Ten monuments of historic Venice you must see

Known for its bridges, basilicas and bustling canals, the Italian city of Venice is steeped in history. Located in the Venetian Lagoon in north-eastern Italy, this infamous city is known by many monikers - La Serenissima, the Floating City and Queen of the Adriatic to name just a few. Venice is made up of 118 islands separated by canals and linked by hundreds of bridges. 

An Emerald Cruises superyacht voyage through the Adriatic offers you the chance to extend your stay with two nights in historic Venice. With so many illuminating attractions to traverse across the city, we’ve put together a list of the top ten historical monuments to see while visiting Venice.

Our List:

1. St Mark’s Basilica

What once began as a chapel of the Doge’s Palace is now arguably one of Venice’s most famous buildings. The basilica is named for the patron saint of this city of canals, San Marco. Known as the ‘Church of Gold’ for its golden mosaics, the basilica features Byzantine-era architecture including five looming domes.

Built in the ninth century to serve as a Ducal chapel, St Mark’s became home to the relics of San Marco after they were smuggled out of Alexandria, Egypt, in 828. After Alexandria’s governor threatened to destroy the original sanctuary of St Mark, Venetian merchants stole the relics, hiding them among barrels of pork fat.

The original chapel was burned down in 976 during a revolt against Doge Pietro Candiano IV. The basilica we know today was reconstructed and consecrated in 1071. St Mark’s became a cathedral in its own right in 1807 and has become one of historic Venice’s most visited attractions.

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs

While there is much to see when visiting St Mark’s Basilica, revellers shouldn’t miss out on the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. Fixed to a corner of the basilica’s façade, this sculptural group dates from around the year 300 and models the likeness of four Roman emperors, most likely those of the empire instituted by Emperor Diocletian – the First Tetrarchy.

Originally two separate sculptures, each depicting a pair of emperors embracing, the tetrarchs once decorated the Philadelphion, a public square in Constantinople. The tetrarchs were plundered during the Fourth Crusade and brought to Venice. The pair of sculptures, which were combined into one, were heavily damaged during the process – one of the emperors has long been missing a foot which was recently found in Istanbul!

2. The Doge’s Palace

Known to Venetians as the Palazzo Dulce, the Doge’s Palace once housed rulers of the Venetian Republic and was the city’s seat of power for over 1,000 years. Becoming the seat of the city’s government in 810, the palace also served as a gathering place for Venetian administrators and dignitaries.

First built as a wooden structure, the palace was once burned down and later reconstructed. Venice became an important epicentre for trade throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, with the city building its empire by land and sea. With this new wealth coming into the city, further renovations and construction occurred at the palace, leaving us with the edifice we see today. The Doge’s Palace is an iconic example of Venetian architecture, combining its original Byzantine style with newer Gothic influences from across Europe in later centuries.

3. St Mark’s Square

Coined by Napoleon as ‘the drawing room of Europe’, St Mark’s Square has become the city’s most renowned piazza. Beginning as a small patch of grass outside of the basilica it is named for, the square – known as Piazza San Marco to Italians – has become the largest open space in Venice. Located on the banks of the Grand Canal, the square is quite striking as sightseers approach from the water.

Major changes came to the piazza in the 12th century under Doge Sebastiano Ziani. The square’s surrounding buildings were demolished, local lands were acquired and a nearby canal and its docks were filled in to enlarge the piazza. St Mark’s Square was once paved with terracotta bricks displayed in a unique herringbone pattern, which have since been replaced by natural stone.

There is much more to see in St Marks’ Square than the basilica and Doge’s Palace alone. Visitors will be able to enjoy a plethora of sights, famously accompanied by the square’s resident pigeons. Marvel at the piazza’s two columns showcasing Venice’s patron saints, St Theodore and St Mark himself depicted as a winged lion. The square’s campanile (bell tower) is truly a sight to behold, stretching nearly 100 metres into the skyline, and its clock tower is a fine example of Venetian Renaissance architecture. 

4. The glassmaking island of Murano

Isola di Murano is a colourful island located in the Venetian Lagoon which has become famous for its glassmaking. The Venetian glassmaking industry dates all the way back to the Roman Empire and was expanded throughout the Byzantine Empire through trading with the Orient.

