One of the most impressive sights on Earth, Venice is known for its islands and canals, for enduring landmarks like the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, and for world-class events like the Venetian Carnival and the Venice Biennale.
Venice is known for issues like over-tourism and — ironically for a “floating” city — sinking as well. Let’s find out what else!
Venice is known for its unique setting and rich history
Of course the Venetian canals are the city’s defining feature. The 150 watercourses serve as Venice’s streets, while the broad Grand Canal is a thoroughfare of sorts that meanders through the city and divides it in two.
Many of Venice’s canals existed before the city was built. But a bunch of them were deepened and rectified in the last two centuries for mobility purposes, which has since helped worsen Venice’s chronic tide issues and even triggered droughts in recent years.
2. Venetian Lagoon
We’re talking here about the O.G. of lagoons: the English word itself derives from the Italian laguna (di Venezia). The Venetian Lagoon started being consistently settled somewhere around the 600s, as Romans fled the barbarian invasions.
That allowed for the development of a distinctive civilization that flourished for over 1,000 years. The Venetian Lagoon’s entire land- and culturescape has been rightfully listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987.
3. La Serenissima
For a little more than a millennium from the end of the 600s, the Republic of Venice was the biggest naval power in the Mediterranean, especially after having prevailed over Genoa in the 1300s.
Despite the official designation, Venice wasn’t a republic in the modern sense: governors titled doges were elected to rule it by a council of noblemen.
In the 1600s, as absolutist monarchies began to take over Europe and get embroiled in bloody wars, Venice added Serenissima (or “the Most Serene”) to its full name, so as to highlight how different it was from them.
Following a century of decline, during which the military failed to modernize, the republic fell to the French, then the Austrians in 1797.
Yet the nickname, the imposing architectural heritage, and symbols like the Lion of Saint Mark, seen above on top of the namesake column, have survived into our days.
4. Marco Polo
I really don’t mean to bum you out, but Marco Polo wasn’t responsible for bringing pasta over to Italy from China. Still, he’s for sure the main historical figure Venice is known for. The merchant and explorer’s biography encapsulates Venice’s rich past as a naval power.
Having traveled extensively between the Middle the Far East through the Silk Road, Marco Polo did help bridge the West’s technological gap by describing paper currencies, gunpowder, and coal (which were commonplace in some parts of Asia) for the first time.
5. Acqua alta
Venice is indeed sinking at an average of 2+ to 5 millimeters a year, which has contributed to the greater intensity and frequency of the phenomenon called acqua alta (i.e. “high water”).
That’s a peculiar tide pattern that periodically floods many of Venice’s noblest addresses, including Piazza San Marco.
While acqua alta (which is more common between fall and spring) might shock or disappoint unaware visitors, flooding has been a frenemy of Venice for centuries and has even been depicted in paintings.
Fun fact: The main initiative aimed at defending Venice from floods was named MOSE, a backronym inspired by Mosè, or Moses in English. The mobile dams do seem to split the sea (and the Lagoon) in two.
Venice is known for its world-famous landmarks
Venice is most certainly famous for its gondolas. 99.9% of gondola passengers are couples in crisis on a second honeymoon, yet a gondola ride is an unforgettable (if expensive) way of exploring Venice.
In addition to that, you’re guaranteed to be in good hands: gondoliers have to undergo 400 hours of training and pass a test before they’re admitted into the profession.
Gondolas have been used in the Lagoon for almost 1,000 years and were the standard mode of transportation in the Republic prior to the invention of motorboats.
They would initially be painted in vibrant colors, until a 16th-century law required them to be pitch black.
7. Piazza San Marco
St. Mark’s Square, home to its namesake (and one-of-a-kind) basilica and bell tower and to the Doge’s Palace, is where you feel the weight of Venice’s ancient and majestic history in all its glory. It’s a good feeling, though, infused as it is with sea air.
Venice’s single square — the other plazas are called campi, i.e. “fields” — is indeed inspiring. But don’t get too distracted, or a seagull will definitely snatch off your panino as one did with mine.
8. Rialto Bridge
A mere four bridges span the Grand Canal, and Rialto is the oldest and best-known. It connects the medieval parts of Venice to the historic center around St. Mark’s Square.
The Rialto Bridge was built in the 1700s after two earlier overpasses collapsed in less than a century. Like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, it’s lined with both high-end jewelry shops and the occasional tourist trap.
9. Bridge of Sighs
Don’t be fooled by the Bridge of Sighs seemingly romantic name: a much sadder story accounts for the moniker.
The view from the windows on the bridge was allegedly the last glimpse of Venice (and daylight) prisoners got before serving time (and perhaps being executed).
They probably couldn’t see a lot, as the windows are covered with grills. Yet the gloomy legend was enough for the bridge to become one of the most notable attractions in Venice.
10. Santa Maria della Salute
The few churches that Venice is famous for are quite monumental, and the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute — or Our Lady of Good Health — is no exception to that.
The unusual octagon-shaped temple was built in the 1600s to thank the Virgin Mary for having freed the city from an outbreak of bubonic plague. It’s one of the most dazzling examples of Baroque architecture in Venice.
