2 Day Itinerary for Venice, For First Timers (With Options for Extending Your Trip!)
Updated: Aug 30
"Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go." -- Truman Capote
Here's my 2 day itinerary for exploring the truly unique city of Venice, the capital of Italy's Veneto region. You can easily turn this 48 hour itinerary into a 3-4 day itinerary by moving at a slower pace.
Venice is one of the world's most beautiful and captivating cities, a natural movie set. No other place looks quite like it. Venice is a medieval city built on water that shouldn't exist in real life. It's a mind boggling maze of architectural and artistic treasures.
Here's what I think is the perfect 48 hour itinerary for visiting Venice. You can check off most of Venice's major attractions in two days. Of course, it would be better to have 3-4 days in Venice. Last time I visited, I was there for a week, never got bored, and the visit was infinitely more pleasant.
In Venice, there's a plethora of amazing things to see and do, for every type of traveler. The options are endless -- world class museums with precious treasures of Medieval and Renaissance art, historic landmarks, gondola rides, vaporetto rides, canal-side dining, cicchetti (tasty tapas-like snacks), beaches, etc.
This Venice travel guide and itinerary takes you to all of Venice's must see sites and tells you everything to see/do/eat in Venice. If you have more time in and around Venice, I suggest four easy and excellent day trips at the end.
A Short History of Venice
Venice's traditional founding date is pegged at March 25, 421. The year isn't arbitrary. It's 11 years after the Visigoths sacked Rome. 421 is also 55 years after the last Roman Emperor was deposed.
Venice chose this particular year as its foundation year because Venice viewed itself as the new Rome. Not as the successor or heir of Rome, but as a new Christian empire.
In 526 A.D., the Byzantine Emperor Justinian invaded Italy, trying to recapture his lost territories. He landed in Ravenna. Venice fell to the Byzantine empire, which would have a massive influence on its culture. As Venice began to develop socially and politically, the city came to understand its potential importance in the era's global politics.
But Venice needed one last bit of legitimacy to ensure the city's hegemony. They needed a relic. All major Christian capitols had an important relic. Venice had a piece of St. Zachariah. But that wasn't sufficiently important.
To rectify this deficiency, a popular legend began to spread. During a violent storm, a ship bearing St. Mark the Evangelist docked near the Rialto Bridge. An angel appeared and said "peace to you Mark, this will be your final resting place." The Venetians embraced this legend with zeal. In 829, in a gondola kidnapping, two Venetians stole St. Mark's corpse from Alexandria Egypt and smuggled it back to Venice.
In 828, construction of St. Mark's Basilica began. The story of the miracle is pictured on the 13th century mosaic above the left door as you enter the basilica. St. Mark's symbol was the winged lion, which is a ubiquitous image in Venice. With St. Mark as their guardian, Venice evolved into a sea power.
Venice put together a refined system of government, adopting a constitution and instituting the Great Council. The Great Council helped select the doge, or titular head of the Republic of Venice. In the 14th century, Venice got into major scrapes with burgeoning Genoa and Padua. Venice was on the defensive, and its maritime power diminished
Venetian artists produced images that were less religious, more libertine, and more creative. Venice was also the birthplace of influential historic figures: Marco Polo, Casanova, Vivaldi, Bellini, and Tintoretto.
Venice remained a powerful city state until the 16th century. Then, its slow decline began. The volume of trade moving through Venice dropped. But Venice still remained a proud center of European culture, opening Europe's first opera house, La Fenice (where I saw my first opera!).
Get Oriented: the Sestieres of Venice
Here's a quick overview of Venice's neighborhoods:
San Marco: the central touristy hotspot concentrated with Venice's major attractions, upscale shops, and restaurants
Dorsoduro: artsy student district with wonderful museums and the Campo Santa Margherita
Castello: beautiful off the beaten path district with gardens and a medieval shipyard
San Polo: busy Rialto markets, with a combination of great restaurants and tourist traps
Cannaregio: Venice's historic Jewish Quarter, a lovely residential area with great cicchetti bars, lovely churches, and narrow canals
Santa Croce: lots of palazzos and bacaris (Venetian wine bars with cicchetti)
The Best Way To Spend 2 Days in Venice
Two days is a short amount of time to explore a romantic city like Venice, which is so bewitching and filled with must see sites. But Venice is compact and most of the must see sites are on the Grand Canal.
