Last Updated on January 24, 2024 by Jo Fitzsimons
As Alexander Herzen once said, “To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.” And Venice is just that. One of the most elegant and grandest of cities, that defies all architectural probabilities. Spread across 118 islands that are carved up by a web of canals and linked by 400 bridges, Venice is an absolute wonder even without the many magnificent sights.
So, where do you start when you’re visiting Venice (apart from at the airport!)? In this guide, I’ll share the most popular places to visit in Venice, Italy. Whether it’s your first time in the city or you’re a returning visitor, these are the Venice attractions I recommend exploring first.
At the end, I’ve included a map of all the places listed in this guide.
1. St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)
St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is a tourist draw for a reason. Not only is it the main public square in Venice, it’s the location of some of the best attractions in Venice, including St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge Palace, St Mark’s Campanile, St Mark’s Clocktower and the Bridge of Sighs. As if that wasn’t enough, the square features lengths of colonnades (covered walkways) leading to cafes, gelaterias, restaurants and shops. Is it any wonder Winston Churchill named Piazza San Marco ‘the drawing room of Europe’? If you’re newly arrived in Venice, St Mark’s Square is the best place to start exploring the city.
Did you know: In Venice, St Mark’s Square is simply known as la piazza, meaning ‘the square’.
2. St Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco)
Sitting on the east side of St Mark’s Square is the impressive sight of St Mark’s Basilica. It’s the main cathedral in Venice and if you only have time to visit one, make it Basilica di San Marco. The Basilica was completed in 1092 and was built in the gothic style. It’s one of Venice’s many dramatic buildings, complete with grand domes and a generous layering of gold leaf inside.
Tips for visiting St Mark’s Basilica: The line for the basilica gets very long so you should book tickets in advance. I took a guided tour of the Basilica which included fast-track entry, rare access to the Basilica terrace, the Doge Palace and inside the Bridge of Sighs. It was definitely my best experiences in Venice.
Did you know: the copper-coloured horses sitting high up on St Mark’s Basilica are just copies. The original horses are kept inside the terrace. That’s no big surprise, since they’re thought to be around 2,000 years old. And if you like historic, old Italy, add Padua to your travel wish list. It’s the oldest city in northern Italy. You can compare Italian regions here.
3. St Mark’s Campanile (Campanile di San Marco)
Also located in St Mark’s Square is St Mark’s Campanile (bell tower). Reaching 98.6 metres (323 ft) high, the Campanile isn’t just one of the most famous places in Venice, it is the also highest point in the city. It’s possible to go inside the Campanile and take an elevator to the top. From there, you’re rewarded with expansive views out over St Mark’s Square.
Tip: The best views in Venice are actually from San Giorgio Maggiore (in my opinion). Ascend the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore and you’ll get to look back across the lagoon at St Mark’s Square, including the Campanile. Details below.
Did you know: the bell tower was previously a lighthouse for the Venice lagoon.
4. Doge Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
If ever there was a building that looked like a lace-covered wedding cake, it’s got to be the Doge Palace in Venice.
Built in 1340, this grand palace on the edge of St Mark’s Square was once home to the Doge of Venice. (A Doge was the head of state, elected lord and chief magistrate in certain cities in Italy, especially Venice). While the grand palace is impressive outside, it gets even better if you head inside. There, you’ll find a museum showing the lavish lifestyle of the Doge.
Tips for visiting the Doge Palace: I recommend the combination tour and ticket I booked: St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace Fast Track Tour. It includes fast track to the Basilica, the Doge Palace and the Bridge of Sighs.
5. Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri)
Of all the things to do in Venice, the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) has to be my favourite. Yet, most people ‘get it wrong’ when it comes to visiting. They simply stand on the bridge opposite and take a picture of it, which entirely misses the point. Let me explain.
At first glance, the Bridge of Sighs is a white bridge in Venice that links parts of the Doge Palace. However, it’s the views from within the Bridge of Sights that gave the bridge its name.
Prisoners inside the Doge Palace were transported to their place of execution via the Bridge of Sighs. Offering views of the Venice lagoon, it is believed that the prisoners would sigh as they crossed the bridge, seeing the beauty of Venice one last time. So, if you’re standing outside looking at the Bridge of Sighs with your back to the lagoon, you’re facing the wrong way.
Tips for visiting the Bridge of Sighs: To see it properly, take a tour inside the Doge Palace, which includes walking through the Bridge of Sighs. This is the tour I took which gives fantastic views across the lagoon: St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace Fast Track Tour.
6. Columns of San Marco and San Todaro
Located in St Mark’s Square, facing the water, between the Doge Palace and Marciana Library stand the columns of San Marco and San Todaro. Most people don’t know the significance of the columns which is a pity because they’re a fascinating part of Venice history. Look up, and at the top of the columns are Venice’s patron saints – the winged lion, San Marco on the left, and a statue of St Theadore, San Todaro on the right.
