Venice has been a place of coming and going for centuries. With explorers launching their journeys from the nautical empire, merchants utilising the trade routes to build economic powerhouses, and creatives falling in love with its palazzi and canals, it’s not hard to see the appeal of this floating city. These are the best attractions to explore Venice’s wealth of art, culture and history.
Filled to the rafters with masterpieces, this art gallery was founded in 1750. Napoleon Bonaparte moved it to its current home, the 14th-century Scuola della Carità, in 1807 during his spate of “improvements” to Venice. The building is as majestic as the collection, which includes works by Bosch, Bellini, Veronese and arguably Venice’s most famous artist, Titian, among other European masters. There are 20 days per year – coinciding with local feasts and international celebrations – when entrance is free; check the website in advance of your visit. For art buffs who want to learn more about the masterpieces, or beginners who don’t know where to start, a guided tour is the perfect way to get the most out of your visit.
Legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who helped cement Venice’s reputation as a hub for modern and contemporary art, lived in this palazzo-turned-gallery space from 1949 until her death 30 years later. Her world-famous collection of works by modern artists she discovered and promoted, including Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky and Alexander Calder, are on display in this serene space. You can also pay your respects to Peggy herself, and her many dogs – they’re all buried alongside her in the gallery’s garden. The museum hosts temporary exhibitions and offers free tours delivered by passionate staff members. Make sure you have enough time to get around it all by purchasing fast-track tickets in advance.
One for the scientists, the historians and the curious, the Leonardo da Vinci Museum displays models and maquettes of the great Renaissance inventor’s creations, along with incredible interactive, hands-on exhibits. From helicopters to hydraulics, a visit here drills home just how far ahead of his time da Vinci truly was. While you won’t find originals of his artwork here, as it focusses on his inventions, there are reproductions of his most famous masterpieces. It’s a museum that both kids and adults will enjoy. Children under the age of six enter for free, and adults should purchase a skip-the-queue ticket to bypass the sometimes-heaving crowds. Housed in a church in the San Polo vicinity, this reasonably priced little museum is reachable by waterbus or on foot.
A cruise on one of Venice’s iconic boats is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Take a ride first thing in the morning when the waterways are quieter and more peaceful – it will give you an intimate insight into the city. The great gondolier tradition dates back as far as the city itself when this was the only way to get around. Many gondoliers inherit the trade from their fathers and can be spotted on the streets of Venice in their distinctive striped shirts and boater hats. Due to the tourist demand, gondola rides command a high price; one way to enjoy the same experience at a lower cost is to sign up for a shared ride.
The Rivo Alto (later shortened to Rialto) area of Venice is one of the busiest and oldest, dating to the fifth century. The real heart of the island, the Rialto was where Venice’s early settlers based themselves, and the trading of fish caught in the surrounding lagoon soon followed. This tradition of early-morning fish vending lives on today beneath the beautiful canopies of the 16th-century Rialto Market building. You’ll find stalls overflowing with fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as the catch of the day from Venice’s fishermen. The market makes an excellent place to buy a picnic lunch or take a guided food tour. Also, chat with the sellers as you make your purchases, and marvel at this time-honoured Venetian tradition.
A trip to Venice isn’t complete without venturing off the main island. Take a short boat ride over from St Mark’s Square to the opposite island of San Giorgio Maggiore and explore its church. Designed by legendary architect Andrea Palladio, the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore is a defining point on the Venice skyline, with a bright white facade and tower rising into the sky. Inside, it’s full of Tintoretto paintings and classical features. However, the real treat is travelling to the top of the bell tower, which gives breathtaking views of St Mark’s Square and the surrounding Venetian lagoon. The island also houses the sprawling Giorgio Cini Foundation, where you can enjoy a guided tour of the complex’s art galleries and gardens.
