In most Italian cities, you’ll have a to-do list as long as your arm, and you’ll barely get through a quarter of it. In Venice, I would give you permission – if you wanted it – to toss the to-do list and just wander through the city aimlessly, visiting whatever sights strike your fancy. Agenda-free Venice is that good.
Of course, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to let it go at just that. You’ll need a few ideas of places not to miss in Venice, even if you do spend most of your time wandering (which I highly encourage). The good news is that Venice is really small, so you can actually get through lots of things on your must-see list in a visit of only a couple days. (And I do recommend that you spend at least one night in Venice, by the way. Day trips are not adequate.)
The list below is meant to get you started on your Venice trip planning, but it’s not a comprehensive list. When I travel, I like to throw in a couple slightly offbeat sights along with all the ones everyone’s heard of. Sometimes it’s just because I like knowing my itinerary isn’t identical to everyone else’s. Sometimes it’s because those offbeat attractions give me a more complete picture of a place. In Venice, it’s a little bit of both.
For more help in planning your trip, don’t miss my Venice travel guide.
Venice’s Top Attractions
St. Mark’s Square with a little flooding || creative commons photo by Robert Montgomery
- Getting Lost – I mean it. Put away the map. It’s kind of useless anyway. You can’t get too lost – these are islands, after all, so just turn around if you run into a dead end at a canal – and there are countless signs pointing you back to “S. Marco” or “Rialto.”
- St. Mark’s Basilica – This basilica is a Byzantine masterpiece, covered on nearly every interior surface with exquisite mosaics. Its onion domes make it stand out from most other Italian churches, and it holds the remains of Venice’s patron Saint Mark.
- St. Mark’s Square – The expansive piazza in front of the eponymous basilica, Napoleon once called St. Mark’s Square “Europe’s drawing room.” (Okay, the Napoleon attribution is only speculated. But it’s a good line nonetheless.) The square has a couple of very expensive cafes with dueling orchestras and stellar views.
- Campanile – The basilica’s bell tower collapsed in 1902, and the current one was built as an exact replica in 1912. You can climb the stairs or take the elevator to the top.
- Palazzo Ducale – Next to St. Mark’s Basilica is the Palazzo Ducale, where the dukes of the Venetian Empire lived and governed for centuries. Among the sights included on a guided tour of the palazzo is the Bridge of Sighs and the palace’s prisons.
- Rialto Bridge – One of only four bridges to span the Grand Canal, the Rialto is the oldest. It’s lined with shops on either side of a central walkway.
- San Giorgio Maggiore – This 16th century Palladian church takes up most of the real estate on the small island of the same name, at one end of the Giudecca Island.
- Il Redentore – The Church of the Most Holy Redeemer is another 16th century Palladian design, built to thank God for ending a massive plague outbreak in Venice. There’s an annual festival centered on the church in order to reiterate that thanks.
- Santa Maria della Salute – This 17th century church was also built as a thanks to God after another plague outbreak (although this one doesn’t have an annual festival). It’s a confection in white, compact and ornate with a white-tiled dome.
- Clock Tower – To one side of St. Mark’s Basilica, there’s a 15th century clock tower with several animatronic figures on it.
- La Fenice – Venice’s historic opera house La Fenice – which means “The Phoenix” – burned down three different times, the most recent being in 1996. It’s been completely rebuilt each time.
- Accademia Gallery – The collection in the Accademia Gallery in Venice is dedicated to pre-19th century Venetian art, but it also happens to have Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” sketch.
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection – Housed in Peggy Guggenheim’s former home, the modern art collection includes work by Picasso, Dali, Miro, Ernst, Gorky, Kandinsky, Magritte, Pollock, and Mondrian.
- Murano – This island close to the central Venetian islands is home to the city’s legendary glass-blowing artisans.
- Burano – Slighly further into the Venetian Lagoon, Burano’s claims to fame are lace-making and its brightly-painted houses.
Guided Tours in Venice
Weird Attractions in Venice
Bovolo Staircase || creative commons photo by Anna Fox
- Bovolo Staircase – Built on the outside of a Venetian palazzo, the Bovolo Staircase is a spiral stair that is often called the “snail staircase.” It’s lovely to see, and if you climb it you’ll get a nice (and unusual) view over the city.
- Hidden Synagogues – The historic Jewish Ghetto in Venice, enclosed in the early 16th century, is home to synagogues that you can’t see from the outside. Jews weren’t allowed to practice their faith openly, so each synagogue is invisible unless you’re inside it. You can visit a few of them now with a guided tour.
- Marco Polo’s House – The famous explorer Marco Polo is believed to have written his autobiographical work in this house, which is exceptionally hard to find and not even open to the public, but marked with a very official-looking plaque by the city of Venice.
- The Rialto Hunchback – Near one end of the Rialto Bridge, there’s a set of stone steps, beneath which is the sculpture of a man appearing to hold up the little platform at the top of the stairs. The hunchback used to be the finishing line for those accused of small crimes – the punishment was to run through Venice, naked, from St. Mark’s Square to the Rialto Bridge, where they would end their trial by kissing the hunchback.
- The Old Woman with the Mortar – Not far from St. Mark’s Square, there’s a plaque above an arched passage depicting a woman dropping a stone mortar from her windowsill. It commemorates an event in the early 14th century when, beneath an elderly woman’s window, a group was plotting to overthrow the government. Whether she threw the mortar on purpose or dropped it accidentally while trying to eavesdrop isn’t known, but what’s confirmed is that the mortar killed the ringleader and broke up the rebellion.