Things to Do in Venice
St. Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) is the crown jewel of Venice, one of the most sumptuous cities in the western world. This ornate cathedral blends elements of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance architecture—testimony to the city’s political and economic dominance that spanned centuries. Topped by soaring domes and with an interior of astonishing golden mosaics, the church is so opulent it is known as the Chiesa d’Oro, or the Golden Church. Construction began in 828, when the body of St. Mark was smuggled back to Venice from Alexandria; the church has been rebuilt, expanded, and delicately restored over the centuries.
The powerful Doges ruled the Venetian Empire from the Gothic fantasy palace that is Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale) until 1797. The site was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon and landed at St Mark's Square, and the doges ruled with an iron fist—justice was often meted out here. Today, the site is one of the most well-known attractions in Italy.
St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), often referred to as “the drawing room of Europe,” is one of the most famous squares in Italy. The geographic and cultural heart of Venice—with St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace at one end, the campanile in the center, and the colonnaded arcade topped by the Procuratie palaces lining three sides—this elegant piazza is also steeped in history. Settle in at one of the many coveted café tables and watch tourists (and pigeons) pose for photos while you sip a Bellini and soak in the square’s Renaissance splendor.
Venice is a city built on water, and the Grand Canal (Canale Grande) is its bustling main street. Lined with sumptuous Venetian palaces and crowded with gondolas, water taxis, and vaporetti (public ferries), this thoroughfare is a feast for the senses. The Grand Canal winds its way through the central neighborhoods of Venice from the Santa Lucia train station to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), passing under the iconic Rialto Bridge along the way, and functions as the scenic main artery for transporting both people and goods around the City of Canals.
Of Venice’s 100-plus outlying islands, the group that forms Murano is the most famous. This tight cluster of small islands has been the center of the Floating City’s historic glassmaking industry since 1291, when the city center’s glass factories were forcibly moved across the lagoon—just north of Venice proper—after a number of devastating fires. Today, travelers visit Murano to see how expertly trained artisans blow glass into exquisite stemware, chandeliers, vases, and sculptures. Those particularly interested in the history of glassmaking should stop by the Museo del Vetro, which traces the art back to ancient Egypt.
Venice is made up of over 100 small islands, but generally “the Venice islands” refers to the three most famous outlying islands in the Venetian lagoon: Murano, Burano, and Torcello. Murano, just north of Venice proper, has been the center of Venice’s famous glass-making industry since 1291, and the island’s expert glassblowers still handcraft stunning pieces of Murano glass today. Farther north, Burano has quiet canals lined with brightly painted fishermen’s houses and is home to Venice’s traditional lace artisans. Its neighboring island of Torcello, first settled in 452, is believed to be the first populated island in the Venetian lagoon.
The Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) was the first to span Venice’s Grand Canal (Canal Grande) between its two highest points above sea level. The original 12th-century wooden bridge was replaced in 1592 by a stone structure resting on wooden pilings—a bold design by Antonio da Ponte featuring a single central arch over the water that allow ships to pass. Today, the bridge is among Italy’s most famous, carrying an endless stream of tourists and locals across the canal while countless gondolas and vaporetto water buses pass beneath.
As poignant as it is beautiful, Venice’s 17th-century, white-limestone Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) spans the narrow Rio di Palazzo canal between the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) and the New Prisons just opposite. It’s one of the most famous bridges in the Floating City.
In a quiet corner of Venice ,the Venetian palace (palazzo) believed to be explorer Marco Polo’s former residence is easy to miss. Stop by Corte Seconda del Milion, a square named for Marco Polo's travel memoirs, Il Milione, to honor Italy's most famous adventurer while visiting the Floating City.
Venice is made up of a group of islands that is crowded with opulent churches and sumptuous palaces. The humble island of Burano, though, in the outer reaches of the Venetian lagoon, shows a completely different side of the city, with its jumble of technicolor fishers’ houses and a long tradition of lace-making.
