Imagine losing yourself in the maze of watery canals and cobblestoned lanes, or indulging in a romantic gondola tour with sweet melodies. Think about the chance to visit the most important cultural sites, admire works of art by some of the greatest artists in the world, as well as getting lost in the less visited quarters, sestieri and streets known only to the locals. Or picture yourself cruising along the Grand Canal or visiting the Lido where you can feel like a movie star. Do these activities make Venice a must-see for you when you come to Italy?
If you have a busy schedule and just a few days in the floating city, here’s an art-filled weekend itinerary in Venice to discover one of Italy’s most famous cities in just two days, without missing anything.
Day One – A dose of Culture
You have just landed in Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, or arrived by train, and it’s early in the morning. First thing’s first, take public transport to Piazzale Roma: the best choice is by vaporetto where you can sit back, relax and admire the beauty of this city. In this way, while you skim across the water on your way to the city centre, you can poke your head out of the top of the boat and take in breathtaking views of the lagoon. Remember to have your smartphone to hand!
Once you have checked into your hotel, wear a very comfortable pair of shoes and start a walking tour across the oldest part of the town, from Piazzale Roma to Piazza San Marco. Along the way you’ll observe the canals, the narrow streets and bridges while enjoying the cute boutiques along the way. If you don’t like walking, the vaporetto takes fifteen minutes to reach San Marco. That’s it, you are in one of the most famous squares in the world (and about to make friends with a lot of pigeons).
St Mark’s Basilica and the Bell Tower
San Marco is Venice’s cathedral, devoted to St. Mark the Apostle, and it serves as the splendid focus of the city’s main piazza. According to legend, two merchants stole the body of St. Mark from Alexandria in Egypt and carried it back to Venice, before presenting their relic to the doge who ordered the construction of the Basilica to house the remains of the apostle. The transferal of St Mark’s relics into the church is represented in a mosaic over the left portal of the Basilica.
Legend also surrounds four ancient gilt bronze horses, represented over St Mark’s central entrance mosaic and in Bellini’s painting of Piazza San Marco. They were stolen from Costantinople during the Fourth Crusade and placed on a platform from which the doge made public speeches. Because all animals were considered free, Venetians saw them as a symbol of Venice’s independence and freedom.
Although lines can be very long in high season, you can book tickets in advance – one option is the skip a line entrance and one hour tour which is helpful as your guide will point out things you may not notice on your own. At some times of year they also let you climb the staircase to the rooftop where you can revel in one of the best sights of the square and the Grand Canal (and Instagram to your heart’s content!).
Another attraction to see in Piazza San Marco is the Bell Tower in front of Saint Mark’s Basilica. Admission is free, but the elevator costs 8 euros. The stairs allow you to walk off the big dinner you’re sure to have later. From the balcony you will be greeted with a panorama of all of Venice’s churches and monuments, as well as the Grand Canal.
Saint Mark’s Basilica, Piazza San Marco
Opening Hours: 9:45 am – 5 pm (Sunday 2 – 5 pm)
Right behind St. Mark’s Basilica is the Doge’s Palace. The Palazzo Ducale is the former home of Venice’s elected ruler, the Doge. Back in the day, he lived and governed the city from these rooms. It was officially opened as a museum in 1923. It has two principal facades, the oldest one overlooks the lagoon and it is decorated with 14th century sculptures, while the floor arcade and the loggia are decorated with 14th and 15th century capitals and they are located right next Saint Mark’s Basilica. The palace shares structural walls with the basilica next door and even includes a passageway used by the ruling family in the past. Touring the interior may help you tunderstand the high standards of the doges and his families. In fact, the institutional chambers and the apartments are decorated with the most spectacular sculptures and works of art from the 14th century. The palace was also a courthouse and there is a small very famous bridge, called Bridge of Sighs, that connects the palace to the prison.
Doge’s Palace, Piazzetta San Marco
Opening Hours 9 am – 7 pm (5:30 pm from Nov to Mar)
Admission: free (with museum pass) / various prices
The Accademia Gallery
The main museum in Venice to see local paintings (up to the 18th century) is the Accademia Gallery, founded in 1750. The paintings are displayed in chronological order, which means that your visit starts off in the 14th century, continues through Giovanni Bellini’s Madonnas and Childs and Giorgione’s The Tempest and ends with the various paintings of Titian. A visit may take you from 90 minutes up to three hours depending on how deeply you wish to look, however there are some works of art that you should not miss, Giorgione’s The Tempest is one of them. Although it’s “just a very small painting” that apparently only depicts a woman sitting with a baby on her side and a man barely looking at her, there is not a contemporary textual explanation or a definitive reading or interpretation of this image that is shrouded in mystery. Scholars have debated at length to figure out what it means, suggesting, amongst various possibilities, that the painting represents Adam and Eve with their son Cain, after having been ousted from Eden by God; or that it is a moral allegory; or that the author (or his advisor) had no particular subject in mind, leaving it up to the viewer. The Accademia also has very good collection of Canaletto paintings which are worth a visit because they show what the city looked like in the past.
