Heading to Venice, Italy, and don’t want to miss out on some of the coolest attractions in the city? Don’t worry – our local guides have compiled this list of the top things to see in Venice. This way your visit to Venice will be as memorable as possible. Thank us later!
This article covers
The Top 16 Monuments & Attractions in Venice
Venice is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful and unique cities. 400 bridges and 177 canals connect this archipelago or cluster of 118 islands and its origin story is incredible.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, some Romans fled to the island(s) for protection and settled them. Romans were highly civilized and educated engineers so they got started on what you see today. And what exactly is that?
Something from a dream. Thousands of interconnected buildings with incredible architecture hovering over the water. Therefore over time, the island began to thrive and build. Today, it exists almost solely for our viewing pleasure and this list is exactly the top things to see in Venice!
Firstly, we’ll start with the many wonders near St. Mark’s Square and move outward. However, if you are looking for things that are not in St. Mark’s Square, scroll to #6 and start there.
1. St Mark’s Square
St Mark’s Square is named after the Basilica of St. Mark. The Basilica is obviously named after the Apostle, Mark, who’s relics are contained inside. What you see today looked nothing like you would have seen in the 9th century when the area began to take form. This is definitely one of the top things to see in Venice.
There was an orchard growing fruit occupying part of the space as well as a small canal running through it. Imagine a much more rural setting than the photo above. That said, they erected the Campanile or bell tower in the 10th century in some form, but we’ll get to that below.
It wasn’t until the 12th century that the square began to start taking shape. They filled the canal in and demolished some structures in the area to make way for the grand piazza. The Procuratie on the left side of the photo was constructed in the 13th century and consisted of offices and residences for the procurators of the Basilica. In the 18th century, the current flooring was laid in the piazza.
2. St Mark’s Bell Tower
The Campanile of St Mark, or bell tower in English, is a crowning jewel of St. Mark’s Square and the Venetian skyline. The descendants of the original Roman inhabitants constructed it They built the structure for the same purpose it serves today; a great view.
That said, the purpose was much more important in the 10th century. As you can imagine, a watchtower could spot enemy ships from a distance and maintain the safety of inhabitants. It is 323 feet tall (98.6 meters) making it the tallest structure in Venice.
The original bell tower collapsed in 902 just around its 1000 year birthday. As a result, they built this copy of the original you see today over 10 years from 1902 – 1912.
In popular culture, the bell tower’s shadow, ombra in Italian, is the term used to describe a glass of wine in Venice. This is because the fisherman would come back from fishing in mid-day and have a glass of wine in St. Mark’s Square. To hide from the sun, they’d stand in the ever-moving shadow of the bell tower cast across the piazza.
If you want to make sure you experience Venice in-depth, this full-day tour is your best choice. Especially if you’re only spending a short time in the lagoon, covering Venice in a day is a smart idea. That way, you can spend the remainder of your time sipping Prosecco by the canals.
3. St. Mark’s Basilica
In The Beginning
The Basilica di San Marco or St. Mark’s Basilica is the main cathedral in Venice dedicated to the patron saint of Venice; St. Mark. St. Mark was an apostle which is a pretty big deal in the Catholic church and Christianity as a whole.
What you see today, shown in the picture above, has been a work in progress over the last 1100 years or so. The original church that stood there similar in its layout but the design and ornamentation has evolved greatly.
Did you know the St. Mark’s Basilica wasn’t built to preserve the holy ruins of the saint, but as the private chapel of the Doge during the Venice Republic? Its original name was “Basilica d’Oro”, Golden Basilica, because of the over a thousand square meters worth of golden mosaic tiles.
In 828 A.D., the Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio expanded the chapel linking it to the existing church when St. Mark’s body arrived in Venice from Alexandria, replacing the city’s protector St. Theodore. From that moment, a winged lion, St. Mark’s crest, became the official symbol of the Venice Republic.
Originally, the patron saint of Venice was St. Theodore who was a Greek saint. The original structure was built around 819 and was likely constructed primarily from wood. About ten years later, the relics of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria in Egypt.
Having the relics of an apostle would be a massive draw to the city of Venice so the current Doge decided to change the patron saint of Venice to St. Mark. Parts structure you see today would have been started around the end of the 11 century.
The Middle Ages
After years of work, they completed the Basilica in 1071 and finally consecrated in 1094. In 1145, a deadly fire destroyed a huge part of the upper decorations inside of the Basilica.
To prevent it from happening again, it was then covered by the marble you’re able to admire today. A bit later, in 1159, precious mosaic decorations were added to the walls and ceilings of St. Mark’s Basilica, replacing the old frescoes.
