To me the best thing about Venice is just being on the water and seeing the city from the water, be that from the Lagoon or traveling through the maze of Canals. There is also a sense of discovery too, when you just wander, maybe even getting lost sometimes in the small walkways crossing over bridges and coming to unexpected small shops, mask makers, art or coffee shops.
If you like taking photos, then Venice is a photographer's dream, with lots to see and also photograph. Many artists also come here to both soak up the atmosphere, and also see some of the great art and architecture in the City, as well as do their own paintings.
There are many places to see in Venice, but certainly the two most important places to see are 1. the Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square), St. Mark's Basilica and Doge Palace – all next to each other and 2.The Grand Canal and the buildings that line its shores.
You have no doubt heard the expression "All roads lead to Rome". In Venice if you think of San Marco Square as being Rome, then all alleyways lead to San Marco Square! Once here, it is easy to get your bearings.
San Marco Square – is a large square surrounded by a colonnaded walkway with shops, cafes and restaurants spilling out from under the columns with outdoor chairs and tables. The Square is a mix of people all taking 'selfies' or looking upwards at the magnificence of St Mark's Basilica Cathedral with its dome top towers and ornamentation, the Clock tower, built in 1496 with its bell and the two bell ringers beside it, the Campanile Bell Tower and the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale). The Correr Museum is also here too and the whole atmosphere changes during the day too, depending on how busy or not busy the Square is, with music sometimes too. They say that Venice is sinking and occasionally the square will also be covered in water, when a King tide causes the water from the Lagoon to spill over into the Square. Small alleyways lead off from the back of the Square to small souvenir, art and clothing stores, bars, jewellers and small restaurants and the further away from the Square you are, the less tourists there will be.
You can see inside most of these great buildings most times, not always and usually join a queue to buy a ticket. You can also go online to buy a Ticket to see some or all of the 11 or so museums in Venice and also buy tour packages here – See www.venice.museum.com
Things to look for –
The 11th Century Basilica di San Marco – named in honour of the Patron Saint, St Mark (see history above).
Looking at the Basilica, you have the grand arches in front, small pinnacle towers with statues on top, the big central dome roof and smaller domes on either side, with intricate glass mosaic work with scenes from the New and Old Testament as well as many other intricate decorative features. You may be able to see some parts of the Basilica inside, though not all, as the sheer numbers of tourists is a challenge. It is definitely worth seeing inside if you can to see and learn a little about the mosaics, tapestries and religious relics that are here and see the Golden Altar and other treasures.
The building dates back to the 11th Century and perhaps most interesting observation is that its design has more Byzantine features rather than typically Roman Catholic design features. This directly relates to the History of Venice and its alignment at the time with Byzantine (Constantinople) Empire rather than Rome.
If you look at the façade, you will see a long balcony walkway running above the entranceway and also see the four big bronze horse statues right in the centre. These horses were originally in the Hippodrome in Constantinople and the Venetians took them from there in 1204 in the 4th Crusade, bringing them to Venice. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, he liked the horses so much that he decided to take them back to Paris to place in the Arc de Triomphe, and then following the Napoleonic Wars and his final defeat in the Battle of Waterloo, the horses were brought back to Venice to the Basilica. This was done on the orders of Emperor Francis 1st of Austria (1768-1835) following the Congress of Vienna. Francis I had been born in Florence and between 1792 and 1806 he was the Holy Roman Emperor, with that Empire dissolved in 1806. The horses you see here on the outside of the Basilica are replicas of the originals, which are kept inside.
Also on the outside of St Marks (on the corner closest to the Grand Doge Palace door) look for a Porphyry Stone sculpture of the Four Tetrarchs – the four rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire from around the year 300. These statues are also thought to come from Constantinople and brought to Venice in 1204 during the 4th Crusade.
Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale) – At the entrance to St Mark's Square you will see two columns – the San Marco Column and the St Theodore of Amasea Column forming the entranceway to the Square. These granite columns have been here since the 12th century forming an entranceway to the Plazetta (Plaza), Doge Palace and Basilica. If you look closely, you will see the winged griffon lion on top representing St Mark, and on the other column there is a statue of Saint Theodore of Amazea, who was the Patron Saint of Venice before St Mark. St Theodore is standing on top of a crocodile, shield and sword in hand.
