In a city built on the sea, the most important street isn’t a street at all, it’s a Canal. The Grand Canal in Venice is the city’s main artery, a two-mile, s-shaped curve of water lined with some of Venice’s most important buildings and jam packed with private boats, vaporetto, and barges. The palaces, museums and warehouses that line the Grand Canal were once the abodes of some of Venice’s most prominent mercantile families and trading corporations.
Although Venice’s empire of commerce is a thing of the past, the Grand Canal is still the focal point of people and goods coming into and out of the city. Standing on the banks today, take in the fantastic, relentless ebb and flow of city life as you watch the world float by.
Buildings along the Grand Canal: The Ca’s, Palazzos, and Fondacos
Built between the 13th and 18th centuries, the buildings along the Grand Canal in Venice were the property of the most prominent families and merchant guilds in the city. Because they sat along the city’s main thoroughfair they were also conspicuous displays of wealth. If you have a keen eye, you can detect the different styles represented by various facades like the classic Renaissance lines of Sansovino’s palaces, or the intricate details of the Baroque Palazzo Balbi.
Fondaco dei Turchi
One of the most unique sites is the Fondaco dei Turchi, a building that used to be home to the Byzantine Turks who established and maintained the trade routes between Istanbul and Venice. Its facade drips with the embellishments of the Veneto Byzantine style which began with Venice’s sacking of Constantinople of evolved with the trading relationships they later established with the Ottoman Empire who conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul.
Insider’s Tip: Curious to see inside the Fondaco dei Turchi? You can go inside the building by visiting Natural History Museum Library, which is housed within its storied walls.
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
Another stunning building is Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, also known as Palazzo Venier. This unfinished palace dates to the 18th-century and has plenty of lore behind the name Leoni, or “lions.” According to local legend, a lion was once kept in the palace garden! The building is now home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum and one of the best museums in Venice.
Another jaw-dropper is the Gothic splendor of the facade of the Ca’ d’Oro. Originally a family home for the Contarini family, it is one of the elegant and embellished facades on the Canal, as well as one of the oldest. It’s name translates to the “golden house” because it was originally adorned with gold on the outside, though today the gilding has been lost.
There has been some form of bridge spanning Venice’s Grand Canal near the Rialto Market since 1181. They haven’t always been the most, ahem, sturdy structures. After various wood bridges collapsed and burned, Venice’s government decided in 1551 to build a stone bridge that would hopefully prove a bit more durable.
Everyone from Sansovino to Michelangelo was considered for the spot of lead architect, but eventually the bridge design that won the day belonged to a relatively unknown architect named Antonio Da Ponte. The difference between his design and his competitors’ was that their bridges all contained multiple arches in the classical style, whereas Da Ponte’s daring single arch was so unorthodox, some thought it would later collapse.
As the only bridge over the Grand Canal for some 300 years and still one of only four, it has withstood the test of time admirably. Crossing the bridge today is an action that unified both local and visitors alike as it is still probably the most important non-watery thoroughfare in the city.
Tips For Seeing the Grand Canal in Venice
Like Piazza Navona or the Champse Elysée, Venice’s Grand Canal never closes and is rarely quiet. You can see it any time you like just as long as you can find your way through Venice’s labyrinth and out to the banks of its largest waterway.
You don’t need tickets to see the Grand Canal but you do if you want to take a boat on it. Check out the Official Tourism website of the City of Venice for the different ticket options. Gondolas rides often stick more to the smaller canals in Venice, where they don’t have to fights the currents that sweep the Grand Canal. Most of the boats in the Grand Canal are water taxis, called vaporetto, pleasure barges, or tour boats. Vaporetto can be hailed at any certified stand but any sort of cruise or guided tour should be booked in advance.
Rules for the Grand Canal
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to swim across the Canal. Not only will the aforementioned currents likely take you for quite a ride, the water is notoriously dirty and there is a lot of boat traffic.
The best time to visit the Grand Canal
Sunrise and sunset offer the most classic and romantic views of the Grand Canal. Unsurprisingly, sunset tends to be a more popular time for visitors, meaning you can forget about any pictures from the Rialto bridge that aren’t filled with fellow visitors. If you can get out of bed, the early morning is actually a very peaceful time in Venice and it’s also the best time to contemplate the calm waters of the Grand Canal.
Update notice: This post was updated on April 11, 2023.
We run the Welcome to Venice Walking Tour and Gondola Ride and the Venice Boat Tour with Grand Canal and Tower Climb that take you to must-see sites and hidden corners, giving you an overview of the history of the city.
by Elena L.View more by Elena ›
Book a Tour
Pristine Sistine - The Chapel at its Best
Premium Colosseum Tour with Roman Forum Palatine Hill
Pasta-Making Class: Cook, Dine Drink Wine with a Local Chef
Crypts, Bones Catacombs: Underground Tour of Rome
VIP Doge's Palace Secret Passages Tour
Legendary Venice: St. Mark's Basilica, Terrace Doge's Palace