There are two ways to visit Venice: follow the flow of hasty tourists who in a few hours follow a predetermined route chosen by about 20 million people every year, or leave this route and try to discover a less postcard-like Venice.
We think you can do both: get to St. Mark’s Square, enjoy the joy of being there, in that place seen many times in pictures, or climb the Rialto Bridge to admire the Grand Canal and fight with the crowd to take a souvenir photo.
But also get out of the cliché about Venice to discover that there are extraordinary places even in a city that in itself is out of the ordinary. And this can only be done by entering the palaces, not just looking at their facades. So you can enter the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco or the Chiesa dei Frari and discover magnificent works and fine architecture that tell the true story of Venice, the one too often overshadowed by postcard tourism. On this page we recommend the 10 things to see absolutely in Venice during a weekend or a longer holiday. It is a forced selection, but we think there is the best.
1. Saint Mark’s Square
St. Mark’s Square is the first place that comes to mind when talking about Venice. The large square where the Basilica stands, with pigeons waiting for some crumbs, is perhaps the most famous image of Venice.
Before the arrival of the relics of St. Mark and the subsequent construction of the Basilica, this area was simply a large vegetable garden, crossed by the Rio Batario, then buried at the behest of the Doge Vitale II Michiel St. Mark’s Square is the only large space in Venice that has the privilege of being called “piazza”, while all other areas with this characteristic are called “campi”. In the years of the Serenissima Republic it hosted fairs, tournaments, processions, and bull hunting, while today it is surrounded by (very) expensive bars, where you can sit and watch live the passage of tourists from all over the world enraptured by such beauty.
2. Ducal Palace
The Venetians care a lot about this palace because it is the guardian of their history and the protagonist of many important events for the city of Venice.
The Doge’s Palace was exactly where it is now during the period of the Republic, overcame successive dominations and was always standing when Venice was annexed to the Italian State. A constant and faithful presence of the city of Venice, the style of the Doge’s Palace has undergone many variations, dictated by the long series of terrible fires that have determined, over the years, significant changes. The political importance of the Palace, which welcomed the Doges of the history of the Republic of Venice, was also underlined by Napoleon Bonaparte when, in 1797, he made it the center of his administration after conquering the city. The historical importance of the Doge’s Palace in Venice is also testified by the large sum paid by the coffers of the newborn Italian State, in favor of a total renovation of the building. Despite the heavily passive balance sheet of the unified Italy, which had taken over the debts of all the States that had come under the tricolor, no expense was spared to give one of the most important symbols of Venice a new look.
3. Grand Canal
The Venetians call it Canalazzo but it is not a derogatory name, it is just their way of identifying the Grand Canal.
The Grand Canal crosses Venice for 4 kilometres dividing the historic centre of the city into two parts. Much older than the city itself, the Canal has an S shape in reverse and in some places reaches a depth of 5 meters. Its width varies according to the areas of the city, there are places where it is 70 meters wide. If you want to observe and admire the city from a different point of view, take part in the tour on the Grand Canal, which starts from Santa Lucia train station to St. Mark’s Square to offer you a wonderful scenery. The buildings overlooking the Grand Canal are all facing the waterway, and during the tour they seem to compete to capture the attention of tourists. Observing the beauty of the palaces, the harmony of the buildings and the narrow alleys that can be glimpsed as the boat slowly proceeds towards St. Mark’s Square, you will understand why Venice has always been one of the most beloved cities in the world.
4. Rialto Bridge and the other bridges
It is not easy to count them one by one, because there are 354 bridges in Venice! The lagoon city has a morbid relationship with its bridges because it desperately needs them to connect different areas and make travel a little easier. The Venetians have been able to transform a need into a distinctive feature of the city: Venice is characteristic for all these “half moons” that meet along the canals.
The most famous, perhaps, is that of the “Sighs”, but not everyone knows that its name does not come from the languid sighs of lovers who pass under it, swearing eternal love. It seems that the sighs that give the name to the bridge are those of the condemned who were taken to the nearby prisons and, looking at the city for the last time, let themselves be assailed by despair. The one of the “sighs” contended for fame with the Rialto Bridge, which shows itself on the Grand Canal. In 1593 the Rialto Bridge replaced the ancient bridge made of wooden boats that allowed the passage to the very popular Rialto market. Today the bridge, covered by arches, is crowded with tourists and sellers, one of the most famous photographic points in the world. The most recent bridge in Venice, the spectacular Constitution Bridge, was designed and built by the great Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The bridge, commissioned in 1997, after a gestation as an elephant due to design errors and doubts about its stability, was opened to the public in 2008 and only a year later, had the final technical approval.
5. Accademia Gallery of Venice
The Gallerie dell’Accademia houses the richest collection of Venetian and Veneto paintings, from the 14th century Byzantine and Gothic to Renaissance artists.
