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Things to Do in Venice

Built on more than 100 islands and devoid of cars, Venice is a walker’s paradise. Even when crowds reach their maximum, a stroll down the Floating City’s winding passageways reveals the city’s abundant charm. The architectural splendor of Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica in Piazza San Marco reign supreme, while the Grand Canal splits the city in two like a lightning bolt. Glide beneath Rialto Bridge during a sunset gondola ride, admire brightly colored buildings on the water’s edge, plan a visit to the world-famous glassblowing factories on the colorful island of Murano, and flock to the craggy peaks of the UNESCO-listed Dolomites on an easy day trip.
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St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco)
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St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) is filled with centuries of history and is still the symbolic heart of Venice; it has even been referred to as the drawing room of Europe. With the grand St Mark's Church at one end, the Campanile bell tower rising in the middle and the elegant colonnaded arcade of famous cafes on three sides, it is a wonderful place to be - and the hundreds of pigeons think so too.

Sit and have coffee (you'll only be able to afford one) and watch the whole world pass by while a tuxedoed band plays. Then plunge north into the narrow streets full of shops leading towards the Rialto Bridge, or west into the city's pocket of high fashion designer stores finishing with an extremely expensive Bellini at Harry's Bar, the place that invented the peach/champagne drink. Alternately, head out of San Marco to the east and stroll the waterfront on the Riva.

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Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
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Until 1797, the Doges ruled the Venetian Empire and the Palazzo Ducale was where they ruled from. It was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon and landed at Saint Mark's Square. The Doges lived here and the government offices were also in this building. Justice was meted out here and the Golden Book, listing all the important families of Venice, was housed here. No one whose family was not in the Golden Book would ever be made Doge. It was an extremely political process ruling Venice and residents could accuse others of wrong doing by anonymously slipping a note into the Mouth of Truth.

Inside the palace is wonderful art (paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese), majestic staircases, the Doge's apartments, the government chambers, the prison cells and the Bridge of Sighs. Outside, along the piazzetta, each column is different.

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St. Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco)
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Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Cathedral) is magnificent. It is both a wonderful architectural flurry of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance styles declaring the wealth of Venice over centuries, and a spiritual place of worship. Its domes and turrets, and gold mosaic stand out over the square and over Venice, and four ancient classical horses top the entrance, taken from Constantinople (Istanbul) when Venice sacked that city around 1200. Inside the church is dazzling.

The church was begun in 828 when the body of St Mark was returned to Venice, smuggled by merchants from its resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. An angel had told St Mark his final resting place would be Venice (which did not even exist at the time) and the Venetian leaders were keen to make it happen. Over the years, churches were built, burnt, rebuilt and expanded resulting in the incredible building we see today.

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Grand Canal
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The Grand Canal is the main street of Venice. Lined with beautiful, if aging, palazzo, you can hop aboard a gondola and imagine a time when these boats were the main means of transport (once there was 10,000 now there are 400). The impressive palazzo, homes to all the wealthy families, had highly decorated exteriors with colorful paintings and mosaics. These days they tend to have faded to one color but many still have the ornate, oriental facades influenced by the merchant trading with the East which made Venice rich.

Only a few bridges cross the Grand Canal: the Accademia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge and the bridge near the station at Ferrovia. Stand on these and watch boats pass by filled with fruit and vegetables, slabs of soft drink, building materials etc because Venice is still a city without cars and everything the city needs has to be transported by water or handcart.

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Venice Islands
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Of the several islands in the Venetian Lagoon, the 3 main ones are Burano, Murano and Torcello. Though small, each island has developed its own name and fame separate from Venice. The people of Burano are known internationally for their lace industry. Murano's inhabitants have a reputation as artisans as well, producing world-famous glassware. Torcello was the first of Venice's Islands to be populated, making it home to some of the areas oldest buildings and finest cathedrals.
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Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)
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Rialto Bridge or Ponte di Rialto was the city's first bridge over the Grand Canal. Connecting the highest points on the lagoon islands settlement, the first bridge was built in 1180 and this more solid marble one in 1588-92. The bridge is an elegant arch with steps and shops, a mass of water traffic passing underneath, and huge numbers of tourists and Venetians heading across it.

The area around the bridge was, and still is, full of important city functions. Nearby are the city's markets: the fresh produce and the fish market. They have been there for 700 years. This area was also where the first banks were established, where the traders who made Venice rich set sail from and sold their goods on return, where courts met, prisoners were held and punished, and new laws were declared.

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Murano
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Murano is one of 118 islands in the lagoon of Venice, famous for its glass factories. This is where the unique colored glass of Venice is made, in family-owned factories. Once located in the main city of Venice, they caused too many fires and were exiled to Murano in 1291 - that's how long the industry has been going.

It takes ten years to master the art of making proper Venetian glass. It's such a specialized art that in centuries past glass-makers were forbidden to leave Venice, and if they looked likely to betray industry secrets they were killed! These days the handmade glass is expensive and the industry is dying out - you are enthusiastically encouraged to purchase when you visit. Murano is home to 4,000 people. In its heyday it had 30,000 residents and the rich Venetians built their summer houses with lush gardens on the island. In fact, Murano had Italy's first botanical gardens.

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Bridge of Sighs
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Built in 1602, the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connected the interrogation rooms in the Doges Palace with the prison cells. It got its name from the fact that prisoners passing across it sighed for their lost freedom and their final view of Venice through the barred windows. The prison cells were small, dank and often a final stop before death. You can see them on a tour of the Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace).

Designed by Antoni Contino whose uncle designed the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs is covered-in, with bars on the windows, made of white limestone. From the outside it is lovely, from the inside not so pretty.

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Rialto Fish Market (Mercato di Rialto)
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Venice is a city of many traditions, and one of the oldest is the way residents get groceries. The Rialto markets have been serving the population of Venice since 1097, making them an authentic part of life in the city.

The best-known of the markets is the Rialto Fish Market, called the “Pescheria” in Italian. In addition to familiar seafood you'll see for sale, you'll also find specialties of the Venetian lagoon. Browsing the aisles is a great way to get an idea of what's local and fresh before you browse restaurant menus later in the day.

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Dorsoduro
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Venice is one of Italy’s most iconic destinations—and as a result, it’s also one of the country’s most crowded. But travelers in the know say Dorsoduro, one of the city’s six sestieri, is home to incredible museum, delicious rustic food, impressive architecture and plenty of old-world churches with just a fraction of the crowds.

Visitors can wander along the canal, then check out the Gallerie dell’Accademia, which houses dozens of masterpieces by some of Venice’s most-prized painters, or the Peggy Guggenhein Colletion, which is home to an equally impressive array of modern artworks.

Dorsoduro’s San Sebastiano, one of the sistieri’s most famous churches, offers visitors incredible access to ornate fresco ceilings and gilded altars without the crowds. And travelers looking for tasteful souvenirs at a fraction of the cost can find them at Calle Sant’Agnese.

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More Things to Do in Venice

Campo Santa Maria Formosa

Campo Santa Maria Formosa

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In the Castello neighborhood of Venice is Campo Santa Maria Formosa, a lively piazza named after the 15-century church that sits in the area. The structure has two facades, each representing two different architectural styles, with its more ornate Baroque façade opening up onto the square.

The large square also includes the 13th-century Palazzo Vitturi and the 17th-century Palazzo Ruzzini, both of which are now hotels that have largely kept many of their original elements. Visitors are likely to see locals shopping in the area, as well as children playing in the square.

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La Fenice Opera House (Teatro La Fenice)

La Fenice Opera House (Teatro La Fenice)

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Of the many famous opera houses in Italy, few are more legendary than Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. Originally opened in 1792, the theater quickly achieved the status of a major venue for opera performances. The theater’s name, “La Fenice,” means “The Phoenix.” It was a reference to an earlier theater owned by the same company having burned down, in an optimistic look toward the mythic bird that rises from its own ashes. Unfortunately, the name proved to be a prescient one - La Fenice burned down twice, in 1836 and again in 1996. Both times, the theater was rebuilt. The second fire (and subsequent “whodunit” mystery) was chronicled in John Berendt’s book, “The City of Falling Angels.”
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Marco Polo's Home (Casa di Marco Polo)

Marco Polo's Home (Casa di Marco Polo)

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The Venetian building that was once the supposed home of famous explorer Marco Polo and his family is now easily missable to passers-by. The nearby square is known as the Corte Seconda del Milion, pointing to the title of Marco Polo's travel memoirs—Il Milione.

Located near the San Giovanni Crisostomo Church and just behind the Teatro Malibran, the building is not open to the public, but there is a small marble plaque on the wall commemorating the site's significance.

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Bovolo Staircase (Scala Contarini del Bovolo)

Bovolo Staircase (Scala Contarini del Bovolo)

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Tucked away down a side street not far from the Grand Canal, the Contarini del Bovolo palace is worth a detour if only to marvel at the magnificent spiral staircase that curls up the front of the building. Added to the original building in 1499, the famous staircase was designed by Giorgio Spavento and features a dramatic series of arches, spiraling around an imposing stone-brick tower – a striking effect that appears inspired by the coils of a snail’s shell.

The iconic stairs were immortalized on-screen in Orson Welles’ 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, and have since become a popular tourist attraction, offering expansive views from the rooftop belvedere and making a unique photo opportunity.

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Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Collezione Peggy Guggenheim)

Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Collezione Peggy Guggenheim)

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Peggy Guggenheim was an important art collector who left the USA to live in Venice for the last thirty years of her life. When she died in 1979 her collection of early 20th century European and American art founded the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Inaugurated in 1980, the collection is still housed in her Grand Canal home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. She was the last person in Venice to keep a private gondola and gondolier.

