Venice Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Situated on the northeastern coast of Italy, Venice comprises an archipelago of 118 islands all connected by a network of 150 scenic canals and over 400 beautiful bridges. A crown jewel among the water cities of the world, Venice is a unique city built on a lagoon surrounded by the Adriatic Sea.
Venice Travel Guide
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A visit to Venice is like travelling back in time, as the city is virtually the same as it was 600 years ago. A spectacle of magical scenery, it certainly is one of the few cities in the world that can claim a heritage of priceless art and history.

But you haven’t really visited Venice until you’ve taken a boat ride on Canal Grande, the most famous of its canals. Go on a journey back into time, through centuries of history, on this famous Venetian waterway which meanders through the historic center to uncover architectural gems strung along both its banks.

Prepare to be dazzled by beautiful facades of Renaissance palaces such as the Palazzo Ducale, the most impressive building in Venice. Admire its richly embroidered Gothic arches and extensive frescoes adorning tenements of gold and marble.

Your cruise should take you underneath the Rialto Bridge, another icon of the city. Over four centuries old, the ornamental stone bridge crosses the Canal Grande in the heart of the city. The bridge is also a gateway to the Rialto Market, a lively and interesting food and fish market with many small interesting shops to wander through.

Also worth a tour is the Galleria dell’Accademia, one of the best art museums in Italy, and home to great Venetian art dating from the 14th to 18th centuries. The Galleria was the judicial and political hub of the government of Venice until its Republic fell.

Try to make it to Venice for Carnevale, one of the liveliest and most colorful festivals in Italy, whose main events are held at the main square Piazza San Marco. Held forty days before Easter, the festival is a spectacle of food, entertainment and thousands of costumed revelers in period dress, festive masks and other finery.

You could also visit some of the Venetian islands on a day trip. Go to Murano which is famous for glass making or explore Burano with its colorful houses and lace. At Torcello, you can enjoy the tranquil quiet of a nature reserve.

Famed for its artists, singing gondoliers, exquisite cuisine and the most artistic masterpieces per square kilometer, Venice is a favorite for travelers from all across the globe. With all its treasures, it’s no wonder that so many honeymooners pick Venice as their romantic destination of choice.

1. Canal Grande

Lined by beautiful aging palazzo and full of all kinds of boats, Canal Grande is the main street in Venice. The impressive canal-side homes belong to wealthy families and feature richly decorated exteriors with mosaics and colorful paintings. While most have faded to a single color, many still retain the ornate, oriental facades influenced by merchant trading with the East that made Venice wealthy in the past.

Canal Grande flows right in the heart of the city, dividing it into two parts which are then connected by 3 bridges: Rialto, Accademia and Scalzi. A tour of the Canal Grande will enable you to discover the entire town. Navigating between strategic points in Venice will provide you with great views of the luxurious palaces of the Canal Grande, each a treasure trove of art and history.

The best way to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of a city built on water is by boat. And what better way to explore and get to know Venice than from its waters?

Catch a vaporetto or ferry, sit out at the front and take in the impressive sites. A vaporetto is a full of character water bus boat that you can use as you would the bus back home. Vaporetto ply the principal Venetian waterways such as along the #1, which goes along the Canal Grande from the train station, making many stops along the way.

A vaporetto is therefore a great way of enjoying nice close up views of the city, and the celebrated canal building facades. Glide through the Canal Grande and minor canals and enjoy splendid churches, palaces, gardens, warehouses and bridges that line the city’s liquid streets. Along the way, numerous landmarks will leave you sighing in admiration.

For a more atmospheric Venetian cruise experience, go for the gondola. Gondoliers and gondolas are synonymous with Venice: navigating the canals while serenading passengers with song. A gondola ride is not only quintessential Venice, but also a great way to explore some of the city’s famous bridges and architecture.

A gondola is like a luxury car that is flat and made of wood. Gondolas are typically hand built in the few remaining squeri workshops. The official gondola color is black, although many are ornately decorated, and offer comfortable seats and blankets. The more extravagant gondolas make for great attractions in themselves.

