From a museum above the city’s most famous church to a modern art gallery set in an antique palazzo, here are Venice’s best museums to add to your itinerary.
As you walk through the winding streets or take a vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal to admire centuries-old palazzos, it’ll become clear to you that Venice is a city crammed with history. To discover this history in more depth, the best museums in Venice will take you through an exploration of the city’s religious, cultural and artistic past.
The Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) was once the foremost seat of power in Venice; it housed both the government and the personal residence of the Doge, the head of the Venetian state. The building is a tour de force of ornate Gothic architecture in St Mark’s Square, with important Renaissance and Mannerist additions. Inside, visitors can walk through the sumptuous apartments of the Doge, into vast chambers decorated with paintings by the likes of Tintoretto and Titian where governmental departments met, and over the iconic Bridge of Sighs into the dark prisons. If you’re interested in Venice’s political past, then this is the place to visit. Pro tip – If you’re planning on museum-hopping during your trip, opt for the St Mark’s Square Museums ticket: at €25 (£21), this grants entry to the Doge’s Palace as well as the Museo Correr, the Archeological Museum and the Biblioteca Marciana.
Once, the republic of Venice ruled the waves; now, visitors can explore this legacy in the city’s Naval History Museum. It has proudly displayed artefacts from Venice’s illustrious maritime history since the 1600s, with a total of 42 exhibition rooms with exhibits including nautical instruments, cannons and torpedoes. There is also a separate Ships Pavilion exhibiting historic ships – the building that houses the ships was originally a workshop for the production of oars. In this museum, visitors can trace the rise and fall of Venice’s mighty maritime prowess, and learn how the city was able to expand its power through sea trade.
The Museum of Glass is located on Murano, one of the lagoon islands of Venice that has always been synonymous with the craft. There are records of a glassmakers’ guild on the island dating back to the 13th century, though there’s evidence that the art had been practised for much longer than that in the Venetian area. The Museum is housed in the former residence of the bishops of Torcello (a nearby island), decorated with ceiling frescoes and large glass chandeliers. Visitors can follow the chronological collection beginning with noteworthy Roman-era works, and continuing through the centuries of Murano glass production up to the 20th century. With many world-famous masterpieces on display, this is a museum experience that can’t be missed when visiting Venice.
As glass is to Murano, so lace is to the island of Burano. Called merletto in Italian, the art of lacemaking is celebrated in this museum, which was the seat of the famous Burano Lace School from 1872-1970. The museum opens the archives of the school to the public, with exhibits such as drawings and clothes demonstrating techniques learnt and practised. It also exhibits examples of lace from the 16th century up to the 20th century that show the changing fashions and patterns of the intricate art over the years. The museum aims to preserve the art of lacemaking and ensure it’s not forgotten; therefore, lacemakers practise their craft live in the museum, and there are even workshops available for families wanting to learn the skill.
The Scuola Grande di San Marco was once one of six charitable and religious institutions in the city; today, the ornate marble facade now fronts the city hospital. However, the first floor is open to visitors, and it’s here that you can explore the Museum of the History of Medicine. In palatial rooms with gilded ceilings and Renaissance marble altars, visitors can browse over 8,000 medical tomes (including texts by ancient physicians Hippocrates and Galen) as well as display cases of surgical equipment dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Once a noble residence, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia was opened to the public in 1869 by Count Giovanni Querini, the last descendant of the family. This palatial building is a window into the daily life of an 18th-century aristocratic Venetian family. One of the best-preserved examples of this type of museum in Europe, it allows visitors to wander through traditional reception rooms and living quarters replete with frescoes and stucco decoration. The Fondazione also houses a Library that is open to the public in the evenings and during holidays (in accordance with the Count’s wishes.) The museum also frequently hosts classical music concerts and contemporary art exhibits.
The Jewish Museum of Venice is located between two of Venice’s oldest synagogues, in the main square (campo) of what was once known as the Ghetto. The museum documents the traditions and the history of the area, which still has a sizeable Jewish community. You can view precious gold objects, various textiles, religious artefacts and ancient manuscripts dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Another section of the museum documents the immigration of Jewish people to Venice, and their personal history in the city.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was also one of the city’s charitable institutions, and was known as one of the richest; hence, the monumental headquarters in the San Polosestiere (district). The interior’s principal artworks are by Tintoretto, one of Venice’s most celebrated 16th-century artists, and visitors to the Scuola can still see over 60 of his canvases in their original locations. As well as being the richest, it’s also the only Scuola Grande to have survived the fall of the Venetian Republic and is still active today. The confraternity members perform charitable duties and assist in the protection of their artistic treasures, which also include paintings by Giorgione and Titian, precious silverware and devotional objects, and a collection of Islamic and Italian ceramics.
Palazzo Centanni, a 15th-century Gothic palace in the San Polo district, was once the home of Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni and is now a museum dedicated to his life and works. Born in the house in 1707, Goldoni wrote prolifically, and produced 137 comedies among other works during his life. The ornate Gothic exterior features a beautiful quadruple-mullioned window with pointed arches, while the interiors are furnished with paintings and furniture that recreate ‘Scenery Settings’ from some of Goldoni’s most famous plays. There’s a ‘Videotheque’ where visitors can watch a documentary about the playwright’s life, and even a puppet theatre to entertain younger visitors.
The grandiose Palazzo Ca’ Pesaro, overlooking the Grand Canal, is home to the awe-inspiring International Museum of Modern Art and the Oriental Art Museum. The building was designed by one of the great Venetian Baroque architects, Baldassarre Longhena, and the façade is rich with decorations like lion heads, ornate statues and deep-set porticos. The interior frescoes are complemented by modern masterpieces by artists such as Klimt, De Chirico, Kandinsky, and Miró. The third floor hosts the Oriental Art Museum, displaying exhibits from Japan, Indonesia and China including ceramics, ivory statues, artworks and armour.
Beside the Doge’s Palace stands St Mark’s Basilica; Venice’s most famous and opulent church, it also houses a museum explaining the history of the building on the upper levels. Enter through the Basilica itself (as a place of worship, it’s free) and admire the glittering mosaics covering over 8,000 square metres (86,000 square feet) of the walls inside this Gothic and Byzantine-style building. Purchase your tickets to the museum and to view the Pala d’Oro (a gemstone-encrusted altarpiece) inside. Upstairs in the museum, you can see the original version of the four bronze horses, dating from Roman times, which used to adorn the façade of the Basilica; they were moved inside for preservation reasons. Pro tip: Don’t miss the incredible view across St Mark’s Square and out to the lagoon from the balconies of the upper galleries.