11. La Fenice
The combination of wooden interiors and candlelight used to make theaters prone to catching fire, yet La Fenice is remarkable in that regard: Venice’s emblematic opera house was destroyed by fire three times.
It has nonetheless always risen from the ashes, just like its name (which means “the phoenix” in Italian) prophesies.
La Fenice owes its fame to the fact that many operas by geniuses like Verdi, Rossini, and Bellini premiered on its stage.
12. Venetian Arsenal
A naval power must have commanding armories and shipyards, which is what you’d find at the Venetian Arsenal. The largest industrial complex in Europe before the Industrial Revolution was run by the state and once occupied about 15% of the city-state’s territory.
Nowadays, a great deal of the arsenal that Venice is known for still belongs to the Italian Navy. It houses a military academy and a naval history museum and hosts the Venice Biennale every two years (more on that on no. 14).
Venice is known for its awe-inspiring (and crowd-pleasing) culture
While possibly almost 1,000 years old, the Venice carnival as we know it is a modern invention, or sort of. It is the event that Venice is famous for.
In order to curb the excessive debauchery and fight the crime wave that typically went hand in hand with, authorities outlawed masks from an ever-increasing number of places throughout history.
From the late 18th century, masks were allowed only in private balls, so public celebrations all but died out. In 1979, local cultural associations started a movement aimed at reviving the Carnival of Venice, which has since been back in full force.
14. Venice Biennale
Founded in 1895, Venice’s biennial contemporary art exhibition is the oldest such event on the planet. It’s been devoted to avant-garde works since the 1920s and remains the most important art show globally.
Unlike other exhibitions, the Biennale di Venezia has banned the sale of artworks during the event over 50 years ago. Its purely artistic raison d’être has made it even more special, yet of course artists use the Biennale as a kind of high-prestige display.
15. Venice Film Festival
Together with Berlin and Cannes, Venice hosts one of three major events in European cinema. It was created as part of the Biennale, though it’s actually held yearly.
The Venice Film Festival first took place in 1932, when the Italian market was dominated by American flicks. Mussolini’s fascist government, with its strong nationalist rhetoric, wanted to change that.
They didn’t exactly achieve their goal, but ended up launching what would turn into a world-renowned festival. Today, directors from across the globe vie for the Golden Lion, its highest prize.
16. Libreria Acqua Alta
Consistently ranked among the most stunning bookstores on the planet, Acqua Alta wasn’t named in vain: it’s periodically flooded.
How does it protect its products? Well, owners stack them up against walls, onto bathtubs, and have even set up a staircase with them.
While I’m not sure all of Acqua Alta’s books stay effectively dry, the shop is worth a visit if only for the poetically chaotic vibes it gives off.
17. Mass tourism
It’s quite natural that everybody would want a piece of Venice. But the scale the city’s tourism industry took on in the past few decades is, according to locals, unhealthy and uncalled for.
Pics of 10-deck cruise ships crossing the Grand Canal are mesmerizing as much as they’re revolting, honestly.
Luckily, the Italian government decided to curb over-tourism in Venice — or at least ban cruise ships from entering the city.
Critics argue that’s an insignificant change, though apparently it should be enough to stop UNESCO from threatening to blacklist Venice as an endangered World Heritage Site.
Venice is known for its charming districts
18. San Giorgio Maggiore
The island of San Giorgio Maggiore is noted for the picturesque view you get of it from Piazza San Marco. That’s not me saying: Monet went as far as painting a series portraying the island.
San Giorgio Maggiore was named after the basilica located on the island, a masterpiece designed by influential architect Andrea Palladio. The church is part of a 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery.
19. Venetian Ghetto
Like in much of Europe, Jews settling in Venice were segregated into a single neighborhood. The island had only two entry points, which were closed and guarded at night. Venice gave us the word ghetto itself, though its origins are controversial.
The Venetian Ghetto flourished between 1516 and 1797, when, alongside the very Republic of Venice, it was dissolved. But it survived as the heart of the city’s small Jewish community and is now home to two synagogues and specialized shops.
There are hundreds of islands and islets within the Venetian Lagoon, yet, apart from the city itself, none is as famous as the archipelago of Murano.
The area has housed Venice’s glassmaking industry since the late 1200s. That was required by law to prevent the risk of fires destroying the richest parts of town.
Factories developed their craft for a century or so, and by the 1400s Murano glass was prized as a luxury item across Europe. Today, it’s still pretty expensive, and both Murano’s quaint houses and glassworks have become popular attractions.
Not a typo! Though less well-known than Murano, Burano will make another cool day trip when you visit Venice.
It’s been dubbed “the most colorful village on Earth” for a reason and has a historically prestigious lacework industry.
Granted, we had to leave out a few neighborhoods and several landmarks, but these 21 are the ultimate things Venice is known for. Amazing, isn’t it?
Writing about them makes me feel like hopping on a plane and maybe never going back home. In case, just like me, you can’t simply get on a plane right now (bummer!), go on and experience Venice through iconic quotes.