In a city as packed with tourist attractions as Venice, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps the best way is simply to lose yourself for a few hours wandering its charming streets, strolling along its canals and finding its secret corners.
At every turn, you will see something worth photographing. No matter where this exploration takes you, it’s easy to find your way back to Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal. Most of the best sights you’ll want to visit are located around these two landmarks.
Venice is divided into six neighborhoods with distinctly different characters. San Marco is the central one, surrounded on three sides by the Grand Canal. Across the Rialto Bridge is the artisans’ neighborhood of San Polo, and across the Grand Canal to the south is the elegant Dorsoduro, with its famous art museums and bustling squares.
At the outer edges are Santa Croce, Castello and Cannaregio. Beyond the six neighborhoods of the city itself, you’ll want to take a vaporetto to the islands of Lido, Murano, Burano and Torcello. A fourth island, San Giorgio Maggiore, is worth visiting for the beautiful views of St. Mark’s and Venice from its church tower.
Basilica of San Marko
Certainly the most famous church in Venice and one of the most easily recognizable in the world, the Basilica di San Marco was originally the Doge’s private chapel, decorated with treasures of Byzantine art that were part of the booty brought back by the Venetian ships after the fall of Constantinople.
The gold mosaic images above the doors on the façade only hint at the mosaic art inside, where 4,240 square metres of gold mosaics cover the vaults and walls. These give a distinctly Byzantine tone to the dazzling interior, but you’ll find treasures from other periods, including later mosaics designed by Titian and Tintoretto – names you’ll find throughout the city.
The magnificent golden altar, the Pala d’Oro , one of the finest in Europe, was begun by artists in the early 12th century and centuries later, it was adorned with almost 2,000 gems. Take time to see the golden reliquaries and icons in the Treasury.
Piazza San Marco
The vast expanse of Venice’s largest square attracts and enchants all visitors with the elegant uniformity of its architecture. But more than its architectural grace, Piazza San Marco is the place where everyone gathers, strolls, drinks coffee, stops for conversation, meets friends and tour guides, or just passes by on the street.
The three sides of the square are flanked by arcades, under which there are trendy shops and even trendier cafes. Above this dominates the brick bell tower. For a better view of this busy square, you can go to the top of the Torre dell’Orologio.
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) and the Bridge of Sighs
Visitors arriving in Venice could not fail to be impressed by the façade of this magnificent palace, by its size and the refinement of its architecture. Had the Doges admitted them inside, the impression would have been heightened as they entered through the Porta della Carta, a perfect example of Venetian Gothic at its height, and ascended the monumental Scala dei Giganti and the golden-vaulted Staircase d’Oro. Considered by many to be the palace’s most beautiful room, the Sala del Collegio.
Even weary 21st century travellers are in awe of the palace’s grandeur and luxurious decoration. You’ll see works by all the great Venetians, including Tintoretto, whose Paradise is the largest oil painting in the world.
It’s not open to group tours, but on private tours you can take a walk on the Bridge of Sighs to the dark cells of the Prigioni – the prison from which Casanova made his famous escape. The best view – and the classic postcard – of the Bridge of Sighs is from the Ponte della Paglia , on the Riva degli Schiavoni behind the Doge’s Palace.
Entrance queues to the Doge’s Palace are often long, but you can avoid them and see parts of the palace with a Skip the Line: Doge’s Palace Ticket and Tour. A local guide will walk you through the lines and explain the history and art in each of the dazzling rooms before leading you to the Bridge of Sighs and the infamous prison.
Cutting through the heart of Venice in a giant reverse S-curve, the Grand Canal is the main avenue through the city, connecting Piazza San Marco , the Rialto Bridge and the arrival points of the train station and bridge from the mainland.
Only four bridges span the 3.8 km length of the canal. The Grand Canal was the ultimate enforcement point for anyone who claimed Venice. The palaces of all the top families were located on the Grand Canal, with their impressive Venetian Gothic and early Renaissance facades overlooking the water!
These grand palaces – or at least their facades – are well preserved today and a trip along the canal by boat is the best way to see them. And, of course, a ride along the Grand Canal in a gondola is one of the most romantic things to do in Venice at night.
Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) and San Polo
At one time the only bridge on the Grand Canal was the Rialto Bridge which marks the site of the first settlement on the island, called Rivus Altus (high bank). Built in 1588, some 150 years after the collapse of an earlier wooden bridge, this stone arch supports two busy streets and a double set of shops.
Along with the busy mid-channel crossing point, it is a favourite spot for tourists to take – or pose for – photographs and to watch a variety of boats always passing underneath.