Tucked away in a super-narrow alley, the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is an architectural gem mixing Gothic, Renaissance and Venetian Byzantine styles in a unique way. Its famous exterior spiral “snail” staircase – the Scala Contarini del Bovolo– is something of a marvel. After being painstakingly restored over 30 years, it’s now reopened to the public. Buy a ticket and make the ascent up the twisting stairs, pausing to look at the views revealed by each twist and turn. Once you reach the top, take in the scenes of Venice’s ancient streets laid out in front of you.
Phoenix by name and phoenix by nature, this resplendent opera house is now in its third incarnation, following two fires – one in 1836 and another in 1996. The latter was arson and sent shockwaves throughout the local community – it even featured in John Berendt’s Venice-based non-fiction book The City of Fallen Angels (2005). However, it’s been skilfully rebuilt in the classical style and retains features of the original exterior. The site is a fundamental part of opera’s history, with pieces by Rossini, Bellini and Verdi premiering here in the 18th century. As an alternative to a somewhat costly ticket to one of its rousing productions, La Fenice also offers audio-guided tours through the opulent building.
Every year for six months, this tranquil tree-lined park, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte, is transformed into an international exposition of cutting-edge contemporary art or architecture from around the world. The Giardini is the ideal gallery space for visitors; they can float between the offerings from different countries while enjoying a spritz in the garden. As this is the oldest art biennale in the world, dating back to 1895, the 30 little pavilion exhibition buildings are a sight in themselves – many are over 100 years old. Whether the Biennale is on or not, it’s still worth a visit; the garden is akin to a peaceful, green oasis in the bustling and water-bound city.
This lively square is the beating heart of Venice’s social scene, lined with bars and restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. In the morning, local traders sell fruit, vegetables, bread or fish at their market stalls to the city’s residents. Sunny afternoons see groups of chatting students or the city’s elder community sitting on the benches – join them and watch the world go by with a super-cheap spritz in hand. Once the evening sets and the day-trip tourists leave, the city belongs to the residents. A stroll here gives you a glimpse into the real Venice and should be on every visitor’s itinerary.
This stern building, once the old customs house, points out into the lagoon from the tip of Dorsoduro, just under the Salute Cathedral. Fabulously renovated by the Pinault Collection, it’s the French art organisation’s second art gallery space in Venice. François Pinault is renowned for his exceptional collection of contemporary art, and this space is no different in its offerings, with world-class exhibitions that showcase the very best of the current art world. Joint tickets are available for this and Palazzo Grassi, its sister gallery farther along the Grand Canal, but if time or aching feet prevent you from making the trip to both, this is the space not to miss.
This charming wine bar gives a glimpse into an atypical drinking view in Venice. Situated on a sizeable interior canal, Osteria Al Squero is directly opposite a wonderful old gondola boatyard where the signature crafts are built, maintained and fixed. Here, you can enjoy a spritz on the narrow streets while gazing over at the yard and the expert craftsmen. It also sells some of the finest cicchetti (Venetian small plates) in the city, as well as a wide range of incredibly affordable wines. This bar is the perfect place to while away an evening in Venice and is always teeming with residents.
Completed in 1490, the colossal Frari is one of three remaining Venetian Gothic basilicas in the city. It’s the final resting place of many notable figures, including Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (whose heart is interred in a magnificent pyramid based on his design) and the Venetian painter Titian. Two of Titian’s masterpieces adorn the walls of the church, alongside works by Bellini and other Medieval greats. You can visit seven days a week – apart from Sunday morning when it’s, of course, in use – and explore the impressive array of sculptures, artworks and funerary monuments.
Venice may not be a typical beach destination, but the summer heat sends residents flocking to the rolling sands of the Lido, which face the Adriatic Sea. Take a short waterbus ride there and hire a bike or pedal car from one of the island’s providers and tour the length of the Lido, or jump in the sea for a swim. The island becomes overrun with people once a year for 10 days from the end of August until early September when the exquisite Art Deco Palazzo del Cinema hosts the world-famous Venice Film Festival. Members of the public can purchase tickets and see film premieres from the best directors across the globe, months before their general cinematic release.