More Things to Do in Venice
To get a glimpse into authentic Venice, a visit to the city’s historic outdoor Rialto Fish Market (Mercato di Rialto) is a must. Venetians have been purchasing their fish and seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables, and other foods at the Rialto Market since 1097, making it one of the most long-lived aspects of daily life in the Floating City.
Burial place of 25 Venetian doges and one of the largest churches in Italy, the Italian Gothic–style Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo is among the most important churches in the city. Known as San Zanipolo to locals, it is home to works by Bellini, Veronese, and two generations of Lombardo sculptors.
With its ornate facade and towering dome, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most beautiful sights along Venice’s Grand Canal. Known simply as La Salute, the church dominates the mouth of the canal and its steps seem to rise directly from the water, inviting visitors to explore its soaring interior.
Of the many historic opera houses in Italy, few are more legendary than Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. Opened in 1792, the theater quickly became a major venue for opera and ballet. Today you can view the sumptuous 19th-century-style interiors during a musical or dance performance, or join a guided tour of the theater.
Sitting high above St. Mark’s Square and visible from the Grand Canal, the remarkable clock in St. Mark’s Clock Tower (Torre dell'Orologio) has served as Venice’s official timepiece for more than 500 years. Touring this historic symbol of the city is a highlight of any visit, not least for the sweeping views from the top of the tower.
Tucked down a Venice side street near the Grand Canal, Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is worth a detour for its Bovolo Staircase (Scala Contarini del Bovolo). Named for the Venetian word for snail, this spiral staircase—the most famous in Venice—is housed in a cylindrical tower with open arches that climbs the facade, offering beautiful views over the city.
The Dorsodurosestiere (district) is home to some of Venice’s most impressive art collections, churches, and architecture, and the heart of this university neighborhood is lively Campo Santa Margherita. This large public square hosts an outdoor market during the day and is a hub of Venetian nightlife after the sun sets.
Those looking to escape the crowds in Venice for the day can head to the postcard-perfect landscape of Lake Misurina (Lago di Misurina), set in the stunning Dolomite mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site north of the Floating City. Unwind on the scenic chalet-lined shore, savor the crisp Alpine air, and enjoy spectacular views of the towering peaks beyond.
Cannaregio is the largest and most populated of Venice’s six central districts (sestieri). Home to the Jewish ghetto, the art-filled Chiesa della Madonna dell'Orto, the Renaissance Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, and the restaurant-lined Fondamenta de la Misericordia, Cannaregio offers something for everyone.
Tucked away from the crowded piazzas of Venice, Campo Santa Maria Formosa is a charming little square in the Castello district. With a handful of cafés, a co-op market, and local shops, Campo Santa Maria Formosa offers a nice reprieve from the tourist hustle of Venice and allows a glimpse into local life.
Spanning the southern end of the Grand Canal between the Galleria dell’Accademia in Dorsoduro and Campo San Vidal in San Marco, the Accademia Bridge (Ponte dell'Accademia) is one of only four bridges crossing the canal. It’s the perfect vantage point to view the church of Santa Maria della Salute and the canal or observe the city’s Carnival festivities.
Venice’s former Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto di Venezia) is one of the most fascinating and poignant corners of the Floating City. The oldest Jewish ghetto in Italy is home to a number of 16th-century synagogues, the Jewish Museum, a small Holocaust memorial, and kosher restaurants and bakeries.
Dedicated to the art and history of Venice, the Correr Museum (Museo Correr) holds objects from the city’s past, including neoclassical sculptures, books, medallions, documents, paintings, musical instruments, and Greek and Roman statues. Located in the ornate palaces lining St. Mark’s Square, the museum includes neoclassical rooms decorated in the period’s opulent style.
One of the most popular and prestigious museums in Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art provides a welcome contrast to Venice’s ornate Gothic and baroque art and architecture. A visit here is a must for any lover of 20th-century art.
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