Venice isn’t just a historic marvel (though there’s plenty of history and a laundry list of museums here, for those looking), it’s also incredibly romantic. The dreamy canals, old churches and alleys that seem to go for miles, dotted with shops and restaurants, are just a few of the unique perks in Venice.
No cars are allowed on the island, so besides walking, everyone takes the public transport water boat (vaporetto). But the best things to do in Venice go beyond your typical gondola ride. If you’re visiting the city, here are some must-sees, from Peggy Guggenheim’s former mansion to the most beloved Venetian campanile.
Best attractions in Venice
By far the most epic church in Venice, this Roman Catholic cathedral is set in the heart of San Marco Square. Its architecture is impressive and the marble staircase is filled with incredible detail. Inside, the opulent Renaissance style, gold mosaics and stunning marble sculptures are trademarks of Venetian history. Notice te Horses of Saint Mark which crown the main entranceway; they were stolen by Napoleon but returned in 1815.
Set at the heart of the San Marco neighbourhood, this bustling area is often packed with tourists, so visit early in morning or late evening to avoid the crowds. It’s a place to peruse the small streets, poke through the shops, grab an espresso or watch a live jazz band on a restaurant patio. It’s a perfect pit stop when planning to hit Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica in the same day.
This prestigious concert venue with red velvet seats and golden walls is an absolute must-see, even if you’re not going to catch the latest Beethoven. This 19th century opera house is one of the most renowned landmarks of Italian opera. Built in 1837, it boasts a gold-gilded ceiling and sculptures of mermaids lining the walls. Throughout, there are yellow-tinted lamps, which casts a sepia tone on everything. Check their website for theatre times.
No trip to Venice is complete without a visit to this sprawling art museum, which features over 500 artworks from the Gothic to Rococo eras. The paintings here are laid out chronologically in 24 rooms, so expect to be taken through the entire illustrious history of Venice from the eyes of the city’s artists. Don't miss the Carpaccio's St Ursula Cycle and Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi. This museum is also a short walk to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
In 1948, the famed art collector bought a palazzo facing the Grand Canal and moved in with her fleet of Lhasa Apso dogs. Today, visitors can see her elaborate modern art collection, which features artworks by Man Ray, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella. Alongside the vine-covered terrace and café, Guggenheim is buried in the garden with her six dogs, each of whom have their own gravestone.
This gothic building, built in the 1700s, is an intimidating court house with checkered floors. It was once the centre of the city’s administration, though it’s more than just a legal hub; there are dozens of classical artworks here, including paintings by Tintoretto, Bellini and Carpaccio, and the space is enormous, so one can easily spend a day perusing its elegant hallways. This is the only way to walk over the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” which would transport prisoners from court to prison.
With its pointed roof and brick structure, this 10th century campanile is so tall, it was the main mark for boat captains to find their way home. It was rebuilt after crumbling in the 1500s and now has an elevator to take visitors to the top. This bell tower is the most popular in Venice, so it’s better to visit it early in the day, though it can be dreamy at sunset, too. It offers a superb view of the city and if the weather is clear, see the Alps in distance.
Green space in Venice is tough to find, but this leafy, terraced garden is the perfect place to relax. Set behind a set of tall fairytale-like gates, the garden is near the Venezia Santa Lucia train station in the city’s Santa Croce area. While waiting for your train, pick a spot under shady trees to sit and read a book, or walk around to find that the garden is filled with pretty stone sculptures and monuments.
This low key secondhand bookstore has piles of books stacked up on its floors in both Italian and English. This is also where one can buy notebooks, postcards and art prints at a reasonable price. Inside this cramped but legendary space, Acqua Alta Library has a gondola boat sitting in the middle of the floor and several cats wandering around. More than anything, visit for the unique character of this local hotspot.
One will rarely stumble upon this museum by accident, as the historical venue is tucked away in a side street. Originally the home of a 15th century Venetian doge, today it is a museum featuring more than 100 sculptures and paintings, including the famous sculpture "Abduction of Ganymede." The main Tribuna Room is the perfect selfie spot to take you back to ancient Venice. This museum is a great one for architecture nerds, as its decorative ceiling and creative stucco are one of a kind.
Just a short walk from the Rialto Bridge, the Italian fashion brand Prada has its own art collection housed in an 18th century palace, the Palazzo Corner della Regina. The frescoes here were commissioned by Caterino Cornaro, a descendant of the Queen of Cyprus, and inside, you’ll find protective gargoyles tucked into the architectural details. Expect to roam through large-scale group shows themed around travel, fashion and architecture, some of which are presented in collaboration with the Venice Biennale.
Inside this ancient Venetian palazzo is a four-story contemporary art museum where one can see the latest from the art world. The exhibitions change up three times a year, so catch the latest artworks alongside French art collector François Pinault's private art collection of modern and contemporary art, which includes artworks by Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.