The Fourth Crusade And Today
In 1204, after the Fourth Crusade, Venetian crusaders brought back to Venice precious marbles and works of art which from their conquest of Constantinople. This includes the iconic 4 horse chariot in bronze, the icon of the Madonna Nicopeia, enamels of the Golden Altarpiece, relics, crosses, and chalices.
The names of the architects and artists who contributed are unknown, but the predominant style is Greek-Byzantine with strong German and Arabic influences. The church served as the Doge’s chapel until 1807 when Napoleon turned it into a public basilica.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the difference between this Basilica and others in Italy. You should know that Venice is very different from Italy in that the city tends to skew more eastern European – they are right on the border. Many things are unique to the city and others influenced by the east. The Basilica of St. Mark has a strong resemblance to the Hagia Sofia of Byzantium.
Never heard of Byzantium? How about Constantinople? Ok, one more try; Istanbul? Venice was was of Byzantine Empire until they broke away in 1171.
The church is extremely ancient. Much of the construction took place between the 11th and 13th centuries. Frescoes have been updated, more gold has been added and statues built in but you are definitely looking at one of the older churches on Earth.
4. Doge’s Palace
The Venetians decided to build the Ducal Palace around the 9th century, however, no remains of the 9th-century building remain today.
After 1296 more people had the right to take part in legislative assembly meetings. Therefore, they needed to enlarge the government areas. As a result of those works is the beginning of the building that we can see today. The work started around 1340 under Doge Bartolomeo Gradenigo (1339-1343) and was mostly the side of the palace facing the lagoon.
Guariento, the Paduan artist, decorated the east wall of the Great Council Chamber with a large fresco in 1365. Similarly, the Delle Masegne family decorated the windows. In 1419 the Great Council met in this chamber for the first time.
In 1424, renovation works continued on the side of the building which faces the San Marco Square. They designed a new wing that went hand in hand with the design that overlooked the lagoon.
Fire of 1483, 1574, & 1577
A raging fire destroyed the canal side of the Palace which included the Doge’s apartments in 1483. At this time Antonio Rizzo introduced the new Renaissance style to the building. They finished the works in 1510 and replaced Rizzo with Maestro Pietro Lombardo. The new architect began the design of the facade and the Giant’s staircase in the internal courtyard.
During this period Sansovino’s created two large marble statues of Mars and Neptune at the top of the Giant’s staircase. While another fire broke out in 1574, it didn’t cause any serious damage, but mostly the wood furnishings. Hard to believe, but in 1577 another fire damaged the Sala dello Scrutinio and the Grand Council Chamber which destroyed masterpieces by Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone, and Titian. By 1580 they had restored the area to its original appearance.
The Venetian Republic fell in 1797 first to the French, then to Austria, and finally became part of a unified Italy in 1866. The Palace had been the heart of political and public administration when it had independence so it ceased to hold those functions once occupied and lost relevance.
In a state of disrepair, major renovation works began at the end of the 19th century to spruce it up. Many of the original 14th-century capitals were removed to the Museo dell’ Opera for safekeeping. All the public offices were moved elsewhere except the State Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments which is still housed here. It became a museum in 1923 and in 1996 became a part of the Civic Museums of Venice network
Address: Piazza San Marco, 1
5. St. Mark’s Clock Tower
Torre dell’Orologio or The Clock Tower is what this simple name for this ornate attraction. A clock tower, similar to fountains, is something we couldn’t appreciate today. Not because of millennials but the technology we have on our wrists and in our pockets today.
You have to imagine that in the 16th century you didn’t have a cell phone, wrist watch or probably even a clock in your home. If it was not for communal clocks, you simply did not know what time it was. This is very important for a commercial hub like Venice, hence St. Mark’s Clocktower.
If you are standing in Piazza San Marco you wont miss the tower to the left of St. Mark’s Basilica. On top are two moors that wring the bell each hour. You’ll also see the Lion of St. Mark with a blue and gold starred background. The lion is the symbol of Venice. There is also an analog feature showing the hour and minutes on either side of a statue of Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. See if you can spot it!
If you are lucky, you may see the clock in full form. It only happens twice a year, but the three Magi will emerge from the clock following Jesus the child. This happens on Jan 6th which is Epiphany Day or the day the three Magi visit Jesus who becomes incarnate of God. The second time is 40 days after Easter which is the day Mary ascended to heaven. It lands on a Thursday and you are supposed to include Easter into the calculation.
