Updated: May 21, 2015
Top 10 Things to See and Do in Venice, ItalyPlanning a vacation to Venice? Venice has been a popular tourist destination for centuries, as people from around the globe come to bathe in it's timeless splendor (and non-stop decay, but that is what gives it it's charm!). Just wandering around the narrow Venetian streets and canals is a big part of the adventure -- but it helps to have a master plan of things you want to do and see to make the most of your time in Venice. BTW, if at all possible, make sure you spend at least one night in Venice proper -- most of the tourist hordes depart when the sun goes down, leaving you the city to enjoy in peace and quiet. Having visited Venice a number of times, below is our list of the very best things to include in your Venice vacation.
Venice Sightseeing: What to see in Venice1. The Grand Canal - Venice is a city built on the water -- there are no roads or cars here, just pedestrian streets and narrow alleys and bridges that criss-cross the various canals and waterways on which the city stands. The largest waterway is the Grand Canal -- think of it as the main highway that cuts through Venice like a backwards letter "S". This was the place to see and be seen centuries ago, and as such, it is lined with all the fanciest homes and palaces in the city. To travel down the canal is to travel back in time, and the only way to really see it and experience it is via a vaporetto (water bus - see map of routes here). The #1 line travels up and down the Grand Canal, stopping at every stop, so it is slower but gives you plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. You can board it at any of the stops along the Grand Canal, but a good ride is either down from the train station to St. Mark's Square, or the opposite direction. Also, if you are spending the night in Venice, consider a night ride, as the city looks dramatically different when lit up in the evening.
2. Piazza San Marco - Also known as St. Mark's Square, this is the heart of Venice and is as well known for it's coffee shops and pigeons as it is for it's monumental architecture and buildings that surround it. You'll find St. Mark's Basilica here, along with the Campanile bell tower and Doge's Palace (all noted in more detail below). Sit and have coffee, come back in the evening and listen to music, take your picture with the pigeons, go up the bell tower or clock tower and enjoy an aerial view. It can be very crowded since all tourists spend some time here -- join the crowd and enjoy the sights!
3. St. Mark's Basilica - This is a must see for all visitors. This is the grand church (nearly 1000 years old) located in Piazza San Marco that pretty much defines Venice. The bones of St. Mark were brought to Venice from Alexandria around 830AD, and were housed in the basilica. Today you will see beautiful Byzantine architecture outside and magnificent golden mosaic work inside as you are kind of herded along a 10 minute maze through the interior. Depending on what time of year you visit, the line to enter the Basilica can range from long to super long. One tip is to leave a bag at the bag check (a little hard to find -- facing the front of the church, go around to the lefthand side (away from the lagoon) and go slightly down the alley that exits to the left (not the main walkway under the clock tower), where they will give you a pass to go to the front of the line. Another option is to reserve a time online, which costs 1 euro per person and is definitely worth it. Other than that, there is no entry charge to see the main interior of the church, but additional tickets are needed to see the treasury, golden throne, and St. Mark's Museum, which is upstairs. We recommend spending the 4 euros to visit the Museum -- it is a quick staircase to the right, just before you go into the actual entry door to the basilica (look for the picture of the famous 4 horses). You will get an elevated view looking down into the basilica, you'll get to see the original 4 bronze horses that date to the time of Alexander the Great (the ones out front are copies!), and you'll get to go outside for a breathtaking view of St. Mark's Square.
4. See the Palazzo Ducale/Doge's Palace - This is where Venetian political life occurred (official website). Each doge (name for the Venetian ruler) lived here, but today it is a living museum filled with magnificent art. You'll need a ticket to enter (entrance is on the side facing the lagoon), and again lines can be long. If you want to pay a bit more to save time, you can book a Secret Itineraries Tour for 18 euros, which takes you into areas of the palace not seen by regular ticket holders -- the guided your will take you into a number of offices and apartments, you'll see the upstairs prison cells and torture/questioning rooms, and more interior structures like the attic (though the exterior looks like it is all built of stone, it has a surprisingly simple wooden skeleton beneath it all!). Tour lasts a little over an hour, plus you are then allowed to explore the rest of the building on your own. Be sure to look for the sign for the Bridge of Sighs and prison cells. You'll oooh and aaahh at the paintings that covers walls and ceilings, well worth the visit!