One thing you must do to make the most of 2 days in Venice is to buy skip the line tickets in advance. Otherwise, you'll lose valuable time and get cranky in long queues.
Day 1 in Venice: San Marco and the Grand Canal
Day 1 Morning
1. Doge's Palace
Start day 1 bright and early with a visit to the Doge's Palace. The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale, is one of Venice's most iconic landmarks. Set in St. Mark's Square, the palace is the very symbol of Venice.
This pink and white marble Gothic-Renaissance building was the official residence of the doges, the rulers of Venice for more than 1,000 years. You enter via a grand courtyard.
Venture inside on the Golden Staircase, Scala d'Oro, one of the world's most richly decorated staircases. This extraordinary staircase offers two views: one of the majestic courtyard of the Doge's Palace and another of the Bridge of Sighs.
Inside the palace's grand interior are museum exhibits, reception rooms, and the Doge’s Apartments. There are some fabulous pieces of 16th century Venetian art. In the Great Council Hall, you'll find Tintoretto's Il Paradiso, the world's largest canvas painting. But the real highlights are two works by Veronese -- Rape of Europe and the frescoed ceiling of the Council Chamber.
If you want to see more than just the gilded rooms, buy tickets for the Secret Itineraries Tour, With that pass, you can peak into the judges' chambers, interrogation rooms, torture chambers, and prisons -- places where the real business of Venice was conducted.
You'll see the cell of the infamous ladies' man Casanova, and hear a yarn about how he made a miraculous escape. The creepiest bit is the gargoyle-like mailbox where people left anonymous charges.
And you'll walk across the picturesque Bridge of Sighs. Legend holds that prisoners took their last glances of Venice through the tiny barred windows and "sighed" before heading to the interrogation chamber for their sentences to be meted out. A more romantic tale holds that when two lovers go under the bridge at sunset via gondola, their love will last forever.
Click here to book skip the line tickets for the Doge's Palace. If you haven't purchased them in advance, you can also buy same day tickets at the palace. But the lines are much shorter if you purchase a ticket at the Museo Correr (opposite the basilica on St. Mark's Square).
2. St. Mark's Square
After the Doge's Palace, spend some time wandering around the San Marco area by foot. The monumental square itself is magic, but so are the back streets. Try to pop into the quirky Acqua Alta bookstore, where gondolas hold books and books are part of the shop's actual structure.
Deep in the backstreets of San Marco is a great underrated attraction, the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. It's a 15th century palace boasting a stunning “scala” or spiral staircase, made of brick and marble, that runs up the side of the palace. From the top most terrace you’re treated to a nice view over Venice's rooftops. You can see the domes of St. Marks' and La Salute. Click here to book a ticket online.
St. Mark's Square is also where you'll also find the basilica's Campanile or bell tower, towering 300 feet. It was in this bell tower that Galileo conducted his astronomical studies and premiered his telescope.
The bell tower has a rare elevator (instead of stairs), which you can ride up for views. But the lines are long. So be sure to have skip the line tickets. Or just a stop grab a snap of the lofty bell tower. There are other free viewpoints in Venice.
Around the piazza, you'll also find the Musee Correr, dedicated to Venice's civic history. The museum is named after Venetian aristocrat Teodoro Correr, who bequeathed his collection of classical antiquities to the city. The absolute highlight are the fine marble sculptures by Antonio Canova. You'll also see rooms used by Austria's Empress Sisi.
3. St. Mark's Basilica, Italy's Most Unique Chuch
Then venture into the bulbous St. Mark's Basilica, with its cluster of domes, with a must have skip the queue ticket. You can also purchase an after hours ticket and get access to some places you can't see during the day.
St. Mark's Basilica is Venice's most important landmark and one of the world's most famous churches. It's an astonishing tour de force of Italo-Byzantine architecture, a precious treasure chest. Consecrated in 1093, St. Mark's was originally a chapel for the doge. And it's one hell of a chapel. Since 1807, St. Mark's has been the cathedral of Venice.
The church has a unique and eclectic mix of styles and materials. Venice imported the art and architectural style from the Byzantine world. Just as Venice is like no other city in the Europe, St. Mark's is like no other church in Europe.
