I am invariably baffled when people tell me that they were not impressed with Venice. We all have our own likes and dislikes, true, but what exactly might impress you if an utterly unique and full of architectural and artistic treasures city doesn’t?
Affinity for walking may be at least partially at play here. Public transportation in the form of water buses exists only at the edges of the central sestieri; there is none on the smaller canals. Venice forces you to walk. Its central part is actually not mostly water; rather, it is a labyrinth of short and narrow streets that challenge your sense of direction, occasionally become bridges that cross canals, occasionally run into a canal without any means to cross it on the spot, and often terminate at a square from which several other such streets run in different directions. As you walk around the city, this sensation of walking along corridors that connect lovely rooms is quite unusual, and also quite romantic.
Me, I could walk those corridors for days on end. Others, I admit, may feel differently. You could certainly arrive by train at Stazione Santa Lucia or by car at Piazzale Roma, hop on vaporetto linea 1 to Piazza San Marco, hit a couple of must-see highlights without venturing too much away from the water edge, take the same route back while stopping by a couple of other major points of interest along the Grand Canal, and depart with the claim of having seen Venice. But the truly rewarding experience of seeing Venice happens only if you give it a few days and explore it in earnest.
Here is my subjective breakdown of things to do and see in Venice if you have several days on your first visit to town.
First and foremost, you absolutely should give yourself an opportunity to get lost in Venice. Put away your GPS-enabled phone – or your analog map, if you still use that – and start walking. Choose random streets and see where they take you – I bet you will be coming across lovely pockets and eye-catching perspectives every few minutes, no matter the direction. Step into churches along the way; linger at every campo and campiello; absorb this unusual city’s sights without rushing through. As an added bonus of this activity, you will leave crowds largely behind, since most of the visitors to Venice rarely step away from the main routes between the top sights.
Some of those top sights, however touristy, demand lingering, so you should, by all means, linger on the Rialto Bridge, which is a prime spot for observing the hustle and bustle of the canal traffic from above; on the Accademia Bridge, which for my money offers the most breathtaking Venetian vistas anywhere; and of course on Piazza San Marco, the most remarkable public space. At the latter, take time to enjoy the performances of live chamber orchestras at three historic cafés around the piazza; if you decide to sit down for a drink, expect the bill to be rather steep but I think the experience justifies the expense better than most fancy restaurants. If you don’t want to incur the expense and don’t mind standing right beyond the last row of tables, you can listen to a pretty good musical selection for free – and even move from one café to another when the sets alternate.
One morning, you should definitely get up early and take a ride on vaporetto linea 1 the length of the Grand Canal between Piazza San Marco and Piazzale Roma. Before the city truly wakes up, the serenity and beauty of the Grand Canal in the rising sun is incredible. If you are lucky to get on a boat with seats on the bow – and are able to commandeer them – you are in for one of the most unforgettable visual treats in your life.
Even if you share my disdain for joining long lines, you should make an exception in order to see Basilica di San Marco. The exterior of this grand church is a splendid amalgamation of several architectural styles of West and East; you may think that the combination of domes, arches, towers, mosaics, and the Horses of St Mark above the main doors is such a resplendent architectural spectacle that it can hardly be matched by the interior. You would be wrong – the interior is borderline blinding, with over 43,000 sq ft of golden mosaics, and well worth the wait to see. For an assortment of separate fees, you could also see the treasury, the gold-and-gemstones altarpiece called Pala d’Oro, or the Cathedral Museum which includes access to the terrace running alongside the façade. Time investment: 1 hour, including the wait.
On your walks around town, you should never pass an opportunity to step into a church. There are over a hundred churches in Venice, and practically every single one offers important works of art or eye-catching exterior and interior details. In many cases, a comparatively plain exterior may be deceptively coy about the treasures hidden inside – Santa Maria della Salute is an uncommon example of a church that is more impressive externally while exhibiting a somewhat ascetic interior. Some churches are free to enter, while others require a small fee to see – and a number of paid-entry ones are accessible on a single “circuit” ticket. Absolutely unmissable ones are Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Among my other favorites: San Sebastiano, San Zaccaria, Santa Maria Assunta I Gesuiti, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Santa Maria del Rosario, Santa Maria di Nazareth, Santa Maria Formosa, Sant’Alvise, Santo Stefano, San Pietro di Castello.
You should go for a gondola ride. Find a station that does not look too busy, chat up the gondolier to gauge their ability to engage and their command of English, and accept the expense as paying for something fairly unique: a romantic ride that gets you the closest to the feeling of a waterway-enabled dwelling. You may regret it later if you dismiss this activity as touristy kitsch. Time investment: 1 hour.
If you only had one museum that could fit into your itinerary in Venice, you could hardly do any better than visiting Palazzo Ducale, a dazzling example of Venetian Gothic architecture. The excellent audio-guide narration explores in detail the history of the Republic and its administrative structure and functions. You will also walk over the Bridge of Sighs while on a tour of the palace, which is by far more interesting than looking at it from a distance. This is actually a borderline “should” item for me. Time investment: 2 hours when you buy tickets in advance; may be significantly longer otherwise.
If you enjoy elevated perspectives, you could climb an assortment of high points. The most obvious one is the Campanile; all the way up is via an elevator, which may mean longer wait at busy times; afternoons are usually not as busy, even in high season. Right by the Rialto Bridge, the top terrace of Fondaco Tedeschi is a great vantage point for the central portion of the Grand Canal; entry is free, but you need to reserve a time slot in advance. Scala Contarini del Bovolo is an exquisite architectural masterpiece in itself, plus it offers great views of major central landmarks from its top level; advance ticket purchase is recommended. And if you take a vaporetto to San Giorgio and ascend the Campanile di San Giorgio Maggiore (elevator-enabled), you are in for the best views of the mouth of the Grand Canal. Time investment: half an hour for each except San Giorgio, which will probably take closer to an hour with getting there and back.