Venice became a prominent glass manufacturing hub all the way back in the eighth century, and by the 12th century, it was the city’s major industry. A glassmakers’ guild was established in the city, detailing rules and regulations for the industry. In order to safeguard the glassmakers’ secrets and profits, a law was passed banning the importing of foreign glassworks to Venice and the employment of foreign glassmakers. 

A further law was passed establishing Murano as the city’s premier glassmaking centre, and all glassblowing furnaces were moved to the island. While lawmakers insisted this was to avoid fires in the overpopulated city (which was constructed mainly of wood), many speculated that the real reason was to keep trade secrets protected. Radically, a short time later, glassmakers were banned from leaving Venice, but were rewarded with wealth and status to encourage them to stay in the profession.

Popularity for Venetian glassmaking peaked around the 15th and 16th centuries, beginning to decline throughout the 17th century as new hotspots popped up all over Europe. But the glassmakers of Murano continued to innovate new techniques and styles. The industry shrank further under the city’s rule of Napoleon, but the 20th Century saw the rediscovery of Murano glass, and the island has once again become known as the glassmaking capital of the world. 

Those travelling to Murano will have the chance to visit the island’s glass blowing factory, as well as a number of stunning churches, such as the Basilica di Santa Maria e San Donato and Santa Maria degli Angeli.

5. The Rialto Bridge

The Rialto Bridge – or Ponte di Rialto – is the oldest and arguably the most famous bridge gracing historic Venice’s canals. The Rialto was the first of only four bridges to be built across the city’s Grand Canal. Built in the 16th century, the Rialto Bridge divides the Venetian districts of San Marco and San Polo. 

The Rialto Bridge is instantly recognizable by its arched centre flanked on either side by stone steps. This iconic bridge takes its name from the Rialto, the first Venetian district to be settled in the ninth century. This district quickly became the city’s financial and commercial hub. The epochal bridge was the gateway to the bustling Rialto Market. Today, the bridge is surrounded by shops and quaint cafes at each end.

The Rialto Bridge is built across the narrowest point of the Grand Canal. Like many of Venice’s most famous monuments, the original structure of the bridge was destroyed by fire. At the time of its reconstruction, the bridge was the only point Venetians could cross the canal by foot – it needed to withstand heavy footfall and also allow the city’s many boats to pass underneath. Numerous architects began to submit plans for the bridge in 1524, including the legendary sculptor Michelangelo, but it was the genius of Venetian architect and engineer Antonio da Ponte that resulted in the bridge which still stands today.

6. Gallerie dell’Accademia

The Gallerie dell’Accademia, a Venetian museum showcasing pre-19th century art, has a long and illustrious history. 

The Art Academy of Venice (Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia) was formed in 1750 at the request the Venetian senate, who wanted the city to have its own school of art. The academy quickly became a reference in the study of painting, sculpture and architecture, and many of the city’s most revered artists began teaching there. The academy was the first of its kind to start restoring ancient paintings at the end of the 18th century.

In 1807, Napoleon (who had conquered Venice) re-founded the academy and instituted museum galleries – the Gallerie dell’Accademia. The academy and its galleries were moved to the south bank of the Grand Canal, where the galleries remain today. However, in 2004, the academy was separated from the Gallerie dell’Accademia to make more space for the museum collections. 

The galleries are now home to over 800 paintings and frescoes from pre-18th century artists. This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s infamous Vitruvian Man drawing, depicting his representation of the perfect proportions of the human body. The Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia can still be visited at its new location on the north bank of the Giudecca Canal.

7. Ca’ d’Oro

Known in English as the ‘Golden House’, the Ca’ d’Oro is an ornate Gothic building which sits on Venice’s main street along the Grand Canal. The building takes its name from the gold leaf that is used to decorate it and is also recognizable from the intricate lacework of its façade. Sometimes referred to as the Palazzo Santa Sofia, this house is a highlight of many of Venice’s boat tours. 

Ca’ d’Oro was built in the 15th century by Bartolomeo Buon (known as Bon), the son of stonemason Giovanni Bon, and was first owned by the patrician Marin Contarini. The palazzo replaced a previous house which stood on the plot but was demolished, leaving only the façade standing which served as the basis for the new structure.