Visitors to Venice can glide through the canals in a romantic gondola, taking in picturesque waterways and historic architecture. Gondolas were once regularly used by Venetians, especially the upper classes. Today they can be seen during festival parades, as well as in regatta or rowing competitions.

Hop aboard one and imagine a time when the boat was the main means of transportation in Venice. At one time gondolas numbered 10,000, although today their number has dwindled to 400. Today, the vaporetto is the main form of water transportation in Venice.

Gondola rides are best enjoyed on the quiet, back canals, rather than on the crowded Canal Grande which is best explored via vaporetto. You could also take a traghetto or water taxi across the Canal Grande. This is an empty gondola that ferries passengers back and forth across the canals.

2. Palazzo Ducale

Situated adjacent to Basilica di San Marco within Piazza San Marco is Palazzo Ducale. Palazzo Ducale is a gorgeous gem of Gothic architecture which once served as the residence of the Doge and the headquarters of the Republic of Venice, a city state that existed for more than 1000 years.

The Doges were rulers of the Venetian empire until 1797, and their Gothic fantasy palace was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon towards Piazza San Marco.

Erected in the mid-14th century, the palazzo is one of the oldest buildings in town. Visitors can admire its elaborate interior and exterior architecture, grand halls, majestic staircases and opulent apartments that feature priceless paintings by Venetian masters such as Tintoretto and Titian. It is a treasure trove of ornamentation with its gilded ceilings, frescoed walls and intricately carved friezes and statues.

A paved area extends from the Piazza San Marco and around the Palazzo Ducale to form a piazetta or little square and a molo or jetty. This area features two tall waterfront columns that represent the patron saints of Venice. The Column of San Teodoro is topped by a statue of Saint Theodore, while the Column of San Marco holds up a winged lion.

The palace has served as a museum since 1923 and is today one of the top museums of Venice. This is an incredible, lustrous palace to walk around in by yourself. Allow yourself plenty of time for your visit to see all there is inside. Go up the Giant’s Staircase into the Courtyard and tour the Doge’s Apartments, as well as the Senate Hall, both of which are lavishly decorated.

For a chance to explore behind the public façade of this extraordinary building, go on the Secret Passages tour, during which you will be led by a well-trained guide, who will explain the city’s political and civic history. You will get to see the attic space in which the most delicate administrative tasks were performed away from prying eyes.

Next, you will head into the Chancellery with its walls of cabinets that once held secret documents. After this you will arrive at the torture chamber in which prisoners were hung from ropes by their arms. You will also get to see the infamous Bridge of Sighs, then enter the prison itself and see the cell from which Casanova made his daring escape.

3. Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco is the largest and most important square in Venice. Famously known as “the drawing room of Europe” the piazza is named after the stunning Basilica di San Marco that is situated on the square’s east end. Lined with architecturally rich building facades, the piazza is full of centuries of history and remains the symbolic heart of Venice.

As the widest piece of flat, open land in the waterborne city, the piazza has long served as an important meeting spot for Venetian citizens, as well as a design showcase for Venetian aristocracy. The piazza is most impressive when approached via sea, a legacy dating from the time when Venice was a powerful maritime republic.

With the grand Basilica di San Marco on one end, its Campanile bell tower rising from the middle and the elegant colonnaded arcade with chic sidewalk cafés and fancy shops on three sides, this is a wonderful spot to enjoy the scenery. Stop for a cappuccino on one of the charming terraces of the piazza and enjoy a glimpse into the city’s glorious architecture and the beauty of the Adriatic.

During the day time, sit and watch the Venetian life go by. Then take a pleasant sunset walk around the piazza, while watching out for the pigeons that will land on your head or shoulders, as hundreds others compete for space with people on the square. Head north inside the narrow streets full of shops that lead towards the Rialto Bridge, or head outside the piazza and stroll on the waterfront.

At night, the piazza becomes pleasant and lively. Public entertainment begins at the piazza in the early evenings. Order a cocktail, lean back and relax as you are serenaded by lively folk dances and sentimental waltzes from a tuxedoed band and listen to orchestras play, creating a uniquely romantic atmosphere. No one will blame you for getting up to dance.