The church of San Bartolomeo , near the end of San Marco, was the church of the German merchants who lived and worked at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German Commodity Exchange) bordering the canal here. It has an extraordinary altar, the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. The former exchange is now a popular place for shopping.
On the other side of the Rialto Bridge is the bustling food market, where Venetians and chefs shop for fresh produce and seafood. In the narrow streets of San Polo, beyond the market, there are craft shops and mask-making studios, one of the best places to shop in Venice. You’ll also find places to eat that aren’t as crowded with tourists as those near St. Mark’s.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
This impressive white marble building was built between 1515 and 1560 to house a charitable society dedicated to San Rocco. Soon after its completion, the great 16th century Venetian artist Tintoretto won a competition to paint a central painting for the ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo.
Later he decorated his walls and ceilings with a full circle painting, considered the artist’s masterpiece. The earliest works, in the Sala dell’Albergo, date back to 1564 and 1576 and include the Glory of St. Roch, Christ before Pilate, Ecce Homo and the most sublime of all, the Crucifixion. Those in the upper room depict scenes from the New Testament, painted between 1575 and 1581.
The lighting is not good and the paintings themselves are dark, but you can still appreciate Tintoretto’s innovations in the use of light and colour. You can see the ceilings more easily with one of the mirrors provided. More of Tintoretto’s work can be found in the chancel of the adjacent church of San Rocco.
The thin marble façade of Bartolomeo Bon looks like lace and is carved in stone and you can only imagine the impression this façade must have made covered in its original paint and gold. Along with the Porta della Carta in the Palazzo Ducale , also created by Bartolomeo Bon, this is considered the most perfect example of Venetian Gothic.
You can also admire the interior, as this palazzo is now an art museum, renovated to provide both a base for artworks and to offer tourists a glimpse into the way the wealthy Venetians lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. The man responsible for saving the palace, Baron Giorgio Franchetti, gave his art collection to the state in 1922, with works by Titian, Mantegna, Van Dyck, Tullio Lombardo and Bernini.
Murano and Burano
A trip to Venice would not be complete without boarding a vaporetto to cross the lagoon to Murano, the home of Venice’s legendary glass workers. They were sent here in the 13th century in the hope of reducing the risk of fire from one of the glass furnaces that swept through Venice’s tightly compressed center.
Or so they claimed. Equally likely, it was to keep the secrets of glass in a Venetian monopoly. This was no small matter to the Venetians, whose Council of Ten decreed in 1454: “If a glassblower transfers his skills to another country to the detriment of the Republic, he will be ordered to return; if he refuses, his nearest relatives will be thrown into prison, so that his sense of family duty will induce him to return; if he persists in his disobedience, secret measures will be taken to eliminate him wherever he is.” It was much easier to watch them if they were confined to an island.
The sides of the canal are now surrounded by glass showrooms and studios, displaying everything from cheap imported trinkets to exquisite works of art. Inside the 17th-century Palazzo Giustinian is the Glass Museum , with one of the largest and most important collections of Venetian glass from Roman times to the 20th century.
But it’s not all glass: The church of Santi Maria e Donato combines Venetian and early Romanesque features, the result of the various stages of construction between the seventh and 12th centuries. Note in particular the Greek marble columns with Venetian capitals, the 12th century mosaic floor with animal figures and the Saint Donato above the first altar on the left. Dating from 1310, it is the oldest example of Venetian painting.
The 14th century San Pietro Martire contains several splendid Venetian paintings: the Madonna in Majesty by Bellini with St Mark and Doge Agostino Barbarigo and the Assumption , along with St Jerome in the Desert and St Agatha in the Prison by Paolo Veronese.
A quick trip to the next island, Burano, a fishing village with beautifully painted houses, historically known for its lace making. The Scuola dei Merletti (lace school) and its small museum will help you distinguish the real thing from the cheap imported products you’ll find in most shops.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Heiress Peggy Guggenheim’s personal art collections are housed in her former home next to the Grand Canal, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Although most of Italy’s major art museums are filled with medieval and Renaissance masters, this one focuses on American and European art from the first half of the 20th century.
The low building, with its free, white interior, is the appropriate space for these bold and often dramatic works, representing cubist, futurist, abstract expressionist, surrealist and avant-garde schools of painting and sculpture.
The permanent collection includes works by Picasso, Dali, Braque , Léger , Mondrian , Kandinsky , Klee, Ernst , Magritte and Pollock , while frequent exhibitions bring works by other great artists. In the museum’s sculpture gardens are works by Calder , Holzer , Caro , Judd and Hepworth .