Inside, St. Mark's has a Greek cross church design. Each of the four arms is surmounted with a dome and a large central dome is at the intersection of the cross. The floor is made of crushed marble fragments that seem like an oriental rug.
The floor is uneven because of Venice's acqua alta or high water flooding problem. The baldachin (high altar) marks the spot where St. Mark is buried below in the crypt.
Inside, the basilica is a golden extravaganza of mosaics, 90,000 square feet in total. They're symbolically concentrated high above in the celestial world. In the middle ages, Venice was the leading school of mosaic, even ahead of Ravenna. The oldest mosaics in St. Mark's date back to 1070, telling Old Testament stories.
The basilica itself is free to visit, if you're willing to endure long lines. You can make an advanced reservation online for a small fee. But there are a few stops along the visitor walking path that you have to pay a few euros to visit.
It's worth it to cough up the cash for the Pala d'Oro, an elaborate Gothic altar panel on a pivot. It's made of gold and decorated with 2,000 precious gems, enamels, and ivories. The panel is universally considered the most refined expression of Byzantine art.
Also head upstairs to the Loggia dei Cavalli, or Balcony of the Horses. This is where you'll find the Triumphal Quadriga -- the four beautiful bronze horses of St. Mark. Copies are on an observation balcony, which gives you stunning views over Venice. Dating from the 4th century B.C., the precious originals (once plated in gold) are in the Marciano Museum. You'll have to pay extra for the museum and the views.
Day 1 Afternoon:
It's time for lunch. If you want to grab a quick (not uber overpriced) lunch, get some fresh pasta takeaway from Tuttinpiedi. If you want to sit down, try Osteria la Staffa, on a side street just 5 minutes away from Piazza San Marco.
1. Grand Canal
In the mid afternoon, take a boat tour down the Grand Canal. It's a classic, unmissable thing to do in Venice. As you sail, you can admire Venice's must see sites and dreamy palazzos. Click here for the must see sites on the Grand Canal and tips for riding the Vaporetto, which is Venice's water bus.
The most important buildings on the Grand Canal were residences of Venice's powerful patrician families. Because of these sumptuous palaces, the Grand Canal has been described "as the most beautiful street in the world."
You'll want to hop on and off the vaporetto (or walk along the canal) to visit some of these magnificent gems. I'll offer you options below. You can pick the ones that appeal the most.
The ride along the Grand Canal isn't cheap. But it's included in any of the day or longer transit passes. Whether you buy a pass or single ticket, be sure to validate it at the machine before boarding.
2. Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
The 17th century Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute dominates the Venice skyline. It's an homage to the Virgin Mary saving Venice from the plague.
Free to enter, La Salute is a Venetian jewel of Baroque architecture. Built on top of over 1 million timber piles, it was designed by local star architect Baldassare Longhena, who also built Ca' Rezzonico.
La Salute's most eye catching feature is its enormous crown-like dome, with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. Inside, there are 12 (!) Titian paintings. A chapel also holds a famous Tintoretto painting, The Wedding at Cana.
3. Ca' Rezzonico | Museum of 18th Century Venice
The Palazzo Rezzonico was also built by Longhena, the greatest Baroque architect in Venice, for the aristocratic Bon family. Inside, it's a lavish Rococo affair with the beautiful furnishings, a Throne Room, and a Grand Ballroom.
Casanova once lived there before being imprisoned in the Doge's Palace. English artist John Singer Sargent had a studio there. And the palace was the last home of the poet Robert Browning.
The Palazzo Rezonnico museum is a shrine to 18th century Venetian artists, a period called the "Age of Decadence." It's a beautiful and rare in situ museum, where the art on display was created specifically for the palazzo.
You'll find paintings and frescoed ceilings by Tiepolo, Longhi, Canaletto, Guardi, Molinari, and Lazzarini. Click here to book tickets online.
4. Ca' Foscari
Ca' Foscari is one of Venice's most important palazzi. It was built by Doge Francesco Foscari. It's a 15th century late Gothic building with -- an astonishing feature at the time -- four floors. When Venice lost a crucial battle to the Turks, the Foscaris fell on hard times and were expelled from Venice.
In 1574, Henry II of France used the palace as his residence. Today, it's the administrative seat of Ca' Foscari University. You can take a guided tour. From the second floor of the palazzo, you have a sweeping view from the Rialto Bridge to the Accademia Bridge.
