Of course there's many things to do in Venice, however these 8 are the most visited and most popular attractions enjoyed by millions of tourists each year. Grab yourself a drink and relax your holiday starts here!
St Marks Square (Piazza San Marco)
Piazza San Marco is regarded as the city’s main iconic and tourist attraction and from very early times the more important civil and religious rituals have always taken place here. It is the spiritual heart of the city and is often the first stop for many tourists visiting as it contains many of the major monuments on your “must see/do list”. Piazza San Marko is a wonderful intriguing place that can be enjoyed equally during the day or at night, its beauty is unsurpassed. Constructed during the 9th century as a small square with occasional trees it was later enlarged in 1174 after a dock and adjoining canal were filled in to make more space. The square was originally paved in bricks but these were later removed and replaced with natural stone paving set in a complex pattern marking the site where traders could sell their goods.
It is not only the largest square in Venice but the only one to be bestowed with title of “Piazza”, it has always been the site of the most significant government buildings and other institutions of importance for the governing of the republic. The square not only attracts tourists by the thousands but unfortunately for the delicate intricate mosaics on St. Mark’s Basilica and the surrounding ancient monuments, many thousands of pigeons, who over time have caused untold damage. On two opposite sides of the square facing each other are cafes vying for clientele with their own splendid orchestras playing out to the passing tourists. So now you are in the square see what other attractions are available to bewilder and delight you, keep reading.
Undoubtedly the greatest of all Venetian Monuments, it is one of the finest examples of Byzantine art and architecture of any place in the world. Situated close to the entrance of the Grand Canal on Piazza San Marco is the gleaming basilica with its breathtakingly beautiful golden mosaics and domed roof. The craftsmanship involved is unbelievable and took many centuries to create this masterpiece of faith, ever changing and enriched with expensive jewels and treasure frequently brought back from the Far East. Many Venetian merchant ships returning from afar returned endless amounts of friezes, columns and capitals to decorate the Basilica. Over the centuries the exterior walls were decorated with a plethora of different coloured marbles and carvings, some older than the Basilica itself. The front of the Basilica was reconstructed to blend in with the redesigned Gothic architecture of the nearby Doge’s Palace and the existing domes were enlarged to the magnificence we see today. The church on the inside is huge with the five great arches being supportive of the five massive domes each adorned with the finest craftsmanship of golden mosaics laid in away to catch and reflect the maximum amount of incoming light.
The outside of the Basilica is beautiful and magnificent but it cannot ready you for the brilliance of its interiors and treasures. The most splendid gilded mosaics covering a huge surface area of 8000 square metres on the cupolas and vaults takes your breath away truly awe inspiring. The beautiful 12th century floor with its delicate pattern constructed out of marble and inlaid with geometric patterns and animal designs is a masterpiece of work and a privilege to see and walk upon. The world famous Pala d’Oro, a huge panel of gold with untold amounts of the finest gem stones inlaid amongst some of the finest craftsmanship ever produced.
For a nominal charge you can enter the treasury (Tesoro) which contains untold wealth plundered from Constantinople during the crusades. There are other significant icons and religious relics collected by the church over the centuries. For a small fee and a steep climb up a narrow stair well are the famous bronze horses of Saint Mark, four life sized sculptures from Greco-Roman times. The small fee is well worth it to see the Basilica and its golden mosaics up close, it also gives you the opportunity to go out onto the balcony overlooking Piazza San Marko and take a close look at the replica four bronze statues guarding the entrance to the Basilica.
Doge’s Palace (The Palazzo Ducale)
One of the city’s most popular buildings and attractions is the Doge’s Palace overlooking the Piazza San Marco. The Doge’s Palace has for centuries had three main roles in the life of Venetian society, The Doge’s official residence, the seat of the Venetian government and lastly the important role of the palace of Justice. It housed the headquarters of the mighty Venetian Republic for nearly 700 years and overlooked it's rise to prominence and ultimately to its decline.
Originally built in the 9th century it was more like a fortress than a palace with high defensive walls, and four sighting towers, set in a tactical position controlling the city and in close proximity to its important sea access. The most identifiable feature of the palace is undoubtedly the South Facing Façade designed in the popular Gothic Style of the times, this started in 1340 to enable to hold the meeting assembly room for the Great Council. Over subsequent centuries there were many expansions of the Doge's Palace, some required after parts of the building were ravaged by fire.
These frequent expansions turned the Palace into one of the finest examples of Venetian Gothic Architecture and what a privilege to see! Adornment of the highest quality is to be seen everywhere with the columns of the lower colonnade festooned with biblical and historical scenes. The two red Columns on the Piazza San Marco façade show the position where the pronouncement of public executions was made.
Within the extravagant complex there were courtyards, administrative offices, law courts, ballrooms and grand stairways. The walls were made of stucco and some of the greatest ornamentation and works of art can be seen on the vast gilded ceilings. The stupendous Grand Chamber on the Second floor is the Palaces largest room being almost as long as the full length of the lagoon facing façade. This was the meeting place for the ruling elite of Venice where approximately 1000 people met to make the important decisions that impacted on the Republic. Here you can view the magnificent master piece of Tintoretto’s “Paradise” filling one entire wall and completed in 1577, surely one of the outstanding attractions of The Palazzo Ducale. From the Palace you can cross over the Bridge of sighs to the prison cells located on the other side of the canal in the Prigioni Nuove built in the 16th century to take additional prisoners of the Republic.
*More on the Bridge of Sighs a little further down the page.
