The best churches in Venice are spread all around the city and lagoon. They date from the 11th through to the 18th century, the glory years of the Venetian Republic and its subsequent decline. Their styles range from the Romanesque and Byzantine through to Gothic, Renaissance and full-on florid Baroque. Venice and its lagoon is one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe, and the churches of Venice are one of its main features.
We’ve visited all of the churches of Venice Italy on our list and many more around the city besides. You may not be able to fit them all into your Venice itinerary. However, we’ve arranged the by areas of Venice so if you’re close by you’ll know what to look out for.
Some lesser-known churches are members of the Chorus churches Venice group. You can buy a pass to visit all 18 churches for just €12, or visit each church individually for €3.
- 1 Basilica of San Marco – St Mark’s Basilica
- 2 San Giorgio Maggiore
- 3 Santa Maria del Giglio
- 4 San Zanipolo, or SS Giovanni & Paolo
- 5 Santa Maria Formosa
- 6 San Zaccaria
- 7 Santa Maria dei Miracoli
- 8 Madonna dell’Orto
- 9 Santa Maria della Salute
- 10 San Trovaso
- 11 Il Redentore
- 12 Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
- 13 San Michele in Isola
- 14 Torcello Cathedral
Basilica of San Marco – St Mark’s Basilica
San Marco is the epicentre of Venice. It’s one of the most beautiful churches in the world, with some wonderful exotic Byzantine flourishes. My first memory of seeing St Mark’s domes was that this could almost be India. Venice brought back many influences from the Near East, and nowhere is this more in evidence than St Mark’s.
It was built to house the relics of St Mark the Apostle, which were pilfered from Alexandria. The interior is one of the most lavish in Christendom, with an extraordinary series of golden mosaics.
The only drawback with San Marco is that it’s one of the victims of mass tourism in Venice. In peak season you can wait more than an hour to get in – and that’s if you’ve made a reservation! One solution is to visit Venice in winter, when there are far less visitors.
The soaring campanile, or bell tower, can be visited most of the year (it’s closed for two weeks every January). You can book your ticket in advance from April to October, but in summer this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll actually skip the line as planned. Try to get in early in the morning or late in the day – the panorama from the top is one of the best views of Venice.
Sestiere / district: San Marco
Highlights: The mosaics, the Pala d’Oro (paid entry) and the view from the campanile.
Tip: The mosaics are illuminated between 11.30 am and 12.45 pm on weekdays – given the crowds, not the best time, sadly. They’re also lit during services on Sundays and main religious feasts.
Getting there: The nearest vaporetto, or waterbus stops, are at San Marco (Vallaresso) and San Marco (San Zaccaria). The Basilica is at the end of the Piazza San Marco, and the Campanile is about thirty metres away.
San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore is, for me, the most beautiful church in Venice. You get outstanding views of it along the Riva degli Schiavoni and the Molo waterfront at San Marco. It was one of the last works of the great architect Andrea Palladio, and one of the best-known things to see in Venice. It also makes a tremendous subject for photographs of Venice, especially with gondolas in the foreground at San Marco.
The front of the church is modelled on a Classical temple façade, and the interior is light and airy. It has several notable paintings, including two classic works by Tintoretto.
You can take a lift to the top of the Campanile for just €3, but be warned: that bell is extremely loud.
Sestiere: San Marco
Highlights: The external view from just about anywhere, Tintoretto’s The Last Supper and the view over the lagoon and city from the Campanile.
Tip: Have some foam earplugs handy if you’re heading up the Campanile.
Getting there: The number 2 vaporetto stops at San Giorgio, right outside the church. It’s only one stop from San Marco (San Zaccaria).
Santa Maria del Giglio
Originally known as Santa Maria del Zobenigo after the family that founded it, Santa Maria del Giglio was built between 1680 and 1683. Its name translates as St Mary of the Lily.
This church is one of the main landmarks on our recommended walk if you’re spending a weekend in Venice. It’s one of the churches built in Venice during the Baroque period. These typically had ornate facades full of statuary, not always religious in theme. This is true of both Santa Maria del Giglio and nearby San Moisè.
However, whereas the latter is garish, Santa Maria del Giglio is somehow gracious. True, it depicts the vainglorious benefactor Antonio Barbaro and his military career highlights. This is not a work of piety! Yet somehow, that façade is one of the most arresting Venice sights, especially at night when it’s beautifully floodlit.
Sestiere: San Marco
Highlights: The façade, and inside, the one painting in Venice attributed to the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, Madonna and Child with St John. This has suffered something of a botched restoration following fire damage, but it’s still worth a look.
Tip: Try to see the façade at dusk, when it’s at its best.
Getting there: The Giglio vaporetto stop on the #1 route is 200 metres away.
San Zanipolo, or SS Giovanni & Paolo
Our next Venetian church is in the neighbouring sestiere of Castello, in the northern part of the city. It’s on the right in the lead shot of this article, part of an astonishing ensemble of buildings with what is now Venice’s main Hospital. Yes, you read that right.