Address : 704 Dorsoduro, Venice
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
This Gothic church was begun by the Franciscans around 1340 and completed with the completion of the façade, the interior and two chapels in the mid-15th century. The impressive 14th-century bell tower is the second tallest in the city.
Although the interior is in keeping with the simple uninterrupted style of the Franciscan churches, it contains a wealth of artistic treasures. In the right transept is an important wooden statue of St. John the Baptist by the Florentine sculptor Donatello, made in 1451 (first chapel to the right of the sanctuary). In the sacristy is a triptych Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four Saints by Giovanni Bellini. In the left transept, the statue of St. John the Baptist.
The Choir of the Monks is an excellent example of Marco Cozzi’s woodcarving, with reliefs of saints and Venetian scenes. And the sanctuary contains the tomb of two Doges by Antonio Rizzo, and above the high altar is the Assunta of Titian , painted between 1516 and 1518. Titian’s Mausoleum in the south aisle was a gift from Ferdinand I of Austria, when he was king of Lombardy Veneto.
You can’t help but notice the pyramidal mausoleum made by the sculptor Antonio Canova’s students in the north aisle, and opposite, the great monument to Titian, also by Canova’s students. Next to the Cappella Emiliani, which has a fine mid-15th century polyptych of marble figures, is the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro , completed in 1526 and one of Titian’s most important works.
Address : Campo dei Frari, I-30100 Venice
Gallerie dell’Accademia (Museum of Fine Arts)
This museum in the Grand Canal, called “Accademia” for short, has the most important and comprehensive collection of Venetian paintings of the 15th-18th centuries in existence. Much of the collection was gathered from closed monasteries and churches and from the cleaning of the palaces of noble families, now on display in the former convent of Santa Maria della Carità.
Some of the galleries, such as the first, which contains Venetian Gothic paintings, have richly carved and gilded 15th-century ceilings. The works are arranged chronologically, so you can not only follow the evolution of styles, but also compare the works of the contemporaries.
Highlights of the 15th and 16th century paintings include Andrea Mantegna’s Saint George, Piero della Francesca’s Saint Jerome and a Donor, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Saints, Vittore Carpaccio’s Portrait of Christ and Cima da Conciliano’s Madonna under the Orange Tree.
St. John the Baptist and a magnificent Pietà by Titian, Cain and Abel by Tintoretto and the Miracle of St. Mark, The Marriage of St. Catherine by Paolo Veronese and The Supper in the House of Levi , St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and many works by Giambattista Tiepolo also deserve special attention.
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Santa Maria dei Miracoli
After the immense grandeur of San Marco and the vast expanse of the Frari, the small Santa Maria dei Miracoli looks like a breath of fresh air, a masterpiece of Early Renaissance architecture by Pietro Lombardo. This jewel box of pastel inlaid marble was built from 1481 to 1489 to house a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary.
Unlike other churches in Venice, whose facades are decorated with architectural edges and statues, Lombardo carefully used matching coloured marble to create delicate patterns of rosettes, circles, octagons and crosses on the facade. The method continues inside, which enhances the effect of the golden-domed ceiling rising above grey and coral marble walls.
Just as Ca’ d’Oro allows you a glimpse into late medieval life, Palazzo Rezzonico gives a vivid picture of life here in the 18th century Baroque period. Designed and begun by the master of Venetian Baroque architecture, Baldassare Longhena, the palace was completed almost 100 years later in 1750 by Giorgio Massari.
The furniture and collections complement the image he painted in the building, including the interior decoration of silk wall coverings, elegant finishing details and Flemish tapestries. The costume collection highlights the importance of silk production in Venice from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century, when it was a major competitor to Lyon, France.
Rigid technical regulations were imposed, resulting in some of the most beautiful silk fabrics ever made. Silk was so important that even in times of war with the Turks, battle lines were parted to allow silk-laden ships to pass.
The museum details the importance of luxury goods, particularly clothing and fashion, to the Venetian economy in the 18th century, when brocades decorated with gold and silver thread produced here were prized throughout Europe and the New World.
Venice began on the island of Torcello, founded here as early as the seventh century, and by the 12th century, it was a thriving trading city. Of its palaces, churches, shipyards and docks, only two churches and a handful of houses remain, scattered over the large island.
You can get some idea of Torcello’s importance from its cathedral, dedicated in 639 to Santa Maria Assunta . It is considered the best example of Venetian Byzantine architecture left. It was rebuilt in 834 and 1008, and the portico and the two side arches were added in the ninth century; much of the building dates from the 11th century. The mosaics lining the interior are exceptional.
