With a patchwork of meandering cobblestone streets, tranquil canals and its surprisingly small town vibe for a 160-square-mile city, Venice is the epitome of a typical European city. Once the most prosperous city in the world, Venice’s gilded past is still visible in its ornate architecture dating to medieval times. From the more touristy attractions to sights off the beaten path, here’s what to see and do for a well-rounded tour of this enchanting city.
Dominating Venice’s central St. Mark’s square, St. Mark’s Basilica, which was once the personal chapel of the Doge (the elected chief of state), is impossible to miss. Inside you’ll find dazzling marble floors and domed ceilings, which are adorned with intricate mosaics. On the second floor you’ll find St. Mark’s Museum, where you can view illustrated manuscripts, fragments of ancient mosaics and detailed tapestries. While on the second floor, step out onto the balcony for a vast view of St. Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal just beyond.
Located next to St. Mark’s Basilica, you’ll find the sprawling Doge’s Palace, the opulent former residence of the Doge. Built in the 14th century, the Doge’s Palace was turned into a museum in 1923. The palace is a massive structure, so be sure to have the museum map handy as you make your way through the various rooms, including the Doge’s apartments, institutional chambers, Museo dell’Opera and prisons. If you want to avoid the crowds, the palace is open at night during summer weekends, providing a more leisurely visit and gorgeous nighttime views of the palace all lit up.
During your visit, take special note of one of the most famous sights of the palace—the Bridge of Sighs, connecting the New Prison to the interrogation rooms. According to legend, the bridge is where prisoners would get their last glimpse of freedom before their confinement, and “sighed” upon this final view.
Now that you’ve had a taste of the old Venice, head to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to enjoy a more modern side of the city. Nestled on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood, the museum is a collection of art that once privately belonged to Peggy Guggenheim, an American heiress and eventual resident of Venice. Here you’ll find modern art pieces from artists like Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky. Take a moment to view art from the museum’s permanent collection, such as Jackson Pollock’s The Moon Woman or Georges Braque’s The Clarinet, before checking out the rotating exhibitions.
With all this winding and traipsing, you’ll definitely work up an appetite. Make your way to Cantina Do Spade, near the famous landmark Rialto Bridge, to rest your feet and have a meal. One of the oldest restaurants in Venice, Cantina Do Spade was first mentioned in a 15th century travel guide. The menu features hallmarks of traditional Venetian cuisine, with seafood dishes such as salted cod and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Settle back and enjoy a meal of black cuttlefish with polenta, mixed vegetables and white wine.
No trip to Italy is complete without gelato, and Venice has no shortage of options. To get your fix, carve out some time for Suso Gelatoteca, east of the Rialto Bridge. Popular for its unique flavor pairings, Suso Gelatoteca boasts creative scoops like tango (yogurt and mango), and classics like the opera (hazelnuts and chocolate) and menta ciok (mint chocolate). Suso Gelatoteca is popular, so be sure to get there earlier in the day to beat the inevitable long lines.
Since the early Middle Ages, vendors have hawked their wares of fresh seafood and produce at the Rialto Market. Located right by the Rialto Bridge, the market serves as a temporary home to Venetian caught seafood marked “Nostrano” ranging from squid, soft shell crabs and sardines; and local produce including vibrant red tomatoes and baby artichokes. If you’re not in the market for any groceries, simply watch the locals—and chefs—as they haggle over food, much of which they cook the day of purchasing. Since many of the merchants close up shop by midday, be sure to arrive early.
Al Pesador has more traditional Venetian dishes and optimal views of the sunset over the Grand Canal. Located north of the Rialto Bridge, Al Pesador boasts a rustic cave-like interior. But if you want to take advantage of the view, make sure to get an outdoor seat when you arrive. The menu’s ingredients are bought fresh from the nearby Rialto Market, and you’ll be able to tell as you dine on a meal of lobster spaghetti finished off with a savory tiramisu.
Head to the relatively quiet Cannaregio neighborhood to escape the more crowded sections of the city. Here you can take a breather and enjoy a self-guided walking tour. In the central area of the neighborhood, you’ll find the former Venetian Ghetto, where the city’s Jewish population was once forced to live. Head south to find the Ponte delle Guglie, nicknamed the Bridge of Spires for the spires on each end of the bridge, which spans the Cannaregio Canal. Then make your way south and along the Grand Canal toward Ca’ d’Oro, a Gothic style palace built in 1428. The architecture of the palace itself is a work of art, but you can also head inside to enjoy the medieval art collection of the Baron Giorgio Franchetti.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty
Now that you’ve taken in some of the major sights of Venice, take the waterbus out to Murano, which is well-known for its glass making. Often mistaken as one single island, Murano is actually a small group of islands linked by a picturesque network of bridges. Begin your visit at the Murano Glass Museum, where you can take in exhibitions of various glassworks. Next, watch a free glass blowing demonstration and peruse the vast selection of glassware at the Vecchia Murano Glass Factory.
Dylan Hill is a freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles.