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5 top places to visit in Venice

Jan Richardson / 01 November 2016 ( 19 December 2016 )

Full of romance, art, history and architecture, writer Jan Richardson lists the top 5 places to visit in Venice, the capital of the Veneto region.

Piazza San Marco with the Basilica of Saint Mark and the bell tower of St Mark's Campanile
One of the most popular tourist spots in Venice, the Piazza San Marco has an amazing number of things to see and do © Mariia Golovianko /

Nestled in the Adriatic Sea, just off the coast of north-eastern Italy, Venice is the capital of the Veneto region.

It is connected to the mainland by road and rail, but by far the most popular way to travel there is by water.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, communities who lived in this region were thrown into turmoil and fled the mainland, taking refuge in a lagoon of more than 100 islands.

So it was, around 400AD, that Venice and the first Venetians came into existence. Nowadays the city is a hub of tourism.

The myriads of elegant gondolas slice through the glistening waters of the lagoon as they glide under the many bridges and into the canals, carrying precious cargoes of sweethearts, newlyweds and visitors into the heart of the city - a city of canals instead of streets.

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Piazza San Marco

There is an amazing number of things to see and do in this very small area of Venice alone. Unless arriving by train or road when coming to Venice for the first time, whether by vaporetto or by water taxi, you might alight at the St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) stop.

Probably the first thing you will see is the white limestone Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri), with its barred windows, leading from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison (Prigione Nuove) across the Rio di Palazzo.

But the shiver that might have run down your spine on seeing the Bridge of Sighs will soon be forgotten at the sight of St Mark’s Square. This impressive piazzeta could well be your first introduction to Venice and what better one could there be?

To left and to right at the water’s edge stand two granite columns, carrying emblems of the patron saints of Venice, which guard the square. 

To the right, the magnificent Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), with its Gothic white walls, arches and colonnades, is a distinctive landmark from the water.

The queues to see the palace are often long, so it is advisable to pre-book a tour with skip-the-line tickets. The view that then enfolds, only a few steps into St Mark’s Square, is truly awesome.

On your left, adjacent to the square, is the attractive bell tower (Campanile di San Marco), with its walls of orange brick, its arched belfry and pyramidal spire, topped by a golden angel. 

A former lighthouse, it is also one of the first features to be seen when approaching from the sea.

If climbing stairs is difficult for you, the observation tower can be accessed by lift and the view from the top is well worth the wait in the queue, although tickets for this can also be pre-booked. At 99 metres tall, it oversees the rest of Venice.

St Mark's Basilica

To the right, stands the glorious St Mark’s Basilica, with its mix of Gothic and Byzantine architecture. Its 8000 square metres of mosaics covering the walls, vaults and cupolas took ten centuries to develop.

Its sculptures are of various type, origin and epoch, but perhaps the most memorable are the Quadriga – four bronze horses brought from Constantinople as spoils of war - which were placed on the high façade in the 13th century.

St Mark’s Basilica is one of the most richly embellished churches in the world. A morning visit is recommended, not only to bust the queues, but also for you to witness the early morning sun shining on the cathedral and turning it to gold - a truly wonderful sight.

Again, pre-booking tickets avoids queuing for a long time and can easily be done online. St Mark’s Square takes on different roles depending on the time of day.

Although in the early morning it can be deserted, by midday it is a bustling square where tourists rub shoulders with Venetians, shopping, meeting, eating, drinking and chatting. In the evenings the atmosphere of the square changes again.

The shops are closed late at night but the lights from the cafes and bars illuminate the square. Orchestras play classical pieces to appreciative audiences in the street cafes and passers-by stop to listen or sit for a while, before continuing on their way.

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Rialto Bridge

Moving out of St Mark’s Square, you might make their way towards the Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto).

There is no other bridge in the world quite like the Rialto Bridge, the oldest and most famous of the four main bridges spanning the Grand Canal.

It was built more than 400 years ago to divide the two Venetian districts of San Marco and San Polo and is 75 feet wide, with the arch height of 24 feet; its longest span is over 94 feet long.

Accessed by a steep flight of white marble steps on one side, flanked by balustrades, the bridge levels out across the top. Pause a while before descending the other side via a similar flight of stone steps: the view down the Grand Canal from the top is truly breath-taking.

All along the length are a series of shops built into the arches, with a central walk-through arch at the top, so you can browse to your heart’s content.

Symmetrically pleasing, along with St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge is one of the most visited tourist spots in Venice – and probably the most portrayed by landscape artists.

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Rialto Market

The Rialto Bridge leads down into the Rialto Market (Mercato di Rialto) on the San Polo side of the Grand Canal. The Rialto Market is one of the greatest markets in the world, selling Venetian specialities and Mediterranean fare on a daily basis since medieval times.

The fact that even the locals shop there is testament enough. Open early in the morning until about 2pm, the market comprises the fruit and vegetable market (Erberia), oranges (Naranzeria),spices (Speziali) and fish (Pescaria).

The fish market is wisely located in a covered hall (the Pescheria), in order to guard against the fish becoming food for seagulls. You can also pick up authentic Italian fare, such as wine, oil and pasta at the market.

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Guggenheim Museum

Located in Dorsoduro, about half way between the Accademia Bridge (Ponte dell’Accademia) and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal, is the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, one of the most important museums in Venice.

When Peggy Guggenheim lost her father on the Titanic, she turned her attentions to collecting her favourite art works. Peggy came to Venice in 1948 and, using her palatial home on the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, to display them, she collected many types of art.

In particular she favoured abstract expressionist and surrealist art by renowned artists such as Jackson Pollock and Max Ernst (her ex-husband), Picasso and Dalí. 

Her beloved sculpture garden, with its variety of works by Moore, Kapoor, Giacometti and Brancusci, is also her final resting place.

It has become an important tourist attraction, so incorporated in the grounds is a cafeteria, toilets and a museum shop. Be sure to be there around sunset – the last rays on the buildings across the Grand Canal are not to be missed.

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Teatro La Fenice

The tourist trail back to St Mark’s Square from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum would take you across the Accademia Bridge, another of the most important bridges crossing the Grand Canal, and past the famous Fenice Theatre (Teatro la Fenice). La Fenice is Venice’s renowned opera house, where Rossini’s ‘Sigismondo’ and Bellini’s ‘The Capulets and the Montagues’ have been performed many times over the years.

As you would probably expect, however, nowadays emphasis is being placed on more contemporary works. La Fenice was originally founded in 1792, after the original theatre, Teatro San Benedetto, burnt down.

The new theatre was re-named Teatro la Fenice, which means ‘Phoenix’, rising from the ashes. The theatre was burnt down again in 1836 and again in 1996.

Three times the opera house has been resurrected from the ashes and each time after a destructive fire, the latest one as a result of arson by two electricians in retaliation for their company receiving fines over work delays.

The latest restoration began in earnest in 2001, with the motto ‘How it was. Where it was’. Hopefully that will be the last time it will have to be done. Again, tickets for the performances can be pre-booked online or purchased at the box office.

A city of many varied and interesting attractions, Venice is not short of things for you to see and do. In addition to the features of the main island of Venice itself, why not take a boat trip to Murano, Burano or visit the Lido?

Or book a guided tour which pre-books tickets for many of these places. Above all, you will enjoy yourself whatever in the beautiful ‘City of Water’, the ‘Queen of the Adriatic’.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.