If you are interested in the most comprehensive art display covering the spectrum of the Venetian school, you could visit Gallerie dell’Accademia. The collection is dominated by religious and ceremonial works, but a lot of local greats are represented, and the room of massive Carpaccios is certain to impress anyone. Time investment: about 2 hours.
If you would like to see more classical art displayed in the rich interior of Venetian Gothic palaces, you can go to either Ca’ Rezzonico or Ca’ d’Oro. Or both. At the latter, you have an extra bonus of two open terraces overlooking the Grand Canal. Time investment: about 1 hour each.
For a different fix of great art mixed with interior opulence, you could visit one of scuole grandi, former charitable religious confraternities. Scuola Grande di San Rocco is nothing short of jaw-dropping, while Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista is also well worth visiting. Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni and Scuola Grande di San Marco are other prominent ones. Only San Rocco among them attracts significant tourist footfall. Time investment: 30-45 minutes each.
If your art preferences lean towards modern, you could go to Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The impressive display of post-impressionist and surrealist works is further supplemented by an open terrace on the Grand Canal. Time investment: about 2 hours.
If you find delight in perusing lesser-known art collections that a vast majority of visitors to town bypass, you could consider a number of options, each requiring a time investment of about an hour. My personal favorite of these is Palazzo Fortuny, whose main floor is an awfully atmospheric smorgasbord of paintings, furniture, and other artifacts. The others are:
- Museo Correr, whose reasonable collection leans towards religious paintings; the palatial surroundings, and access to the collections of the Archaeological Museum and Biblioteca Marciana, make it a leading civic museum in Venice;
- Museo di Palazzo Grimani, which is mostly about the interior spaces with gorgeous ceilings culminating in the incredible Domus chock-full of ancient statuary;
- Fondazione Querini Stampalia;
- Palazzo Cini;
- Ca’ Pesaro, a modern-art collection centered on lesser-known Italian artists.
I cannot avoid mentioning the Biennale somewhere in this narrative, which is nowadays an annual event contrary to the name (the focus alternates every year between art and architecture – so in that sense, it remains bi-annual). You could go and visit if you were in Venice in the months that it is held, but justifying the cost of the ticket requires a time investment that I have never been able to set aside – I estimate at least half a day.
If you are interested in visiting specialty museums, you could go see one or a few. Most would require a time investment of 30 minutes to an hour.
- Mocenigo Palace-Museum is dedicated to exhibitions of textiles and perfumes in a palatial setting;
- Museum of Medicine is housed in the aforementioned Scuole Grande de San Marco;
- Torre dell’Orologio, which you will certainly see from the outside on Piazza San Marco, offers a guided tour to see the inner workings of the clock;
- Fondazione Giorgio Cini covers a number of attractions on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore (this attraction is an outlier requiring 3-4 hours’ time investment);
- Carlo Goldoni’s House is dedicated to the famous Venetian playwright;
- Museo Storico Navale is a superb look into the maritime history of the Venetian Republic;
- Natural History Museum;
- Music Museum;
- Museo Leonardo da Vinci (there are two of them, actually).
For an important piece of history, you could go to the original Jewish Ghetto. There are a couple of poignant memorials on its main square, as well as the little Museo Ebraica, where you can join a guided tour of adjoining synagogues. Time investment for the tour: about an hour.
For avid market-goers, Rialto market, including its famous fish section, could be a fun place to visit during the morning hours.
If you are keen to take your exploration further afield, you could visit a number of islands in the lagoon. We already mentioned San Giorgio Maggiore, which is close enough to be considered part of central Venice. Similarly, the island of Giudecca is very near and well-served by vaporetti – it is almost entirely bypassed by tourists and therefore offers you an escape from crowds; there are no strictly significant points of interest on the island beyond the standout church of Il Redentore. Another near island, San Michele, is the Venetian cemetery; fans of Brodsky or Stravinsky may find it hard to skip, even though the burial places are actually somewhat muted in appearance.
Beyond those, three islands in the lagoon are widely considered among the top sights for an itinerary in Venice. Murano is the glass-making center whose key pull is an opportunity to attend a glass-blowing workshop presentation in a fornace. Beyond that, artisan glass shops are certainly more interesting and varied in Murano than in Venice proper, but you see a couple of them and they start to blur. There is also the Museo dei Vetri which is not without interesting displays. The streets of Murano are not overly picturesque even if you do occasionally come across exceptional buildings.
Burano, by contrast, is wildly colorful and delightful just to walk through. It is also the local capital of lace, and there is even the Museo dei Merletti, which could sustain a short visit if time permits. Finally, Torcello is a sparsely inhabited island, headlined by a cluster of sights around Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, whose brilliant mosaics are the reason to venture this far all on their own.
I got nothing. None of my experiences and visits to points of interest resulted in something close to a negative recommendation.
Ok, maybe, Harry’s Bar. A visitor to Venice would go there primarily for a Bellini, a famous cocktail invented there in 1948. Unfortunately, the price of a glass of Bellini at Harry’s Bar is in no way reflective of the fact that you can get exactly the same drink elsewhere. You’ll also pay about as much for a Bellini in a café on Piazza San Marco, but at least you are getting musical performances along with your drink there; you will pay significantly less at most other establishments. Your mileage may vary in terms of checking off a famous bar, but I suspect that for the vast majority of people, coming to Harry’s Bar for a Bellini is not worth the time or the expense.
That’s the sights of Venice categorized. If your opinion differs from mine or you think that I omitted something of importance, I would love to hear from you.
My original Venice Travelog entry.