Venice is a uniquely romantic city built entirely on water and has survived into the 21st century without cars. Unchanged for centuries, with narrow alleyways and canals passing between palaces and magnificent churches, through colorful neighborhood markets and quiet backwaters, it is like stepping back in time.
Very few cities possess such awe-inspiring sights for visitors – especially in proximity to one another.
Each time I’m in Venice, I find a new hideaway tucked in where only the adventurous (or lost) tourists wander.
In our article The Best Restaurants in Venice, I said there’s nowhere else in the world quite like it. I’ve been to three other countries and 12 cities since I wrote those words, and they remain accurate.
Whether this is your first time or your fifth visiting this magical city, these are the ten most essential things to do in Venice.
This list does not include nearby islands, Murano, Burano, and Torcello. While we love those places, this guide is strictly for Venice. For more information on those locations, read our Guide to Burano Island, What To Do on Murano Island, and Visiting Torcello Island.
See our Best of Italy list for other fun locations throughout the country.
Table of Contents:
- 10 – The Bridge of Sighs
- 09 – Peggy Guggenheim Collection
- 08 – Teatro La Fenice
- 07 – Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)
- 07 – Santa Maria della Salute
- 06 – Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
- 05 – Gallerie dell’Accademia
- 04 – Grand Canal
- 03 – St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)
- 02 – Doge’s Palace
- 01 – Saint Mark’s Basilica
What to Do In Venice
10 – The Bridge of Sighs
For Fans Of: History, Architecture
Address: P.za San Marco, 1, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
Starting our list is the world-renowned Bridge of Sighs.
This enclosed bridge made of white limestone passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the dungeons.
The bridge draws its name from the sighs convicts would make as they took one final view of the outside world before their imprisonment.
In the 19th century, it was poet Lord Byron (“She Walks in Beauty”) who first gave the bridge its name as a translation from the Italian “Ponte dei sospiri.”
Maybe a bit of marketing speak, but gondoliers nearby told us that Venetian lore says if two lovers kiss on a gondola under the bridge, they’ll be granted eternal bliss.
09 – Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Art, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, is highly subjective. What is beautiful to me might not do anything for you. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection puts that to the test.
Filled with 20th-century contemporary art, this waterside palace is home to some of the most recognizable names and pieces in modern art history:
- Jackson Pollock (The Moon Woman and Enchanted Forest)
- Pablo Picasso (On the Beach and The Studio)
- Paul Klee (Portrait of Frau P. in the South)
- Salvador Dalí (Birth of Liquid Desires)
- Giorgio de Chirico (The Red Tower)
What made this museum so unique was getting to know Peggy’s life and seeing the exceptional art.
An expat American art collector, Peggy dedicated her life to gathering this impressive collection.
The museum is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace on the Grand Canal. It is where Peggy lived, and it is also her final resting place. You can pay your respects to the late heiress in the sculpture garden, where she is buried alongside her beloved dogs.
It is an extremely popular museum. If you are planning to visit, book a ticket ahead of time.
08 – Teatro La Fenice
While opera may have fallen out of favor in recent years, Teatro La Fenice is one of the most important opera houses in the world.
La Fenice premiered works from all prominent bel canto era composers, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.
La Fenice translates to The Phoenix, which is quite apropos given that the building has burned to ashes on three different occasions.
The first fire occurred in 1774 and was rebuilt and reopened in 1792.
The second fire came in 1836 and took just one year to rebuild.
The third and last fire in 1996 was due to arson and left only the exterior walls. It was rebuilt again and reopened in 2004.
For a city built on water, they sure have a lot of issues with burning buildings.
Teatro La Fenice lives on like a phoenix rising from the ashes and is one of Venice’s best sites.
Although renovated relatively recently, you can tell by the photos above that it still has the Old World luxury.
The interior is trimmed with gold, there are plush, red velvet chairs, and the relatively compact size makes it an auditory/visual pleasure of Italian opera.
While we didn’t see any works, the opera house is available for tours. It’s relatively quick, and you can finish the tour in about 90 minutes.
07 – Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)
For Fans Of: Architecture, Views
Address: Sestiere San Polo, 30125 Venezia VE, Italy
Chances are you’re more familiar with the views from the Rialto Bridge than you are with photos of the bridge itself.
It is a massive tourist destination and possibly the most famous bridge in Italy (the other being Florence’s Ponte Vecchio).
The Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal and connects the San Marco and San Polo districts.
The bridge as we know it today was designed by Antonio da Ponte, who beat out other famous architects and designers, such as
- Jacopo Sansovino (designed Piazza San Marco)
- Palladio (designed the city of Vicenza)
- Vignola (architect behind Caprarola’s Villa Farnese)
- Michelangelo (painter of the Sistine Chapel ceiling)
After the original wooden structure collapsed repeatedly, Da Ponte was brought in to redesign and rebuild the Rialto Bridge.