The piazza is one of the most photographed places in Venice. Like most of the town, it is lit up at night. Go in the late evening when its empty to enjoy a truly wonderful experience. This is also an excellent time to take photos.

If you’re lucky to be in Venice during Carnevale, Piazza San Marco is just the place to experience it. The main Carnevale events are centered on Piazza San Marco, although events are also held in other areas of Venice. During Carnevale season, the city is filled with elaborately costumed and masked characters hanging about town, entertainment and food stalls, so there’s a lot to see just by strolling around.

The Venetian Carnevale is the top carnival in Italy. The festival typically occurs in February and features a street party and mask parades that last 10 days. The Carnevale season goes on for a couple of weeks and culminates on Shrove Tuesday. On the last day of the carnival a brilliant fireworks show is held at Piazza San Marco to end the celebration, which can be viewed from almost anywhere in Venice.

While it was Napoleon who introduced the idea of a carnival to mark the beginning of Lent, Venice managed to channel its reputation as a place of fun into a spectacular festival. During Carnevale season come the masked balls and incredible papier-mâché masks one associates with Venice.

Carnevale season is one of the best times to visit Venice. Be seduced by the festive atmosphere, fancy dresses and mysterious masks in a magical moment that turns back time to the 18th century. For the best Carnevale experience, be sure to wear a costume or a mask at minimum, which you can easily buy inexpensively once in Venice.

4. Murano, Burano & Torcello

There are a number of islands situated within the Venetian lagoon, which played important roles in the development of Italy and boast historical significance and beauty. Once you are in Venice, it’s easy to get around its lagoon islands on a day trip so just escape the crowds and go island hoping.

The most popular island to visit is Murano, which is famous for glassmaking. This is where Venice’s unique colored glass comes from. A couple of centuries back, all glass makers were required to live on the island to protect the secrets of glass making. The glass making tradition continues on Murano today.

Visit the marvelous glass museum to learn all about glass making. Some family-owned glass factories allow tours during which you can watch the artisans at work. During the glassblowing demonstrations, watch vases, chandeliers and figurines being made. Observe the craftsmen in the heat of the furnace, quickly and deftly working the molten glass. Visitors can also buy glass souvenirs while here.

The quiet island of Murano is just a short vaporetto ride from Venice and has its own Grand Canal, in addition to sidewalk cafés, restaurants and fascinating shops. It also boasts impressive canal-sides and a delightful lighthouse. There are also lovely churches to see, one of which is rumored to house dragon bones behind its altar!

Currently inhabited by 4000 people, the island was once home to 30,000 residents. Rich Venetians used to build their summer houses with lush gardens on Murano. In fact, the island was home to Italy’s first botanical gardens.

Another island worth visiting is Burano, a fishermen’s village and a photographer’s dream. The Venetian island is best known for its picturesque canals lined with colorful houses, each painted in a bright shade of red, blue, green or yellow. The scene is completed by laundry flapping in the breeze, window boxes of red geraniums and painted saints in wall niches to give the feel of a permanent festival.

In addition to its houses that boast an intrinsically unique atmosphere, Burano Island is famous for its artisan lace products and high quality lace making since the 16th century. Visitors can buy handmade lace products from many of the island shops.

You can also tour the Il Museo del Merletto di Burano or the Lace Museum to find out more about the island’s lace making tradition. Exhibits include the history and origins of lace making, lace samples from the 16th to 20th centuries and the Burano Lace School.

In addition to all things lace, there are drawings, paintings and displays of period dress and glass. There are usually artisans demonstrating lace making, as well as video installations. As you watch lace being made by hand, you will understand why it takes months to make the smallest piece because each lace-maker specializes in a particular stitch.

The other island to visit is Torcello, a tranquil, green oasis that mainly comprises of a nature reserve, open fields and unspoiled wetlands. Visitors can visit the Cathedrale di Santa Maria Dell’Assunta which dates back to the 7th century, and admire its spectacular 11th bell tower and 12th century Byzantine mosaics. One of the most impressive mosaics found here is the depiction of the Last Judgment.

