By Jim Ferri
For many travelers, Venice is one of the most entrancing cities in Europe, if not the world.
It’s a mesmerizing city of black-hulled gondolas sliding quietly on myriad canals and under centuries-old little bridges. It’s a place of magnificent palazzos, wonderful museums, and scores of movie-set-like neighborhoods right on the water’s edge. In the morning the city morphs into a palette of soft colors; come evening the show repeats itself.
It all has an incredibly soothing effect on you, almost as if time had slowed to a near stop. And when you finally leave, the memory of it all tugs at you to return and experience it all again.
As the author Truman Capote once observed, “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
So the next time you’re in Venice grab your box of chocolate and head for these top 10 incredible places.
The Grand Canal
One of the best ways to experience the iconic Grand Canal is aboard Vaporetto #1. There are stops at the railway station, near St. Mark’s Square and several places in between. If you can grab a seat, just sit back and relax as it makes its way along the serpentine waterway. If it’s too crowded just relax and enjoy the view.
It’s a beautiful ride, and all along the waterway history will unfurl about you. You’ll pass five centuries of palaces, most bearing the name of some once-great Venetian family, and other beautiful buildings.
Watch for the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, one of Venice’s preeminent Renaissance palaces, where the composer Richard Wagner died in 1883. You’ll also see another palace, Ca’ Pesaro, now home to the International Gallery of Modern Art
In addition to plenty of palazzos, heading upstream to San Marco you’ll also pass the art heaven of Gallerie dell’Accademia. Close by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection clutches a great collection of modern art.
The canal’s beautiful buildings continue like a string of pearls, so get a good guidebook/map to know what you’re viewing.
Piazza San Marco
The Piazza San Marco is Venice’s Holy Grail.
It’s such a revered place that it’s the only piazza in the city; all other squares are known as campos. As one might expect, during the high tourist season, April through November, it can get obscenely crowded.
You can beat the crowds by timing your visit for the early morning. Take your time and enjoy an espresso or coffee and wander along the peaceful canal and lagoon. Watch the changing light as the rising sun illuminates the basilica and the lagoon and its islands. Arriving early will also put you at the front of the queue for visits to the Basilica and Doges’ Palace.
If you arrive at the Basilica late in the morning, don’t waste your time standing in the long lines. Anytime before noon is when the tour groups come, and they go to the head of the line.
Instead, wander around the rest of the Piazza and come back in mid-afternoon when the crowds have dissipated. Nearby you’ll find the nearly 300-year-old Caffè Florian, one of the elder statesmen of the Piazza, and its elegant rival Quadri, sitting directly across. Both lend an air of elegance to the St. Mark’s experience with their tuxedoed waiters and mini-orchestras.
Be sure to take a look at the interior of both cafes, especially the ornate rooms of the Florian. But keep in mind that if you sit at one of the tables either outside or in, you’ll pay dearly.
Basilica San Marco
St. Mark’s Basilica, the jewel of the Piazza, blends the architectural styles of East and West. It’s a stunning place, and entrance is free. There is, however, a small charge to visit the Chancel, the Treasury (holding relics plundered from Constantinople), and the Loggia.
If you visit no other area after the main basilica, pay the €5 fee to go up to the Loggia. The climb up its steep steps will reward you with a beautiful view of the Piazza. You’ll also see the four life-size bronze horses taken from the entrance to Hippodrome in Constantinople in 1204. (The ones you see on the exterior of the Basilica are replicas, the originals are inside).
While on the Loggia also look right for a good photo of the beautiful Torre dell’Orologio, the Renaissance clock tower. It sits above one of the entrances leading into the warren of streets beyond.
The Doges’ Palace
The Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace) sits adjacent to the Basilica on St. Mark’s Square. It was the official residence of the more than 100 doges who ruled the Venetian Republic for 1,100 years.
Like the Basilica, it’s a beautiful and fascinating place to visit, although the tour of the palace can get long. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to see and keep you pleasantly occupied.
The Doge’s Apartments are on the first floor of the palace, but the real visual treats are on the second. There you’ll find the ornate chambers and Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Grand Council Hall) on the second. It’s here you’ll find the painting Paradise, by Tintoretto and his son Domenico. It’s a colossal piece, approximately 30’ x 74’, and thought to be the largest canvas painting in the world.