The Lion was also taken by Napoleon in 1797 and also returned to Venice in 1815 on the orders of Emperor Francis 1st of Austria.
The Doge's Palace is the large building that you see on the right hand side as you enter the Plazetta. It also faces the Lagoon too, with the colonnade at ground level running around the building and the portico balcony and columns overlooking the Lagoon on the first floor. This whole building has seen many changes over centuries, with a history dating back to the 10th century, but most of what you see now dates back to the 1300's. If you think what you see on the outside is pretty special, wait until you see inside! This Palace was for the ruling Doge to live in. It was also where the great Council met, and also the Courts of Justice were held too, with a bridge (the Bridge of Sighs) leading across to a Prison, the Prison where one of its most infamous prisoners was Giaomo Casanova (1725-1798) best known for his love affairs, although there was a hierarchy of prisoners and prisons, and Casanova is said to have escaped from the 3rd floor of the Doge Palace, where there were also cells.
When you enter the Doge Palace, you will come to an enclosed courtyard, with the Palace surrounding you, then a stairway on one side leads past the statues of the gods of Mars and Neptune to the Doge's private rooms. From here you will see through other parts of the Palace, with massively decorated vaulted ceilings, gild work, paintings, frescos and sculptures, an amazing insight into the richness and grandeur of Venice in the days of the Doge. Make sure you see the Grand Chamber Council room on the second floor, and ideally take a tour to hear more about the history and stories that abound in the Palace. Also look for the Armoury Room to see some of the weapons of old and armour that soldiers wore.
The Bridge of Sighs – connects the Doge to the Prison and it was given its name by the romantic English poet, Lord Byron, who imagined the sighs of the prisoners as they crossed the Bridge, knowing that might never again see the beauty of Venice again. It was built in 1600 using Istrian Limestone from across the Adriatic in its construction. It is best seen from the Canal that runs behind the Doge Palace, and if you catch a Gondola you may well pass under it. The idea here to is to kiss your lover for eternal love to continue on.
The Bridge is one of the most famous in Venice, and there is another Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge in England, near the colleges. It is also ornate too, and if you are in Cambridge take a Punt on the River and you will pass under it. (Read about Cambridge in Tours out of London section on this website).
Two towers – there are two towers overlooking St Mark's Square – the 325 feet high (99 metres) Campanile di San Marco with its pyramid shaped roof top and the Clock Tower with its two bell ringers on either side of the bell on top. The Bell tower was built in 1496 and each hour they ring the bell – a great spectacle to watch. There are also tours to take you inside the clock tower up the spiral staircase. If you walk under the Clock Tower and follow the walkway (Street) called Mercerie it will take you past small shops all the way to the Grand Canal close to the Rialto Bridge. If you look at the big clock face below the bell ringers, you will also see that it tells the time, and also has the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac.
The other square shaped Campanile Tower is much higher and you can take an elevator lift ride up to a balcony to get views over the City rooftops and down onto the Square below you. This tower was built in 1912 to the same design but higher than the original tower that stood here from 1514. The original tower collapsed into a pile of rubble in 1902. There are five bells in the belfry here, with each bell having its own sound. One of the bells was to signal an execution, but which one was it? If you hear one of the bells, just check to see what is happening around you. On top of the tower there is a wind vane with the Archangel Gabriel on top.
Correr Museum – the Piazza Square is surrounded on three sides by the collonades where there are many shops, jewellers, lace, souvenir and restaurants located and you will also find the Correr Museum located here too with its own café. This museum is named after its benefactor, Teodoro Correr, a Venetian merchant, who left his vast collection of paintings and collectibles to the City. The museum is located in the Napoleonic Wing – from the time when Napoleon established the Republic of Italy that lasted from 1806 to 1815, before the Austrian Empire took control. Inside the museum there are many beautifully ornate rooms to see, great paintings, relics, statues, coins, maps and memorabilia of Venice as well as the Ballroom, Throne Room and Banqueting Hall in the Napoleonic Gallery. This museum is less popular than the Basilica and Doge's Palace, but is equally amazing to see.