6. Bridge of Sighs
The Ponte dei Sospiri or Bridge of Sighs is one of the more poetic names for a bridge that you may ever hear. The history is preserved in its name. The bridge is used to connect a prison, Prigioni Nuove, and the interrogation rooms at Doge’s Palace. Needless to say, the people taken over this bridge had sad looks on their faces; sighs.
The bridge was interestingly enough built by Antonio Contino who was the nephew of Antonio da Ponte. Da Ponte designed the Rialto bridge and his last name translates to “of the Bridge”. I doubt he was born with that name but if he was it was fate that he re-build what is one of the most famous bridges on Earth; the Rialto.
You can best see the Bridge of Sighs from inside the Doge’s Palace or outside by heading to Ponte della Paglia.
7. Giant Hands (Now Closed)
This incredibly cool and eye-grabbing art installation is known simply as “Support” but most people refer to it as giant hands. What is it? Other than massive hands protruding from the Grand Canal it is a call to action over climate change that threatens Venice.
The artists behind these hands are Lorenzo Quinn and you can find them “holding” up the walls of the Ca’Sagredo Hotel right on the Grand Canal. The sea surrounding Venice has been rising significantly and will continue to do so over the next 100 years making the city even more difficult to inhabit.
The hands were in Venice until 2017 when they removed them. Now we only have photos!
8. Fondaco dei Tedeschi
What is better than a shopping mall with rooftop views in an ornate 800 year old building?
The modern structure is a shopping mall with lots and lots of luxury goods as well as really beautiful dining. The crowning jewel, pun intended, is its rooftop terrace view which you must book in advance. Don’t worry, the rooftop is free but they do limit visitors to avoid a crowded experience.
Address: Calle del Fontego dei Tedeschi
Hours: 10 am – 7 pm daily
One of the things people take for granted about Venice is how old it is. Compared to many other European cities, Venice relies on very old structures as it is very difficult to bring in materials and build new structures. This is why you often see palaces, museums and buildings built in the 13th and 14th centuries when Venice was accruing power.
Fondaco dei Tedeschi sits right on the grand canal and today is a shopping mall. They restored it beautifully with many modern touches mixed into its ancient structure.
Fondaco dei Tedeschi translates to “the Inn of Germans.” Italian can be a very literal language when it wants to be and this building is case & point. It was very popular for German merchants to travel to Venice. Venice practically owned the spice trade and was a wealthy merchant city.
Apparently, the structure was reserved only for Germans. This may have been from long seeded mistrust due to never ending conflict between Romans and Germans. Germans did cause the fall of the Roman Empire.
9. Nino & Friends
I love me a good cookie! Nino & Friends is without a doubt my favorite producer of sweets in the world. People come here for their chocolate but their store feels like Disneyland and their cookies are delicious. They are not Venetians originally – the group is from Naples and has stores all over Italy. My wife and kids go nuts for their cappuccino cookies.
Address: Salizada S. Lio 5576
Hours: 9 am – 10 pm daily
10. Fondamenta Misericordia & Cannaregio
Visitors and, myself included, have declared Cannaregio as Venice’s foodie district. Much like Trastevere in Rome and Santo Spirito in Florence, Cannaregio currently has the crown.
Fondamenta Misericordia is the main drag here and they lined it with bars, restaurants and cool places to eat and drink. Some great choices include:
You can also see our article (Coming soon) of the best restaurants and bars in Cannaregio. While in the area, check out the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo. It is a very local piazza/square to walkthrough full of locals. It’s the opening scene of a video I filmed all about Cannaregio.
11. Coloured Houses of Burano Island
There are four things you need to know about Burano. Lace, risotto de gò, a leaning bell tower, and really colorful houses.
First let’s talk about lace. Burano, like many fishing villages, was pretty poor. You could pick two jobs; become a farmer or fisherman. At some point, lace was introduced to the scene and brought in a new revenue stream which lifted the area economically.
Risotto de Gò
Risotto de gò is basically a risotto dish made with a local fish named the gò or goby fish in English. If you go to a Buranella which is a typical tavern-style restaurant of the island, you will almost definitely find it on the menu.
Leaning Bell Tower
Next you have the leaning bell tower or Il Campanile Storto in Italian. The Italian name means “crooked” which sounds pretty quirky but Venetians are known for a strange sense of humor. Regardless, this leaning bell tower will leave you wondering so many things like, “will it fall down?” Maybe.
That said, it is not the only leaning tower in Venice. I am sure you’ve heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but there are three in Venice. The Bell Tower of Santo Stefano and the Bell Tower of San Giorgio dei Greci. Sounds like a lot but lets say they weren’t exactly building on solid ground.
