You've probably heard people say there's no place on earth like Venice, Italy, and they're right. The city built over the waters of the Adriatic Sea is almost dreamlike, with its elaborate architecture, art-filled palaces, a palpable history stretching back more than 1,000 years and, of course, its network of ridiculously picturesque canals that take the place of streets. Venice is on the itineraries of most first-time visitors to Italy, and it is a beloved destination for return visitors as well.
Venice is composed of more than 100 islands in the Venetian Lagoon, protected from the open sea by the barrier island of Lido and the Cavallino peninsula. The Venice that most people know is the tight cluster of islands around the Grand Canal, the iconic waterway plied by gondolas, water taxis and canal boats. Connected by hundreds of footbridges, this area is divided into sestieri, or quarters. The most central and famous of these is San Marco, or St. Mark's, the geographic heart of Venice. The sestieri of Castello, Cannaregio, San Polo, Santa Croce and Dorsoduro also make up this mass of central Venice, all of which can be explored on foot. Since there are no cars (or roads for cars) on Venice, you have to walk or take a boat (more on that below) to get anywhere. The more distant islands of Murano, Burano, Lido and others are reachable by boat and make for interesting day trips.
Whether you're seeing Venice for the first time or the fiftieth, there is no shortage of attractions and curiosities in this ethereal city. Here are Venice's top attractions, including places with admission fees — and where you might need reservations — and places you can see as a casual passerby.
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Venice's largest piazza, Saint Mark's Square, is the city's main meeting place. Lined with cafes, shops, and a number of museums, this magnificent piazza at the mouth of the Grand Canal is one of Europe's most famous and photographed.
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During the 1,000-year reign of the Republic of Venice, its headquarters – and the residence of its leader, the Doge – were at the Doge's Palace, now a museum. Get a glimpse of the rooms occupied by Venice's executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as go on the Secret Itineraries Tour, which includes access to torture chambers, prisons, and the Bridge of Sighs.
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Go Inside the Basilica San Marco
This superb example of Byzantine architecture next to the Doge's Palace is dedicated to Venice's patron and is Venice's main basilica. Treasures inside Saint Mark's Basilica include glistening Byzantine mosaics and paintings by leading Venetian artists.
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Visit the Galleria dell'Accademia
The leading place to see Venetian art from the 14th to 18th centuries is the Galleria dell'Accademia. Its collection of works by Veronese, Tiepolo, and Titian make it one of the top museums in Venice.
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For many visitors, a gondola ride is an expensive splurge. It can be quite romantic and it is quintessential Venice. Particularly when you get away from the Grand Canal, a gondola ride through the city's network of narrow waterways is also a fantastic way to explore the city's famous bridges and buildings from a different perspective. Here are some tips for enjoying your gondola ride in Venice.
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Venice's best-known festival is Carnevale – Carnival – which sees several weeks of celebrations in which Venetians dress in period costumes, elaborate masks, and other finery. The festival, which typically occurs in February, is always packed with entertainment, food, and thousands of costumed revelers.Continue to 9 of 24 below.
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The Biennale, art, film, and dance festival occurring every year in odd-numbered years since 1895, is an essential part of the Venice art scene. There is also a Biennale of Architecture and Theatre, which occurs every other year in even-numbered years. These biennales always promise a jolt of the contemporary in this old world city.
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In a 13th-century effort to reduce the risk of fires in the city, Venice's glassmakers were ordered to move to the island of Murano. It's now a world-famous destination for colorful hand-blown glass, from simple trinkets to enormous chandeliers. Take the 4.2 vaporetto from St. Mark's Square and discover the island's glass-making traditions, as well as interesting churches and a museum of glass.
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The number 12 vaporetto from stop Nove A in Cannaregio will connect you in 20 minutes to Burano, a Venetian Lagoon island known for its handmade lace and its brightly colored houses. Tradition says that the houses are painted technicolor so that fisherman returning home in the fog-filled lagoon can find their homes in the mist.