Having seen St Mark's Square and all the great places here, you have lots of choices as to what to see next, remembering that the atmosphere of the square changes with the seasons, the crowds and also from day to night. If you arrive very early morning it may well be deserted, whereas at midday it can be full of school groups, while in the early evening with the lights shining on the buildings it takes on another level of serenity. Sit in a café and just soak up the atmosphere. It is a good place to have a coffee, people watch and just relax.
From here – you could just wander, or catch a gondola under the Bridge of Sighs or a Vaporetto to see San Giorgio Maggiore Church and its surrounds (across the water) or walk along the promenade beside the Lagoon – heading to your right from the Piazza towards the Grand Canal, or to your left over the bridge past cafes and the Naval Museum to the Public Gardens where there are the Biennale Pavillions.
The Naval Museum building (Museo Storico Navale)is to the left from the Doge Palace probably about 500 metres walking distance, and there is just a sign on a pretty non-descript square building. Inside it is fantastic to see the different wooden boats, gondolas and other marine objects. It is definitely worth seeing, and for more interest get directions from here to the Arsenale – the Naval shipyard (See history section above).
Giardini Park – is the public park that you see in the distance along the promenade, with pathways, great views, trees and Pavilions used for the annual Biennale Festivals each year. To see what's on see www.labiennale.org Even if there is nothing on, the Park itself and its location is reason enough to walk there. In Late January, early February they celebrate 'Carnevale in Venice (Dates vary each year) a great festival time – and Giardini Park and the Arsenale Buildings become venues for parties and other activities. This is when the Venice Masks come to life! See www.carnevale.venezia.it and www.venice-carnival-italy.com
San Giorgio Maggiore Church and surrounds – If you look from St Marco Square across the Lagoon to your right, you will see the dome top and tower of San Giorgio Maggiore Church beside it shimmering in the light. This is also a beautiful part of Venice with the church built by one of the most famous Architects of Venice, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). He was born in Padua and in his early career was a stone cutter (Quarryman) then becoming a stonemason (who dress, shape and carve stone before placing it is position) leading on to him becoming the Chief Architect in Venice around 1550. Under the Patronage of leading Venetian Merchant leaders, he gained many commissions, and studied the works of the Greek Architect, Marcos Vitruvius Pollio (c.70BC- 20AD) whose Architectural philosophy was that Architecture should adhere to the principle of being 'Beautiful, Stable, Useful'. Andrea Palladio also developed his own style and published a number of illustrated Architectural books, with the 'Palladium' architectural style named in his honour – a style that can be seen in European, British and American Architecture. When you look at the San Giorgio Maggiore church and see the massive columns and dome roof, think about the Capitol Building in Washington, (and many US State Capitol Buildings) where these same features can also be seen, inspired by the work of Andrea Palladio.
The Church itself is magnificent, both outside and in, with the Bell Tower being in the same design as the Campanile Tower in San Marco Square and you can also go to the top of it too for great views and photos.
Inside the Church there are massive columns, a vaulted roof line, high altar and many paintings from the 1500's including a painting of 'The Last Supper' by the Renaissance painter, Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594). If you like his work, look to see another magnificent Church, the 'Scuola Grande di San Rocco' located at San Polo 3064, near to the San Tomà Vaporetto wharf stop. It is absolutely stunning with painted ceilings by Tintoretto, incredible walls, lights and other massively decorative Renaissance features and intricate tile floors. See www.scuolagrandesanrocco.org.it
One of the things you may or may not know is that most, not all Christian Cathedrals and many churches are designed in the shape of a Christian cross. The great Cathedrals that you see around the world with their histories, religious symbolism and decorative features (are places of worship to God, but also they are designed to be the connection between the human world and the spiritual world, an entranceway to heaven and God.
THE GRAND CANAL -
This is the biggest canal by far in Venice and separates the island where Cannaregios, Castello and San Marco Square are located from the island where Dorsoduro, San Polo and Santa Croce are located. The Grand Canal is lined by buildings on both sides, and is almost a highway for the Vaporetti, Water Taxis, barges, and boats of every shape and function that cruise along it. It is also a beautiful waterway too, and no matter how many times you cruise along it, you will see something new. There are also many notable buildings along the Grand Canal – and these are some of them –
- Punta Della Dogana Museum – is right on the tip of Dorsoduro and this was originally a Customs house and storage warehouse for salt back in the 1500's. It is now a Gallery for Contemporary Art, with changing exhibitions. See www.palazzograzzi.it
- Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute – (La Salute) is next door to the Dogana Museum and is designed in an octagonal crown shape with one massive dome roof and a second dome, both with cupolas on top, great statues and decorative stone work. Construction of the Basilica began in 1631 and it was consecrated in 1681. Inside you will see the statues of the disciples – Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, with the Basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In 1630 the Black Plague had killed almost one third of the Venice population, and the Basilica was built and named 'La Salute', Italian for 'Health'. The high Altar, plaques, chapels, windows and paintings are all beautiful to see.
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection - This is an Art Gallery on the Grand Canal which was also the home of the New York born philanthropist, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1779) who came to live in Venice in 1948. She was a the heiress of some of the Guggenheim fortune made through mining and investments, with the Guggenheim Foundation now owning this Gallery and having one of the world's most significant art Collections in its Galleries in Venice, New York, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi, all in incredible buildings. Here in Venice they have a great collection of contemporary paintings and sculptures, including works by Picasso, Salvadore Dali and sculptures by Henry Moore. Make sure you visit the Terrace that overlooks the Grand Canal. They also have a coffee shop here too.
- Accademia – This is the biggest Art Museum in Venice, located on the Doroduro side of the Accademia Bridge on the Grand Canal. See www.gallerieaccadenia.org Here in the Accademia Gallery you will find paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini and other Renaissance painters throughout the Gallery. There are also tours to explain all the details and backgrounds to the paintings and what you are seeing.
- Ca' Rezzonico – this is a grand three storey Palace Mansion built overlooking the Grand Canal, located at the Ca' Rezzonico Vaporetto wharf. The Mansion was built for the Rezzonico family. Here you can see how a wealthy Venetian merchant furnished and decorated their mansion with a massive ballroom, grand staircase, paintings, gilt work, chandeliers, tapestries, frescos, furniture and even a sedan chair ready to carry the merchant Giambattista Rezzonico to his business appointments. See www.carezzonico.visitmuve.it Also near here you will find Mask makers. Look for Ca'Macara at Dorsodura 3215, 1169 or 1172.
- Frari Church – is on the San Polo side of the Grand Canal, not far from the Vaporetto wharf stop of San Tomà. The San Tomo Church is also here too. The Frari Church (Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari) looks quite plain from the outside, in keeping with Franciscan values of 'Frugality', but inside the Church is spectacular. See www.basilicadeifrari.it
- Rialto Bridge – this Stone Arch Bridge crosses over the Grand Canal and it was designed by the Swiss born Venetian Architect, Antonio da Ponte (1512-1595) and constructed between 1588 and 1591, replacing a wooden bridge that had collapsed. The bridge is beautiful to see from the Canal, but equally beautiful to walk up and down the wide steps on the bridge itself that separate the two outer sides of the Bridge. Each side of the Bridge has six archways leading up to a central larger archway, and inside each arch there is a Tourist shop facing onto the step walkway over the Bridge. The Rialto Bridge is one of the most popular bridges to photograph in Venice and on the San Polo side there is a Fish and Produce market and the San Giacomo de Rialto Church, while on the Castello side there are many shops, restaurants and also the Coin Department store – the biggest in Venice, located on Salizzada San Cristostomo. If you want to walk to St Marco's Square from here, look for the Calle (Street ) called Mercerie which will take you back to it. It is good just to wander and discover your own treasures in the back streets.