It’s a huge place with plenty to see, including the Palazzo’s notorious prison. There’s also a “Secret Itineraries Tour” of the palace, which provides access to other areas with a guide at fixed times, which must be pre-booked.
You’ll get a spectacular view of Venice and the lagoon from the top of the Campanile, the square’s bell tower. (It was rebuilt to its 16th-century specifications after its Ignominious collapse in 1902). Thankfully, there’s an elevator to the top of the 300+-foot structure.
If you want to do something incredibly unusual, time your visit to be at the top on the hour when the bells ring. The bells are as large as the Liberty Bell and only 6 feet or so above your head. And they don’t ring just the number of the hour but continue ringing for several minutes. They’re so loud you’ll likely need to put your fingers in your ears to muffle the sound.
Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs, the Ponte dei Sospiri, is one of the more photographed places in Venice. It’s so named since it was through its ornate grillwork that prisoners had their last glimpse of Venice. According to legend, many sighed as they passed the grillwork.
The bridge spans Rio di Palazzo, connecting the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace with the first floor of the prison. You can see it by walking outside the along the Grand Canal outside the Doge’s Palace. At the first canal look to your left.
The Rialto Markets
If you get to the Pescheria di Rialto early, you’ll find restaurant chefs selecting their meals for the day. Later on, you can watch locals carefully choosing their evening dinners.
The Rialto fish and produce markets are popular with locals since they’re snuggled right next to one another. There are also a few butcher shops and the ubiquitous coffee bars and cafes nearby. A word of warning: don’t handle the produce since you’ll incur the vendor’s wrath.
Afterward, if you haven’t already come from it, wander over to the 16th-century Rialto Bridge, just a few steps away.
The bridge is one of Venice’s most famous landmarks and a great place to photograph the Grand Canal. It’s also the commercial heart of the city, with shops hugging both sides of the bridge and street.
The Gallerie dell’Accademia has one of the greatest collections of Venetian paintings in the world. It’s a dazzling gallery, to some the Venetian equivalent of the Uffizi in Florence. Visit it once, and you’ll likely wish it was closer to home.
The Accademia is where Napoleon moved many of the artistic treasures of Venice in 1807 after he conquered Italy. You’ll find works by Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Giorgione, Veronese, Titian, and many others.
It’s all housed in the former Santa Maria della Carità convent. Even if you’re not an aficionado of Venetian art, pay it a visit. Most likely you’ll enjoy yourself.
Santa Maria della Salute
Santa Maria della Salute is the Basilica on Dorsoduro, at the entrance of the Grand Canal across from St. Mark’s. Most travelers on Vaporetto #1pass it by in their rush to the Piazza, but it’s well worth a visit.
Following a plague that had killed one-third of its population in the early 17th century, the Venetians built the basilica to thank the Virgin Mary for saving the city. Inside you’ll discover numerous works by Titian, including paintings of scenes from the Old Testament on the ceiling. There’s also a beautiful sculpture on the altar that depicts the Madonna driving the plague from Venice.
A bonus: on a hot day you’ll find it a cool respite from the heat of the city.
Explore a Sestieri
When visiting Venice don’t limit yourself only to the sites listed above. Also wander the labyrinth of streets and alleyways in the Sestieri, or districts, about the city.
The most popular with visitors is Sestieri San Marco, which wraps around the Piazza. With the crowds snaking through the alleyways, the many Carnevale-mask shops, and the legion of waiters trying to lure you to a table, at times it can feel like Venice on steroids. Any time of year, though, it’s a fun place to wander; just let yourself get lost.
At the end of the day walk over to the one-and-only Harry’s Bar made famous by Hemingway, Toscanini, Chaplin, Bogart and Bacall, Taylor and Burton. It’s the home of the Bellini, Carpaccio, and the extravagant bill. (It’s right next to the San Marco Vaporetto stop where you can hop aboard #1 and head up the canal.)
Another wonderful sestieri is Dorsoduro, directly across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco and Harry’s. It’s one of my favorites since it’s a great place to walk about and also teams with activity.
Stand on Punta della Gogana, the tip of Dorsoduro’s little peninsula, for a beautiful view of the lagoon. On the far side stroll along Fondamenta Zattere, the waterfront promenade. Then delve into its maze of streets crisscrossed with canals and bridges to view an authentic slice of Venetian life.
Above all else, the best thing to do in Venice is to set out walking in a sestieri and let yourself get lost. Not to worry, though – you can’t go far without coming to a canal that points you in the right direction.