The columns were erected around 1127 and during the 1800s the space between the columns was used for the execution of the prisoners (after they’d walked through the Bridge of Sighs). Even today, Venetians who are superstitious won’t pass in between the columns (even if they’ve had a few glasses of Aperol Spritz for courage).
7. St Mark’s Clocktower (Torre dell’Orologio)
Opposite the columns in St Mark’s Square is an ornate clock tower. Built during the Renaissance period, St Mark’s Clocktower (Torre dell’Orologio) was built as a show of the wealth of Venice. The tower has a magnificent archway that leads towards the Rialto area of Venice. Look up and you’ll see a statue of the winged Lion of Saint Mark. Every hour, “the Moors” (small statues at the top), ring the bell.
Did you know? When prisoners were executed between the columns of San Marco and San Todaro, they were forced to face the clock tower. This led to an old Venetian saying, “Te fasso véder mi, che ora che xe”, meaning ‘I’ll show you what time it is’. It’s typically said to enemies as a threat. Not one to add to your Italian Phrasebook!
8. Grand Canal (Canal Grande)
Is there any sight more stunning in Venice that the turquoise green glimmer of the Grand Canal? Running through the city, the main canal is a draw for tourists and locals alike. Whether it’s children using boats to travel to school, workers transporting their wares or tourists enjoying a coffee and pastry at a cafe on the canal banks, the river is an endless hive of activity. The best way to enjoy the Grand Canal is taking a boat trip. You can either indulge in a Gondola Ride, take a river boat cruise (I took this one) or just hop on the public water buses (vaporetto). Any of these modes will help you see the grand Canal just fine.
Insider tip: Gondola rides are iconic but if you want to explore the Grand Canal for longer (trust me, you do), I highly recommend taking this 2-hour boat tour. As well as passing some of the best sights – the Rialto Bridge, Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, the house of Prada and the Aman Grand Canal hotel (George Clooney had his wedding there), you can also visit the tower of San Giorgio Maggiori for views back over Venice. Gondola rides won’t give you half of this experience.
9. Salute (Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute)
It’s staggering to me that such a grand church can be considered a ‘minor’ basilica, but that is what Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute technically is. However, to you and I, it is a grand and highly ornate Roman Catholic church that sits at the mouth of St Mark’s Square. Without a shadow of a doubt, its grandeur is best seen from the water. The same boat tour I mentioned above will take you past it. The church, which is simply known as Salute, was built in the Baroque style during the early 1600s. It was erected in honour of Virgin Mary after a wave of plague had killed around a third of the city. (Virgin Mary was thought to be a protector of Venice.)
10. San Giorgio Maggiore Tower
The panorama from the top of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore is, in my opinion, one of the best views in the whole of Venice. Sitting on the tiny San Giorgio Maggiore island, you can take an elevator to the top of the bell tower and look out towards Venice island. As well as the sweep of the lagoon, you can see St Mark’s Square and the Campanile. To get there, either take the vaporetto (line 2 from St Mark’s Square) or the boat tour I mentioned above.
11. Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)
Of all the free things to do in Venice, standing on the Rialto Bridge (Pont di Rialto) watching the gondolas on the Grand Canal, has to be one of the most iconic. Did you know there are only four bridges that actually span the Grand Canal? And, of them, the Rialto bridge is the oldest. Sure, you might need to budge your way in among the crowds if you visit during the peak season, but standing on one of the most famous places in Venice is worth it.
Related: Know what’s happening in Venice with our Prosecco Calendar – Italy’s National Holidays & Prosecco Events
12. Rialto Market (Mercado di Rialto)
But don’t be too quick to pass over the Rialto Bridge because underneath it is a wonderful food market. Situated on the St Mark’s side of the bridge, there are actually two markets. The Rialto Market (Mercado di Rialto) and a fish market. The Rialto market has been running for close to 1,000 years so even if you don’t need to do any shopping for fruit, vegetables or cheese, it’s worth a stroll around this part of Venice’s long past.
13. Explore the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
If you only have time for one museum in Venice, make it the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. As you might expect, it’s a modern art museum. But, because this is Venice, it’s located in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, a palace that dates to the 18th century. This palace used to be Peggy Guggenheim’s home in Venice and is located on the Grand Canal.
Inside, you’ll find works of art from the 1950s to the modern day as well as a beautiful sculpture garden. Step onto the terrace for views across the Grand Canal. Take note: the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
14. Academy Gallery (Gallerie dell’Accademia)
If you’re more of an Old Masters art lover (like I am), then your best museum in Venice will be the Academy Gallery (Gallerie dell’Accademia). Known as Venice’s fine art museum, the Academy Gallery focuses on artwords from the 19th century and earlier. The collection leans towards works from both Italian and Venetian artists. As with most ticketed places in Venice, it pays to book ahead. This museum is open daily but only half-day (in the morning) on Mondays.
Got more time for art? Check out Scuola Grande di San Rocco – a grand 15th building filled with remarkable paintings by the famous Italian painter Tintoretto.