The Academia Gallery, 1050, Campo della Carità, Dorsoduro
Opening Hours: 8.15 am – 2 pm, Tues – Sun 8.15 am – 7:15 pm, Friday 8 am – 10 pm
Admission: 11 euros
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
After a very busy morning and early afternoon, you can continue your art-filled day with a vist to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. It was founded in 1478 by a group of wealthy Venetian citizens with the aim of increasing the artistic production of the town. The building is entirely covered with gorgeous late Venetian Renaissance paintings; here Timoretto, one of Venice’s most renowed artists, was contracted for numerous works. Some of the paintings contained within the scuola signify the struggle of Venetians at the time and man’s fall and redemption.
Tintoretto‘s Crucifixion, for example, captures all the sorrow and sadness that surrounded the crucifixion and is considered to be his masterpiece. Some of his other great works of art feature various representations of the Old and New Testament and the life of Saint Rocco. This site is extremely visitor-friendly – not usually very crowded, with a good audioguide, and definitely a must see if you really appreciate art and architecture – look at that bold facade!
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Campo San Rocco 3052, San Polo
Opening Hours 9 am – 5.30 pm (Apr – Oct), 10 am – 4 pm (Nov – March)
Admission: 5.50 for adults, 1.50 for kids.
Jewish Ghetto and Rialto Bridge
After a quick stop at the hotel (which may include a footbath…) and a romantic dinner on a terrazza somewhere (see the Food section below), it’s time for an evening walk. I suggest the Jewish Ghetto, instituted in 1516 during the Venetian Republic, which was the area where Jews were forced to live with political and human rights restrictions (though fewer than in other parts of Europe). Today, the ghetto is still a center of Jewish life in the city, and the community is still very culturally active. Along with its architectural and artistic monuments, a Museum of Jewish Art has recently been opened along with various info-points (closed at night, of course).
Rialto is actually not very far from Canareggio, which is the area where the ghetto can be found, and it is very beautiful at night, when the market stalls on it have closed and the tourists dispersed. It is the oldest bridge across the Grand Canal and was built to connect the districts of San Marco and San Polo. Until the 19th cenury it was the only bridge in town so it was the only place you could cross from one side to the other, unless you had a boat – imagine the traffic!
You first day in Venice is over. Go back to the hotel and sleep, you deserve it.
Day 2 – Churches and Boats
After a first day full of large museums and monuments, the morning of your second day in Venice should be all about the churches because a lot of great art lies within and their structures are simply fascinating.
Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli
This church is also known as the “marble church” because it is covered with the finest Greek, Carrara and Veronese marbles across all wall surfaces, both inside and out. Santa Maria dei Miracoli is one of the best examples of the early Venetian Renaissance and it was built in the 15th century as a votive chapel to house a particular miracle-working image of the Madonna that once was framed on a street corner. The original project was expanded in 1484 to include the construction of an adjacent convent for nuns, who exercised power over their own commissions (unusual for the time). The convent was connected to the church by an enclosed walkway that was later destroyed.
This lovely little church is thus an unusual example of female commissions in the city, and you get the sense of female presence in the predominance of pink and light yellow marble, and in the delicate lines and shapes of the almost jewelbox-like structure. Inside, look for the presence of ornate metal grates behind which the cloistered nuns would hide to observe the mass.
Between 1987 and 1997 the church was completely restored and all the marble was cleaned in a solution of distilled water. The project cost 4 million to complete.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli Church, Campiello dei Miracoli, 6075, Canareggio
Opening Hours 10 am – 5 pm (Mon – Sat), 10 am – 5.30 pm (Sunday)
Admission: 3 euros
Church of San Zaccaria
The Church of San Zaccaria (the father of John the Baptist) is located southeast of Piazza San Marco, in a quiet square not far from the waterfront. The current church was built between 1444 and 1515 after a huge fire destroyed the previous one. The facade is a harmonious Venetian mixture of late-Gothic and Renaissance style, while the interior contains some of the magnificent works of art found in Venice.
