What is the Venice Biennale and why does it matter?
La Biennale de Venezia
, as it is known in Italian, is probably the biggest date in the art world: an epic international exhibition of contemporary art staged every two years, in which over 88 countries present their nominated artists at national pavilions. With 370,000 people attending each year, this is the place to be for anyone with a finger in the contemporary art pie – and during its opening week, you're likely to see the city bustling with yacht parties and rivers of prosecco. But for those of us who aren't part of the art-world elite, it's open to the public from June 1st to November 24th.

Where exactly are all these exhibitions held?
Since basically every art gallery and collective in Venice gets in on the action with its own unofficial events and exhibitions, the result is a six-month-long city-wide art festival. There are also over 50 official "collateral" events alongside the main Biennale. But officially, the Biennale is held in two major venues. First is the Giardini – a public garden created by Napoleon – with its 30 national Pavilions. Each Pavilion is a permanent structure hosting works by the country's nominated artists. The second part is a large, themed exhibition created by the Biennale's curator, Massimiliano Gioni – this year entitled Il Palazzo Enciclopedico including works by over 150 artists. This will be held both in the Giardini's central exhibition hall and at a second venue, the Arsenale – a complex of former shipyards and armories built in 1104.

How do you get into the Biennale?
Just buy a ticket! But if you're a hopeful artist, the process starts at home: every country has its own official system for nominating artists. In the UK, the British Council appoints a committee of arts professionals; while in the US, a public gallery is chosen by the Department of State. Others hold an open-call for submissions, or local arts councils appoint a commissioner who reviews curatorial proposals. 

So these would be each country's top artists?
You'd think so – while the idea of this "Olympics of the Art World" is to choose the best artists to represent their country's cultural scene (and there are indeed awards to be won!), in practice the concept of nationalism is becoming more and more vague. This year, France and Germany will confuse everyone by swapping pavilions – not to mention the fact that most of Germany's featured artists aren't even German, but include Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Indian artist Dayanita Singh, Santu Mofokeng from South Africa, and the French-German artist Romuald Karmakar.

Can you buy art at the Venice Biennale?
The Venice Biennale operated a sales office until 1968, when it imposed a sales ban following protests by rowdy students and leftists. Its curators have since attempted to downplay the commercial aspect – but, some would argue, the business of art is still alive and well behind the scenes, and sales may be negotiated both before and after the Biennale.

What is the UK bringing to Venice?
Britain's national pavilion will be a solo exhibition by Jeremy Deller, winner of the 2004 Turner Prize. Deller is also known for a travelling bouncy-castle version of Stonehenge, for his controversial 2001 reenactment of the Battle of Orgreave which occurred during the UK miners' strike in 1984, and his acclaimed retrospective Joy in People at Hayward Gallery last year (in which you could even sit down for a cuppa in a reproduction of a northern cafe). But the exact nature of the British Pavilion remains a closely-guarded secret until its unveiling next week.

Wales and Scotland are taking their own projects to Venice as collateral exhibitions – official projects happening outside of the main venues. Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams is bringing an entire astronomical observatory to a former convent, and Scotland is presenting an exhibition of new works by Corin Sworn, Duncan Campbell and Hayley Tompkins.

Are there any other hip, underground events going on outside the Biennale?
But of course – to name only two, Venice Agendas has organised a series of early-morning breakfast talks and discussions during the preview week, this year focusing on performance art and the alternative art scene.  And London's own Hannah Barry Gallery is heading Palazzo Peckham, a live space for new ideas and co-production held in an old shipyard, which will supposedly feature a "Georgia O'Keefe lounge".

Finally, what are your Top 10 must-sees?

  1. Il Palazzo Enciclopedico. The central behemoth exhibition of the Biennale, aims to recreate an imaginary museum inspired by the self-taught Italian artist Marino Auriti. Curator Massimiliano Gioni brings together contemporary artworks and historical artefacts, including Carl Jung's Red Book.

  2. Ai Weiwei's Disposition. Described by the Guardian as the likely star of the Biennale, these new works will make up Ai Weiwei's only solo exhibition of 2013 – a collateral event at both Zuecca Project Space in collaboration with Lisson Gallery, and at the church of Sant'Antonin.

  3. Jeremy Deller's eagerly-anticipated new works at the British Pavilion.

  4. The Belgian pavilion, featuring work by Berlinde De Bruyckere and curated by renowned South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.

  5. The German Pavilion, also featuring works by Ai Weiwei, as well as Dayanita Singh, Santu Mofokeng and Romuald Karmakar.

  6. The Holy See. The Vatican's first pavilion at the Biennale, an (unsurprisingly) Biblical inspired show about creation, destruction and renewal by contemporary artists.

  7. The Museum of Everything. This travelling museum of outsider art comes to Venice as an official collateral event, Il Palazzo di Everything. In an al-fresco construction at the Serra dei Giardini, you will find a dedication to the Italian self-taught master Carlo Zinelli, among others.

  8. The American pavilion, exhibiting Sarah Sze – an installation artist known for site-specific environments and her use of everyday objects.

  9. Portugal's floating pavilion: A small ferry, which will host works by Joana Vasconcelos, carrying a maximum of 75 passengers at a time aboard.

  10. The Iraq pavilionWelcome to Iraq, curated by Jonathan Watkins (director of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham) will exhibit 11 contemporary Iraqi artists, in a salon-like atmosphere where visitors can get a sense of the country's daily life and culture.