15. Lido Island
Given there are so many islands in Venice, it makes sense that there is a beautiful stretch of sandy beach somewhere. And, whether the crowds are wearing your nerves or the kids are ready for some time on the sand, heading to Lido island offers a great alternative to walking the city streets. Lido di Venezia is a hotspot and does get busy (like all of Venice). However, it has a resort feel with excellent restaurants, bars and cafes. You can reach Lido on the public vaporetto.
Tip: if you plan to get around by public vaporetto, it’s cheaper to book a Vaporetto pass.
16. Murano, Burano, and Torcello Islands
It almost seems a shame to lump these three Venice islands together, because Murano, Burano and Torcello are three very distinct islands that deserve a day each to themselves. However, most tourists visit them in one day, making a great ‘day trip’ off the main St Mark’s island.
Murano is an island made famous by the Venetian glass that is produced there (great for gifts). Nearby Burano is picture-perfect with it’s brightly coloured houses. And tourists are drawn to Torcello to visit the Byzantine church, Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, and the Ponte del Diavolo, a bridge that has no parapets (sides). Torcello also offers great views over neighbouring Burano.
If you want to explore the islands, you can either take a tour, use a private water taxi (they are readily available in Venice) or explore by the public vaporetto. Just make sure you book a Vaporetto pass. Really want to escape for the day? Visit Treviso, where the Tiramisu was invented.
17. Venice Opera House (Teatro La Fenice)
Whether you’re an opera buff or not, La Fenice is worth a visit. Not only is it one of the most ornate places to visit in Venice, it’s one of the world’s most famous opera houses. La Fenice opened in 1792 and its name, meaning ‘the Phoenix’, aimed to signify rising from the ashes after several of the city’s former opera houses had closed due to fire. However, La Fenice was not immune and in 1996 an arson attack devastated the theatre. But, great restoration work was undertaken and the interior is as grand and opulent as ever. Even if you can’t (or don’t want to) get tickets to an opera performance, you can take a tour of Teatro La Fenice. Advance booking is highly recommended.
One of my favourite areas in Venice is Canareggio. The former Jewish Ghetto is packed with history but boasts a modern shopping street. Many locals choose Canareggio to live since it sees fewer tourists. Prices are lower, the restaurants more local and there are plenty of non-tourist wine bars to explore. It’s a great spot if you’re looking for somewhere quieter to stay in the city. It’s also well located for Santa Lucia train station if you’re planning on taking a wine-tasting tour of the Prosecco region with us. The closest vaporetto stop is Ca’ d’Oro.
If you’re keen to learn more about the history of Canareggio, you can book a Jewish Ghetto 2 Hour Tour.
19. Nail Bridge (Ponte Chiodo)
While you’re in Canareggio, take time to track down Ponte Chiodo. This bridge is pretty unique within the city as it doesn’t have sides (parapets). You will have spotted (and probably been reassured by) the parapets on Venice’s many bridges. However, there are two bridges in Venice that don’t have them. Ponte Chiodo and Ponte del Diavolo, on Torcello island. You can find Ponte Chiodo on the map below.
Did you know? Chiodo means nail, which was the name of the family which once privately owned this famous bridge.
20. Giudecca Island
On the topic of my favourite areas, I recommend adding Giudecca island to your list of places to visit in Venice. As well as giving great views over the main island, restaurant quality tends to be higher and its a great place to take a quiet stroll at night. I often stay on Giudecca to escape the crowds. The Hilton Molino Stucky hotel is a spectacular spot facing St Marks. An old, converted flour mill (that used to mill the flour for pasta), the Molino Stucky has modern rooms and suites that can offer fantastic views of Venice. Head to the rooftop bar for a Prosecco cocktail with sweeping panoramas, or take a dip in the swimming pool.
21. Academy Bridge (Ponte del Accademia)
Remember that there are only four bridges that stretch across the Grand Canal? Well, Ponte del Accademia is another of them. And it should be on your itinerary because it is beautiful. Having 50 steps up one side and 50 steps down the other, you get the sense that you’re truly crossing the Grand Canal. While you’re unlikely to have it to yourself, it doesn’t have nearly as many tourists as the Grand Canal, and the views are every bit as good. You can find the bridge near the Accademia vaporetto stop.
Map of the best places to visit in Venice
Where to stay in Venice
Looking for a quick guide to where to stay in Venice? These are my top picks. If you want more suggestions, check out my more detailed guide: Where to Stay in Venice, Italy
- Best 5-Star Hotel: The Gritti Palace – Luxury stay with Grand Canal views.
- Best Boutique Hotel: Canal Grande – Grand Canal location in an 18th century palace.
- Popular Hotel: Hotel Antiche Figure – voted the best hotel in Venice among travellers.
- Best chain hotel: Hilton Molino Stucky – converted flour will with roof terrace and pool.
- Best Hostel: Generator Hostel – Dorms and privates for a budget stay in Venice.
That’s my guide to the best places to visit in Venice. Got any questions or suggestions, leave a comment below.
- Where to Stay in Venice, Italy
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- 10 Things NOT to Do in Venice (and 10 To Do in Instead)
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