Da Ponte was the head architect of the Ducal Palace rebuild efforts in 1574, so he was a natural candidate for the neighboring bridge.
Between 1588 and 1591, da Ponte rebuilt the bridge from Istrian stone. Most of his peers predicted the bridge would collapse due to the considerable weight placed on its foundations.
The bridge has defied critics and today is considered an engineering marvel.
07 – Santa Maria della Salute
Appearing on our list of famous churches in Venice, the Santa Maria della Salute is prominently displayed near the entrance to the Grand Canal. The white stones, defining statuary, and high domes shine under the sun.
In 1630, Venice experienced a devastating plague outbreak that killed 94,000 Venetians.
To cure the city, the Republic of Venice vowed a church to the Virgin Mary (Madonna) in exchange for her intervention.
Under the guidance of Baldassare Longhena in 1631, the Baroque-style church broke ground. No expense or effort was spared.
Before the Salute was started, over 100,000 wooden pylons were driven deep into the mudbanks to ensure the ground was even and sturdy.
The church is octagonal with two domes and a pair of bell towers in the back. Like the Rialto Bridge, the Salute is constructed of Istrian stone and marmorino (marble dust).
The Virgin Mary stands at the top of the pediment to preside over all who erected the church in her honor.
On the church’s main facade are statues of Saints Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John.
The inside is just as marvelous as the external decorations.
As the shape is octagonal, the interior mirrors this with eight chapels on the outer row.
My favorite part of the church is the three altars on the right of the main entrance that depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
They were painted by Luca Giordano, adding even more beauty to this decorative church.
Assumption of Our Lady is the painting on the left, and The Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple is on the right.
If you happen to be traveling to Venice on November 21, you should visit the church. Every year, Venetians celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin. Besides Carnival, it is the most famous festival in the city.
The event involves crossing an improvised bridge over the Grand Canal to the Salute Basilica in recognition of freeing Venice from the plague.
06 – Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Compared to the other churches and structures on our list, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari might not stand out.
The Basilica is an example of Franciscan Gothic architecture because it avoids the spectacle of spires, pinnacles, and flying buttresses.
Many details surrounding the architect and construction process are lost in history. A 1369 fire destroyed most of the covenant and part of the church. Most of the documents were burned as well.
The bell tower, meanwhile, is built in the Romanesque architectural style and is the highest in Venice after San Marco. Construction on the bell tower started in 1361 and finished in 1396.
If the exterior leaves you wanting more, the interior makes up for it.
As soon as you enter the Frari, you’ll see a painting by Titian called Assumption of the Virgin (painting on the right). It is situated on the main altar, surrounded by stained glass windows.
If you want more Titian, he made our list of the top 20 paintings in the Louvre.
The painting on the left, St. Ambrose and Saints by Alvise Vivarini and Marco Basaiti, is also in the Milanesi Chapel and is a spectacular depiction of St. Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan.
Also in the church:
- Palma il Giovane (Martyrdom of St. Catherine from Alexandria)
- Bernardino Licinio (Madonna with Franciscan saints)
- Dettagli dell’Opera (St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome)
The church is only €5 to enter, and it’s money well spent. You can easily spend an hour examining the various paintings and sculptures.
05 – Gallerie dell’Accademia
There are several must-see Venetian museums, but the Accademia Gallery is the most important and home to some of the world’s best pre-19th-century Venetian paintings.
The museum displays works from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. Unsurprising given its reputation in art history, most of the famous works here are done by 15th and 16th-century painters.
The gallery houses paintings by several Venetian masters:
- Titian (Pieta)
- Veronese (The Feast in the House of Levi; shown above)
- Tintoretto (Miracle of the Slave)
- Tiepolo (Rape of Europa)
- Hayez (Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem)
- Giorgione (The Tempest)
- Bellini (Madonna and Child; shown below)
Its prize possession, though, is Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Unfortunately, it wasn’t displayed any of the three times I went to the museum. Who knows, though, you might get lucky.
The Accademia is uncommonly empty – even during peak seasons. It is surprising, but the unassuming plain exterior may not pull people in.
Or maybe tourists are here for gondola rides and enchanting bridges. Either way, it’s a brilliant museum, and you should visit it the next time you travel to Venice.
04 – Grand Canal
For Fans Of: Nature, Views
Address: 30100 Venice, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy
The Grand Canal is commonly called Venice’s majestic “highway,” and one look at it and you’ll understand why. It is the largest canal in the city at 2.5 miles in length, 230 feet in width, and 15 feet in depth.