The most famous one is the The Madonna and Child with Saints by Giovanni Bellini, in which he created a brilliant illusion of the three-dimensional world, creating the sensation of looking into a real chapel. The holy figures are depicting a sacred conversation and are positioned following an established scheme: the Madonna and child are enthroned, a musician angel on a step and four saints are symmetrically placed at the sides. The bright colors are achieved with a technique in which Bellini first painted the canvas with a white background and then continued to paint layer upon layer of thin colored glazes in order to obtain the effect of an inner glow in which the light appears to emanate from the depth of the picture itself. The chapel in which the saints reside is topped with a mosaic dome, showing the influence of San Marco in the city.
Church of San Zaccaria, Campo San Zaccaria, 4693
Opening Hours 10 am – 12 pm, 4 pm – 6 pm
Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, commonly just called Frari by locals, is built in brick in an Italian Gothic style and the exterior is completely plain in accordance with the Franciscan emphasis on poverty and austerity. The interior is light and spacious and contains many excellent examples of Renaissance art including another of Bellini‘s masterpieces, the Frari Tryptich. Bellini set his figures before a mosaic apse which evokes the same traditions as the domes and columns at San Zaccaria and San Marco, underlining the continuity of Venetian and Byzantine history. At the same time, he ruptures the traditional Venetian concept of an altarpiece as a collection of distinctly separate paintings by creating a scene in which the columns separating the paintings appear to be a part of the space, thus not interrupting the interaction between the holy figures, but instead suggesting that they are all together in a church setting.
Titian’s Pesaro Madonna in the left side aisle exemplifies how, after Bellini, Venetians liked to place their subjects off center in the scene, at the apex of a scalene triangle rather than a balanced isosceles triangle. This is quite different from the other Renaissance works in which the characters occupy primary visual importance in the centre. The effect created is that the viewer, walking into the church and seeing the Madonna, feels that he could walk up into the painting because the angle corresponds with the direction from which he enters the church.
On the high altar, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin commemorates the rising of Mary to heaven and represents the artist’s homage to the tradition of Venetian mosaics suggested by the golden background. This painting finally established Titian’s popularity in Venice because the emperor Charles V, who was present at the unveiling ceremony, asked to buy it.
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, 3072, San Polo
Opening Hours: 9 am – 6 pm
Murano, Burano and Torcello
After a day and a half of beautiful works of art, museums and impressive churches, you can spend your last afternoon in Venice exploring three famous islands of the Venetian lagoon. The most luxurious way is to rent a private boat with a service like Motoscafi Venezia which allows you to fully experience Venitian art and history with a tour of the founding communities and with a relaxing and intimate itinerary. Known for its glassware shops and factories, Murano boasts a very long and still active tradition ever since glass artisans moved their shops here from the city centre. Pay a visit to the museum entirely devoted to the world-famous Murano glass and watch skilled glass blowers create works of art. On the tranquil island of Torcello you can visit Venice’s first cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. Finally at Burano, you can admire fishermen’s houses, browse local shops and buy some souvenirs before returning to Venice.
What to eat in Venice (and where)
Following an art-filled itinerary like this requires a lot of energy. Street food is the best solution if you do not want to waste time, especially at lunch, and in Venice there are a lot of places where you can grab a bite to eat on-the-go. At Dal Moro’s (Calle de La Casselleria, 5324) you can take Italian fresh, hand-made pasta in Chinese-food-style takeout boxes for 7-10 euros – make sure to arrive very early or relatively late if you don’t want to wait in line. At the Antico Forno in San Polo (not very far from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco) you can buy a huge slice of pizza for 3-5 euros, tuna pizza is highly recommended.
If you don’t like eating standing up and want to take your time, Osteria Enoteca San Marco (Frezzeria San Marco, 1610) is the place to be. Here you can taste some tasty fresh fish dishes and good wine for 25-30 euros per person. Here in Venice, the aperitivo is a fundamental part of the day and Bellini is the most ordered drink. It is a mixture of sparkling wine and peach nectar and is often accompained by a cicchetto which is the Venetian answer to Spanish tapas, often fish based.
For a high quality romantic dinner, Michelin-starred restaurant, Da Fiore (Calle del Prestin, 3886) is an elegant bistrot in the heart of San Polo where you can treat yourself to seafood prepared with local ingredients and exclusive wines. There are only two tables with a canal view for which it is highly recommended that you book in advance.
Your art-filled weekend in Venice has now drawn to a close and it’s time to return home and reflect on all the masterpieces you had the chance to see. Alongside Florence, Rome and Mantova, Venice has always been one of the hearts of the Renaissance and home to some of the most talented artists in history. Visiting this city is more than just a wonderful holiday, it is a spiritual experience that will change you from the inside and make you realise how much beauty mankind has produced and witnessed throughout the centuries.