St Mark’s Campanile
Located in front of the beautiful Basilica you find the imposing Bell Tower of San Marco. The original tower standing on this site was constructed in the 7th century probably as a lighthouse to guide vessels through the difficult lagoon waters. The tower was reconstructed a number of times over the centuries, until in 1513 the impressive tower we see today was completed. It is an impressive feat of engineering for its time measuring 97 metres high and mainly built out of plain brick capped off with an impressive arched belfry that contains the famous five bells of Venice. The “Trottiera” and the bell of the “Pregadi” that rang out to call the senators and judges to the Doge’s Palace, The “Nona”, that rang out on the ninth hour, The “Maleficio” that announced the unfortunate souls condemned to death, and finally the “Marangona”, that rang to signify the beginning and end of each working day.
The magnificent tower was adorned with a 3 metre high golden statue of Archangel Gabriel with wings that turned in the wind. In 1540 a highly decorated podium was added at the base with bronze statues and marble reliefs in the popular baroque style created by the talented architect from Florence, Jacopo sansovino.
During the early hours of 14th July 1902 a catastrophic calamity hit the city; the Bell Tower that had looked over the city for centuries had completely collapsed. The decision was taken quickly by the local government to rebuild this iconic structure and after 10 long years the Bell Tower once again graced the skyline as an exact replica of the original. On a clear day from the viewing area (arrived at via a modern lift system) in the belfry you have the privilege (weather permitting) to witness stupendous views across Venice, the Lagoon and even as far as the alps!
The Rialto Bridge
The Rialto bridge stands on the site where three wooden bridges and a boat bridge once spanned the Grand Canal, dating back as far back as the 12th century. This massive stone structure is supported by 12,000 wooden pilings that were used as the main foundations to combat the difficult conditions of the grounds instability and height of the lagoon floor. The work was carried out under the close scrutiny of Antonio da Ponte and took only 3 years to build, 1588 to 1591. A wonderful achievement for such a complex structure with three walkways, two on the outside offering fabulous views of the Grand Canal and a wider central one with shops either side of it selling the locally produced Murano glass and other trinkets. The Rialto Bridge was the only way to cross the Grand Canal for nearly three hundred years until 1854 when the Academia Bridge was constructed. The Bridge is easily viewed from one of the many water buses (Vaporetto) that pass under its graceful stone arch on a pleasant tour of the Grand Canal. It is the most iconic and beautiful Bridge of Venice and one of the most photographed and popular monuments on a sight seeing trip of Venice.
The Bridge of Sighs
Construction commenced in 1600 and took approximately 2 years to complete, the bridge is 11 metres wide and constructed out of the finest white limestone in the Italian Renaissance fashion. It is an enclosed bridge with two windows with stone cut bars and two overlapping narrow corridors. It was designed by the well known architect of the time Antonio Continit, it served as a link between the old prisons in the Doge’s Palace and the new prisons beyond the Palazzo River.
The graceful arched contours of the bridge hanging above the water make up one of the most recognised images of the city of Venice. It is considered to be one of the finest architectural bridge constructions in the world and a very popular spot for tourists.
There has been numerous speculations as to the true reason for the Bridges name, we shall never know for sure but one involves condemned prisoners who would let out a “sigh” when walking across the bridge on the way to the prison cells or their execution. To add to the dread and fear of what awaited them the prisoners were never told how long the sentence would be. A more romantic theory is that if couples kiss under the bridge while on a gondola ride at sunset, they will have eternal love, so in this case the “sighs” come from devoted couples.
The Bridge of sighs is included in one of the guided tours of the Doge’s palace and well worth the fee to view the torture chambers, prisons and other rooms not seen under normal circumstances.
The Arsenale (Arsenale di Venezia)
This naval depot and shipyard was historically one of the most significant locations in the whole of Venice. In the early years of expansion the Venetian ships of the Republic were constructed in privately owned workshops. During the 1200’s these small businesses were amalgamated into one single large scale public shipyard: the Arsenale. Covering a huge 32 hectares the shipyard rapidly gained an enviable reputation for the unique techniques it employed in ship construction. It was at the cornerstone of the Venetian economy and was responsible for the vast bulk of Venice’s ever growing naval presence during the 1500’s.
The organisation employed during this period for ship construction was never seen before and it resembled today’s modern assembly production lines with different sectors and workers working on different stages of construction. During the 14th century bombards and firearms such as initially crossbows then guns were being produced. Unbelievably at it’s zenith during the beginning of the 16th century and employing upwards of 16,000 people the shipyard using these methods of mass production were able to construct, arm and fully fit out a complete ship every day!
The easiest and fastest way to see the remnants of the shipyards is to hop on a water bus and stop outside the Naval History Museum and take a short stroll towards Fondamente Nuove. The most stunning feature of the Arsenale is the stupendous Porta Magna which was an addition to the shipyards in 1460. This Gate house is guarded by two large Lions symbols of the Republic and two large statues in the Classical Revival style.
If you come to Venice you might like to try a Gondola ride but be warned it can turn out to be an expensive experience if you’re not fully prepared. The good news is the rates for the standard ride are officially set but these are the lowest fares you will be charged, extras include singing and riding during the evening. To save embarrassment and spoiling your ride its best to check the price and length of the ride before you agree to it. Gondolas can hold up to six persons and its possible to share the cost if taken with others, the ride normally lasts for 40 minutes so if you ask for a cheaper rate you will find the time will also be reduced. If you arrange the gondola ride through your hotel or an agency the cost will likely increase for the privilege of this convenience.
Venice is one of the most Romantic cities in the world and a gondola ride for two can be a wonderful experience but don’t expect to see too much of the city, the limited time ensures you don’t travel too far but nevertheless it’s a great experience. If you wish to see more of this wonderful city then consider booking one of the many Grand Canal Tours which include detailed commentary and views of the lesser known minor canals.
Want to find out more about Venice? Make sure to read our overview. Had enough of checking in to a small hotel room? Fancy renting a home away from home? These guys have the answer....