When in Venice: 30 things not to miss in The Floating City

Lina Branter | 20/05/2019
The Grand Canal in Venice.
The Grand Canal snaking its way through Venice.

Venice. Queen of the Adriatic. City of Bridges. City of Water. City of Masks. La Serenissima. Whatever name you call it, the gold-encrusted, eccentric grand dame of Italy spreads herself out like an extravagantly embroidered cape over 118 islands and across 400 bridges in the Venetian lagoon. Only in Venice, where the sleek silhouettes of gondolas glide noiselessly on the canals framed by decadently decorated palazzos, is decrepitude so charming, decay so elegant.

Below are just a few of the must-sees, must-dos and must-eats in Venice. Pack your flowing, embroidered scarves, your carnival mask, and comfortable but stylish walking shoes. Get ready to immerse yourself in the city that gave the world not only Marco Polo, Vivaldi and Titian but that infamous scoundrel in love, Casanova.

Must-sees in Venice

1. Meet you at Saint Mark’s

I don’t think it’s legal to go to Venice and not see the most famous square in the world, the Piazza San Marco. It’s been on the list of must-sees in Europe since the 18th and 19th centuries when foppish young English nobles pranced their way to the continent. And for good reason — the piazza is the largest open space in Venice, and its religious, political and artistic center. Napoleon is credited for calling it the “The drawing room of Europe”. And let’s face it, Saint Mark’s has the most must-see places to visit in Venice all crammed into one square.

The square itself is an homage to elegant, orderly design with the three arcaded sides drawing your eye to the show-stopper that is Saint Mark’s Basilica. Take the elevator up the Campanile, or bell tower, across from the basilica and drink in the view of Venice. The piazza is also home to Venice’s most popular attractions besides the Basilica: the Doge’s Palace, the whimsical Torre dell’ Orologio, the Museo Correr and the famous Caffè Florian, one of the oldest bars in Europe dating back to 1720.

Note: If you do decide to stop and have a drink or a light snack in the piazza to soak up the atmosphere, it will cost you; the prices are notoriously high. If having a drink at the Florian is not on your bucket list, then I would skip it for a bar off the piazza.

Also, if you’re visiting the piazza in winter, bring your rain boots. The square is situated on one of the lowest points in Venice. In winter during what the Venetians call acqua alta, or high water, the poor piazza is the first to be flooded.

2. Stay gold

Hovering over the square from the east end is the awe-inspiring Saint Mark’s Basilica, a spectacular example of Italo-Byzantine architecture. The Basilica was founded in the 9th century and boasts more than 6,000 square feet of gold ground mosaics and a whole mountain range of domes. It has stood since the 11th century as a symbol of Venice’s power and wealth, where it earned the nickname the Chiesa d’Oro or Church of Gold.

Under its sparkling, gold-encrusted mosaic ceilings you will find the simple sarcophagus that holds the body of Saint Mark, beside the definitely not simple altarpiece, the Pala d’Oro, made of gold and 2,000 emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies and other gemstones. You can also get a glimpse of more plunder from the crusades in the Tesoro, including the original Triumphal Quadriga, four bronze horses taken from Constantinople (reproductions preside over the piazza outside).

3. It’s a Doge’s life: Palazzo Ducale

To give you an idea of the grandeur of this palace, the Basilica was, until the 19th century, the Doge’s private cathedral. The Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, which nestles the Basilica in its ornate, gothic embrace, sits between the piazza, the Rio del Palazzo Canal and the Grand Canal. Though the doge’s residence moved to this site in the 10th century, not much remains of the original building. The present structure was constructed between the 13th and 14th centuries. With its facade of geometric patterns, arcades and numerous statues, the palace is a glorious, Venetian-style ode to gothic architecture.

The palazzo served many purposes: the Doge’s private residence, council chambers, courts and even a prison. The entrance fee gives you access to many parts of the palace, including the Museo dell’Opera where you’ll find the original statues from the 14th and 15th centuries that used to adorn the façade of the palazzo. In an effort to preserve the statues, they were removed in the 19th century and replaced with copies. 