Some names can immediately clarify the quantity and quality of the works housed in a complex that unites the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the convent of the Lateran Canons and the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità: Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoretto and Titian, Tiepolo and the great 18th century vedutisti Canaletto, Guardi, Bellotto, Longhi. There are also works by Mantegna, one by Piero della Francesco, Crivelli, Luca Giordano, Memling, and others. The museum also houses one of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest works, the Vitruvian Man, which, however, is very rarely exhibited because the light would fade the ink.
6. Peggy Guggenheim Museum
The Peggy Guggenheim collection is the most prestigious Italian collection dedicated to European and American art of the first half of 1900. In this museum, you will find the masterpieces of the most important and fascinating artists of the period: Pollock, de Chirico, Picasso, Kandinsky, Brancusi, and Duchamp.
Particularly interesting is the Gianni Mattioli Collection, one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century, in which the greatest artists of Italian Futurism such as Sironi, Carrà, Soffici, Rosai, some paintings by Morandi and a beautiful portrait by Amedeo Modigliani stand out. The museum is located in the only incomplete palace in Venice, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, bought by the Guggenheim to create the largest museum of modern art of the 50s. Peggy spent her life with the sole aim of creating a museum that would enhance the works of the avant-garde around the world. Her passion was not stopped even by the outbreak of the Second World War: During the years of the conflict, in fact, the Guggenheim continued to travel around Europe, regardless of the dangers, in search of the works she wanted to include in her prestigious collection. Peggy Guggenheim’s strong personality allowed her artists to become, without doubt, the best-known representatives of American Abstract Expressionism.
7. The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
One of the places in Venice that hasty tourists miss is the Church of the Frari.
Monumental basilica 102 meters long, it has 17 monumental altars and a collection of works worthy of the best museums in the world.
Here are buried Antonio Canova and Titian, many doges, condottieri, the musician Monteverdi and many other Venetian personalities. In the apse is Titian’s Assumption, the most important work of the church together with the Pala Pesaro, also by the same painter. But the works by Bellini (Triptych of the Frari and Madonna on the Throne), the Deposition by Frangipane, are not to be outdone. Don’t miss a visit to the splendid wooden choir. Beyond the works, in the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari you will be amazed by the light, the arrangement of the works as in a museum, the monumental power that gives an overall feeling of majesty.
8. Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Tintoretto put all his skill in painting the Sala dell Albergo Della Scuola di San Rocco: and he succeeded because this cycle of works is considered by all as the Sistine Chapel of Venice.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was the seat of a confraternity of wealthy Venetians dedicated to charitable works and takes its name from the body of San Rocco, which is kept here. In 1564 the Confraternity entrusted Tintoretto with the task of decorating the School. In 24 years, the artist and his students created a cycle of large canvases in the Sala Terrena and the Sala Albergo. The works recount biblical episodes and the life of Christ in an exceptional pictorial journey, which is almost stunned by the size and number of the works painted.
9. What to eat in Venice
In the gastronomy of the lagoon the goodness of the dishes starts from the appetizers, which are definitely the highlight of the menu.
The counters of the “bacari”, i.e. the taverns, are a real triumph for the eyes and the palate because they are full of “cicchetti”, the typical Venetian appetizers to taste with a “ombra de vin”. You just have to choose what you prefer among vegetables, crab, suppressed with polenta or half an egg with anchovies. For the first courses, however, one of the most typical courses on the menu is certainly the famous risi e bisi, known elsewhere as risotto with peas, which was eaten by the Doges on April 25th, in honour of the patron saint of the city. Very good also the spaghetti with clams, or cooked with squid ink, with strictly local fish. In these parts, then, enjoy a mysterious veneration of pasta and beans, a dish not to be missed both in houses and in taverns throughout Venice. To conclude your lagoon lunch, all you have to do is choose a second course: not to be missed, only for strong stomachs, the Venetian style liver, which has its characteristic in the large quantity of onion with which it is seasoned, accompanied by a taste of “castrature”, the typical artichokes grown on the islands of the lagoon.
10. Where to stay in Venice
Every year almost 20 million tourists pass through Venice. Most don’t stop to sleep but run away after a few hours.
Despite this tourism that does not occupy rooms, in Venice it can be very difficult to find a place to sleep, especially in spring and during the Carnival. Even if you do find one, consider spending a lot and don’t expect extra-luxury rooms. Local hoteliers know that you are willing to pay a lot and get little to visit the lagoon city. A normal 3 star hotel can cost up to 150 euros per night, while the more luxurious ones can cost a lot. The cheapest hotels and B&Bs are located on the mainland of Mestre, which is perfectly connected to Venice, and allows you to reach the main monuments of the lagoon city in a few minutes. Perhaps this is the least romantic but certainly the most convenient solution.