Sure, they’re ultra-touristy and maybe even a bit clichéd, but there are some tourist attractions you simply have to see while in Venice.
There are certain iconic Venetian sights that every visitor wants to check off their bucket lists. Luckily, Venice is very easy to navigate, either by foot or by boat, so it’s easy to get to its prime attractions. Start with these eight unmissable sights so you can say you’ve truly seen the highlights of Venice—and then get back off the beaten path to explore all its hidden treasures, too.
The beloved black, flat-bottomed, wooden gondola boats first plied Venice’s waterways in the 11th century. At their peak, in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were 10,000 gondolas being used in Venice; today, the number is more like 500. There’s nothing quite so romantic in Venice as sailing along the canals on a gondola before or after sunset. Just don’t expect your gondolier to sing—some do, and some don’t. And if yours does, win points by asking to hear a classic Venetian song instead of the overdone (and not Venetian) “That’s Amore” or “O Sole Mio.”
INSIDER TIPTo get away from the crowds, find a gondola away from San Marco and take your ride on some of the less-touristed back canals.
Basilica di San Marco
Completed in the 11th century (after the original cathedral burned to the ground in 976), the Basilica di San Marco is the pièce de resistance of St. Mark’s Square. Its gorgeous Byzantine interior is covered in gold mosaics, and the Pala d’Oro altarpiece is made up of more than 2,000 gemstones. The four bronze horses outside the Basilica are reproductions; the originals, taken from Constantinople in 1204, can now be seen inside in the basilica’s museum. Be sure to cover your knees and shoulders and not bring along any large bags when you visit.
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INSIDER TIPTo avoid the long lines to visit the Basilica, buy a “skip the line ticket” in advance online for €3 from April to early November.
Originally constructed in the 9th century, this 325-foot bell tower next to the Basilica di San Marco was rebuilt exactly as it once stood before its unexpected collapse in 1902. Today the Campanile is worth a stop for the panoramic views of the lagoon and the Lido from the top of the tower along with views of the marangona, the tower’s original bell that was miraculously unharmed when the Campanile fell.
INSIDER TIPDuring the busy season from April to early November, it’s worth buying an advance timed ticket online for €5.
The home of Venice’s rulers since the 9th century, with the initial construction of the current building dating from the mid-14th century, the Gothic-style Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) sits on Piazza San Marco and includes frescoed walls and ceilings with works by some of Venice’s most famous artists. Two of its many treasures include Tintoretto’s masterpiece Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world, as well as the grand 15th-century Stairway of the Giants (Scala dei Giganti).
Bridge of Sighs
The enclosed white limestone Bridge of Sighs, or Ponte dei Sospiri, was built in 1600 to connect the Doge’s Palace interrogation rooms to the prison cells across the canal. Legend has it that prisoners would sigh as they crossed the bridge over to the prison because of the beautiful views—but with the bars over the windows obscuring any vistas, that seems unlikely. Nevertheless, the beautiful bridge deserves a closer look, either from the outside as you walk along the lagoon, by taking a gondola ride underneath it, or even from the inside, though the interior is only accessible on a Secret Itineraries Tour booked in advance.
You can’t miss taking the grand tour of Venice by sailing down the Grand Canal, which runs from Piazzale Roma to Piazza San Marco. How you do the Grand Canal trip depends on how much you want to spend; options range from gondola or private water taxi to vaporetto (water bus) or traghetto, which simply lets you boat from one side of the Canal to the other at a few specific points. If you sail the entire length of the Grand Canal, which runs for about 2 ½ miles, you’ll pass by about 200 of the finest palazzi in the city, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
The Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) runs across the Grand Canal, connecting the districts of San Marco and San Polo. The arched stone bridge, completed in 1591, is certainly one of Venice’s top tourist attractions, and you’ll never be alone here; you’ll pretty much always find tourists along the Rialto’s stairways snapping pictures of the Grand Canal below. But it’s for a reason: The views from the bridge are some of the most iconic and vibrant in Venice.
The famed glassmaking island of Murano, in the Venetian lagoon, is a must-stop to see how Murano’s renowned glassworks are made—and, of course, for some prime glass shopping. If you have time, it’s worth stopping in a glass factory for a tour of the glass production process; Mazzega Glass Factory and Massimiliano Schiavon Art Team are two of the best known. As you’d expect, there are numerous shops to buy glass products, ranging from high-end art pieces to inexpensive souvenirs, as well as an informative glass museum, the Museo del Vetro, showing the history of glass production from the 15th to the 20th century.