Highlights of the Palazzo include the Scala d’Oro, or golden staircase (Venetians really liked their gold), and the lavish state and council rooms decorated by the most celebrated Venetians artists at the time: Giovanni Cambi, Titian, Tiepolo and Tintoretto. As you go through the narrow passageway to the prison, don’t forget to glance out the triangular window to the Bridge of Sighs. Legend has it, prisoners would pause to glance out one last time at the bridge and the canal beyond and sigh for their loss of freedom.

A ticket to the Doge’s Palace also gives you access to the other museums that line the Piazza San Marco. While you’re there, why not visit the Museo Correr where you will find important works by Canova and Bellini as well as historical Venetian objects, such as the crazy high platform shoes 16th century Venetian women used to wear (they needed a servant to help them walk). Also included in the price of the ticket is entrance to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, where you will find an impressive collection of Greek and Roman artifacts and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

4. Time’s masterpiece: the Torre dell’ Orologio

The wondrous clock tower of Saint Mark’s is the perfect timepiece for this magical city. Master Clockmaker Mario Codussi designed this amazing feat of engineering. It took four years to build, from 1496 to 1499. The Torre dell’Orologio not only displays the time, but also phases of the moon and the dominant astrological sign at that moment. 

At the top are two giant statues that strike the bell hourly. Below the giants stands a winged lion, the symbol of Venice, with a book under its paw, and underneath the lion is a statue of the Virgin Mary. During Ascension week and epiphany, four magi make their entrance from the clock face, and bow to the Virgin Mary below.

Since the clock was first built, master mechanics assigned to be the clock’s caretakers live in the clock tower. You can take a guided tour that will take you up the spiral staircases, through the clock mechanism and onto the rooftop to the giants.

5. Bridging the heart of Venice: The Rialto Bridge

From the Torre dell’ Orologio, wander up and out of the square to the Rialto Bridge. Beating out the likes of Michelangelo and Palladio for the job, Antonio da Ponte, or Anthony of the Bridge (that was his actual name) finally managed to build a bridge that would span the Grand Canal, be tall enough to let galleys through, and not collapse like its previous iterations.

Built between 1588 and 1591, the Rialto Bridge was the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot until 1854 when the Accademia bridge was built. You can choose to walk on the outside of the bridge along the outer balustrades, or browse the small shops that line the central walkway inside the famous arcade. The Rialto bridge, with its white Istrian stone and elegant arcades, is one of the city’s most enduring symbols. If you want to beat the crowds, head over to the bridge at sunset or early in the morning, as it can get very crowded during the day. You might even want to approach it from a water taxi to get the best view of what is called the Heart of Venice.

6. Get some perspective: Climb the campaniles

If the campanile, or bell tower of Saint Mark’s seems a lot newer and shinier than the rest of the square, you are not wrong — this latest iteration was built after the original, dating back to the 12th century unexpectedly crumbled in 1902.  Even if the entrance fee is kind of steep, the view of the piazza, the grand canal and the rest of the city from the bell tower is one of the most spectacular in Venice. Although it isn’t the same bell tower, it is the same view and perch Galileo used for his telescope experiments in 1609.

7. Where art thou? Galleria dell’ Academia, of course.

The magical ambience of Venice has produced and attracted some of the world’s most renowned artistic superstars. Cross the Ponte dell' Accademia to the south bank and visit the Galleria dell’ Academia. Housed in the old Scuola Della Varità (1343), the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Carità (1448) and the Convento dei Canonici Lateranensi, this incredible art collection focuses on the period between 1600 to 1880. Its treasures include works by Canaletto, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese as well as the original Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.

8. Don’t Judge a basilica by its exterior: Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, or more commonly known as the Frari, is one of the largest churches in Venice. Built between 1231 and 1492, the exterior is in keeping with the Franciscan esthetic, making it pretty plain by Venetian standards. But don’t be fooled; step inside and a treasure trove of religious art awaits you. Highlights of the Frari’s vast collection include Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin which takes pride of place behind the main altar, surrounded by stained glass windows. You will also find among the many statues and paintings Donatello’s Saint John the Baptist and the tomb of the sculptor Canova.

9.     Get the Picture: the Peggy Guggenheim collection

Arguably one of the most influential art collectors and tastemakers of the 20th century, American heiress Peggy Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949 and remained there for the rest of her life. In fact, when you visit the collection, housed in her 18th century palazzo, you can also visit her grave alongside the memorial plaque to her beloved dogs. The collection includes works by around 200 artists, including Picasso, Dalì, Max Ernst (her ex husband), Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Mirò, Chagall as well as sculptures by Henry Moore and Giacometti.

10. Tints of Tintoretto: the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is the building of a still active lay confraternity established in 1478. With its rising popularity due to the veneration of their patron Saint Roch, who was thought to protect people from the plague, the brotherhood built a fabulous new headquarters between 1515 and 1560. And who better to decorate the interior than their own brother, Tintoretto? The only scuola to have survived the fall of the republic, it is generally agreed that the building houses some of Tintoretto’s most important work. As you go from the first to the second floor, Tintoretto has painted the biblical story from the Fall to the Redemption.

Must-dos in Venice

1.     Get lost. Seriously. Just start walking.

More than any other city in Italy, it’s worth spending a few days to go beyond the admittedly spectacular Saint Mark’s square to wander the historic streets, cross the many bridges and gaze at Venice’s beautiful, sinking palazzos. In short, imagine yourself as the hero in a Merchant Ivory film. 

La Serenissima is a city steeped in fairy tale magic. If you really want to get a taste for it, you have to let go of the itinerary and let yourself get lost. In fact, if you really want to game it out, use the middle part of the day for wandering and only hit the big tourist attractions first thing in the morning or late at night when all the tour buses and cruise ships have left.

2.     Take a gondola ride on the Grand Canal

One of the most iconic things to do in Venice is to tour the Grand Canal from one of the sleek, little gondolas steered by a strong, handsome Venetian. Even if it feels touristy and cliché, the view of the city from the canals is unparalleled. You can book a shared gondola ride with up to five or six people, or splurge for a romantic ride for you and your special someone.

3.     Island hop: Burano, Murano, Torcello, etc.

As mentioned above, Venice stretches over 118 different islands, each with its unique style and attractions. Although the gondola rides are a special and pricey treat, most Venetians use vaporettos, or water buses, to get around. Here are some of the islands that should be on your “what to do in Venice” list:

  • Burano for its brightly painted fisherfolk houses and exquisite lace
  • Murano for, you guessed it, its world-renowned glassmakers and glass work
  • Torcello, where the city of Venice first began, is a small, quiet island that will get you away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist crowds and provide you with some greenery. Also check out the Santa Maria Asunta church with the oldest mosaics in Venice, dating back to the 11th century.
  • Guidecca, just across the canal for its amazing view of the city and finally, because you deserve some quiet
  • The Isola di San Michele or cemetery island where you can stroll through the tombstones and visit the graves of Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. The cemetery is still in use and you may come across a mourning party. Respectful dress and indoor voices are much appreciated.

4. To Market to market, to the Rialto Market!

Get up early and head to the Rialto Market, near the famous Rialto Bridge. Located in one of the oldest parts of Venice, it is also the oldest existing market in the city. You will get a glimpse of living Venice, with the local fishmongers and farmers selling their wares. While you’re there, why not pick up some fresh delicious food for a picnic?