The Torcello Museum is housed in 14th century mansions and contains medieval artifacts, mostly from the island, as well as archaeological finds dating from the Paleolithic to Roman times, all found in Venice. There’s a large stone throne in the courtyard known as Attila’s Throne, and a bell tower that offers views of the lagoon.

Torcello makes for an excellent getaway from the crowds, as well as to enjoy a peaceful walk or lunch. You can also visit the 11th century Church of Santa Fosca which is surrounded by a five-sided portico in the form of a Greek cross, and then spend the night in the legendary Locanda Cipriani. Steeped in Venetian history, it was home to one of the regions first settlements.

5. Basilica di San Marco & the Campanile

While Venice is full of Baroque churches, the Basilica di San Marco is an exotic one-of-a kind church that’s well worth the visit. Consecrated in 832 AD, the Basilica di San Marco is a beautiful church that blends architectural influences from the East and the West. A great example of Byzantine architecture, the church holds many treasures including glistening mosaics and paintings by famous Venetian artists.

In addition to being a spiritual place of worship, the magnificent basilica is both a wonderful architectural blend of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance influences that stand as testament of Venice’s wealth over the centuries. Its massive marble columns, graceful arches, iron-clad onion domes, turrets and gold mosaics stand out impressively over Piazza San Marco and over Venice.

Construction of the church begun in 828 AD when the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist was smuggled by merchants to Venice, from its resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. According to legend, an angel had told the saint that his final resting place would be at Venice, and Venetian leaders sought to make this happen.

The merchants are said to have hidden the relics in a barrel under layers of pork so as to bypass the Muslim guards. This scheme is depicted in a later mosaic found above the portal, left of the front entrance. Over the years, churches were built, burnt down, rebuilt and expanded on the site, culminating in the incredible basilica that stands today.

If you love art and beauty, be sure to visit the inside of the basilica which is a unique marvel of Byzantine architecture. Visitors can admire ancient classical horses topping the entrance, which were taken from Constantinople when Venice sacked the city around 1200. Other highlights are the basilica’s façade, altar screens and medieval mosaics.

Take your time and soak in the Byzantine splendor of the basilica, its dazzling interiors and three museums. Take the steep staircase near the entrance, go to the roof and enjoy spectacular views of the square from above. The Basilica dominates one end of Piazza San Marco.

Also within the Piazza San Marco, you will notice a large bell tower at the front of the Basilica, known as the Campanile di San Marco. The current bell tower is a replica of its predecessor which collapsed in 1902. In 1912, exactly 1000 years after the original structure’s foundations had been laid, the rebuilt Campanile was christened.

Although campanile means bell tower, the structure also served as a military watchtower when it was first constructed during the 10th century. Later as the tower was refined and expanded, its bronze sheath roof was able to catch the sun’s rays and serve as a daytime beacon for mariners.

An elevator will take you to the top of the soaring campanile for magnificent panoramic views of the basilica and the city. From this height of 324 feet, you can easily view the entire city, with a coastline rim on every side. Look for the iconic Santa Maria della Salute church, which is situated at the entrance to the Canal Grande and carefully scan the red tiled roofs to spy the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.

6. Galleria dell’Accademia

Find refuge in art at the Galleria dell’Accademia, home to a rich collection of Venetian paintings from artists who have influenced the whole history of European painting. This grand museum features works by Veneto, as well as from the Gothic and Byzantine periods to the artists of the Renaissance such as Venetian masters Bellini, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, and the Vedutisti of the 18th century.

The monumental estate of the Accademia is located in the prestigious center of the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carita, one of the most ancient lay fraternal orders of the city. The church of Santa Maria and the monastery of the Canonici Lateranensi form integral parts of the Accademia.

To avoid the crowds, go early to the Galleria dell’Accademia. A comprehensive tour of the museum will last you a couple of hours enabling you to view masterpieces of Venetian paintings that span the 14th to 18th centuries.