5. Ca' d'Oro, a Museum with a View
Palazzo Santa Sofia is commonly called Ca' d'Oro or the Golden House. It's a 15th century palace located just across the Rialto Market, overlooking the Grand Canal. It was built for the Contarini family, who once ruled the Republic of Venice. Ca' d'Oro may be Venice's most beautiful palace.
Once upon a time, the harmonious facade was, in fact, covered in gold leaf. Today, the gold is long. But the Venetian-style Gothic building still impresses with the delicacy of its decorations, though the left facade was never completed. The middle loggia with the five Gothic quatrefoil cut outs is especially striking.
Inside, the museum houses an art collection gifted by Baron Franchetti. The most famous piece is the San Sebastiano by Andrea Mantegna. But there are also works by Titian, Gordon, Guardi, and Van Eyck.
One reason to purchase a museum ticket is for the outstanding views of Venice. One view is from the museum courtyard-loggia on the first floor. The other is a top floor view through the quatrefoils. Click here to book tickets.
Day 1 Evening:
In the late afternoon, head up the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi for 360 panoramic views of Venice. Built in the 13th century, the former palace is now a luxury department store. It's free to visit the rooftop. You just need to book your 15 minute time slot time in advance.
For a pre-dinner drink, take in canal views at the iconic Gritti Terrace in the Palazzo Gritti. Or, head inside to the Gritti's chic Venetian-decorated Bar Longhi, once frequented by Ernest Hemingway.
Built in 1525, the Palazzo Gritti is a Venetian Gothic wonderland. Originally, the palace was the home of a doge. Now, it's a perfectly renovated and expensive luxury hotel. The hotel is chock full of Venetian antiques, oriental rugs, and spectacular Murano glass light fixtures.
If you want to find a more off the beaten path spot for cocktails, head to the Campo Santa Margherita in the Dorsoduro area. Chet Bar is a trendy little bar just off the north side of the square.
For dinner, if you're a fan of fresh seafood, you can't do better than the tiny restaurant of Ai Artisti in Dorsoduro (make reservations!) The menu changes daily according to what's on offer at the nearby Rialto fish market.
Day 2 in Venice: Museums, Cannaregio, the Rialto & Gondola Ride
On day 2, take a deeper dive into the many layers of Venice.
Day 2 Morning
1. Danieli Hotel
If you want a glamorous breakfast or brunch, book at table at Hotel Danieli. Perched on the hotel's roof top, the Restaurant Terrazza Danieli is a magical location, overlooking the Grand Canal, the Doge’s Palace, and the Lido. This was one of the nicest things that I did my last time in Venice.
The Terrazza is very pricey. So, if you understandably want something more casual, there are loads of coffee and pastry shops around Venice.
Once you're fueled up, choose one of Venice's premiere museums to visit, depending on your own interests: (1) the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (modern art); (2) the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (Tintoretto frescos only for serious art lovers), or (3) the Galleria dell'Accademia (fine art and Venetian masterpieces). Personally, I was happy with all three, though I was especially partial to the Guggenheim Museum.
2. Peggy Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim Museum is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Dorsoduro. It holds one of the finest modern art collections in the world. Truly! If you love 20th century art, the golden age of modern art, this museum is a must visit in Venice.
Virtually every piece is a seminal work of art. Guggenheim's collection includes works from the major movements of Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, and Abstract Expressionism.
There's an entire room dedicated to her beloved Jackson Pollack, an artist Guggenheim "discovered." You can see works by Picasso, de Chirico, Vassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Magritte, Willem de Kooning, Salvador Dali, and Alexander Calder.
3. Scuola Grande di San Rocco
If you prefer classical art, head to the absolutely breathtaking Scuola Grande di San Rocco. It's an off the beaten path gem in Venice's San Polo area. The school was the seat of the "scuolo" of the Brotherhood of San Rocco, a social club of wealthy Venetians dedicated to charitable works.
The school is decorated wall to wall by Venetian Renaissance painter Tintoretto, whose style combines Michelangelo's draftsmanship and Titian's use of color. His cycle fresco in the Chapter Room is considered the "Sistine Chapel of Venice." Tintoretto spent the last two decades of his life slaving away on this endeavor.