5. Go Crazy — Visit the island of the mad

Even magical cities like Venice have their dark sides. For 250 years, the island of San Servolo was the location of Venice’s mental asylum. Run by the religious order San Giovanni di Dio, the asylum opened in 1725 when the order was given from on high that all insane men were to be placed on the island. They began leaving women there in 1798. Until its closure in 1978, it is said that more than 200,000 patients were admitted to the asylum, the majority of whom never left. In 2006 the site was reopened as the San Servolo Insane Asylum Museum dedicated to the history of the asylum. It is worth noting that Venice also had one other asylum. This one is located on the now off-limits Poveglia island which served as a quarantine station for plague victims. Rumour has it Poveglia’s soil is 50% human remains.

6. Want to fight? Get your pugilist on at the Ponte dei Pugni

Apparently, the Venetians in the 17th century had a charming tradition of holding epic fisticuff battles on the top of bridges. From September to Christmas each year, clans of young men would gather on the bridges and try to knock each other into the sewage-filled canals below. As the century wore on, the fights began to lose popularity and were finally outlawed altogether when the battles got out of hand and knives were pulled. Check out the most famous fighting bridge of them all, the Ponte dei Pugni near the Campo San Barnaba, with its four marble footprints to mark the fights’ starting points.

7. From the Outside Looking In: The Bridge of Sighs

If you have already gone through the Doge’s Palace you will have walked across the covered Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of sighs. However it is worth taking a look at it from the outside. The bridge was built in 1600 to connect the new prison with the Doge’s interrogation rooms. Leave it to the Venetians to build such a beautiful bridge for such a grim purpose: made of iconic white Istrian stone and elaborately decorated, even the bars on the window are gorgeous.

8. Ghetto out of there

Take a break from the crowds by heading toward the Canareggio district to spend a few hours in one of the most historic districts of Italy, Venice’s Jewish Ghetto. From 1516 to 1797 when Napoleon conquered the city, dissolved the republic and put an end to segregation, Jewish Venetians were forced to live in this small neighborhood of Venice. Residents could leave during the day to conduct business in the city but at night the gates around the neighborhood were locked. Stroll around the beautiful neighborhood, or take a tour offered by the Museo Ebraico, dedicated to the rich history of the Venetian Jewish community.

9. Seasonal pursuits: Biennale and Carnivale

Depending on when you plan to visit Venice, your trip may coincide with these world-renowned events. The Venice Biennale is held every two years (on the odd-numbered years) and showcases the world’s best visual art, with many countries contributing pavilions with their own artists. It is usually open from late spring to late fall. The Carnival of Venice is an annual celebration that takes place right before Lent. It is one of the most renowned and popular celebrations in Italy, known best for its extravagant and elaborate masks and masquerade balls. Keep in mind that if you’re travelling to Venice during these times, book way in advance — the city fills up with tourists faster than the Saint Mark’s Square floods after a storm.

10.   Lido down, my tired tourist

After all that sightseeing, you must be exhausted. Why not hop on a vaporetto to the trendy Lido Di Venezia, or Venice Lido, and take advantage of the almost seven mile long sandbar on the Adriatic side of the island? Although a lot of the beach is owned by prestigious hotels such as the Excelsior and Hotel des Bains (the setting for Thomas Mann’s classic Death in Venice), there are also beautiful public beaches where you can take a load off and process all the amazing art and architecture you just experienced.

While you’re on Venice Lido stroll down the Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta, the island’s main street, which takes you from the lagoon side to the Adriatic and is lined with shops and restaurants. Or if you need some more calm and quiet, check out the beautiful Jewish cemetery or the Oasis of Alberoni nature preserve with its pine forests and dunes measuring up to 29 feet high.

Must-eats and must-drinks in Venice

Venice has a reputation for bad, expensive tourist food. And yes, if you’re not careful you can fall into the trap of getting an overpriced pasta with a sauce that resembles ketchup or an inedible pizza from a tourist trap. But here’s the thing — every region in Italy has its own specialties made from what’s locally available. Venice has a rich culinary heritage based on its proximity to the sea. So save the pizza for your trip to Naples, leave the high-touristy areas and open your mind and taste buds to some classic Venetian eats and drinks.