The first room of the museum features a marvelous decorative ceiling that impresses right from the start. Successive rooms trace the history of painting in Venice in rough chronological order. Some of the masterpiece highlights of the museum include Vitruvian Man (1487) by Leonardo da Vinci; The Tempest by Giorgione; Portrait of a Young Man by Lorenzo Lotto; and Feast in the Houses of Levi by Veronese.

7. Ca’ Rezzonico

Situated close to Campo San Barnaba on the south-western side of the Canal Grande, Ca’ Rezzonico is a magnificent palace that houses ballrooms and halls decorated with splendid artworks by the most important Venetian artists of the 18th century.

Construction of the Ca’Rezzonico was begun in 1649 but not completed for decades. The flamboyant building was bought by the wealthy Rezzonico clan as an empty shell in 1758. The Rezzonicos handed the building over for completion to master craftsman Giorgio Massari who recreated it into the most opulent of residences in Venice.

Today, the palace features an exterior of intricate detail with porticos, arcades and arched recessed windows. The interiors include gilded apartments, marble staircases and mammoth ballrooms covered in intricate frescoes, along with trompe l’oeil paintings by Venetian painters Visconti and Tiepolo.

The 3-storey palazzo today hosts the Museum of 18th century Venice, which portrays a period when the city was at is most wealthy and decadent. The museum holds the finest furniture, paintings and decorative arts from the period, in addition to a series of colorful caricatures that satirized the frivolity of modern life as the all-powerful Venetian Republic drew to a close.

8. Scuola Grande di San Rocco

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was one of the many Scuole Grandi that were typically established for charitable purposes by the church in Venice. The Scuola Grande or Great School was founded by a group of Venetian aristocrats in the 15th century, as a lay fraternity whose members dedicated their money and time to charitable causes. It was also a venue for private gentleman’s clubs to show off.

The ancient building of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco stands next to the church of San Rocco, from which it derives its name. The school building comprises a big meeting hall situated on the main floor, as well as private meeting rooms found on the upper floor.

The main draw to the building is the numerous paintings by Venetian Master Tintoretto, some of whose best works can be viewed here. Regarded by many as Venice’s greatest painter, Tintoretto was famed for his mastery of perspective learnt from Michelangelo, his use of color gleaned from studying Titian and the psychological depth of his characterizations which cannot be taught.

While the Scuola houses a number of paintings from other titans like Giorgione and Titian, it is the many paintings of Tintoretto that continue to draw awestruck visitors. More than 50 paintings by the city’s favorite son, Jacopo Tintoretto can be admired at the Scuola. The paintings are the most acclaimed works of one of the most sought after religious painters of the period.

A short ascent up the decorated staircase of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco will bring forth the blossoming heart of the building. Massive paintings hang from the rafters, putting the intensity and color of Tintoretto’s finest works on full display. The passion, motion and remarkable distortions of perspective and light are what make the paintings worth viewing.

Just as interesting as his works is the story behind Tintoretto’s rise to glory. In 1564, the Scuola held an artists’ competition whose winner would get to decorate the building’s ceilings and walls. While most painters presented sketches, plans and dreams, Tintoretto went ahead and finished a painting which he secretly installed in the ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo. The judges were impressed and he won.

Over the next 23 years, Tintoretto went on to fill the two floors of the Scuola with over 50 amazing works that constitute the largest collection of Tintorettos anywhere. Sit along one wall of the Great Hall and admire the beauty around you characterized by ornate decorations, carved stalls and all the glorious Tintoretto paintings. You will need a couple of hours to fully explore the grandeur of this place.

One of the Scuola’s highlights is The Crucifixion, Tintoretto’s masterpiece which hangs in the Sala dell’Albergo side chamber. The Crucifixion ranks among the greatest and most moving works in the history of Venetian art. You can also spend hours enraptured by the beauty and depth of another Tintoretto piece, The Flight to Egypt.

The grand Renaissance building of the Scuola is a work of art in its own right. Take in the whole façade from far away to enjoy the columns and its overall look. Move in closer to appreciate the elaborate carvings close to the base of the columns, along with the fine gilding that covers the pedestals.