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Attend a Classical Performance
Year-round classical and operatic music performances are a hallmark of Venice. There are inexpensive performances in churches and music schools across the city. On Venice's busier streets, you'll encounter people in elaborate period costumes selling tickets to these performances.
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Visit Venice's Jewish Ghetto
Beginning in the 1500s, Venice's Jewish population was forced to live in a segregated area of the city—the word "ghetto" allegedly originates from here. The two parts of the ghetto, Ghetto Vecchio (old) and Ghetto Nuovo (new) are both in Cannaregio, about a 25-minute walk from San Marco. A Jewish community still lives in this quiet area, home to two synagogues and several Kosher restaurants.
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Wander and Get Lost
Venice is an enchanting maze of tiny streets, connected by footbridges. Some of the streets are only as wide as your outstretched hands. Wandering these narrow streets and alleys, many of which dead end at canals, is a delightful way to spend time in the city.
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If you don't want to spring for a gondola ride or you need to get around Venice faster than your feet will carry you, take a vaporetto, Venice's answer to the city bus. The number 1 and 2 vaporetto lines run the entire length of the Grand Canal, so are a great way to see the city. A single tourist's ticket, good for 75 minutes, currently costs €7.50.Continue to 17 of 24 below.
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Hit the Beach on Lido di Venezia
If you're ready for a break from the densely packed crowds of Venice, hop on vaporetto 1 and head to Lido di Venezia (Venice Lido), the lagoon barrier island lined with sandy beaches. There are shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels on Venice Lido, and often they're less expensive than those in Venice itself.
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Take a Short Trip on a Traghetto
For a quick, exciting ride, try a traghetto, an oversized gondola on which passengers stand. Traghetto routes cross the Grand Canal in places where there are no nearby bridges, so they provide shortcuts from one point to another. Trips take just a few minutes and for tourists, they currently cost €5.
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Make a Meal of Cicchetti
They may be called tapas in the rest of the world, but in Venice, small plates of tasty snacks— usually paired with a glass or bottle of local wine—are called cicchetti. Enjoying several plates of cicchetti in a bàcaro, or informal wine bar, is a great way to experience a slice of local life among residents of Venice. Read more about cicchetti in Venice.
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See the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute
The Baroque-style Basilica Santa Maria della Salute was built in the 17th century to give thanks for the city being delivered from the plague. (The church's nickname is simply Salute, or health.) It sits on the point of the Dorsoduro sestiere, and can be seen from Piazza San Marco. The interior features several works from artist Titian.Continue to 21 of 24 below.
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Shop for Souvenirs
When it comes to souvenir shopping, Venice is most famous for handblown Murano glass, Carnivale masks, and lace. If you want a Murano glass keepsake for yourself or loved ones back home, know that much of what is sold on the streets of Venice is cheap imitation product made in China. Don't trust labels that read "Made in Venice" or "Made in Italy." Ask for a certificate of authenticity and remember that if a price seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
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Wade Through the Acqua Alta
The Acqua Alta, or high water, is an extremely high tide that occurs frequently in Venice and floods the city's streets and squares, especially Piazza San Marco and especially in the autumn. It's usually triggered by lunar cycles, low-pressure systems or high winds. Venetians take it in stride, and so should you. Souvenir stands sell rubber boots or disposable plastic ones for you to wade around the city.
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Stargaze at the Venice International Film Festival
Though the event officially takes place on Lido di Venezia, the entire city is abuzz for 10 days each September, when cinema's biggest stars come to town for the Venice International Film Festival. Though you might not score tickets to any big-name screenings, your chances of spotting celebrities in Venice are higher than ever at this time of year.
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Explore the Rialto Fish Market
Located in the San Polo sestiere shortly past the Rialto Bridge, this authentic fish market features more varieties of fish and shellfish than you might have imagined exist, most delivered fresh off of fishing boats that ply the lagoon and the adjacent Adriatic Sea. Open since at least the 11th century, the market stalls also sell a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables, but seafood is the real star. Open every morning but Sunday.