At the time of its construction, Ca’ d’Oro was considered to be the most luxurious building in Venice and the house has had many owners throughout its time. In the 19th century, the palazzo was donated to the famous Italian ballet dancer Maria Tagloni. However, her benefactor had made many changes to the building in order to restore parts that had fallen into disrepair. Many of the original features were irretrievably lost throughout these renovations, leading to many contemporaries labelling them as tasteless. Despite this, the Ca’ d’Oro remains a top monument to see when traversing Venice’s waterways.

8. Church of San Giorgio Maggiore

The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore was designed by the renowned Venetian architect Andrea Palladio and is considered to be one of his masterpieces. The church is located on San Giorgio Island, sitting across the Grand Canal from the Doge’s Palace, and is characterized by a high steeple. Built between 1566 and 1610, the eye is drawn to the steeple of this Benedictine church from every point of the Riva degli Schiavoni, a main waterfront area in Venice. Those visiting the city may recognize the church from a series of paintings by Monet.

The current structure was not the first carnation of the basilica, which was originally built around 790AD. Palladio was first tasked with rebuilding the monastery’s refectory in 1565, and due to the high quality of his improvements, was later asked to provide a model for a new church. The foundations of the church were laid in stone in 1566 in the presence of Pope Pius V. The construction of the church continued after Palladio’s death in 1580, with stonemason Simone Sorella closely following Palladio’s model which building the church’s façade.

The basilica is open to visitors daily and revellers can attend Holy Mass from Monday to Saturday, as well as a Sunday Mass service each week.

9. The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs is one of many famous Venetian bridges. This bridge is a little different, however; it cannot be easily accessed by visitors to Venice as it makes up part of government prison complex close to the city’s harbour. For most, the bridge can only be seen by boat, and the waters below are often busy with sightseeing tours.

The Bridge of Sighs, which is almost fully enclosed, was built over the Rio di Palazzo in the 17th century. It was engineered by Antonio Contin (nephew of the famous Antonia da Ponte of the Rialto Bridge). The bridge is only 11 metres long and is defined by a single centre arch.
Believed by many to be the most beautiful bridge in Venice, the Bridge of Signs has been revered by artists from across the world over the centuries. Lord Byron wrote of the bridge in the 19th century, exaggerating it as the last point prisoners would see views of Venice before their executions. In reality, the bridge is not used to transport high-security prisoners, but small-time offenders.

For those wishing to cross the Bridge of Sighs themselves, the Doge’s Palace organizes an Itinerari Segreti (or ‘Secret Itinerary’) touring famous parts of the prison complex. These tours only take place between June and September and are given exclusively in Italian.

10. Scuola Grande di San Rocco

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is the seat of a confraternity of the same name which was established in 1487. It is named for St Roch, who was popularly regarded as a protector against the plague. The brotherhood of the confraternity was formed of historic Venice’s wealthiest citizens and the scuola is located next to the church which houses the relics of their patron saint.

Known in English as the Cult of St Roch, the brotherhood at one time became the richest scuola in Venice. With their newfound wealth, they opted to build a new headquarters which would be decorated by Tintoretto, a Venetian painter famous for his bold brushwork and the speed at which he painted. Tintoretto adorned the new structure with pictorial scenes from the New and Old Testaments.

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is now one of the only remaining scuola to have survived the fall of the Venetian Republic. Their headquarters now house over 60 paintings in their original setting, and the building has undergone very few alterations over the centuries, preserving its history. The brotherhood still exists today, carrying out charitable duties in the city.

Start your Venetian adventure today!

With a number of Emerald Cruises Adriatic itineraries cruising to or from historic Venice, you’ll not only travel throughout Croatia, but you’ll also have the chance to extend your stay with two nights in this iconic Italian city. We’ll take care of transfers from your hotel to the airport as well as a guided tour of the city, leaving you to enjoy the sights. And you’ll have plenty of time to explore Venice’s history-steeped monuments at your own pace.
Ready to start planning your holiday today? Download your FREE luxury yacht cruises brochure today for a closer look into the Emerald experience that awaits you!