People might not realize it is just one of the 177 canals flowing through Venice.
Over 170 buildings line the canal banks, including the Santa Maria della Salute (number 7 on our list).
While you should walk along the whole canal to admire the buildings that line it, most agree that the most iconic views are from atop Rialto Bridge (where the photo above was taken).
It might be tempting, but try to avoid eating near the canal. Food is overly expensive because it is a tourist trap. Instead, try eating at one of the locations from our Best Restaurants in Venice list.
03 – St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)
For Fans Of: Architecture, History
Address: P.za San Marco, 30100 Venezia VE, Italy
St. Mark’s Square is considered by many to be the heart of Venice. You’ll find everything from luxury retail stores to high-end restaurants, street performers, and architecture enthusiasts.
It is the most famous piazza in Venice and one of the most famous in Italy. Napoleon once remarked that Piazza San Marco is “the drawing room of Europe.”
Located on the grand canal, St. Mark’s Square perfectly encapsulates everything people love (and hate) about the city.
When you come to the square, you’ll likely notice a few things: St. Mark’s Basilica (which we will get to in a moment), Torre dell’Orologio, St. Mark’s Campanile, and loads of tourists.
If you want to see St. Mark’s without thousands of other visitors. We suggest going early when the sun rises or significantly later in the evening (after midnight). If you go at night, it is one of the most romantic things to see in Venice.
Some of my favorite buildings in the city are on the outskirts of the Piazza. Each is ornate with arched walkways that frame the entire setting perfectly.
Standing free in the piazza is St. Mark’s Campanile, a hulking tower that you can and should climb. From the tower, you can see Venice in its entirety (which always looks smaller up there).
The square is also home to the famous Venetian Carnival that takes place each year in February. It starts around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Fat Tuesday.
While Venice can get pretty cold in February, you don’t want to miss Carnival. The pomp and circumstance of the event transport you to the Renaissance.
If you want to learn more about this ancient tradition, we wrote the complete guide to the Venetian carnival.
02 – Doge’s Palace
Second to only St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace is the most recognizable building in Venice. It is also right next to the Basilica, so it’s hard to miss.
One of the oldest buildings in Venice, the palace is built in the Venetian Gothic style; however, unlike Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (number 6 on our list), this gothic structure is anything but subdued.
This ornate palace is one of the most stunning buildings you’ll see in Italy. The facade is made of white stone with a series of diamond patterns on the walls.
On the corners of the palace are 14th-century sculptures thought to be the work of Flippo Calednario, Matteo Raverti, and Antonio Bregno.
While you might find a photo online of the interior, cameras were not allowed when I visited the palace.
The interior is awe-inspiring and features a beautiful courtyard, the Doge’s personal chapel, immensely decorated rooms, and a ceremonial staircase from 1485 guarded by statues of Mars and Neptune.
Exclusive Alone In St. Mark’s And Doge’s Palace Tour –
We took an after-hours tour of the palace, which was absolutely worth the price. The after-hours tour was limited to 20 people, so it was a more intimate experience.
If you plan on taking a palace tour, consider doing the after-hours one. It was wonderful to walk around uninterrupted by other tourists.
01 – Saint Mark’s Basilica
Easily the most recognizable and famous building in Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica stands in a class apart.
It is a sublime piece of Italian Byzantine architecture that has seen the rise and fall of several empires, including the Republic of Venice.
This version of the Basilica was constructed in 1063 and is dedicated to and holds the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, one of the four Apostles and the city’s patron saint. It remains one of the most important religious buildings in Italy.
This isn’t the first St. Mark’s Basilica, though. Two others were built in this location, the first of which dates back to the 9th century.
As is typical for great empires, most of the significant relics found in the church were stolen from other civilizations.
In 828, Venitian merchants stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, Egypt, and smuggled it back to Venice via boat.
In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade and conquest of Constantinople, treasures were brought back to the city and installed in St. Mark’s Basilica, including some of the more recognizable works: the four bronze horses, Madonna Nicopeia, crosses, chalices, and enamels of the Golden Altarpiece.
Every aspect of this church is fantastic and a must-see on any traveler’s Italy itinerary. Depending on when you visit Venice, you can get lucky and see the basilica without too many other tourists. Check our guide on the best time to go to Venice.
From the ornate detail of the facade to beautifully crafted mosaics and shimmering Pala d’Oro, St. Mark’s Basilica is reason enough to visit Venice.
Although we limited this list to the the 10 best things to do in Venice, there’s so much more to this beautiful city. If you have the time, try some local food in Venice and try what Venetians eat daily.
Have you been to Venice and think we should add something else? Let us know in the comments below.