The picturesque Italian city of Venice brings a lot of images to mind. Idyllic waterways filled with the wakes of traveling boats and the sight of long wooden oars powering sleek, black gondolas. Narrow cobblestone streets winding through alleys lined with weathered, rustic buildings. There isn’t anywhere else like it—with virtually no cars present, the entire city is traversable by foot or through the famously ubiquitous canals. Simply walking in a random direction with no plans and exploring the maze of roads and colorful neighborhoods at your leisure is highly recommended, as is booking a gondola tour for an up-close, authentically Venetian look at the city. Still, it always helps to have a plan, so as you make your discoveries, don’t miss these fantastic places.
One of the six “sestieri,” or districts of Venice, San Marco’s location in the city center makes it an ideal place to base your Venetian journey. Music lovers should check out the Museo della Musica di Venezia, a stunning basilica dating back to the 9th century hosting frequent live performances alongside an intriguing collection of antiquated instruments. History buffs will find much to love at the famous Piazza San Marco, the largest public square in Venice. Grab a cappuccino from Caffè Florian, an extravagant coffee shop dating back to 1720, or climb to the top of St. Mark’s Clock Tower at the piazza’s edge. Admire the gorgeous timepiece decorated with stars and marble sculptures overlooking a sweeping view of the charming Italian architecture surrounding the bustling crowd below. The grand spires of the thousand-year-old St. Mark’s Basilica can be found alongside the imposing facade of Doge’s Palace, both of which anchor the piazza’s east end and were once the seat of power of the former Venetian Republic. Visit the Museo Correr on the south side of the square, hosting a collection of incredible Venetian art dating from the city’s founding up through the 19th century, or browse the quirky contemporary exhibits of the magnificent Palazzo Grassi on the neighborhood’s western edge. Finally, check out the detailed white limestone span comprising the Bridge Of Sighs. The ornate crossing gets its name from its days connecting to an old prison, where it was the last place to admire the beauty of Venice before losing one’s freedom.
San Polo and The Grand Canal
At the north edge of San Marco lies the busy waters of the Grand Canal separating the neighborhood from San Polo, the smallest of Venice’s sestieri. The Grand Canal is a popular destination for booking gondola tours, given its central location and constant traffic of boats and Venetian water buses (known as “vaporettos”). The busy waterway is crossed by the Ponte di Rialto, arguably the most famous bridge in Venice. Constructed in the late 1500s, the gorgeous span is the perfect place for pictures of the vibrant canal. Grab some food from one of the many Italian restaurants nearby, or grab a bite from the adjacent Rialto Market. A popular gathering place dating back to 1097, the market offers fresh fish, local produce, and authentic Italian prosecco amongst a maze of vendors. Be sure to also stop by the striking facades of Camerlenghi Palace, a beautiful marble structure on the waterfront dating back to the Renaissance.
Dorsoduro, Campo Santo Margherita and Giudecca Island
Dorsoduro occupies the southern edge of Venice and, being home to the University of Venice, boasts a younger population, a bohemian vibe, and several of the city’s hippest options for nightlife. Spend an evening in Campo Santa Margherita, a large public plaza adorned with gourmet Italian restaurants and lively bars, or catch an intimate jazz quartet at the cozy Venice Jazz Club a few blocks away. Dorsoduro is a popular destination during Carnivale, the Venetian version of Mardi Gras. If you’re in town for the festivities, check out renowned local mask shop Ca’Macana and join the other disguised revelers in the wild citywide masquerade party dating back to the Renaissance. Marvel at the glamorous 20th century exhibits of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, or discover the wealth of storied Venetian art within the halls of the fantastic 12th-century church housing the Galleria dell’Accademia. Another must-stop is the Bridge Of Fists, once a popular meeting location for notorious 17th century gang fights. Observe the still-visible demarcations where each side would assemble, and stand in the sordid span where melees would end in the victors throwing their opponents into the cold canal waters below. If you need a respite from the crowds, hop on a vaporetto and head south to Giudecca Island. The perfect place to end a day in Venice, grab a tasty gelato and head to the quaint island’s south side to catch the bright fiery hues of a sunset over the Adriatic Sea. Afterward, head to Skyline for drinks, a fancy rooftop bar offering incredible city views alongside live music and pulsing grooves from the club’s DJs. The channel separating Giudecca from Dorsoduro is a popular spot during the Festa del Redentore. Occurring the third Sunday in July, the holiday commemorates the ending of a deadly 16th century plague with arguably the best fireworks show in Italy.
Castello, the southernmost of Venice’s six sestieri, is full of adorable gardens and parks intermixed with pleasant waterways. Don’t miss the colorful green spaces of the largest park in Venice, the Giardini della Biennale. The grounds get an extravagant makeover when it hosts the centerpiece of the Biennale de Venezia international art expo. While the festival is spread across the entire city, making pleasing discoveries through stumbling into live performances possible while walking around Venice, every building in the park will adopt a different theme based on the host country’s corresponding exhibit. A walk throughout Biennale promises wonderful hours of enchantment as you encounter these captivating contemporary works of art and architecture from all over the world. Castello’s peninsular shape and proximity to the sea makes it an essential part of Venice’s maritime history, notably in the aged remains of the Arsenale di Venezia, a former shipyard dating back to the 1100s. Castello’s location also makes it susceptible to the “acqua alta,” the annual period of flooding in Venice. Visit the famously watery depths of the San Zaccaria crypt, and catch the unforgettable sight of the tombs inundated with a layer of seawater creating a mirror effect against the somber, austere stone hallways. Booklovers with a sense of humor should visit the Libreria Acqua Alta, a quirky bookstore making light of the city’s aquatic nature by placing volumes of tomes for sale inside bathtubs, canoes, gondolas, and other such aquatically-friendly receptacles. The offbeat shop’s rustic maritime decor makes it incredibly ripe for Instagram moments. Be sure to also climb the famous staircase, literally made out of weathered books, to catch the store’s lovely view of the surrounding waterways.
Cannaregio, Santa Croce and Burano
Venice has a lot of places known for large, touristy crowds, but if you’re looking to escape somewhere with a more local, authentic feel, head north to the Cannaregio district. A unique experience awaits those who visit Venice By Water, which offers in-depth guided tours of the city’s canals with options for exploring at daybreak or in the darkness of night. It is also possible to rent a kayak if you’re looking for a memorable day traversing the famous waterways at your own pace. The adjacent district of Santa Croce, linked to the Italian mainland and the only sestieri with automobiles, is home to the enchanting Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo. Explore the grand halls of the 18th century Gothic palace housing a museum for gaudy, centuries-old costumes, fabrics, and perfumes. Finally, consider a trip to nearby Burano Island to explore a lesser-known side of Venice. Located at the end of a pleasant eleven-kilometer ferry ride from San Marco, Burano is home to photogenic rows of brightly colored houses ripe for exploration on foot. As you explore the vibrant streets, consider ending the day by grabbing a coffee from one of the many cute cafes nearby and catching an incredible Italian sunset over the Venetian Lagoon.
John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.