It’s hard to know where to start, in a city as packed with tourist attractions as Venice. Perhaps the best way is to just get lost for a few hours wandering its charming little streets and passages, strolling along its canals and finding its secret corners.
At every turn you will see something worth remembering with a photo. No matter where this exploration takes you, you may find your way back to Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal easily. Most of the best sites you’ll want to visit are around these two landmarks.
Venice is divided into six sestieri, districts with very distinct characters. San Marco is the center, surrounded on three sides by a large loop in the Grand Canal. The artisan quarter of San Polo is across the Rialto Bridge, and across the Grand Canal to the south is the elegant Dorsoduro, with its prestigious art museums and bustling squares.
On the outer edges are Santa Croce, Castello and Cannaregio, which houses the original ghetto. Beyond the six sestieri – neighborhoods – of the city itself, you’ll want to board a vaporetto for its islands: Burano, Lido, Murano and Torcello. A fourth island, San Giorgio Maggiore, is worth visiting for the magnificent view of San Marco and Venice from its church tower.
To plan your trip so that you don’t miss out on any of the best places to visit, use this list of top Venice attractions.
1. Saint Mark’s Basilica
Certainly the most famous church in Venice and one of the most easily recognizable in the world, St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) was originally the private chapel of the Doge, decorated with treasures of Byzantine art that are part of the booty brought back by the Venetians. ships after the fall of Constantinople.
The gold-backed mosaic images above the facade doors only allude to the mosaic art inside, where 4,240 square meters of gold mosaics cover the domes and walls . These give a distinctly Byzantine tone to its burgeoning interior, but you’ll find treasures from other periods, including later mosaics designed by Titian and Tintoretto – names you’ll come across throughout the city.
The magnificent golden altarpiece, the Pala d’Oro, one of the most beautiful in Europe, was started by artists from the beginning of the 12th century, and centuries later, adorned with nearly 2,000 gems and stones precious. If you can tear your eyes away from it, the mosaic domes and the multitude of richly decorated altars, take a peek at the floor, a masterpiece of marble inlay. And take the time to see the gold reliquaries and treasure icons.
2. Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square)
The vast expanse of Venice’s largest square is brought together and its architecture on three sides made it intimate. But more than its architectural grace, Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is valued as the Salon of Venice, the place where everyone gathers, walks, drinks coffee, stops to chat, meets people. friends and tour guides, or just drop by to work or play.
Three sides are framed by arcades, under which are trendy boutiques and even more trendy cafes. The open end is marked by the erratic and exotic curves, swirls, mosaics, and lace filigree of St. Mark’s Basilica.
Above stands the brick well of the campanile. For an overview of this bustling square, you can go to its top or to the top of the Torre dell’Orologio, where a pair of “Moors” strike the hour.
3. Bridge of Sighs and Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)
Visitors to Venice once disembarked under the facade of this extraordinary palace. They would not have failed to be impressed, both by its size and the finesse of its architecture.
If received inside by the Doges, the impression would only get stronger as they entered through the Porta della Carta, a perfect example of Venetian Gothic at its peak, and ascended the monumental Scala dei Giganti and the Scala d’Oro with golden vault until being received in what many consider the most beautiful room in the palace, the Sala del Collegio.
Even jaded 21st-century travelers are in awe of the palace’s grandeur and lavish decoration. You will see works by all of the greatest Venetians, including Tintoretto, whose Paradise is the largest oil painting in the world.
A walk across the Bridge of Sighs to the dark cells of the Prigioni – the prisons from which Casanova made his famous escape is not open during public tours but included in private tours. The Bridge of Sighs, best view and the postcard classic is from Ponte della Paglia, on the Riva degli Schiavoni behind the Doge’s Palace.
The queues for entry to the Doge’s Palace are often long, but you can avoid them and see sections of the palace not open to general visitors, with a skip-the-line: Doge’s Palace Ticket and Tour. A local guide will take you through the queues and explain the history and art in each of the dazzling rooms before leading you through the Bridge of Sighs and into the notorious prison.
4. Canale Grande (Grand Canal)
Sweeping the heart of Venice in a giant inverted S-curve, the Grand Canal is the city’s main boulevard, connecting Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, and the station and bridge arrival points from the mainland.
Only four bridges span its 3.8 kilometer length, but stripped gondolas known as the traghetti shuttle come and go at several points between the bridges. The Grand Canal was the address of choice for anyone claiming influence in Venice. The palaces of all the great families open onto the canal, early Renaissance facades facing the water and their showy Venetian Gothic, through which visitors arrived.
These grand palaces – or at least their facades – are well preserved today, and a ride along the canal by vaporetto is the best way to see them. And, of course, a ride along the Grand Canal in a gondola is one of the most romantic things to do in Venice at night.
5. San Polo and Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge)
The Rialto Bridge is the only bridge over the Grand Canal which marks the site of the island’s first settlement, called Rivus Altus (high shore). It was built in 1588, some 150 years after the collapse of a previous wooden bridge and this stone arch supports two bustling streets and a double set of shops.
As well as serving as a busy crossing point halfway down the canal, it’s a prime vantage point for tourists taking – or posing for – photos and looking at the assortment of boats that always pass under it. .
The Church of San Bartolomeo, near the San Marco end of the bridge, was the church of the German merchants who lived and worked in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German Commodity Exchange) lining the canal here. It has an excellent altarpiece, Le Martyre de Saint-Barthélemy, by Palma the Younger. The old stock exchange is now a popular place for shopping.
Across the Rialto Bridge is the bustling food market, where Venetians and chefs buy fresh produce and seafood. In the narrow streets of San Polo, beyond the market, are shops artisans and mask-making workshops, one of the best places for shopping in Venice. You’ll also find restaurants that aren’t as crowded with tourists as those closer to San Marco.