- Ca' d'Ora – When Venetian Merchants made their fortunes they built their own Palaces, and the Ca'd'Ora (House of Gold) built in 1430 is one of them, a three storey building facing the Grand Canal, with archways and portico balconies on the two upper levels and grand rooms inside. It is now an art gallery displaying some of the great Renaissance painters work form the 1500's. See www.cadoro.org
- Ca' Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art – this is housed in a grand Palace built between 1659 and 1710, also overlooking the Grand Canal. The Gallery has changing exhibitions and paintings and artwork from the late 19th Century and 20th Century. See www.capesaro.visitmuve.it/en
- Palazzo Mocenigo Costume Museum – closest Vaporetto wharf, San Stae, near the St Stae Church. This museum is just off the Grand Canal on the San Polo side, and is also in a Palace Mansion built in the 17th Century. Here you will find some 20 rooms with furniture and decorative room décor from the 17th Century, as well as mannequins in 17th and 18th Century clothing, a time when Venice was one of the Fashion leaders of the world. Also in perfumery, and you can see lots of the equipment used in the creation of perfumes that was used at the time. See www.mocenigo.visitmuve.it/en
OTHER PLACES TO SEE -
There are so many churches in Venice that it would take a long time to see them all, but if you come across one on your walks, if you can take a look inside because they are all different and all have the history and stories to tell.
Listed below are also other places that I think you should try and see –
La Fenice Opera House – see www.teatrolafenice.it close but not near to St Marco Square. The address is Campo San Fantin and Tel: 39 041 786 511 This is quite hard to find in the myriad of small canals and walkways around it, but it is amazing to see, with the central stage surrounded by four storeys of Opera Boxes looking down onto the stage area.
Jewish Ghetto – as a trading city and open port, Venice had many ships and their crews coming into Port, with small enclaves of different nationalities living here in Venice, including Germans, Spanish, Turks, Armenians and others. The first Jewish people are thought to have come to Venice as early as 945AD, but it was not until 1385 that Jewish people were allowed to settle in parts of Venice, with many restrictions placed on them over the next two centuries as to where they could live, what they had to wear so that they could be identified and other restrictions. In 1516 the Jews were granted the right to live in Venice, but only in the area that became known as the 'Gheto Vechio', with the first of five Synagogues built here in 1528, the different Synagogues serving Jewish people of different nationalities.
Today, the Jewish Ghetto area in Cannaregio is open to see with the small alleyways, the square, Synagogues and a Museum that with information and relics related to Jewish history in Venice. The closest Vaporetto wharf stops are at Ponte della Giglie (41,42, 51,52 stop here) or S. Marcuola-Ghetto (1, 2), or you could walk from the Railway Station, which is the closest landmark.
Venice Casino – this also is on the Grand Canal, and is the oldest Casino in the world first opening in 1638. See www.casinovenezia.it/en
MASKS – In Venice you will lots of places selling masks, and if you go to Ca' Rezzonico on the San Polo side of the Grand Canal, you will find places where they are making and decorating them. See Ca' Macana on Dorsoduro 3215, 1169 or 1172, just one of the mask and costume makers. The wearing of Masks dates back to the year 1162, the time that the first Venetians left the mainland and Aquileia, and it became a tradition to wear masks as a celebration until 1797 when the King Francis 2nd of Austria banned its use. It was only in 1979 that the Masks and wearing elaborate costumes would return to Venice as both a celebration of Lent but also the history of Venice and the 1700's when Venice was one of the main fashion leaders in Europe. There are many types of masks produced – each with a history and particular style – from the cat, Joker, Moon, Plague Doctor with its long beak to others, all with a story, some scary and others with the beads, eyes, lips hand painted features both fun and stylish too.
