Things to Do in Venice
St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) is filled with centuries of history and is still the symbolic heart of Venice; it has even been referred to as the drawing room of Europe. With the grand St Mark's Church at one end, the Campanile bell tower rising in the middle and the elegant colonnaded arcade of famous cafes on three sides, it is a wonderful place to be - and the hundreds of pigeons think so too.
Sit and have coffee (you'll only be able to afford one) and watch the whole world pass by while a tuxedoed band plays. Then plunge north into the narrow streets full of shops leading towards the Rialto Bridge, or west into the city's pocket of high fashion designer stores finishing with an extremely expensive Bellini at Harry's Bar, the place that invented the peach/champagne drink. Alternately, head out of San Marco to the east and stroll the waterfront on the Riva.
Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Cathedral) is magnificent. It is both a wonderful architectural flurry of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance styles declaring the wealth of Venice over centuries, and a spiritual place of worship. Its domes and turrets, and gold mosaic stand out over the square and over Venice, and four ancient classical horses top the entrance, taken from Constantinople (Istanbul) when Venice sacked that city around 1200. Inside the church is dazzling.
The church was begun in 828 when the body of St Mark was returned to Venice, smuggled by merchants from its resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. An angel had told St Mark his final resting place would be Venice (which did not even exist at the time) and the Venetian leaders were keen to make it happen. Over the years, churches were built, burnt, rebuilt and expanded resulting in the incredible building we see today.
Until 1797, the Doges ruled the Venetian Empire and the Palazzo Ducale was where they ruled from. It was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon and landed at Saint Mark's Square. The Doges lived here and the government offices were also in this building. Justice was meted out here and the Golden Book, listing all the important families of Venice, was housed here. No one whose family was not in the Golden Book would ever be made Doge. It was an extremely political process ruling Venice and residents could accuse others of wrong doing by anonymously slipping a note into the Mouth of Truth.
Inside the palace is wonderful art (paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese), majestic staircases, the Doge's apartments, the government chambers, the prison cells and the Bridge of Sighs. Outside, along the piazzetta, each column is different.
The Grand Canal is the main street of Venice. Lined with beautiful, if aging, palazzo, you can hop aboard a gondola and imagine a time when these boats were the main means of transport (once there was 10,000 now there are 400). The impressive palazzo, homes to all the wealthy families, had highly decorated exteriors with colorful paintings and mosaics. These days they tend to have faded to one color but many still have the ornate, oriental facades influenced by the merchant trading with the East which made Venice rich.
Only a few bridges cross the Grand Canal: the Accademia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge and the bridge near the station at Ferrovia. Stand on these and watch boats pass by filled with fruit and vegetables, slabs of soft drink, building materials etc because Venice is still a city without cars and everything the city needs has to be transported by water or handcart.
Murano is one of 118 islands in the lagoon of Venice, famous for its glass factories. This is where the unique colored glass of Venice is made, in family-owned factories. Once located in the main city of Venice, they caused too many fires and were exiled to Murano in 1291 - that's how long the industry has been going.
It takes ten years to master the art of making proper Venetian glass. It's such a specialized art that in centuries past glass-makers were forbidden to leave Venice, and if they looked likely to betray industry secrets they were killed! These days the handmade glass is expensive and the industry is dying out - you are enthusiastically encouraged to purchase when you visit. Murano is home to 4,000 people. In its heyday it had 30,000 residents and the rich Venetians built their summer houses with lush gardens on the island. In fact, Murano had Italy's first botanical gardens.
Built in 1602, the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connected the interrogation rooms in the Doges Palace with the prison cells. It got its name from the fact that prisoners passing across it sighed for their lost freedom and their final view of Venice through the barred windows. The prison cells were small, dank and often a final stop before death. You can see them on a tour of the Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace).
Designed by Antoni Contino whose uncle designed the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs is covered-in, with bars on the windows, made of white limestone. From the outside it is lovely, from the inside not so pretty.
Rialto Bridge or Ponte di Rialto was the city's first bridge over the Grand Canal. Connecting the highest points on the lagoon islands settlement, the first bridge was built in 1180 and this more solid marble one in 1588-92. The bridge is an elegant arch with steps and shops, a mass of water traffic passing underneath, and huge numbers of tourists and Venetians heading across it.
The area around the bridge was, and still is, full of important city functions. Nearby are the city's markets: the fresh produce and the fish market. They have been there for 700 years. This area was also where the first banks were established, where the traders who made Venice rich set sail from and sold their goods on return, where courts met, prisoners were held and punished, and new laws were declared.
More Things to Do in Venice
The Ponte dell’Accademia spans the southern end of Venice’s beautiful Grand Canal between the Galleria dell’Accademia in Dorsoduro and Campo San Vidal in San Marco. As one of only four bridges crossing the canal, it has had several incarnations since the original steel structure was constructed in 1854. This was replaced by a wooden bridge designed by Eugenio Miozzi in 1933, which in its turn was deemed unsafe and removed. Today’s version is identical in construction to Miozzi’s, crafted out of wood in a single arched span but with additional steel supports, and it was erected in 1984.
