One of the world’s most popular travel destinations, romantic Venice is renowned for its picturesque canals and serenading gondoliers. While images of places like Doge’s Palace, Rialto Bridge and S. Mark’s Basilica are impressive, no photo can hold a candle to visiting the “Floating City” in person. It’s a joy just to get lost among the meandering alleyways with something to discover around nearly every corner.
While countless visitors will be stampeding between St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto, you can savor Venetian life by heading just a block or two away. Watch artisans as they craft their works using Renaissance methods and soak up the atmosphere while enjoying the shimmering reflections on the graceful arches of a centuries-old bridge. Of course, the iconic spots are still well worth a look too. Save some time to simply ramble in addition to putting some of these top things to do in Venice on your list.
St. Mark’s Basilica is located in St. Mark’s Square and has long been one of the symbols of Venice. The city’s most famous landmark, it was built to guard Saint Mark’s relics which were stolen in Alexandria, Egypt. Dating to the 11th century, it’s considered one of the world’s best examples of Byzantine architecture, with Venetian and gothic features blending in over the centuries. The last structural changes were completed some 500 years later. It features luminous mosaics, more than 500 marble columns and gold reliquaries which Venetian crusaders brought after the fall of Constantinople. The mosaics provide highlights of the stories behind the basilica as well as depict religious scenes. Inside, it’s a treasure trove of art, including the magnificent silver and gold Pala d’Ora which includes 2,000 gemstones. There are multiple parts to the cathedral complex, with their own varying hours, including the bell tower which can be climbed for an awe-inspiring view.
Doge’s Palace sits adjacent to St. Mark’s Basilica facing the Grand Canal. Dating back to the 14th century, it was constructed on the site of the old wooden fortress serving as the residence of the Doge and the center of government during the Venetian Republic. After several fires, the fortress was converted into the magnificent palace, a masterpiece of Venetian architecture built in gothic, Byzantine and Moorish styles. One of the most easily recognizable and most beautiful buildings in Europe, step back and admire its façade as a work of art, but don’t miss the columns, their gorgeous carved capitals and the sculptures. There’s an impressive collection of art by Venetian masters inside, with the paintings created to decorate Doge’s Palace particularly and not added later. You can see the prison that once held Cassanova until he escaped through the roof as well. Tickets also provide access to the Archaeological Museum, Museo Corner and Marciana Library.
The oldest bridge of the four that span the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge was first built as a pontoon bridge in 1173. The stone bridge you see today is around 400 years old, managing to stand on its 12,000 wooden pilings all this time. The bold design created by Antonio da Ponte features a single central arch over the water allowing vessels to pass. Today it’s the most famous bridge in all of Italy, carrying an endless stream of locals and tourists while vaporetto water buses and endless gondolas pass beneath. Both sides of the bridge are jam-packed with stalls and shops where one can purchase souvenirs and various crafted items, including Murano glass. Three parallel sets of stairs lead up to the bridge on both sides, connecting San Polo, the oldest area of Venice and the home of the Rialto Market, to San Marco, the site of St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace.
A gondola ride through the enchanting canals may be touristy, but it’s still a must-experience as it provides a window into the past while viewing areas of the city that can’t be reached on foot. Gondolas have long been used here, in fact, they were the primary form of transport dating back to the 11th century, used by Venetian aristocracy. They were frequently used by locals through the mid-1900s and today, there are long lines of tourists waiting to catch one. If you can manage a visit during the low season, between November and February (outside of the Christmas/New Year’s holidays and Carnival), it will be more enjoyable just by bundling up a bit. Otherwise, avoid catching one near the Rialto Bridge or Doge’s Palace, walking a few blocks away instead. It’s a romantic trip into the past with the gondolas all handmade using traditional methods passed down through generations.
Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is referred to as “I Frari” by the locals. A Venetian-gothic church, it dates back to the 14th century, built to replace a Franciscan church on the site that was too small. It took over a century to build and is considered to be the city’s most important church. Located in the San Polo district, it has an elegant yet simple appearance with stained glass windows, but it’s best known for the vast art collection inside. It includes Venice’s only rood screen, beautifully carved in Istrian stone, along with impressive sculptures, including Sansovino’s and Donatello’s versions of St. John the Baptist. You can see both the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro and Assumption of the Virgin by Titian who is buried here along with works by Vivarini, Barolomeo, Bellini and more. A 30-minute audio guide is available for purchase at the entrance.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was built between 1575 and 1587 when the plague had just claimed the lives of 50,000 Venetians. It was dedicated to the patron saint of the plague-stricken, St. Roch who was placed in the church next to it. The most well-preserved of the six Scuole Grandi, or Great Schools, in Venice, these charitable religious institutions were run by middle-class Venetian citizens rather than clergy. As many wanted the commission to paint the building, Tintoretto cheated by gifting a splendid ceiling panel of the saint instead of producing sketches like his rivals, knowing it couldn’t be matched by others. That same painting still crowns the Sala dell’Albergo upstairs and the artist’s work also covered the ceilings and walls of all the main halls. Most come to see it and the 60 paintings displayed here, including works by Tiepolo, Titan, Pianta and Tiepolo.
Saint Mark’s Square is the main public square in Venice and home to many of its most iconic landmarks, including St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, the clock tower, and the Bridge of Sights. It’s been the heart of Venice since the early 9th century although what you see today dates to the 12th century, including the arcades, loggia and symmetrical arches. This is one of the busiest places in the city, always filled with tourists, offering the perfect spot for people-watching as it has been for centuries. Napoleon even called the square the “drawing room of Europe.” There’s no better way to enjoy it than sitting down at one of the historic cafes, Caffe Quadri and Caffe Florian, which have both been here since the 18th century, overflowing with old-world charm. Caffe Florian was opened to satisfy Venetian’s increasing appetite for coffee in 1720, while Café Quadri is the epitome of Belle Epoque.
One of the most photographed landmarks in Venice, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore can be seen from St. Mark’s Square, sitting on a small island of the same name. Made of white marble, the 16th-century Benedictine Church was designed by master architect Andrea Palladio and is most notable for its two interlocking facades. Palladio used the method to harmoniously blend a Roman temple design with Renaissance Christian ideals. The colorful interior is beautiful with its high altar separated by columns and you’ll see many renowned works across its three floors, including paintings like The Last Supper. Its bell tower dates to the 18th century and includes an elevator that visitors can ride to the top for a spectacular panoramic view toward St. Mark’s Square and all the way to the Alps on a clear day. Tours are available but it’s possible to visit the island on your own via vaporetto (water bus).
Most often referred to as “La Salute,” Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is a beautiful white stone basilica that dates to the 17th century. It was dedicated to Our Lady of Health, commissioned by the Venetian Senate to celebrate the Virgin Mary’s deliverance of Venetian citizens from the plague as well as to host the annual Festa della Salute, or Feast of Health. Designed by architect Baldassare Longhena, it’s considered to be his greatest work with the octagonal, domed building created to look like a crown. Much of the artwork inside is focused on the plague, with the ceilings and walls featuring several works by Titian, most notably his famous The Descent of the Holy Spirit, painted in 1546. There are also pieces by Tintoretto, Josse de Corte and Pietro Liberi. The elaborate baroque-style altar and intricate mosaic flooring add to the beauty of the exquisite setting.
Standing in the heart of Venice, Teatro la Fenice is the city’s opera house and it’s widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful. Many great operas and names are closely linked to this unique venue, including the world premieres of Rossini, Bellini and Verdi while Maria Callas and Enrico Caruso mesmerized audiences with their voices. Fenice translates to Phoenix, and like the legendary bird, the theater has risen from the ashes multiple times. It was built in 1792 in neoclassical style, replacing the old theater that burned down in 1836 and again in 1996 due to arson. The one you see today was a reconstruction of the 19th-century version, complete with the neoclassical, white marble façade that managed to survive both fires, while the interiors are Rococo and Empire styles. In addition to hosting operas, concerts and ballets, there is a permanent Maria Callas exhibition.