San Zanipolo is the Venetian name for the church. It’s dedicated to Saints John and Paul, but not the famed disciples, rather two 4th century Roman martyrs with the same names. It’s the main Dominican friars’ church in Venice, and is a minor Basilica.
It’s a vast brick Gothic edifice, and its plain unfinished façade makes for a wonderful contrast with the building next door. This marble masterpiece is the front of the former Scuola Grande di San Marco, which is now the local hospital.
The interior is most notable for its collection of 25 tombs of doges, who were the elected leaders of the Venetian Republic.
Highlights: the view from across the canal, the Doges’ tombs and the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Andrea del Verrocchio which is outside the church.
Tip: The best way to get there from San Marco is via Campo Santa Maria Formosa.
Getting there: Vaporetto stops Fondamente Nove and Ospedale are both five to ten minutes’ walk away.
Santa Maria Formosa
‘Formosa’ means ‘beautiful’, and this elegant white church in the middle of Castello sestiere is beautifully proportioned.
Its tall slender campanile is the tallest in the vicinity, and it’s built in the shape of a Greek cross. The current church was begun around 1492, on the site of an earlier ruined church. The church gets its name from a vision of the Virgin Mary, who appeared to St Magnus in the form of a buxom woman.
Highlights: the exterior, especially from across Campo Santa Maria Formosa, and the polyptych of St Barbara by Palma Vecchio.
Tip: You’ll have to walk to get here, as it’s about as far ‘inland’ as you can get in Venice. One of the best hidden attractions of Venice, the wonderful Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop, is a short walk away along Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa.
Getting there: The most practical vaporetto stop is San Marco (San Zaccaria). The quickest route on foot from there is via Calle del Vin, heading towards Ruga Giuffa. It’s no more than an 8-10 minute walk.
This distinctive church is one of the earliest buildings from the Renaissance in Venice, and was built in the mid-15th century. It was the third church on the site. The simple façade is one of the most beautiful in Venice.
It’s one of the richest churches in Venice in terms of art treasures. The walls of the nave are beautifully painted, as is the roof behind the altar.
Down in the crypt, eight doges lie in eternal rest, albeit often covered in slightly pungent stagnant water from the lagoon.
Highlights: the façade and Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Four Saints. The gilded altarpiece in the Cappella San Tarasio is also very impressive.
Tip: Campo San Zaccaria is a wonderful place to retreat from the crowds of San Marco in summer.
Getting there: The nearest vaporetto stop is San Marco (San Zaccaria). It’s a very short walk barely a minute – from Riva degli Schiavoni. Turn off at the Hotel Savoia & Jolanda. It’s barely five minutes from San Marco.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli
This tiny church has some of the most exquisite architecture in Venice. It built to house a painting of the Virgin Mary reputed to have miraculous properties, including the power of healing. It was built in the late 15th century by Pietro Lombardo.
Its exterior is completely covered in several types of marble, as is most of the interior. The latter is a beautiful, harmonious space, with all attention drawn to the painting in the chancel above.
Highlights: The entire church is stunning. There are no great works of art inside. You don’t need them when the whole building is a stupendous work of art. It’s one of the best sights in Venice that’s relatively unknown.
Tip: It’s very close to San Zanipolo in Castello – just a three-to-four-minute walk. Note that it’s another of the Chorus churches.
Getting there: Miracoli is another of the ‘inland’ churches. The closest vaporetto stops are Fondamente Nove to the north and Rialto to the south.
Madonna dell’Orto is off the beaten track Venice at its best. It’s secreted away in the far north of Cannaregio, one of the few areas in Venice where you find the locals vastly outnumber the tourists. This is such a welcome change.
One of the greatest Venetian artists, Jacopo Robusti, or Tintoretto, lived around the corner on Campo dei Mori. Madonna dell’Orto was his local church, and he chose to be buried there. Along with the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, it’s also the best place to see his paintings.
It’s a picturesque church outside, built of red brick with a row of statues on the facade. Its name comes from a statue which was believed to work miracles, which was kept in a nearby orchard (orto).
Highlights: Tintoretto’s The Last Judgment. Also the lovely façade.
Tip: Much of Cannaregio is still undiscovered Venice and you can explore this area in peace, far from the crowds, even in summer. The church of Sant’Alvise is a few minutes’ walk in one direction, and the Ghetto, where Venice’s Jews were confined, is also close by, ten minutes to the south-west.
Getting there: Vaporetti 4.1, 5.1 and A all call at the nearby Orto stop.
Santa Maria della Salute
Santa Maria della Salute is one of the best things to see in Venice, and one of the great icons of the city.
This grand domed church was the life’s work of architect Baldassare Longhena. He won a competition to build the church in thanksgiving for Venice’s deliverance from the plague. Its name translates as ‘St Mary of Health’. It’s as recognisable a symbol of Venice as the gondola, San Marco or the Grand Canal, whose entrance it guards.
After the Baroque exuberance of the exterior, it’s surprising to encounter a fairly plain interior. It does possess several fine Venetian artworks, mostly by Titian, and a Tintoretto, The Marriage of Cana.
