A city built on 118 islands off the coast of northeastern Italy, Venice is unlike any other city in Europe or, for that matter, the world. Virtually unchanged in appearance for more than 600 years, the City of Canals looks more like something out of a picture book than a modern metropolis. It’s a place where the entire city is viewed as an attraction in itself.
A city packed with great art and architecture, millions of visitors come each year to enjoy the experience that is Venice. Even at the height of tourist season, however, Venice is a travel destination that manages to exceed all expectations. Here are the top tourist attractions in Venice that make a visit to this Italian city so special.
Built in 1600, the Bridge of Sights connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison across the Rio di Palazzo. It was designed by Antonio Contino whose uncle Antonio da Ponte had designed the Rialto Bridge. According to one theory the name of the bridge comes from the suggestion that prisoners would “sigh” at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window on their way to the executioner. In reality, the days of summary executions were over by the time the bridge was built and the cells under the palace roof were occupied mostly by small-time criminals.
Best known as the home of the 16th-century church of the same name, San Giorgio Maggiore is a small island located across the lagoon from St. Mark’s Square. Designed by the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, the church features a façade clad in gleaming white marble and an open and airy interior that’s refreshingly bare of over-ornamentation. The main alter is graced by two of Tintoretto’s best paintings, the “Last Supper” and “The Fall of Manna.” Visitors can ride an elevator to the top of the church’s Neoclassic bell tower to enjoy a spectacular view of Venice.
Originally known as the Palazzo Santa Sofia but now commonly known as the Ca’ d’Oro,the 15th century palazzo was designed by architect Giovanni Bon and his son Bartolomeo. Although the façade of this splendid structure no longer features the ornamentation that earned the place its “house of gold” nickname, the now pink-and-white building is a treasure trove of art. Located on the Grand Canal, the Ca’ d’Oro is home to the Museo Franchetti, named after the man who donated the palazzo and its entire contents of Renaissance paintings, antiques, sculpture and ceramics to the city.
Commonly called La Salute, this 17th-century church stands at the point where the Grand Canal meets the Venetian Lagoon. The white stone edifice with its massive dome was constructed as a shrine to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from a plague that killed one third of its population. In addition to the altar sculpture that depicts the “Madonna of Health” driving the demon Plague from Venice, there’s an extensive collection of works by Titian on display, including ceiling paintings of scenes from the Old Testament.
Of all the stately palazzos that line the Grand Canal, no building better illustrates what life was like in 18th-century Venice than the Ca’ Rezzonico. Used as a setting for the 2005 film “Casanova” starring Heath Ledger, the palace’s Grand Ballroom has played host to over-the-top parties for more than 200 years. English poet Robert Browning was one of the last to make the palazzo his home. Today, the entire building is open to the public as the Museo del Settecento. While many of the paintings on display are reproductions, the fabulous ceiling frescoes by the Tiepolo family are authentic and have been restored to their original glory.
As the only public square in Venice, the Piazza San Marco has been the city’s main gathering place for centuries. Surrounded by open-air cafés and landmark attractions, including San Marco Basilica and the Palazzo Ducale, it’s the natural epicenter for any visit to the City of Canals. The square is actually laid out in a trapezoid shape that widens as it approaches the basilica. Despite the crowds that throng it in summer and the rains that flood it in winter, St. Mark’s Square offers a memorable Venetian experience in every season.
The Rialto Bridge is one of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal. For nearly three hundred years, it was the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot. The stone bridge, a single span designed by Antonio da Ponte, was completed in 1591 and was used to replace a wooden bridge that collapsed in 1524. The engineering of the bridge was considered so audacious that some architects predicted a future collapse. The bridge has defied its critics to become one of the architectural icons of Venice.
During the prosperous centuries of the Venetian Republic, the city’s magistrates, or doges, ruled the city like royalty. The Palazzo Ducale was not only the residence of the doge but the city’s center of power and its administrative hub as well. The building was constructed in two phases. The eastern wing, which faces the Rio di Palazzo, was built between 1301 and 1340. The western wing, facing the Piazetta San Marco, took an additional 110 years to build and was completed in 1450. Visitors who take the Secret Itineraries tour can also walk through hidden passageways to view the private council rooms, torture chambers and the prison cell from which Giacomo Casanova made his escape in 1756.
There’s no better way to begin an exploration of Venice than with a gondola ride down the Grand Canal. In a city where cars are banned, gondolas, water taxis and public vaporetti (water buses) are the primary sources of transportation. The city’s aquatic thoroughfare snakes through the center of the city from Saint Mark’s Basilica to the Church of Santa Chiara. Lined on either side by Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance structures, the Grand Canal is crossed by four bridges, the most famous of which is the 16th-century Rialto Bridge. The best time of the day for a gondola ride is in the early morning when the canal shimmers with golden light.
Situated in St. Mark’s Square, the soaring 30-story Campanile and the massive basilica behind it are two of the most popular tourist attractions in Venice. Both date to the 9th century but have been rebuilt and embellished extensively over the centuries. San Marco Basilica serves as a showcase for the wealth that Venice accumulated as a military power. Its design mixes Byzantine and Gothic architecture styles in a unique way. Elaborate medieval mosaics cover much of the cathedral’s walls and vaulting. Behind the tomb believed to hold the remains of Saint Mark stands the altarpiece Pala d’Oro, a jewel-adorned screen of gold that is considered one of the finest works of Byzantine craftsmanship in the world.
The Campanile is the bell tower of the St. Mark’s Basilica and one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks. The current tower is an early twentieth century reconstruction of the original tower, which collapsed in 1902. An elevator brings visitors straight to the top of the campanile, where they have a great view over Venice and the lagoon.