Grand Canal Walking Tour (Self Guided), Venice

The main waterway in Venice, Grand Canal snakes in an "S" shape through the center of the city, dividing its main districts. On both sides of this thoroughfare are the most beautiful buildings dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries that tell the story of a thousand years of Venetian splendor. While one can view the architectural parade from water buses, our self-guided walking tour offers the opportunity to see some magnificent masterpieces up close and even step inside them.

In 2016, stellar architect Rem Koolhaas converted one of the city’s elegant 16th-century palazzo – Fondaco dei Tedeschi – into a posh department store, centered on an elegant courtyard. A roof deck above has rotating art exhibitions and quite possibly the most spectacular view of Venice. Meanwhile, the other grand palazzo of the Grand Canal, Fondaco dei Turchi, is occupied by the Natural History Museum’s beautiful collection of big game taxidermy, insects, marine life, fossils, and other interesting finds collected by Venetians over the centuries, as they explored the world.

Another sight not to miss is the yellow gold Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti – so distinctive, indeed, which is a rare attribute in this city of grandeur. Located just across the Accademia bridge, it neighbors the Palazzo Barbarigo, which has been adorned with Murano glass mosaics since the late 1800s.

While there’s no shortage of eye-catching churches along the way, the baroque Santa Maria della Salute, supported by over 1,150,000 wooden pylons, is arguably most picturesquely situated. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Health/Deliverance (“salute”), it takes the form of a rotunda, or as its architect intended, “the shape of a crown”.

Time may have passed, but the Grand Canal is still, to quote a French ambassador in the 15th century, “the most beautiful street in the world”. Follow this walk along interesting narrow streets and we’re sure you’ll agree.

Getting to Sight #1. The first tour stop (Santa Lucia Train Station) can be reached by: Water Bus: 1, 1/, 3, 4.1, 5.1, 4.2, 5.2, 2, 2/, N; Tram: T1; Bus: 12L, 84, 5E, 6E, 12E, 53E, 56.
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from iTunes App Store or Google Play to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Grand Canal Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Grand Canal Walking Tour
Guide Location: Italy » Venice (See other walking tours in Venice)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 3 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 5.2 Km or 3.2 Miles
Author: naomi
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Chiesa di Santa Maria di Nazareth
  • Chiesa di San Simeone Piccolo
  • Fondaco dei Turchi / Natural History Museum
  • Chiesa di San Stae (Eustachio)
  • Fondaco dei Tedeschi
  • Palazzo Grimani di San Luca
  • Campo San Samuele
  • Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti
  • Palazzo Barbarigo
  • Santa Maria della Salute
Chiesa di Santa Maria di Nazareth

1) Chiesa di Santa Maria di Nazareth

Beside the modern Santa Lucia railway station stands the church of Santa Maria di Nazareth, known as the Scalzi. The term ‘scalzi’ refers to the barefoot Carmelite friars (monks) who came to Venice during the 1670s and commissioned their church to be built on the Grand Canal. A masterpiece of the Venetian baroque period, the church is now free to enter.

While the façade, completed by Giuseppe Sardi (1672-1680) is really striking with all the statues on it, the huge interior will take your breath away with a very theatrical elaboration of marble, gilded woodwork and sculptures. The impressive ceiling painting, ‘Proclamation of the Maternity of the Virgin’ by Ettore Tito (1934), replaced an earlier fresco by Tiepolo, which was destroyed in October 1915 by an Austrian bomb meant for the train station.

Note the lovely gift shop as you leave the church.
Chiesa di San Simeone Piccolo

2) Chiesa di San Simeone Piccolo

The work of Giovanni Antonio Scalfarotto (1718–38), San Simeone Piccolo – also called San Simeone e Giuda – was one of the last churches built in Venice and shows the emerging eclecticism of Neoclassical architecture. Some acknowledge it as being modeled on Rome’s Pantheon with a temple-front pronaos; on the other hand, the peaked dome recalls the more embellished and prominent Santa Maria della Salute church.

The pediment of the entrance has a marble relief depicting ‘The Martyrdom of the Saints’ by Francesco Penso (Saint Simon was apparently the cousin of Christ, martyred as a Jew by the Romans). In the middle of the long corridors you can also find an underground crypt with an altar. It may be very dark down there and you’ll only have a candle to light your way; however, for the more adventurous, it’s a very unique experience to have.

If you want a place to get alone without all the crowds, come visit this beautiful church.
Fondaco dei Turchi / Natural History Museum

3) Fondaco dei Turchi / Natural History Museum

A fabulous Veneto-Gothic style palazzo on the Grand Canal, Fondaco dei Turchi was constructed in the early 13th century, and was described in the 1800s as “a Byzantine palace, and one of the earliest buildings, not ecclesiastical, in Venice. .... A few years ago it was one of the most unique and curious buildings in Europe, and the most important specimen of Italo-Byzantine architecture, but it was modernised and almost rebuilt by the government in 1869.”

After having been used as a residence to many visiting dignitaries, the Ottoman Turkish population (thus “dei Turchi”) turned the building into a ‘fondaco’ that served as a combination home, warehouse, and market for the Turkish traders. When commerce with the Orient declined, it fell into disrepair until the Austrians began restoration work in the 1850s.

