There is no other city in the world quite like Venice. Unrivalled for its beauty and uniquely romantic setting, it perches atop 117 small islands within a large lagoon appearing to “float” like a heavenly mirage. Venice has had many nicknames over the centuries, but the most enduring is that from the Middle Ages and Renaissance at the height of its power – La Serenissima, the “Most Serene Republic”.
Today the entire city can be likened to a floating art museum and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, there are marvels in Venice at every turn, whether art is your reason for visiting Venice or not. Simply journeying down the Grand Canal is a history lesson in 17th and 18th century Venetian society with elaborate merchant palaces vying for attention on either side.
Take a trip through Venice as we explore important churches, bridges, galleries and museums, as well as the islands of Burano and Murano, where lace and glass contributed so much to this city’s good fortunes.
01. Grand Canal
Of Venice’s numerous water canals, the Grand Canal is the largest at two miles long and ranging from 30 to 90 meters wide. The Grand Canal has always been the city’s major transport corridor, and today water taxis are the main form of floating transport used to reach various stops along its length. Gondolas too are a scenic, albeit slower, way to reach your destination.
The Grand Canal is also the focus of a centuries-old tradition called the Historical Regatta, which takes place annually on the first Sunday of September. On this day hundreds of people line the walkways of the canal and special floating stands are erected for people to watch the historical boat race and a costumed boat parade.
At any other time of the year, the quickest and cheapest way to travel down the Grand Canal is to jump aboard a water taxi or “Vaporetto” which leave every ten minutes from Santa Lucia train station. Line l is the regular line and it takes around 45 minutes to reach Piazza San Marco, or for a quicker trip, Line 2 is the express which takes 30 minutes.
02. Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco is one of the top tourist attractions in Venice and is the main public square of the city. Locals generally call it “the Piazza” and it is the home of St. Mark’s Basilica, the spiritual heart of Venice and the Doge’s Palace, an important art museum. The Piazza San Marco is rectangular in shape and is over 12,000 square meters in size. The mighty cathedral sits at its eastern end and a smaller Piazzetta heads off towards the lagoon.
One of these historic buildings bordering the square is St. Mark’s Campanile or bell tower. The bell tower’s origins are from the 8th century but it was rebuilt in the early 20th century. With a height of 98 meters, you can take a lift to the top for panoramic views of the city.
Another historic highlight of the Piazza is the 18th century Cafe Florian which was a regular hangout of writers such as Henry James and Lord Byron. You’ll also find plenty of other bars and restaurants, in which to stop and watch the world go by, and of course the pigeons who faithfully congregate at the Piazza rain or shine.
03. Saint Mark’s Basilica
The most famous and ornate of Venice’s many churches is the breathtaking St. Mark’s Basilica. Situated at the eastern end of Piazza San Marco, and connected to the Doge’s Palace, the church features several different styles of architecture, including Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance. It is the most important holy site in Venice and a working church for Roman Catholic worshippers.
The best way to skip the somewhat lengthy queues and fully appreciate this dazzling church is to book a guided tour. With an experienced guide you’ll learn more about the history and features of the church such as the Byzantine masterpiece, Pala D’Oro, a gold altar piece studded with gems, a prized treasure which also came from Constantinople.
Other must-see features of the basilica include, the Treasury, the Dome of the Spirits, the Altar of the Virgin, the dome of St. Petra, and the impressive amount of gold mosaics on the walls and ceilings which have earned it the nickname “Chiesa d’Oro” or “Church of Gold” over the centuries.
04. Doge’s Palace
This Venetian Gothic palace is one of Venice’s most stunning landmarks. Originally the residence of the Doge of Venice, who was the supreme ruler of the city, it is now an art museum and major tourist attraction.
The sumptuousness of the ruling elite is in stark contrast to the conditions two floors beneath in the basement cells, where inmates who were awaiting trial were held. There was another prison in the palace located beneath the attic and lined with a lead roof, this was The Piombi, or “The Leads” and Casanova was famously imprisoned here.
Tours of the Doge’s Palace also take in the New Prisons, built across from the palace and reached via the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge is so named as the prisoners reputedly let out a gasp of sorrow as they glimpsed Venice for the last time.
05. Rialto Bridge
The picturesque Rialto Bridge is the main bridge spanning the Grand Canal, and one of the iconic landmarks of Venice. It is the oldest of the four bridges that have been constructed at various points along the two-mile canal. The Rialto Bridge is situated 15 minutes from the Santa Lucia train station by water taxi and connects the two districts of San Marco and San Polo.
The much sturdier bridge features around 12,000 wooden pilings and 7.5 meters arch to accommodate the galley ships of the time passing under it. There are two inclined ramps and a covered portico with shops lining the sides. It has three walkways, two narrow ones on the side and a wider one down the middle.
