While Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance and Rome is an undeniable powerhouse of art and history, Venice’s artistic and cultural heritage is no less impressive. When you look a little closer, you’ll see it’s so much more than picturesque canals, colorful buildings, and hand blown glass. It’s a destination for art lovers that shimmers with a splendor that’s purely Venetian. To help you explore the artistic side of Venice, we’ve picked the top museums and historic sites in the city and the surrounding islands. You’ll find the most important museums you won’t want to miss as well as a few smaller spots to explore if you have more time or if you’re planning a return trip to Venice.
Piazza San Marco – The Heart of Venice
There are few places in Italy as overwhelmingly beautiful as Piazza San Marco in Venice. It’s a lot to take in while standing in the middle: the soaring Campanile, the Byzantine-Gothic splendor of the Basilica di San Marco, the ornate loggias of the Doge’s Palace, and the elegant harmony of the buildings lining three sides of the square. As the seat of the Doge, the chief magistrate and leader of the city, the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, is as illustrious as one would expect for one of Italy’s earliest and most powerful maritime republics. From sumptuous rooms to the stark prisons and the famous Bridge of Sighs, visit the Palazzo Ducale museum to explore the splendor of La Serenissima through its history, culture and art.
Art lovers won’t want to miss the Basilica di San Marco with its 8,000 square meters of glimmering gold mosaics. The five domes of the cathedral are covered in mosaics that were created from the 12th to the 13th centuries. While the mosaics are reason enough to visit, the cathedral is full of religious treasures, like the exquisite Pala d’Oro altar, and sculptures. You’ll have to visit inside to see the originals of the Triumphal Quadriga, the set of four ancient bronze horses that were looted from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade. The horses you’ll spot on the facade of the cathedral are replicas.
Just to the left of the Basilica, the striking Clock Tower deserves a closer look. The 15th-century tower stands over the arched entrance to the Merceria, the historic trading center of Venice, and features an astronomical clock, ornate decorations and a statue of St. Mark’s lion. At the very top you’ll see two bronze figures that strike a bell, one is young and one is old to represent the passage of time. You can visit the clock tower and climb a narrow and steep staircase past the fascinating clock mechanism to the Two Moors terrace on the top for a great view overlooking the busy piazza below.
One would think such richness would be enough for one piazza, but there’s still more here that art and history lovers won’t want to miss. The Museo Correr (Correr Museum), the Museo Archaeologico (Archaeological Museum), and the Biblioteca Marciana (Marciana Library) are part of the Museums of Piazza San Marco. Start at the Museo Correr on the western side of Piazza San Marco. Set in a massive 17th-century palace, the museum has over 70 rooms to explore. Get a closer look at Venetian Gothic art, stroll through the Imperial Apartments, see some fine sculptures by Antonio Canova and learn more about Venice’s history.
Don’t miss the chance to see the monumental reading room at the Biblioteca Marciana, which you can enter through the Museo Correr. The spectacular reading room is adorned with works by three of Venice’s most important Renaissance artists: Tiziano (Titian), Tintoretto and Veronese.
History enthusiasts will also want to plan a visit to the Museo Archeologico di Venezia, included in a group ticket for the Museums of Piazza San Marco, to see the bronze and marble statues and collections from antiquity.
Ready for a break? Take the elevator to the top of the Campanile and look out over Piazza San Marco and the city of Venice with new eyes!
Art Along the Grand Canal
Simply riding on a vaporetto and taking in the grandeur of the historic buildings along the Grand Canal is an experience you won’t want to miss. Here are a few artistic spots you’ll want to stop at along the way. Start at the Gallerie dell’Accademia located in the Dorsoduro neighborhood across the Grand Canal via the picturesque Ponte dell’Accademia. With a rich collection that spans the 13th to the 18th centuries, it is the artistic heart of Venice. This is the place to really delve into the Venetian masters like Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Tiepolo. The setting is equally evocative in the deconsecrated Santa Maria della Carità church and monastery.