Colorful Houses of Burano
Burano often recognized as one of the topmost colorful cities on Earth due to the brightly painted houses all over the city. Why? My favorite legend explains how fisherman painted their houses bright colors to see them from far away on foggy days. There is also a theory that the different colors allowed them to clearly differentiate where one house ends and the next begins. Regardless, it is a beautiful scene and one of the reasons why Burano is popular with artists!
12. Murano Glass Blowing Island
Murano is another island in the Venetian Lagoon that is not within the cluster of islands we know as “Venice” but part of the city geographically. Like Burano, 3000 people, it has a small population of 5000 people that mostly work in the main industry of the town; glass blowing.
Blowing glass became a main industry in Venice until city officials ordered glass makers to move their furnaces off the main island in 1291. They feared their furnaces would start fires that could quickly spread on the main cluster of Islands in Venice. The glassmakers complied and thrived in Murano. Like the silicon valley, Murano became the epicenter for glass and the Kingdom of Venice enjoyed collecting taxes on the trade.
The Doge’s declared that the glassblowers could never leave Venice so they could keep the industry internal and control prices. During their captivity in Venice, , the glassmakers enjoyed privileged lives of great wealth and status completely above the law. Today, the secret is out but Murano still produces the “highest quality” glass on Earth and even has a sacred stamp to prove it was made on the island.
This all comes with a price tag, but like purchasing gold on the Ponte Vecchio, it is part of the experience!
13. Rialto Bridge
The Rialto bridge is a decorative bridge crossing the Grand Canal in Venice. It is easily the most recognizable bridge in Venice and one of the oldest.
The original bridge was a floating pontoon bridge built in 1181. In 1255 they replaced it with a wooden bridge that surprisingly lasted quite a while considering it was a wooden bridge in a humid area. It partially burnt down in 1310 but eventually collapsed due to weight in 1444 and again in 1524. The idea of building it out of stone came up in the 16th century and many great artists were considered including Michelangelo.
In the end, they chose a local Antonio da Ponte to build the bridge. Construction began in 1588 and finished in 1591 with what you see today. Antonio’s last name translates to “of the bridge” in English which is a bit ironic. I have researched it and can’t figure out if he changed his name to this later in life or if it was his birthname. Either way Pretty fitting!
14. Rialto Market Area
Rialto Market is where fish is brought in and sold each day. While it is not the ideal odor for a vacation it is pretty cool to see the market in action. To see these transactions you have to wake up early and head over there, but it is worth it. The general area is really neat with great outdoor seating at all the restaurants. There is also a fruit market nearby which is worth passing through.
Address: Campiello de la Pescaria 30122
Hours: 7:30 am – Noon (Closed Sunday & Monday)
15. Teatro La Fenice
Teatre La Fenice is one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world with one of the most troubled histories you could imagine. All of the below information was provided by the opera house directly.
It was first built in the late 18th century but burnt down in 1771. They rebuilt It but apparently partly on the land of the Venier family who did not appreciate the theatre. The owners had to sell it and then built a new opera house that they named Le Fenice which means the Pheonix. The name obviously points to the story of the phoenix rising from its ashes. The theatre would definitely put that name to the test.
They completed it In 1792 and opened with the symphony I Giochi d’ Agrigento by Giovanni Paisiello which brought fame to the house. In 1836 the opera house burnt down for the second time. After two fires and one law-suit, they decided to rebuild the house for the third time. They opened it for the third time in 1837 and described it as even more beautiful than before.
Famous composer Verdi did sort of a “residence” there for some time between 1844 and 1857 composing 5 operas. Many famous composers would follow including Rienzi, Richard Wagner, Stravinskij, and music by the famed Pavarotti.
It is easily one of the most ornate opera houses on Earth and a treat to visit. You can view their lineup for a fancy night out: Le Fenice Opera Schedule.
Address: Campo S. Fantin 1965
16. Libreria di Acqua Alta
The name translates to the Library of High Water and they’ve been internet famous for years. This little bookstore attracts visitors like St Mark’s Square due to a creative way to protect themselves from flooding. Basically, all their books are situated far above ground level, which is pretty normal, but all inside waterproof containers.
If you are thinking “container store” think again. They went more Venetian and have a full-sized gondola with books inside you can choose from. They pack their store with interesting reads and titles from all over the world. Out back, picture above, you’ll find a staircase made out of books that allows you to see into the canal behind the store.
Despite the quirkiness, they have cool vintage books and is probably the most beautiful bookstore on Earth as they say. I’ve purchased old Italian children’s books for my kids here as well as postcards and other fun stuff.
Hours: 9 am – 7:45 pm daily