1. Is it cocktail hour yet?

If you want to live like the Venetians, you must not skip the most important hour of the day: cocktail hour. Find a lovely little Bacarì waterfront bar that serves alcohol and Venetian-style tapas or Cicchettis.

 

Head to the famous Harry’s bar, a haunt of that old rogue Ernest Hemingway and dazzle your taste buds with a Bellini, a classic cocktail consisting of Prosecco (which is from the Venetian region) and peach purée.

Another favourite local aperitif is the Venetian Spritz. Made with prosecco, a dash of a bitter liqueur such as Aperol, Campari or Cynar, topped off with sparkling water and served over ice with a slice of orange. You will see many Venetians sipping this refreshing cocktail after hours in the city’s Bacarìs.

2. Crammed like Venetian sardines: sarde in saor

Now that you’ve taken the edge off and are ready for your next cocktail, make sure to order some quintessential Venetian dishes to go with it. Sarde in saor, a Venetian-style antipasto, is a sweet and sour dish made from sardines marinated in vinegar, onions, pine nuts and raisins.

3. Baccala mantecato

Another great appetizer to go with your Venetian cocktails is baccala mantecato, a dried cod mousse flavored with olive oil, salt and pepper and served on fresh bread or grilled white polenta. This is a staple found in many Bacarìs.

4. The People’s polenta

As mentioned above, grilled white polenta is a staple of Venetian cuisine that can be found in most Venetian restaurants. Made of cornmeal, the dish can be served as a sort of porridge-like mush, or as hardened, grilled fritters topped with delicious antipasto. If you want it as a main meal, try scampetti con polenta (shrimp and polenta) or fegato alla Venezia (veal liver with onions and roasted polenta).

5. Venetian pasta: bigoli in salsa

Okay, okay, so there is at least one pasta dish native to Venice: bigoli in salsa. Made from bigoli, thick whole wheat strands of pasta similar to spaghetti, topped with a sauce made from onions and salt-cured fish, this dish was traditionally served on giorni di magro, or lean days such as Good Friday or Christmas Eve; today it’s served year round in Venice.

6. It’s the squid’s ink: risotto al nero di seppia

The lagoon ecosystem is perfect for growing rice, making it one of the staples of Venetian cuisine. One of the City of Stars’ most unique dishes is seafood risotto in a squid, wine, onion and tomato braise. Oh and don’t forget the squid ink, which gives this meal its distinct black color.

7. Simple delicious: Venetian rice and peas

Springtime in Venice means a propensity of this traditional dish, risi e bisi. Cooked in a pea-shell broth and made with rice, pancetta, onion, butter and parsley, this dish was traditionally served to the Doge of Venice on Saint Mark’s day (April 25) by the peasantry of the lagoons.

8. In vino Venice: wine and prosecco from the Veneto region

Like the other regions of Italy, the Veneto region produces unique and delicious wines. From prosecco used in many of the famous cocktails above, to quality white wines such as a bottle of Soave or Orto di Venezia or Venissa, the Veneto region produces the perfect accompaniment to your local meal.

9. Pick yourself up with a taste of tiramisù

Rumour has it that this delicious coffee flavored dessert was invented in the 1960s by the chef of a restaurant in Treviso in the Veneto region. Made of lady fingers, egg yolks, sugar, coffee, mascarpone cheese and cocoa powder, the dessert is widely available throughout the city. However, the buzz is that Tre Mercanti serves the best tiramisù in Venice.

10.  For the sweet tooth: fritole

Sort of like a light and fluffy donut hole, fritoles are made with a batter of flour, eggs, butter, milk, sugar, pine nuts and raisins formed into balls, deep fried and dusted with icing sugar. Alas, these delicious Venetian desserts are only made for Carnevale, so if you want to taste them, best book your tickets in advance and pack your carnival mask.