5. Campanile Bell Tower - Also located in St. Mark's Square, the original tower collapsed in the early 1900s, but let's hope this one is a little sturdier as you are about to take an elevator to the top for magnificent views! Again, you'll have to deal with the lines and purchase a ticket for the experience, but if you have the time, go for it. As an alternative experience, consider taking the vaporetto for a quick ride across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore (see below) and it's similar but very uncrowded bell tower (also with elevator!). Interestingly enough, from the top of the Campanile you can't see any of the Venetian canals -- just lots of tile rooftops!
6. Rialto Bridge and Market - OK, you've seen all of Piazza San Marco, time to venture out. The next big tourist spot in Venice is the Rialto Bridge. Michelangelo was in the running to design this bridge -- he lost. But the bridge we ended up with is a beauty. One of only 3 bridges to cross the Grand Canal, the Rialto has been a center of commerce in Venice forever. Today, the entire area on both sides of the bridge is lined with shops of all kinds. You can also find cafes here along the Grand Canal where you can hang out and enjoy the view. In the morning (Tues-Sat), you'll find active fish and produce markets on the northwest side of the bridge, which are more exciting than they sound. Come watch the locals shop, and you may see tonight's dinner before it ends up at the restaurant! Just stroll, browse, and enjoy.
7. Ca' Rezzonico - Ca' is short for casa, or house. But these "houses" along the Grand Canal are more like mansions. One of these mansions restored to it's prior glory and open to the public is Ca' Rezzonico. Go inside and step back in time as you see how the wealthy Venetian merchants lived - from furnishings to artwork to views looking over the Grand Canal, you get it all when you visit Ca' Rezzonico. Ticket price is 7 euros. You can see it in an hour or less, depending on how much time you devote to looking at the hundreds of paintings that are on the top floor -- basically a museum within a museum. Since most of Venice you will see and experience from the outside, we think it is worth the time and money to see one of these magnificent buildings from the inside.
8. Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Frari Church - Alright, we are lumping these two together since they are right next to each other, physically. If you're in Venice, you need to include some art in your trip, especially from famous Venetian artists Titian and Tintoretto. The Scuola Rocco (photo at left, different from the San Rocco Church) costs 7 euros to get in, and is basically now a musuem displaying massive paintings done by Tintoretto. The modest lower level pales in comparison to the stunning upper level, where dramatic paintings cover the walls and ceilings. You can see it all in 30-45 minutes, depending on how long you stare in wonder, but a very worthwhile visit for all art lovers. You may find other guide books recommending other "scuolas" to visit -- having seen most of them, unless you are seeking out specific works of arts or artists, I say skip them and just visit San Rocco.
If you're in Italy, apart from art, you have to see the famous churches as well. The Frari (officially the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, church of the friars) is one of the largest churches in Venice (good photo summary here). You'll find some paintings here by Titian (Assumption of the Virgin), along with some very elaborate tombs, including Titian's own. The massive timber-beamed interior is surprisingly airy and bright. This can be another fairly brief 30 minute visit, but include it on your list.
8. Gallerie dell' Accademia (generally called just "the Accademia", pronounced like the nut, macadamia) - Though much of Venice is filled with art, the Accademia is the official "Venice Art Museum", established in 1807 after Napoleon conquered the city. It is located fairly close to St. Mark's, just across the Accademia Bridge. Today it is home to Venetian paintings dating to the 1700s and earlier - Bellini, Carpaccio, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiziano. I was a bit underwhelmed on my first visit, perhaps due to all the construction work going on at the time. However, still worth a visit for art lovers. Let's also throw the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in here. It's located just a little further down the Grand Canal, and is a must for modern art lovers, featuring 20th century works from Picasso, Leger, Mondrian, Klee, Pollock, etc.
