For as crowded and “must-see” as Venice is, it actually does not boast as many attractions as I expected (at least, not in comparison to Rome or Florence). But that’s totally okay, because it simply means you can knock out all the sights and leave behind the crowds to get lost in Venice’s beautiful streets on your own. Whether visiting in the heat of summer or during the excitement of Carnival, keep reading for the top attractions and things to do in Venice that you absolutely should not miss, plus a couple of less-known hidden gems!
PIAZZA SAN MARCO
Piazza San Marco is Venice’s main square and the center of all the
chaos action. Here, you’ll find the oldest cafe in Venice (Cafe Florian), the bar where the Bellini cocktail drink was invented (Harry’s Bar), and the next three attractions in this guide. As you might have guessed, it’s a hotbed for tourist crowds! If that sounds like misery to you, I highly recommend stopping by Piazza San Marco early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the city’s infamous cruise ship day trippers.
BASILICA SAN MARCO
In my opinion, the Basilica San Marco (Saint Mark’s Cathedral) is the shining star of the Piazza San Marco. I love its Byzantine-style mosaics, it’s five cloud-like domes, and the little horsies crowning it’s exterior. You’ll be pleased to learn that it’s free to enter! However, there can be a very long line most hours of the day, so be careful what time you go. If you’re on a tight schedule, you can book your time slot online during high season for a €2 booking fee. Consider timing it while the interior is illuminated from 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on weekdays. Either way, make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, and know that large bags are not allowed inside. Don’t worry – there’s a free luggage storage the basilica will tell you to use.
CAMPANILE DI SAN MARCO
Campanile di San Marco (St. Mark’s Campanile) is the iconic bell tower across from the Basilica San Marco. Unlike the Basilica, it is not free to enter, but I think its quintessential 360 degree views over Venice are well worth the €8 to take the elevator up. Book ahead online for an additional €2. And, oh! – fun fact: Galileo actually used the Campanile di San Marco as an observatory to study the skies, and it was where he demonstrated his telescope invention back in1609!
The Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) was formerly the Doge’s residence and seat of Venetian government. (And if you’re wondering what on earth a “Doge” is, it’s basically the chief ruler of the former Venetian Republic.) The Doge’s Palace sits right on the water, where the Grand Canal spills out into the Venetian Lagoon, and, together with the Campanile, makes up what would be Venice’s “skyline.” You can admire its pastel-pink and white Gothic-style exterior for free, or enter inside for €25 (or €13, with the 29-year-old-and-younger Venice Rolling Card) plus the €2 booking fee if bought online.
PONTE DEI SOSPIRI
The Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) is an enclosed white limestone bridge connecting the Palazzo Ducale with the prisons across the canal. Legend has it that prisoners crossing the bridge to meet their dooms sighed as they peered out the windows, catching a final glimpse of freedom. While you can (and should) view the bridge’s exterior for free, from around the corner of the Doge’s Palace, you’ll have to book the Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour to walk through the inside of the Bridge of Sighs and see that sigh-worthy view prisoners walked by. The tour will set you back €28, plus the online booking fee if relevant.
PONTE DI RIALTO
The Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) sits right in the heart of Venice and is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal. This beautiful and iconic bridge is lined with shops on both sides of its middle (similarly to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence). Between the shopping and selfie-taking on the bridge, the water taxis and gondolas underneath the bridge, and the restaurants on either side of the bridge, this area can be a more-than-a-little hectic! Consider passing by Rialto Bridge in the morning or evening if you can’t stand tourist crowds.
While it’s not as famous as Rialto, the Ponte dell’Accademia (Accademia Bridge) is hands down my favorite bridge in Venice. The bridge itself is nothing to write home about, but I simply love the view it boasts of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, especially during sunset.
FONDACO DEI TEDESCHI
This glamorous shopping center offers lovely rooftop views over the Rialto Bridge and central Grand Canal, as well as unique views over the rest of Venice. The best part? It’s free! But you’ll need to book your time slot in advance. I recommend doing so at least a day or two prior to get your ideal time slot. Fondaco dei Tedeschi is located right at the edge of the Rialto Bridge on Calle del Fontego. Once inside, take the elevator or climb the steps up to the top level.
THE GRAND CANAL
Venice would not be Venice without the S-shaped Grand Canal. And while you’ll no doubt have seen it several times while enjoying the attractions listed above, you can’t leave Venice without riding along the Grand Canal itself. The quintessential way to do so is, of course, on a gondola. This will set you back €80 per gondola (six people max) in the daytime, or €100 for sunset and later. Prices are fixed, so check current gondola prices, and don’t let anyone overcharge you! If you’re on a budget, however, you can alternatively ride the vaporetto (public water taxi) instead. Take it between the San Marco stop and the train station stop, either direction you please. I highly recommend timing this ride during sunset, not only for the lighting, but also because the water taxi is a lot less busy compared to in the daytime!
CHIESA DI SAN GIORGIO MAGGIORE
So by now you’ve seen Venice from every possible angle within. But what about that classic “skyline” view I mentioned earlier; that iconic one of the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile? Well, for that, you’ll need to head to Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore (Church of Giorgio Maggiore), right across the way. Ride a vaporetto on Line 2 (view the Line 2 schedule) from either from Piazzale Roma or Ferrovia. Get off at the Isola di San Giorgio stop, where you can disembark onto the little island. Enjoy the view from sea level, or ride the elevator up to the bell tower for €3. View the church’s hours here.
BURANO & MURANO
If you have more than one day in Venice, you’ll want to spend some of it visiting Instagram-famous Burano. Historically known for its lace making, the insanely-colorful island of Burano seems to have usurped nearby glass-making island of Murano as Venice’s original must-do day trip. Luckily for visitors, it’s super easy to DIY a half-day trip to both these islands (plus historical Torcello, if it’s of interest to you). Doing it yourself costs just as much as the cheapest tour packages, but you have the added benefit of being on your own schedule. Check out my guide on how to visit Venice’s islands without a tour.
FREE TWO WEEK ITALY ITINERARY E-BOOK!
Will you be exploring more than just Venice when in Italy? If so, definitely check out my insanely detailed two week Italy itinerary. I made it specifically with first-time visitors to the country in mind, but it’s honestly great for anyone who has a lot to see in a little time! I’ve also made a printable, condensed version of that two week itinerary with every important detail you’ll need once on the ground. Just download the PDF, print it double-sided (so four pages total), and you’re good to go for your trip. It even has a map! Click below to get it emailed to you.
SO, WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Have any questions? Or suggestions on hidden gems you found that I can make sure to see on my next visit? Please let me know in the comments section below!