The collection includes artists such as Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky, Pollock and of course Max Ernst, the surrealist artist and her husband. There is also a sculpture garden and changing exhibitions. After all the centuries old art and architecture of Venice, the Guggenheim collection can be a nice breath of modernity.

Photo courtesy of the Guggenheim Venice.

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San Polo

San Polo

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Venice is home to six districts, or sestieri in Italian, and San Polo is the smallest of the bunch. It lies at the heart of the city, hugging one of the big bends in the Grand Canal on one side.

Named for the Church of San Polo, this area is one of the oldest parts of the city, and it is also home to many top sites. Venice's oldest bridge, the Rialto, connects San Polo to the eastern bank of the Grand Canal, and Venice's primary market sits near the base of the Rialto on the San Polo side. The Campo San Polo is Venice's largest public square after St Mark's Square, and the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto is said to be the oldest church in Venice. Although the area around the Rialto is always busy, the quieter streets of San Polo can be found if you walk away from the Grand Canal, deeper into this charming neighborhood.

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Cannaregio

Cannaregio

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Cannaregio is the northernmost of the six districts of central Venice. It is also the largest and most populated of all the districts. This district is home to the Venetian Ghetto, the world's oldest Jewish Ghetto, established in 1516. Since the people in this area were forbidden to expand outwards, they were forced to expand upwards. As a result, you'll find uncharacteristically tall buildings in this part of Venice. Remains of old buildings and memorials stand as a remembrance of the struggle the Jewish people in Venice once had to endure.

Cannaregio Canal, where water buses called vaporetto run, cuts through the district, and the Santa Lucia train station is also located here. You'll also find many historic churches in Cannaregio. On the busy main street, Strada Nuova, you'll find plenty of souvenir shops and tourists. But it doesn't take long to find a quiet piazza in this neighborhood.

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Campo Santa Margherita

Campo Santa Margherita

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The most famous square in Venice is that of St Mark, but if you're in the Dorsoduro sestiere, you should head for the Campo Santa Margherita—one of Venice's largest public squares.

The Campo was named for a church on the square, although that building is now used as a university lecture theater. It’s still worth a visit, though, and so is the “scuola” of Santa Maria dei Carmini. There is a regular outdoor market held in the square, as well as a supermarket that opens for visitors to wander through. But the Campo Santa Margherita is primarily known as a lovely place to relax during the day and as a hub of Venetian nightlife after the sun sets. There are several bars and cafes lining the streets.

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Venice Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Venice Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo

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Venice is home to many important churches, including the huge Basilica of Saints Giovanni and Paolo (John and Paul). Known as “San Zanipolo” in Venetian, this Basilica was the setting for every Venetian doge’s funeral from the 15th century on, and is the burial site for 25 of those doges. Santi Giovanni e Paolo was built in the 14th century on land donated by a 13th century doge. The church is enormous - one of Italy’s biggest - and contains artwork by notable Italian artists as well as several tombs. Because the church also holds a piece of a saint - in this case, one of the feet of St. Catherine of Siena - it rises to the level of “Basilica.” Artists whose work appears in Santi Giovanni e Paolo include Bellini, Veronese, and two generations of Lombardo sculptors. Not only does a painting by Bellini hang in the church, Bellini himself is also buried inside. Other tombs in the church include 25 Venetian doges and the 3rd Baron of Windsor, who died in Venice in 1574.
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Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli)

Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli)

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With its gleaming marble-coated façade and eye-catching spirograph-inspired windows, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a striking sight, perched on the banks of the Miracoli canal. The early Renaissance church dates back to the late 15th century, when it was built in honor of a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary that stood on the plot. The icon was famed for performing a number of miracles (including allegedly reviving a man who had drowned in the Giudecca Canal) and the Santa Maria dei Miracoli was erected to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims who flocked to the site.

Today, the masterful design of acclaimed Renaissance architect Pietro Lombardo is the church’s main draw, with its polychrome marble, sculpted pilasters and ornate reliefs giving an impression of grandeur that belies its small size. The most enchanting viewpoint is from the waterfront, but be sure to explore the interiors too, where the legendary icon, known as ‘I Miracoli.

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Venice Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto di Venezia)

Venice Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto di Venezia)

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A designated Jewish Quarter from the 16th to the 18th century, Venice’s Campo del Ghetto gave us the word ‘ghetto.’ ‘Gheto’ in Venetian translates to ‘foundry,’ referring to an island of Venice that Jewish citizens were once confined to. The Venetian Republic decreed that Jews could enter Venice during the day, but on Christian holidays and during the evenings had to stay within the ghetto.

Interestingly, the area is divided into the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto), and the adjacent Ghetto Vecchio (Old Ghetto), though the Ghetto Nuovo is actually the older of the two. Jews from all over Europe lived in the neighborhood — in fact, each of the different synagogues was historically designated by origin (German, Italian, Spanish, etc.) Today the Campo del Ghetto is still the center of Venetian Jewish life. There is a Jewish museum, cemetery, two Kosher restaurants and five synagogues which remain mostly in their original form.

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