9. Murano/Burano/Torcello - These are all other smaller nearby islands, reached by vaporetto. Murano (the closest, just 10 minute boat ride) is the glass-making capital, and is like a smaller version of Venice. You'll find a lot of people pushing glass-blowing tours and demonstrations, which turn into time-share type sales events. You're better off wandering on your own and browsing shops that interest you -- skip the organized tours, wish we had... Burano is smaller still, home to lace-making, but also delightfully painted homes and picturesque canals. Torcello is an hour from Venice, remote and quiet. Not much here but the oldest church in Venice, about a 15 minute walk from the vaporetto stop. If you only have a day or two in Venice, I would skip this detour out into the lagoon. If you have 3 days or more, consider making this a good day trip to visit all 3 islands.
10. Gondola Ride - OK, some people love these, some people hate them. The facts first -- in the old days, this was how people got around Venice. Today, they are only used by tourists for a quick 30-50 minutes tour. Yes, they cost from 50-100 euros for a ride, expensive. Yes, the gondoliers will bargain. For example, stop and ask for the price and how long the ride will be. Then say thanks and walk away. They will generally chase after you and drop the price by 30-50% and offer it again. You will find them all over the city, from the lagoon to the Grand Canal to the little side canals. Most gondoliers work only in their own specific little areas and give the same circle route over and over, so you can't really tell them where you want to go like you can with a taxi cab. So if you have the $100 to spend, find a smaller canal somewhere near the Grand Canal, bargain for your ride, be sure to get a certain minimum time as well (30-40 minutes or whatever), and make sure your ride includes a little time on the Grand Canal mixed in with some smaller side canals. Evening time near sunset is probably the best in terms of ambiance.
11. Church of San Giorgio Maggiore and Santa Maria della Salute Church - OK, technically, we're up to #11 here but let's keep going. These are the 2 other landmark churches you see from Piazza San Marco. The one straight out across the lagoon is the Maggiore Church (designed by Palladio) -- it has a distinctive campanile tower you can't miss. You get there by taking the #2 vaporetto from the S. Zaccaria stop (from Piazza San Marco facing the lagoon, turn left and walk up past the Bridge of Sighs, and just past the big equestrian statue, then look for the S. Zaccaria #2 stop). One quick stop takes you across the lagoon -- make sure you make the most of the photo ops and views looking back towards San Marco as you cross the lagoon. Once inside the church, walk to the rear, left side of the chuch and follow the signs for the bell tower. An elevator whisks you to the top, where you can enjoy the views looking out in all directions over the lagoon.
The second landmark church you see from the San Marco lagoon area is the lovely La Salute (sah-LOO-tay) Church to your right, right where the Grand Canal empties into the lagoon. There is a vaporetto stop right in front, making it easy to get to (#1 vaporetto line from anywhere along San Marco - just get the boat heading in the right direction). This baroque church is in the shape of an octagon -- free admission (photo at right).
12. Vivaldi Concert/La Fenice Opera House - OK, two music related items. First, Vivaldi. Everyone knows the Four Seasons music. Vivaldi wrote that and a million other things -- he was Venice's most beloved musical son. Pretty much every night of the year, you can find a live Vivaldi performance somewhere in Venice - look for fliers or ask your hotel. You'll never forget an evening of pasta, Vivaldi, and strolling the streets of Venice after sundown. Vivaldi is also well known for his operas, and the famous La Fenice Opera House in Venice has been the site of many performances (www.TeatroLaFenice.it). La Fenice means "the phoenix", and like the phoenix, this ornate opera house burnt to the ground in 1996 and has since been reborn out of the ashes, reopening in 2003. The interior is famed for its opulence, and if you are looking for an evening of theater or music, this is the place to go (just a few minutes walk from San Marco).
Of course a highlight of any trip to Venice is just wandering through the streets and marvelling at the sights and sounds and centuries of architecture and wealth. So walk, explore, get lost a little bit. Even with a map you'll find yourself sometimes walking in a circle or heading the wrong direction. Venice is relatively small, so you can easily explore much of the city by foot within a day or two. If the weather is nice, stop and relax in every plaza you come across, have a glass of wine or a coffee. That's part of la dolce vita!