The oldest of these are in the chapel to the right of the high altar, where the 11th century angels bearing a medal with the Lamb of God show a strong Byzantine influence. The Fathers of the Church ? Gregory, Martin, Ambrose and Augustine, were later added, along with Christ in Majesty between two Archangels .
The 12th century mosaics in the main arch and the Virgin and Child above the frieze of the Twelve Apostles surrounded by flowers are all on a golden background. The west wall is covered with bars of Byzantine mosaics of the Last Judgement from the late 12th or early 13th century.
Along with the highly detailed marble carvings on the iconostasis, note the 11th century mosaic floor and the pulpit, which was assembled in the 13th century from earlier fragments.
Next to the cathedral is the small 11th-century church of Santa Fosca , in a clearly Byzantine central plan with a portico. Your entrance ticket includes the interesting little historical museum with artefacts from antiquity to the 16th century.
The long (12 km) beach that separates the Venice lagoon from the Adriatic Sea was Europe’s first true seaside resort in its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the large hotels where they were built still welcome visitors and still boast beautiful fine sandy beaches.
The public beaches are located at the northern end of the island, near the church of San Nicolo, where the relics of Saint Nicholas are venerated. After much dispute between Venice and Bari, which also claims the saint’s remains, it was determined by an anatomical expert that both have equal claims; about half the skeleton, including the skull, is in Bari and the other half in Lido. The monasteries are magnificent and in the church there are paintings from both the Palma Presbytera and the Later.
The island is full of art nouveau villas and hotels. To see the villas, wander around some of the side streets. In August and September, the Lido is the venue for the International Film Festival, held at the Palazzo del Cinema.
Ca’ Pesaro & Galleria d’Arte Moderna
Ca’ Pesaro’s impressive façade overlooking the Grand Canal is inspired by the Sansovino Library, which stands opposite the Doge’s Palace, built a century earlier. The rich Venetian late Baroque interior contrasts sharply with the art displayed there, for the palazzo now houses the Galleria d’Arte Moderna.
One of Italy’s finest collections of modern art, it contains works by major 19th and 20th century painters and sculptors, including Gustav Klimt, Marc Chagall and Auguste Rodin. Highlights include 20th-century decorative arts , including works in glass made by Carlo Scarpa in the 1930s and 1940s and rare furniture by furniture maker Carlo Bugatti.
The Museo d’Arte Orientale occupies the third floor of the palace, with collections of fine and applied arts from Asia. Highlights include Chinese vases and Japanese enamels, porcelains and armour from the Edo period.
Ca’Pesaro can be reached by Vaparetto from San Stae stop, at Sant’Eustachio Church, more commonly known as San Stae. Enter the church to see paintings by early 18th century artists such as Tiepolo and Pellegrini.
Address : Santa Croce, Venice
Arsenal and the Maritime History Museum
The Arsenal, the Venetian Republic’s shipyard, was the largest and busiest in the world until the late 17th century. From its foundation in 1104 it was constantly expanding, until in its heyday it employed 16,000 workers.
Closely guarded to preserve the secret production methods that allowed him to build a fully sea-ready ship in a day, Arsenal was accessible only by a road on land and a passage to the sea. So tight was its security that the Republic managed to keep the art of shipbuilding secret until about 1550.
At its imposing land entrance is a Renaissance triumphal arch guarded by lions brought from Greece as booty after the reconquest of the Peloponnese in the 17th century. Of the two lions on the left, the larger one guarded the port of Piraeus, while the other stood on the road from Athens to Elefsina.
Adjacent to the shipyard is the Museum of Naval History , which exhibits impressive booty brought back from the Republic’s numerous naval wars, along with fascinating collections that include paintings done on wooden panels in thanksgiving for rescues at sea. These charming images are interesting for their depiction of marine life rather than for their artistic finesse.
The models and artefacts are related to shipbuilding, the types of ships that at the time Venice was a maritime power and the strongholds of the Republic across the Adriatic. A large model of the legendary ship of state Bucintoro , the luxurious official galley of the Doge, are particularly interesting exhibits.
Address : Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello, Venice
Where to stay in Venice for sightseeing tours
Although it is nice to stay near St Mark’s Square or between there and Rialto, the prices are very expensive! The attractions are all quite close and you have to walk between them anyway. Equally important is how close the hotel is to a vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal. In addition to hotels near the San Marco and San Zaccaria stops, consider those near the Salute and Academia stops on the Dorsoduro.