You will also see the delicate stone work that forms the tops of the columns set in the windows. Notice the floral patterns that speak of Byzantine influences, which still formed a part of Venetian architecture during the Renaissance.

9. Ponte di Rialto

During your tour of the Canal Grande, be sure to also visit the Ponte di Rialto or Rialto Bridge. This is one of the most famous bridges in Venice and the first of only 4 to span the Canal Grande.

Ponte di Rialto is an elegant, arched stone bridge lined with arcades on both sides. The central archway at its pinnacle serves as a lookout perch that can be accessed through wide stairs rising from either side of the bridge. The arch allows water traffic to pass underneath, and many Venetians to cross over it. Underneath the arcades are many shops selling souvenirs.

Ponte di Rialto connects the highest points on the Venetian lagoon island settlements. Built in 1180, and renovated into a more solid marble design in 1588-92, this photogenic stone bridge has spanned the Canal Grande for over four centuries.

Rialto bridge boasts a rich history in the development of Venice. This is where the merchants who made Venice wealthy set sail from and sold their goods upon return, where banks were first established, where courts met, where new laws were declared and prisoners were held and punished.

The area around the bridge is today used for important city functions and forms the gateway to the Rialto Market, the main city market which is located nearby. The Rialto Market features fish and fresh produce markets that have been operating at the site for over 700 years.

Visitors can admire the famous bridge and the views it offers of the gondola-filled waterway of the Canal Grande. Nearby canal-side alfresco restaurants provide a ringside seat for watching the heavy canal boat traffic glide underneath the bridge.

Stand on the Rialto bridge and watch boasts glide by full of fruit and vegetables, soft drink and building materials. This is because Venice remains a city without cars that obtains all its supplies via water or handcart transport.

The Rialto Bridge also makes for a good starting point for a stroll around Venice. While Venice has many fine attractions, one of the best things to do here is to simply spend some time wandering along the canals off the beaten path.

You will find that in a city built from islands, a map is of little use. For this reason, it may actually be difficult to find things in Venice, so opt to discover them instead. A lack of intention will make all the difference as it enables frustration to give way to serendipity as you explore the city’s labyrinthine canals and streets.

Stroll past the sunny expanses, boatyards and shops. Cross some of the bridges, past houses and through lanes so narrow you’re forced to walk sideways. During your walk, you will be amused by papier-mâché masks in the form of fanciful faces of owns, cats and hedgehogs; shop window displays of exotic spices stacked in powdered pyramids, and the many beautiful watercolors of Venetian scenes.

10. Rialto Market

Venice is a city of many traditions, one of the oldest being how the residents get their groceries. The Rialto Market comprises centuries-old open air fish and produce markets selling cheese and meat, as well as specialty food shops that target gourmands. Since 1097, these markets have served the populations of Venice, making them an authentic part of life in the city.

At the Rialto Market you can experience the vivid sights, sounds and smells of Venice. In the morning, the open-air market is a real feast for the senses, as local fishermen and farmers unload trays of fresh cuttlefish, squid, clams and crabs, along with baskets of the produce in season from grapes and cherries, to asparagus and peas.

The most famous is the Pescheria or Fish Market where you can shop for seafood, as well as specialties from the Venetian lagoon. Browse the aisles to get an idea of what’s fresh and local, before you browse restaurant menus later in the day. Go there early to attend the markets when they are at their most interesting and find great items for your picnic lunch.

The market adds to the city’s fantastic flavor, offers a wonderful shopping experience and is a great place to mingle with locals. Be sure to visit one of the restaurants close to the Rialto Market which are popular with locals, to sample Venetian cuisine.

Seafood, rice and polenta are a big part of Venetian cuisine. Also try the popular seppia or cuttlefish, and the risotto nero, a rice dish colored with its ink. The zuppa di pesce fish soup is also good, as is the radicchio trevisano or red chicory which comes from nearby Treviso. Many Venetian bars offer cicchetti, little tasty appetizers that are often eaten before lunch or dinner.