The Rialto Bridge is a much photographed Venice icon, and one of the best vantage points is looking back from a water taxi as you travel along the Grand Canal.
A popular day trip for visitors to Venice is the island of Burano, around a 40-minute trip by water taxi from the San Zaccaria stop near St. Mark’s. Although Burano is referred to as an island, it would be more correct to say it is an archipelago consisting of four islands interlinked by bridges. There are five distinct districts San Martino Destro, San Martino Sinistro, San Mauro, Giucecca and Terranova. The neighboring island of Mazzorbo is also linked to Burano by bridge.
Although the lace making industry declined in the 18th century because it was too time consuming and costly, lace is still made on the island though not in the traditional manner. Not surprisingly, Burano’s lace is one of the island’s major tourist attractions and at shops such as La Perla you can find a whole range of exquisite handmade lace and textiles.
Scuola del Merletto (the Lace Museum) in Piazza Galuppi exhibits 16th and 17th-century lace samples as well as explaining the origins and history of lace making on the island. Here you will also be able to find artisans doing stitching demonstrations.
Other attractions on Burano include delightful churches; the Church of San Martino, notable for its leaning bell tower and artworks, the Santa Maria delle Grazie an old convent, and the Oratorio di Santa Barbara which also has important artworks.
07. Scuola Grande di San Rocco
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is an architectural gem that features high on the list of things to do in Venice. Located in Campo San Rocco next to the church from which it takes its name, the building is famous for its ornately decorated rooms and amazing paintings by Renaissance artist Tintoretto.
A devout and spiritual man, Tintoretto was known for his religious art and his best examples are to be found here such as the magnificent Crocifissione (Crucifixion), Rest on the Flight into Egypt, II Serpente di Bronzo (The Bronze Snake) and La Strage degli Innocenti (The Slaughter of the Innocents).
Other paintings, such as Moses Striking Water from the Rock, The Brazen Serpent, and The Fall of Manna depict the afflictions that St Rocco and his followers championed against: thirst, disease and hunger. For visitors wishing to follow the development of Tintoretto’s work, there is a free pamphlet and audio guide. If you visit on 16th August admission is free since it is the feast day of St. Roch.
Murano is the most popular day trip from Venice and is where the famous multi-colored and enameled glass products are made. Known as ‘The Island of Glass”, Murano consists of a number of adjacent islands, seven of them to be exact, connected by bridges. Situated in the Venice lagoon just under a mile north of the city, it takes around 20 to 30 minutes to get to Murano by water taxi.
But some of the glassmakers defied the Republic and emigrated to different cities and countries taking the process of Murano glassmaking with them so the island lost its hold on the industry. Today the oldest glass factory still in action on the island is Pauly & C. – Compagnia Venezia Murano which was formed in the early 20th century.
However, there are many glass factories where you can view glassmaking demonstrations and buy all kinds of glass objects such as, jewellery, mosaics, wine stoppers and lightshades. When visiting the glass shops on the island look for the trademark “Vetro Murano Artistico” which testifies that it sells authentic Murano glass. For the history and origins of Murano’s glassmaking be sure to visit the Murano Glass Museum.
09. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Idyllically situated in the Campo dei Frari in the San Polo district, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, or the ‘Fran as locals commonly refer to it, is one of Venice’s three largest churches. Dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, it houses many wonderful works of art and monuments of the Renaissance. The Frari is strictly speaking not just a church but has the status of cathedral or basilica.
Titian’s monumental tomb is in the church too, the artist died in 1576 of the plague, and he rests there along with another notable artist sculptor Canova, who has a pyramid-shaped monument, and plenty’ of wealthy Venetians.
Another artistic highlight of the Frari is the rood screen made by Pietro Lombardo and Bartolomeo Bon in 1475. This is an elaborately carved partition, named for the “rood” or crucifix that was usually placed to face the churchgoers. In the Frari, it acts as a choir screen situated between the nave and the high altar.
10. San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore is a church based on the island of the same name just south of Venice. Even though it is just a short ferry trip from St. Mark’s, the island is off the beaten track for tourists so it is a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle. Unlike Piazza San Marco, you shouldn’t find any queues for the bell tower here.
Artistic highlights include two oversized paintings by Tintoretto, The Last Supper and The Fall of Manna, but there are many other impressive Renaissance paintings here as well. Once you’ve explored the church then the neo-classical bell tower should be your next port of call. For a fee take the lift 60 meters to the top for one of the best views of Venice. There are nine bells which are still in working order and quite loud if they happen to toll while you’re up there!
