danish, French, Irish and Spanish pavilions, Punta della Dogana, Palazzo Grassi, Fondazione Prada and Fondazione Cini. Labeled with artist name. All the photos by Elisa Carmichael except Lee Ufan, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Richard Mosse and Suga Kishio—those are press images from the respective locations exhibiting the work.