Venice is one of the world’s most romantic holiday destinations – and while most people immediately think of gondolas, red roses and canals, these are merely a hint of the incredible experiences and sites that the real Venice has to offer. You could easily spend two weeks in the birthplace of Marco Polo and still not see everything: the city is bursting with art galleries, historic buildings, winding streets, fascinating museums, monasteries and churches.
So we have compiled a list of the top 10 ‘must do’s’ that you should see during your time in this spectacular Italian city.
Explore St Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco)
Dating back to the 9th century AD, this grandiose basilica is Venice’s most recognised building. With a blend of byzantine onion-domes, Gothic windows and Egyptian marble walls, St Mark’s Basilica epitomises Venice’s cosmopolitan identity. It was built to house the remains of St Mark, whose remains were supposedly smuggled out of Egypt (in a vat of pig fat), and took nearly 800 years to construct! Don’t miss the commanding Bell tower of St. Mark right next to the basilica, which is better known as the Campanile di San Marco. Rebuilt in 1912 it offers superb panoramic views.
And now you can also experience the canals and streets of Venice via Google’s 360-degree panoramic Street View imagery, which is now available on Google Maps, with a prview below…
Tour Palazzo Ducal
If you only have time for one tour during your stay in Venice, make it a tour of the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace) located on the Piazza San Marco. This exquisite building of gothic elegance and riches was home to the Venetian government for nearly 7 centuries. Opened in 1424, the beautiful ceilings and artworks betray the hundreds of years of scheming, backstabbing and plotting which have taken place within these walls.
The Bridge of Sighs
A perfect photo is easy to capture in Venice – especially at sunrise or sunset – but no more so than when looking at the white limestone Bridge of Sighs, aka Ponte dei Sospiri. The hauntingly romantic bridge is an historic archway, crowning a narrow canal of water, Rio di Palazzo and serves to connect the Doge’s Palace to the prison chambers. It was so named for the condemned prisoners making their last crossing of the canals before meeting their executioners. Despite the history, it’s said that if you kiss your loved one whilst underneath the bridge in a gondola, you’ll achieve everlasting love with each other!
Glass blowing on Murano Island
Venetian glass is famous the world over and many fine examples of this exquisite art can be seen in the shopwindows and gift stores all over Venice. Take the time to visit Murano Island and attend an artisan’s workshop for a demonstration of this mesmerising craft in action. Don’t miss the fascinating Glass Museum aka Museo del Vetro, which is located at the heart of the island in the sprawling Palazzo Giustinian. Learn about Venetian glassmaking over the centuries and even have a go yourself! And of course, it goes without saying that the traditional glassware is one of the top souvenirs to bring home, but watch out for the cheap Chinese imitations.
Exploring the streets
There is nothing more enchanting than wandering through the streets of Venice without anywhere to be or anything to do. Simply soaking up the atmosphere, the architecture, the sights and sounds of ordinary life is an unforgettable experience. The best time to do this is early in the morning, just as the city is waking up and before the hordes of tourists cram into the squares and cafes around the grandest tourist attractions.
Tour the Grand Canal
Venice is comprised of more than 150 separate islands with a lagoon and the best way to explore is to ditch the overpriced gondola and climb aboard the no 1 Vaporetto (waterbus). The no 1 Vaporetto follows a route which runs the full length of the Grand Canal, making plenty of stops along the way and allowing you time to take plenty of photos. There are also self-guided maps and podcasts available to help you spot the canal’s most iconic features and buildings. Or you could just sit back and enjoy the scenery which includes some 170 Venetian buildings, dating from the 13th to 18th century. The sheer wealth and pride of the families of the past is evident in every façade. And did you know that until the 19th century there was only one bridge across this hugely important waterway. The Rialto Bridge has since been joined by three others.
Coffee and pastry in St Mark’s Square
Venice’s greatest piazza adjoins both the St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. It is a great (if crowded) spot to take your delicious Italian pastries or other goodies purchased from the pasticceria at breakfast time for a moment of blissful people watching. See throngs of tourists, office workers and local officials start their daily business in the shadows of these historic buildings while sipping your espresso. A true Italian moment.
Food glorious food
Like anywhere in Italy, there is no shortage of amazing food experiences to be had. Be sure to cross at least one gelato off your list of things to eat and drink in Venice. Unsurprisingly, seafood is also a specialty of this waterfront town. Be sure to avoid tourist traps however which serve soggy lasagne and chips to the unsuspecting masses.
A night at the Opera
Venice is famous for its grand opera and distinguished musical heritage. The Teatro La Fenice, the home of opera in Venice, is a neo-gothic building with its own opera-worthy history – having been burnt down twice since it was constructed in 1789. You can book ahead to attend a performance or simply take a tour of this beautifully restored building any time of day. If you’re looking for exciting things to do In venice, don’t miss the accessible opera of the Musica A Palazzo.
Deep within the historical walls of Venice, the vibrant art scene has continued to flourish and evolve. The best place to immerse yourself in contemporary art is at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni – a grand palatial home situated on the Grand Canal. See works from famous and local folk artists drawing from surrealism, abstract expressionism and Italian futurism movements. Each summer the city hosts the Art Biennale, aka International Art Exhibition, which is brimming with exhibitions, talks and specialist programmes. The 55th Exhibition runs this year until 24 November at the Giardini and the Arsenale, as well as in various other venues across the city. Check local listings for details.