While there is plenty to do right in Venice, it’s worth taking a day trip to Cittadella, the only one in Europe with fully intact, restored medieval walls. Visitors can enjoy a panoramic walk around the entire city from nearly 50 feet above, for a unique walk through history. It stretches for about a mile along the medieval parapet and comes complete with defensive towers that reach as high as nearly 99 feet. There’s also a moat surrounding the city which was founded in the 13th century as a military outpost while warring with the neighboring communes of Vicenzo and Treviso. By entering the North Gate, you’ll come to the Captain’s House which now services as the tourist office and includes a small museum focused on medieval life and weaponry. There are multiple historic landmarks, including the 13th-century prison and torture chamber, Torre di Malta that was mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Following the plague in 1576 that claimed the lives of 50,000 Venetians, Andrea Palladio who also designed the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore was asked to design the Church of Santissimo Redentore, a commemorative church. It was designed with the simplicity of their hermitage – after Palladio’s death, Antonio da Ponte, the same architect responsible for the Rialto Bridge, completed the church which was consecrated in 1592. It includes a white marble façade, influenced by ancient temples with a dome, brick exterior and two bell towers. There is a temple theme inside too, with a row of Corinthian columns that run the length of the aisle, and in the sacristy, there’s an excellent art collection featuring the works of Tintoretto, Veronese, Rocco Marconi, the Bassanos, and more. If you can be here on the third Sunday of July, you can enjoy the unique Festa del Redentore, an over 430-year-old celebration with a procession and fireworks.
A former monastic church located just off the waterfront southeast of St. Mark’s Square in the Campo San Zaccaria, the Church of Saint Zechariah was originally commissioned in the 9th century to house the remains of its namesake saint who was the father of John the Baptist. It also includes the bodies of eight doges in the crypt which has vaulted ceilings with columns. A permanent flood of canal water creates a mirror effect that causes the tombs to stand like small islands while the columns appear taller than they actually are. The unique architecture you see today was designed by architect Mauro Codussi, who said called its appearance almost like a “pearl casket.” The first structure also had a convent of Benedictine nuns but an early 12th-century fire destroyed it along with the church. Most come to view the art collection with nearly every wall covered in paintings and frescoes.
Villa Pisani is often called the most magnificent villa in all of Venice. The 18th-century baroque-style palace is named after the family for which it was built, located in Stra, about 22 miles from the city. It now serves as a national museum and features 114 rooms that pay homage to its owner, the 114th doge of Venice. Alvise Pisani. Napoleon owned it for a time with his bedroom preserved and it belonged to the House of Hapsburg at one point too. There are 30 rooms open to the public that include original furniture, paintings and frescoes, with the Ballroom one of the most impressive, containing frescoes by Tiepolo that depict The Glory of the Pisani Family. The gardens are another highlight, covering 11 hectares blending local Venetian and French styles with the grounds also featuring statuary, a reflecting pool and a medieval-style hedge maze with a lookout tower.
Squero San Trovaso is one of just a few boatyards devoted to building gondolas that is still in operation today. The famous vessels are all built by hand using traditional tools and methods, with each one customized to fit the gondolier who owns it. This gondola boatyard dates to the 17th century as one of the oldest in the world that still remains. Workshops are run by generations of artisans who specialize in different aspects of maintenance, repair, and building with only around 10 gondolas built each year. It’s possible to watch the artisans at work from the Fondamenta Nana which sits across the Rio de San Trovaso. The gondoliers don’t mind but don’t invite yourself in. Instead, take one of the 30-minute guided tours that are now available to get a closer look and learn all about the building process by emailing [email protected].
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