Since 1923, the Natural History Museum (Museo di Storia Naturale) has occupied the Fondaco with a collection of stuffed animals, crustacea and dinosaur fossils, as well as a section on lagoon life. Highlights include the Ouranosaurus skeleton and the exhibit of a Sarcosuchus imperator (ancestor of the crocodile).

Why You Should Visit:
Fascinating fossils inside, and excellent showcase of the collection, including the traditional 19th-century presentation for some of the animal collections.
Also has air conditioning (unlike most other museums), an English guidebook, a beautiful inside courtyard, and reasonable prices.

If you carry a picnic, the grounds are a wonderful place to eat lunch.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Fri: 9am-5pm, last admission 4pm; Sat-Sun: 10am-6pm, last admission 5pm (Nov-May); Tue-Sun: 10am-6pm, last admission 5pm (Jun-Oct)
Closed on Monday, December 25th, January 1st, May 1st
Chiesa di San Stae (Eustachio)

4) Chiesa di San Stae (Eustachio)

Founded in the 11th century but reconstructed in the 17th century and finally restored in 1977–8, San Stae (or Sant’Eustachio) seems relatively small when compared with the size of other churches in Venice, but stands out because of a superb location, right by the Grand Canal and the San Stae vaporetto stop.

It shows off a sculpted Baroque facade, complete with myriad statues and columns, yet looks somewhat mysterious. Visitors will find no lavish decorations inside; instead, myriad paintings draw attention, displayed beautifully against stark white walls. These include ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’ by Tiepolo; ‘Torture of St. Thomas’ by Pittoni, Sebastiano Ricci’s ‘The Liberation of St. Peter’, and more. Large windows help to brighten the interior and illuminate the artwork.

Be sure to make a stop here, day or night... it is most impressive!
Fondaco dei Tedeschi

5) Fondaco dei Tedeschi (must see)

Once headquarters of the German merchant community in Venice, Fondaco dei Tedeschi is a huge building standing just beside the Rialto bridge. Back in the day, German traders were the most influential foreign group in the city and had rented this centrally-located building from as early as the 13th century. After being destroyed by fire, the Fondaco was rebuilt in the 16th century into a functional 4-story edifice with a grand inner courtyard. While architecturally it is typically Italian Renaissance, the basic concept of the building (much as the word 'fondaco' itself) is typically Arabic. Just like Fondaco dei Turchi, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi comprised a palazzo, a warehouse, and restricted living quarters for the inhabitants – mainly merchants from the German cities of Nuremberg, Judenburg, and Augsburg.

Today, this is one of the largest and resplendent shopping centers in Venice specialized in high-end luxury stuff. No wonder prices here are a bit steep, but the place is still a popular hangout, always teeming with tourists.

But don’t let the crowd put you off, at least not before you check out the Fondaco's rooftop terrace for the views it provides, fit to blow anyone away. The 4th-floor Event Pavilion is an exhibition space with a free access to the terrace affording one of the best panoramas of the Grand Canal, the downward view of the Rialto Bridge, and the top of San Marco's Basilica a kilometer or so away – quite a different angle from what you can see at a ground level!

To enter the roof terrace you need a ticket – offered for free, but issued for a certain time in order to regulate visitors' numbers and to prevent overcrowding. A word of advice is to pick up your ticket at the top floor first, and then explore the below shopping mall. Otherwise, you can book the ticket online at Fondaco's website. And if you're really lucky to catch a sunset while up on the roof, your efforts will be well rewarded!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am-8pm
Palazzo Grimani di San Luca

6) Palazzo Grimani di San Luca

Once a famous residence-museum, Palazzo Grimani housed a fine collection of antiquities collected by the two Grimani brothers: Giovanni and Vettore, who renovated their grandfather’s palace in the mid-16th century. The result is a magnificent work of architecture, which combines Tuscan and Roman elements with the original Venetian ones. The Roman courtyard and staircase are its finest examples.

Many of the Grimani brothers’ treasures are now housed in the Museo Archeologico, but even though the rooms are largely unfurnished, they are a delight: the decoration is rich, with elaborate marble and stucco work, statues, fireplaces and stunning frescoes. The Foliage Room with its trees, fruits, flowers and birds, and the Dining Room with its wildfowl and fish are alone worth the visit. Temporary exhibitions are also held at the palazzo.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 10am–7pm
Campo San Samuele

7) Campo San Samuele

One of the few squares that open to the Grand Canal, Campo San Samuele is home to two amazing palaces of great historical, architectural and cultural importance for Venice: Palazzo Grassi – a landmark gallery housing contemporary masterpieces, and Palazzo Malipiero – once a residence of the greatest Venetian lover of all times, Giacomo Casanova.

Originally built in Byzantine times, Palazo Malipiero’s nine centuries of architectural history can be retraced in its complex structure; each generation of owners left its stamp of caring and fervor for the arts. Today it has been dismembered into several apartments, with the 2nd floor housing a hotel where you can still see 18th century frescoes in good condition.

