Venice – the city of canals – is a unique and beautiful destination, steeped in history and culture. With its picturesque canals, bridges, magnificent palaces, and historic landmarks, Venice is a must-visit destination.
Founded over 1,500 years ago by refugees fleeing from invading forces, the former seat of the Venetian Republic was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Many of its historic sites and monuments still stand today, and the whole city feels like an open air museum.
From the grandeur of Saint Mark’s Basilica to the beauty of the Rialto Bridge, Venice is a treasure trove of iconic historical landmarks waiting to be explored – whether by one of the city’s famous gondolas or on foot.
Here we explore the top 5 historical sites that Venice has to offer.
St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), surrounded by numerous magnificent historic buildings, is the beautiful principal public square of Venice. Famously Napoleon is said to a have described the square as ‘the finest drawing room in Europe‘.
The square was first established in the 9th century, though it would not reach its current size until three centuries later, in 1177. The most prominent building facing the square is the Byzantine Saint Mark’s Basilica, founded in 828 AD, and nearby St Mark’s Clocktower. The northern and southern wings of St Mark’s Square are comprised of the Old and New Procurators’ Offices, and the square’s most towering feature is St Mark’s Campanile watchtower.
St Mark’s Square remains one of Venice’s most visited places, with cafes and restaurants dotted along its sides. Due to its low elevation, the square sometimes gets flooded – famously in1966 Venice flood, and more recently, in November 2019 when the tide rose to 187cm, submerging over 80% of the city.
The Doge’s Palace of Venice (Palazzo Ducale di Venezia) is a gothic style structure in St. Mark’s Square which served as the residence of each successive ‘Doge’ or leader of the Venetian Republic until its fall in 1797.
The Doge’s Palace housed the Republic’s administrative centre, hall of justice, prison, public archive and senate house. Whilst the current Doge’s Palace was probably constructed from 1309-1424, it’s thought the original palace dated back to the 10th or 11th century and was probably a fortified structure.
A new Doge’s Palace was built under Doge Sebastiano Ziani in the 12th century, with further renovations and extensions in the 14th and 15th centuries. Nevertheless, much of the original structure and artwork remain, including some by artists such as Filippo Calendario and Guariento di Arpo. The Bridge of Sighs was added in around 1600, linking the Doge’s Palace to the prison. When Napoleon occupied Venice, prompting the fall of the Venetian Republic, the role of the Doge’s Palace inevitably changed, and today it is a museum.
Saint Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco a Venezia) is a world famous Byzantine cathedral in Venice’s St Mark’s Square, sometimes known as Chiesa d’Oro or ‘Church of gold’.
Every aspect of the basilica is on a grand scale, from its three-part façade with ornate theological carvings to its Greek cross-shaped interior with its ceilings covered in golden mosaics. In fact, the basilica is so elaborate that its entrance or “narthex” is intended to prepare visitors for what they are about to see.
Located in the heart of Venice, St Mark’s is found in St Mark’s Square and you’ll walk past the basilica multiple times on any trip there, even if you’re not trying to.
The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the four bridges crossing Venice’s Grand Canal (the city’s main waterway), connecting the districts of San Polo and San Marco. The stone bridge seen today (which replaced two earlier wooden bridges) was built between 1588-1591 by Antonio da Ponte. Its design is similar to its predecessors with two inclined ramps connected by an arch spanning 28 metres, and made of Istrian stone – renowned as an architectural and engineering achievement of the Renaissance.
As the Rialto Bridge was the only place to cross the Grand Canal on foot, it was vital the bridge could stand up to heavy use and also allow boats to pass underneath. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Rialto Bridge became an important commercial and financial centre in Venice. It was lined with shops and market stalls, making it a bustling hub of activity, and was an important crossing point for pilgrims on their way to Saint Mark’s Basilica. The bridge served as the only fixed structure crossing the Grand Canal until the 1850s; prior to that, pedestrian crossings at other locations were done by gondola ferries.
The Rialto Bridge was restored in the 20th century and remains an important landmark. The central stairs remain lined with shops and vendors, and the bridge is a popular tourist attraction, both for those wishing to walk across it as well as those travelling by vaporetto (water bus) or gondola underneath.
Located on the south bank of the Grand Canal within the sestiere of Dorsoduro, the sprawling Gallerie dell’Accademia is one of the most important museums in Venice. It is home to an incredible collection of over 500 works of 15th to 18th century Venetian art, from the Byzantine and Gothic periods to Renaissance, Baroque and the Rococo eras.
The museum was founded in the 18th century and originally housed in the Scuola della Carità. It was later moved to its current location, the historic complex of Santa Maria della Carità in the early 19th century. After the fall of the Republic, the complex became the property of the state and then, in 1807, designated as the site of the Accademia di belle arti, or Academy of fine arts, and its gallery following an edict by Napoleon. The building itself is a work of art, with beautiful vaulted ceilings and a grand staircase.
Most of the collection was accumulated after the closing of monasteries, churches, and fine palaces when Venetian noble families began to leave the island, making it extremely varied. The collection includes masterpieces by some of the greatest ever artists, including Bellini, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Canaletto. The Gallery’s most famous work is Leonardo da Vinci‘s Vitruvian Man, but this is rarely displayed. Paintings are arranged chronologically across 24 rooms, meaning visitors are taken through the history of Venice from the eyes of the city’s artists, seeing the evolution of Italian artistic styles and techniques.