Just a five-minute stroll away, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is home to an unexpected treasure trove of 20th-century art. This palazzo along the Grand Canal was Peggy Guggenheim’s home until her death in 1979. While not a large museum, each room is full of masterpieces. The collection is truly superb, including works by Picasso, Dali, Duchamp, Pollock, Chagall and so many more. Enjoy the pretty courtyard garden and don’t miss the views from the terrace on the Grand Canal.
Meander through the narrow streets and over little bridges of Dorsoduro to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, where you’ll want to stop in to see the Baroque interior and paintings by Titian and Tintoretto. Just beyond is Punta della Dogana, the former customs house, which is located at the very tip of Dorsoduro. The 17th-century structure was transformed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando into a world-class exhibition space run by the Pinault Collection, which manages the massive art collection of French businessman François Pinault.
While Punta Della Dogana hosts exhibitions, more of the Pinault Collection is on display at the Palazzo Grassi, a remarkable 18th-century palazzo located along the Grand Canal. The stunning interior with ornate coffered and frescoed ceilings, exquisite marble staircase and glass covered atrium are the setting for exhibitions from the Pinault Collection.
Enjoy an artistic stay just around the corner from Palazzo Grassi in our Palazzo Tiziano vacation rental set in a 16th-century building.
Just across the Grand Canal sits Ca’Rezzonico, a beautiful 18th-century palazzo that was once a noble Venetian home. The building has a surprising history, from the height of Venetian splendor to family troubles and sales—even becoming the residence of English poet Robert Browning—until eventually becoming a museum dedicated to 18th century Venice. With fine paintings and lush décor, the brilliance of Venice’s most extravagant era comes to life while walking through the grand ballroom and richly decorated rooms of the museum.
While in the neighborhood, be sure to stroll over to the pretty Campo San Barnaba. There you’ll find the Chiesa di San Barnaba that is home to the small but interesting Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition with handmade (and interactive!) recreations of Leonardo’s remarkably varied mechanical designs.
Along the Grand Canal past the Rialto Bridge is one more artistic spot you won’t want to miss. Located in the Santa Croce neighborhood, the Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art is set in a beautiful 17th-century palazzo. A striking blend of old and new, the museum has works by artists such as Klimt, Matisse, Chagall, Kandinsky and Italian artists like Morandi, De Chirico, Severini. On the third floor of the museum you’ll find Museum of Oriental Art, with the largest collection of Japanese Edo period art in Europe. The entrance ticket allows access to both museums.
Murano and Burano: Art on the Islands
Spending time visiting the colorful islands of Murano and Burano is a must during your stay in Venice. While famous for the tradition of glass blowing on Murano and lace making on Burano, the history is so much richer than meets the eyes. Take some time to delve deeper at the Museo del Vetro, Murano’s Glass Museum, which is housed in a historic palazzo near the Basilica of Santa Maria and San Donato – one of the oldest churches in the Venetian Lagoon with a remarkable Byzantine mosaic floor from the 12th century.
Follow the history of glass making chronologically through the massive collection that spans from early Roman pieces dating from the 1st to the 3rd century AD up to exquisite pieces from the Renaissance of glass making to modern techniques and contemporary designs. The Central Room with its ornate chandeliers and 18th-century frescoed ceiling truly captures the golden age of Murano glass.
Over on Burano where shops sell handmade lace, spend some time learning about the human side of this beautiful craft at the Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum). Located in the historic building that was once home to the Burano Lace School from 1872 to 1970, the museum’s collection traces the history of Venetian lace with delicate and precious examples from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The artistry in these finely detailed pieces is breathtaking. As you watch lace makers at work in the museum and learn how the painstaking craft is often passed down for generations, you’ll understand how important it is that traditions like lace making aren’t lost to time.
More to Discover
This is just the beginning! Key for art lovers traveling to Venice is the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia (MUVE), which manages 11 historic sights and museums around Venice, including the Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr, the Clock Tower, Ca’ Rezzonico and Ca’ Pesaro, and the Glass and Lace Museums on Murano and Burano.
Yet even with all of these museums and historic sites, there is more to discover on every trip, including many smaller museums, historic buildings, and important churches. Come and experience this remarkable city and let us help you find the perfect Venice vacation apartment rental for your stay!