THE ISLANDS OF VENICE – there are around 100 islands in the Venice Lagoon, many just mud flats that are sometimes submerged, others with small populations of people. In most likelihood you will spend your time in and around St Marco Square and Castello as well as in places around the Grand Canal, but you should venture further to some of the other islands that can also easily be reached using your Vaporetto Tourist Pass -
Murano – this is where the famous Murano Glass is made – and here on the islands that make up Murano there are 100's of shops selling everything from glass beads, paper weights, ornaments and vases to Gallery Glass sculptures selling for thousands of Euro. There are also some places where you can see the Glass Furnaces working, and apart from seeing the many shops and Art Galleries selling Glass, there are restaurants and ice cream sellers here too. It is a good place just to wander beside the canal, take in the atmosphere, buildings and people watch. To see some of the historic glass works – look for the Glass Museum (Museo Vetrario) near the Santa Maria e San Donato Church (See www.sandonatomurano.it ) Most tourists will stay close to where they arrive on the Vaporetto, but the further you wander, the more you will get a feel for life here on the islands. There are a number of wharf stops on Murano not far from each other (Faro, next to the lighthouse where Vaporetti leave for Venice and also Burano), Colonna ( also for Venice and San Michelle), and other wharves (Serenella, venier, Da Mula, Museo and Navagera). The Museo wharf is where the Glass Museum is closest to.
Burano – this tiny island with its colourful houses is where they make and sell the lace for which the island is famous. Lace making and the intricate designs have been made here for centuries, and used by Royalty, aristocrats and dandies through the 1700's and 1800's and still today by wedding dressmakers around the world. In the 1800's it saw its use in night bonnets, veils, collars, caps, fans, shawls and bodices and today you will still see it used on wedding dresses, curtains, doilies, tablecloths and other decorative edgings on women's dresses and other linen items.
The intricate stitching and patterns require exceptional skill to create, and here on the island you can see where and how the lace is made, and see a Lace Museum too (Museo del Merletto di Burano) near the Piazza Galuppi There are lots of Tourist shops selling lace and also restaurants and coffee places next to the Canals that are here. Being only a small island, it is easy to just wander, and if the weather is good, sit outside a café and just relax and enjoy being here.
Torcello Island – is further away from the Venice and St Marco Square, and you can take the Vaporetto from Burano to Torcello. This island and its distance from the coastline was where the first Venetians came too (See History section above). Here on Torcello you can see the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta that was built here in 639AD (incredibly old) and also next door the Church of Santa Fosca built in the 11th and 12th century with beautiful mosaic tiles. Also here is the Tortello Museum which houses many antiquities from early Tortello history.
The island is surrounded by marshlands or wetlands, and there is a famous restaurant here that first opened in 1935 – the Locanda Cipriani Restaurant, run by a 3rd generation member of the same family. Their website is www.locandacipriani.com and it would be best to book if you want a table. The seeming isolation of the island in the northern end of the Lagoon with the ancient churches and the Bell Tower , that is leaning on an angle all add to the ambience of this island.
San Michele Island - this is the small island cemetery (Cimitero )where Venetians and also some famous people have been buried for centuries. When you approach the island you are confronted by a red-orange brick wall around the island purposely built to protect the island from the water and tides. Above the wall you can just make out the tops of Family Crypts, with pine trees beyond, and there is an ornate entrance to the Cemetery where the Vaporetto stops to let off passengers. If you like reading the inscriptions on graves and crypts and seeing monumental stonemasonry work, this island is a good place to come and also visit the church and chapel that is here. The Cemetery is still being used for burials and there are a number of sections devoted to monks, soldiers, children, priests and others in particular zones within the cemetery.
Lido – this is the long semi- island strip of sand that separates the Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. There are beaches on the Adriatic Sea side, and the Lido is has both Hotel Private beaches and also some public ones too.
I hope you have enjoyed getting to know more about Venice. I always believe that if you know more about the place you are visiting you get a lot more from your actual visit too, as you have more of a sense in knowing what you are wanting to see and where to find it.
Venice is certainly one of the most interesting cities in the world, but the crowds of people here can sometimes be overwhelming too.
Here in Venice you are also quite close to some other Historic Cities, including Padua and Verona, Ravenna and Aquileia and you are also close to the Dolomites with its mountain and lakes. You could easily take day trips from Venice to any or all of these places, or stay in each and get to know each place for a more in-depth experience.
The joy of travelling is discovering new places to see, but equally it can be frustrating when you are limited by time not to be able to see everything!
I hope you have a great time in Venice.