The bridge is the perfect spot to catch views of the church of Santa Maria Salute and a good vantage point from which to observe the festivities at Venice’s annual Lenten carnival. Latterly the craze for lovers placing locks on bridges in European cities has taken hold here; the Venetian authorities fear for the structure of the bridge and are trying to clamp down on the phenomenon.
Peggy Guggenheim was an important art collector who left the USA to live in Venice for the last thirty years of her life. When she died in 1979 her collection of early 20th century European and American art founded the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Inaugurated in 1980, the collection is still housed in her Grand Canal home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. She was the last person in Venice to keep a private gondola and gondolier.
The collection includes artists such as Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky, Pollock and of course Max Ernst, the surrealist artist and her husband. There is also a sculpture garden and changing exhibitions. After all the centuries old art and architecture of Venice, the Guggenheim collection can be a nice breath of modernity.
Photo courtesy of the Guggenheim Venice.
In the Castello neighborhood of Venice is Campo Santa Maria Formosa, a lively piazza named after the 15-century church that sits in the area. The structure has two facades, each representing two different architectural styles, with its more ornate Baroque façade opening up onto the square.
The large square also includes the 13th-century Palazzo Vitturi and the 17th-century Palazzo Ruzzini, both of which are now hotels that have largely kept many of their original elements. Visitors are likely to see locals shopping in the area, as well as children playing in the square.
The Venetian building that was once the supposed home of famous explorer Marco Polo and his family is now easily missable to passers-by. The nearby square is known as the Corte Seconda del Milion, pointing to the title of Marco Polo's travel memoirs—Il Milione.
Located near the San Giovanni Crisostomo Church and just behind the Teatro Malibran, the building is not open to the public, but there is a small marble plaque on the wall commemorating the site's significance.
Cannaregio is the northernmost of the six districts of central Venice. It is also the largest and most populated of all the districts. This district is home to the Venetian Ghetto, the world's oldest Jewish Ghetto, established in 1516. Since the people in this area were forbidden to expand outwards, they were forced to expand upwards. As a result, you'll find uncharacteristically tall buildings in this part of Venice. Remains of old buildings and memorials stand as a remembrance of the struggle the Jewish people in Venice once had to endure.
Cannaregio Canal, where water buses called vaporetto run, cuts through the district, and the Santa Lucia train station is also located here. You'll also find many historic churches in Cannaregio. On the busy main street, Strada Nuova, you'll find plenty of souvenir shops and tourists. But it doesn't take long to find a quiet piazza in this neighborhood.
Tucked away down a side street not far from the Grand Canal, the Contarini del Bovolo palace is worth a detour if only to marvel at the magnificent spiral staircase that curls up the front of the building. Added to the original building in 1499, the famous staircase was designed by Giorgio Spavento and features a dramatic series of arches, spiraling around an imposing stone-brick tower – a striking effect that appears inspired by the coils of a snail’s shell.
The iconic stairs were immortalized on-screen in Orson Welles’ 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, and have since become a popular tourist attraction, offering expansive views from the rooftop belvedere and making a unique photo opportunity.
Venice is a city of many traditions, and one of the oldest is the way residents get groceries. The Rialto markets have been serving the population of Venice since 1097, making them an authentic part of life in the city.
The best-known of the markets is the Rialto Fish Market, called the “Pescheria” in Italian. In addition to familiar seafood you'll see for sale, you'll also find specialties of the Venetian lagoon. Browsing the aisles is a great way to get an idea of what's local and fresh before you browse restaurant menus later in the day.
Frari Church, whose official name is Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, is one of the grandest churches in Venice. It sits in the San Polo district on the Campo dei Frari and is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The church contains many Renaissance masterpieces and monuments to Renaissance artists and sculptors. It was built in an Italian Gothic style, and visitors will notice the plain exterior. This was intentional as it emphasizes the Franciscan values of poverty and austerity.
Inside you can see Titian's Madonna di Ca' Pesaro in the left aisle, which was modeled after his wife who died in childbirth. Over the main alter is Titian's Assumption of the Virgin. This piece is famous for its innovative style and bright colors, though at the time, the church was hesitant to accept the piece because of these features. Titian's tomb is in the church. Other notable artwork that can be seen in Frari Church includes Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Child with Saints.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was one of the many “Scuole Grandi” in Venice, typically established by the church for charitable purposes. The “Great School” of San Rocco was founded in the 15th century by a group of Venetian aristocrats, although other schools in Venice at the time were more egalitarian - there was no rule against lower classes joining.
The structure of these “Great Schools” was similar from building to building, with a large meeting hall on the main floor and more private meeting rooms on the upper floor. The Scuola di San Rocco was founded in 1478, but the building to house the confraternity wasn’t complete until 1560. The building that is still known as the Scuola of San Rocco is next to the church of San Rocco, from which the society took its name.
The main draw of a visit to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is to see the many paintings by the master Tintoretto.
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