The adjacent Benedictine monastery is still a working monastery and has been operating since 982. Today it is the headquarters of the Cini Foundation, a cultural institution with a historical library of more than 15,000 books. The monastery also offers tourist accommodation with five guest rooms available and a small communal kitchen. Payment for the accommodation is by donation.
11. Bridge of Sighs
Venice’s most legendary bridge after the Rialto, the Bridge of Sighs spans the Rio di Palazzo and connects the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco with the New Prison. Due to the history and romantic legends associated with the bridge, it is a popular tourist spot for taking photos. The best views of the Bridge of Sighs can be seen from the bridges to either side: Canonica Bridge and Ponte della Paglia.
The 19th century poet Lord Byron enforced a further romantic notion that the “sighs” were actually emitted from lovers’ lips as they beheld the scene while sailing in a gondola underneath the bridge.
Anyone who does this as a nod to Byron will be in a good position to note the mascarons, small sculptures on the curved arch that are either smiling or angry.
If you forgo the gondola ride, as part of a tour of the Doge’s Palace you can walk across the Bridge of Sighs to explore the New Prisons and see it in its context as part of the day-to-day functioning of the palace prison system.
The northern district of Cannaregio is a popular place to stay for its useful shops, transport links and off-the-beaten-track feel. Many consider it to be where you will discover the ’true Venice’ and the prices are a lot cheaper than the tourist areas. Encompassing the railway station, Santa Lucia, and the route along the Grand Canal to the Rialto Bridge, Cannaregio houses the largest amount of people of all the six historic districts of Venice.
Cutting through the top of the district there are three smaller canals which offer picturesque walks and a quieter atmosphere away from the main streets. If you’re after a livelier feel in the evening, then head to Fondamenta della Misericordia, which has some good canal side bars and restaurants where the clientele are both locals and tourists.
Further must-see highlights of Cannaregio are: the Renaissance church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in the east; Campo dei Mori; the Jewish Ghetto and the Gesuiti, an ornate 18th century church with paintings by Tintoretto and Titian.
13. Santa Maria della Salute
Translated from Italian, Santa Maria della Salute means “Saint Mary of Health”. It may seem like a strange name to give a church but this one in Venice is special, it is a plague-church. It was built as a dedication to the Virgin Mary shortly after the city was delivered from its worst outbreak of plague, the summer of 1630 when around a third of the population died.
The outer facade is richly adorned with saints, evangelists and prophets, while inside many of the artworks reference the life of the Virgin Mary and the plague. Artistic highlights include works by Luca Giordano (three scenes near the main entrance), Titian (who has the most paintings) and Tintoretto, whose “Marriage at Cana” in the Sacrestia Maggiore is thought to be among his best works.
Even if churches aren’t your thing, it is worth visiting the Salute for the stunning views looking across the lagoon to Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Basilica and San Giorgio. The Salute is also close to the Gallerie dell’Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which can be reached from here on foot.
14. Ca’ Rezzonico
With a visit to Ca’ Rezzonico, not only do you get the rare chance to see inside an 18th century Venetian palazzo, you’re also privileged to view outstanding architecture and art. Located on the Grand Canal, from the Rialto Bridge the palace is easily reached on foot (20 minutes) or by water taxi (7 minutes).
Frescoes were added to the state room ceilings in 1758 by important Venetian artists including Tiepolo, who was famous for decorating numerous Venetian palaces and churches. The most magnificent room in Ca’ Rezzonico is the double height ballroom at the rear of the palace. The walls are decorated in trompe l’oeil, which give the impression the room is even larger than it is. The ceiling was painted by Giovanni Battista Crosato and depicts the scene of Apollo travelling between the four continents in his carriage.
Other highlights of the palace include the grand staircase of honor with decorated balustrades, the Throne Room with 18th century Venetian artefacts, sumptuous apartments with furnishings from other 18th century Venetian palaces, and the colonnaded balcony overlooking a garden courtyard dotted with statues and fountains.
15. Santi Giovanni e Paolo
The Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, or San Zanipolo as locals call it, is a Gothic church located in the Gastello district, a ten-minute walk from the Rialto Bridge. The second official church of Venice after St. Mark’s, it is notable for the fact that 25 doges (rulers) of Venice are buried there.
There is a small fee charged for visitors to enter the church but it is well worth it since the interior is so much in contrast to the stark brick exterior. Part of the reason for this is the plentiful artwork everywhere by many notable Venetian artists. The other is the highly elaborate funeral tombs of the 25 doges and other important people of the Republic.
Other highlights of the interior of San Zanipolo include a colorful 15th century stained-glass window made in Murano, the decorated altar by Giovanni Bellini and Lorenzo Lotto, the Rosary Chapel with ceiling paintings by Veronese artists and the tomb of the great 15th century Venetian admiral, Pietro Mocenigo, by Pietro Lombardo.