Highlights: the view from San Marco, Harry’s Bar and just about any of the hidden side street viewpoints across the Grand Canal. These are some of our favourite views of Venice.
Tip: Try to catch a sunrise on Salute, especially in the winter months, when it looks breathtaking.
Getting there: The vaporetto stops right outside, at Salute.
The church of San Trovaso sits next to the canal and boatyard of the same name in a quiet part of Dorsoduro. It’s a quiet spot, a fair walk from most Venice tourist spots. Yet it’s close to one of the most beautiful places in Venice, the Rio degli Ognissanti canal, which joins the Rio di San Trovaso next to the boatyard.
There never was a St Trovaso. The name is a Venetian corruption of Saints Gervais and Protais, brothers and early Christian martyrs. It is notable for having two identical facades and entrances. These were built to placate local Nicolotti and Castellani faction loyalists. They refused to enter through the same door, so two were built instead to keep the peace, so that neither would feel upstaged by the other.
Highlights: The view with the Squero di San Trovaso in front, and Tintoretto’s Temptation of St Anthony.
Tip: Across the canal, you’ll find some of the best cicchetti in Venice in Osteria Al Squero. These bar snacks are a great introduction to food in Venice.
Getting there: The busy Zattere vaporetto stop is three to four minutes away on foot.
The Redentore church is another masterpiece by Andrea Palladio. It’s in a prime location on the Giudecca waterfront, looking north towards the city.
The Church of the Most Holy Redeemer was built to mark Venice’s deliverance from another outbreak of plague – this one in 1575-6.
It bears a few Palladian hallmarks, most notably the Neoclassical façade, which was modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. The white Neoclassical interior is equally impressive.
The church is the focal point of one of the most important Venice events of the year, the Festa del Redentore. A pontoon bridge is laid across the Canale della Giudecca, and a huge firework display takes place. The following day – the third Sunday in July – a huge procession crosses the canal on the bridge. If you happen to be in town or nearby, the Festa is one of the best things to do in Venice.
Highlights: The façade and view across the Canale della Giudecca
Tip: The best shots of the Redentore are from the water or across the Canal.
Getting there: The Redentore vaporetto stop is right outside the church.
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
The Frari church in the San Polo sestiere is a vast Gothic brick barn, its façade not dissimilar to San Zanipolo and even Madonna dell’Orto. It’s the church of the Franciscan friars, and much of it was built
If the latter is Tintoretto’s church, you could make a case for the Frari being Titian’s. It is home to two of his masterpieces, the Assumption (behind the high altar) and Virgin Mary from Ca Pesaro. The artist is also buried there, as is the sculptor Antonio Canova.
The Frari is full of other Venice art treasures, including Donatello’s only sculpture in the city, a wooden statue of St John the Baptist.
Sestiere: San Polo
Highlights: Titian’s Assumption, Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child triptych and the fine pyramidal tomb of Canova.
Tip: The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, home to many great works by Tintoretto, is around the side of the church.
Getting there: The nearest vaporetto stop is San Toma’, on the Grand Canal.
San Michele in Isola
The island of San Michele is where the dead of Venice are laid to rest. It’s just to the north of Cannaregio, a short boat ride across from Fondamente Nove.
The domed church is hidden around the corner of the island, and makes for a wonderful surprise. The lovely façade was built from white Istrian stone, which has faded in brightness over the subsequent 550 years. It’s one of the first Renaissance works to be completed in Venice.
The adjacent cemetery is still in use. Seversl famous figures are buried there, including the Russian composer Igpr Stravinsky and the poet and fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound. Football fans can also track down the grave of Helenio Herrera, the coach who pioneered the famous catenaccio tactical system in the 1960s.
Highlights: The view from the vaporetto of the façade.
Tip: If you’re on the right vaporetto in winter, you can catch the sun setting behind San Michele. Stay on the right hand side of the boat as you head across the lagoon from Murano.
Getting there: Vaporetto stop San Michele is a few minutes’ walk from the church, which is in the north-west corner of the island.
Torcello gives a real taste of Venice off the beaten path, yet this is where the remarkable story of Venice began. This remote island to the north of Burano was a busy small city with its own cathedral, and around the turn of the first millennium was more prominent than what was to become Venice, to the south.
Ironically Torcello is now the best place to see what the islands of the Venetian lagoon were like before being settled. Most of its buildings disappeared centuries ago, their materials shipped to Venice for re-use there. Torcello is now a peaceful one-street village. And it still has its Cathedral.
Santa Maria Assunta dates back to 639 AD, though much of what we see now dates from the 11th century. The apse mosaic dates from this period, though the figure of the Virgin Mary was re-worked a century later. The west wall mosaic cycle is also amazing, showing a Crucifixion and a Last Judgment.
Highlights: The mosaics on the apse and west wall.
Tip: Don’t miss the climb up the campanile for a great view over the island and lagoon. You could easily visit Torcello together with Burano in a day.
Getting there: the #12 vaporetto runs to Torcello regularly.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.