Meanwhile, the historic home of the Grassi family is what you would expect of a grand palazzo with its central courtyard and baroque staircase. As with all galleries hosting changing exhibitions, you’ll have to check what’s currently on display.

In the center of the square stands the Chiesa di San Samuele, the church where Casanova was baptized.
Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti

8) Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti

Situated opposite the Accademia gallery, next to the Palazzo Barbarigo, this palace is quite simply one of the most beautiful along the Grand Canal, lavishly adorned with Gothic tracery and a large, beautifully tended garden. Built in the 16th century, it represents a stunning mix of Gothic and Byzantine influences, and today accommodates headquarters of the Venetian Institute of Science, Letters and Art.

In the course of centuries, the palazzo changed hands many times during which it was internally modernized and externally decorated in the Venetian Gothic style with its signature rich window framing. The first round of neo-Gothic renovation took place in 1840 – by the young Archduke of Austria, Frederick Ferdinand, who embarked on this complex project in a bid to make the Hapsburg presence in Venice more prominent. The Archduke lived in the palace until 1878, after which it was sold to Baron Raimondo Franchetti who also undertook renovation, but never actually made the palace his personal residence.

The edifice now serves multiple purposes but is mainly dedicated to hosting changing exhibitions of contemporary art which, in turn, give it a breath of fresh air amid the massive dominance of the Renaissance art all around. Each room within the palace is fitted with Murano glass chandeliers, some of which are quite monumental.

Apart from the art and the unbeatable views of the Grand Canal, visitors to the palace can also enjoy a pretty on-site cafeteria with a fairly good lunch menu!

Opening Hours:
[Cafeteria] Daily: 9am-6pm
Palazzo Barbarigo

9) Palazzo Barbarigo

Once owned by the proprietors of one of Venice's largest glass factories, Palazzo Barbarigo, originally built in the 16th century, is distinguished for its exterior clad in Murano glass mosaics. The mosaics were added in 1886 and are said to have been inspired by the similarly adorned facade of St Mark's Basilica.

Nonetheless, when the front mosaic was completed, it didn't quite impress the aristocratic neighbors who accused the then-new owners of the palace of being “nouveau riches” with a garish taste completely out of touch with the genteel decay of the neighboring buildings. Needless to say that this was unfair criticism as many of the Renaissance palazzi on the Grand Canal were once also covered in polychrome and gilt decorations, with elaborate plaster and stucco work that only added to their splendor.

Today, Palazzo Barbarigo stands as one of the most opulent pieces of architecture on the Grand Canal. The mosaic on its central frieze depicts 35 cherubs actively engaged in various artistic activities, such as painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture. Two separate murals commemorate royal visits to Venice: one in the 16th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne during which he is depicted speaking to Titian on the scaffold of St Mark's Basilica; and the other one by the French King Henry III, in 1574, arriving on the Doge's barge along with a team of glass-makers.

The portraits of two most famous Venetian painters – Titian and Tintoretto – are found right above these scenes. The lion of St Mark – symbol of Venice – tops one of the portraits, while the back rooster – symbol of Murano – crowns the other.
Santa Maria della Salute

10) Santa Maria della Salute (must see)

San Marco may be Venice's most famous church by name, but Santa Maria della Salute may well be its most famous by image and silhouette! Commonly known simply as La Salute, this grand historic church is largely recognized as the pinnacle of the city's Baroque movement.

La Salute is part of the Gesuati parish and is the most recent of the so-called “plague” churches. In the early 1630s, Venice was devastated by a plague that exterminated nearly 100,000 people, roughly one-third of the lagoon’s population. As a votive offering for deliverance from this pestilence, the Republic of Venice vowed to build and dedicate a church to Our Lady of Good Health (or Deliverance) which means “Salute” in Italian. Resting on a platform of more than 100,000 wooden piles, the church was designed in the then fashionable Baroque style by Baldassare Longhena, who dedicated half a century to working on this project and lived just long enough to see it finished in 1681.

Surmounted by a great dome that soon became emblematic of the city, the basilica makes for an interesting visit: it houses a small art gallery in its sacristy, which includes a Marriage Feast of Cana by Tintoretto, along with the allegorical ceiling paintings by Titian and a highly symbolic high altar where the Virgin and Child rescue Venice (depicted as a kneeling young woman) from the plague (depicted as an old woman).

Each year on November 21st, a pontoon bridge spans the Grand Canal to the church for a religious procession commemorating the deliverance of Venice from the plague. Far from a minor event in the Venetian calendar, this procession turns the church into a pilgrimage site – and admittedly very scenic one at that, since the La Salute stands right at the mouth of the Grand Canal and the visitors can get great shots all around.

Whenever you choose to visit, do get your tickets in advance to skip the long lines. Once inside, you can treat yourself to a unique view of the adjoining plaza from the balcony and, perhaps, also a 30-minute organ recital after the service... so do check the events program in advance – and enjoy!

Bring a drink with you as there are hardly any cafes around.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-12pm / 3-5:30pm
During festive Masses, times may be subject to change

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