Handheld mirrors allow you to see the ceiling paintings without neck strain. The show stopping upper floor hall has beautifully carved dark wood chairs and large red lanterns.
If you're a diehard Tintoretto fan, you can find more of his works at the 14th century Church of Madonna dell'Orto (shown above). It's one of Venice's hidden gems, located in a quiet square in Cannaregio. It holds two of Tintoretto's finest works. And the church once held a Bellini masterpiece, which is now marked by an empty space.
4. Galleria dell'Accademia
Close by the Accademia Bridge, you'll find the Accademia Gallery. The Accademia is the most important museum in Venice and one of the best in Europe. It's housed in the former Santa Maria della Carita church and convent complex. The museum was built, in part, by famed Italian Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio.
But the Accademia is always empty, even during high season. Venice's crowds are mostly centered in San Marco. Given the museum's vaunted collection, it's rather shocking. But perhaps it's difficult viewing, if you're not an art lover.
The Accademia houses the world's most important collection of Venetian painting, comparable to the Uffizi Gallery's collection of Florentine works. The paintings are displayed in chronological order, which means you start your visit in the 14th century and end with Titian. The gallery has pieces by Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Bellini, Canaletto, Mantagna, and Giorgione.
It also possesses the world's most famous drawing, Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (which isn't often on display). Don't miss one of the world's most famous Last Supper paintings, Veronese's The Feast in the House of Levi. You can book tickets for the Accademia online here.
Day 2 Afternoon:
In the afternoon, cross the Ponte Guglie and head to the Cannaregio neighborhood for a slice of authentic Venice. Cannaregio is a mostly residential sestiere in the northwest of Venice that's largely bereft of crowds, but stuffed with delicious restaurants, quaint cicchetti bars, and gelaterias. Cicchetti is basically the equivalent of tapas, little bite size morsels of goodness that sustain you until the real meal at 9:00 pm.
Grab some coffee (and a pastry) at the Torrefazione Marchi, just across from the Rio Della Miscordia. In Cannaregio's main square, there's a Jewish Museum you can pop into for history lesson. Or simply wander the maze of narrow walkways, canals, and bridges.
Finish up your afternoon in the Rialto neighborhood, which boasts Venice's most famous and ornate bridge. The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the 4 bridges spanning the Grand Canal. You went under the graceful arch on your Grand Canal boat tour. But now you can inspect it more closely.
The Rialto area is full of upscale shops and very busy. The bridge also leads the way to the famous Rialto Market. There, vendors sell fresh-picked produce, freshly caught fish, spices, and more. Most fresh catches are delivered each day by fishing boats that ply the lagoon and the adjacent Adriatic Sea.
If you didn't see it when you were exploring San Marco, Teatro La Fenice is just a few minutes from the Rialto Bridge. La Fenice is one of Italy's most famous opera houses. Its opulent main theater has a royal box and ornate side rooms.
Day 2 Evening:
Top off your Venice vacation with a ride in a sleek black gondola at dusk. Gondolas are beautifully handcrafted works of art, all unique.
A gondola ride is extremely pricey starting at 80 euros (more details below in the tips section). But you get to experience Venice from the water, with a completely different perspective.
Better yet, if you're up for it, you can learn to row a gondola yourself with Row Venice. My group did this last time in Venice and it included a cicchetti bar crawl in Canareggio. Divine!
For dinner on your last day in Italy, pick a restaurant according to your preferred location. Try Bistro de Venice (San Marco), Al Covo (Castello), Locanda Monti (Dorsoduro), L'Orto dei Mori (Cannaregio), or All'Anforna (Sant Croce) Make reservations!
If you're a classical music fan, consider attending a concert at the Renaissance Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Cannaregio. Covered in polychrome marble, it's also dubbed the "marble church." The acoustics are perfect.
More Time In and Around Venice?
If you have some extra time in and around Venice (yay!), here are four great day trip options nearby. They make the perfect easy day trips from Venice.
1. Venice's Islands: Murano, Torcello, Burano & the Lido
Venice shares its lagoon with four other islands. You can get there via vaporetto. If you have a third day in Venice, this is where you should head first to get the full Venetian experience. You really can't squeeze these islands into a 2 day itinerary.
Murano is famous for its glass blowing factories. Burano is a photographer's paradise, with pastel weathered homes providing a