Coming up with a list of the top must-see attractions in Venice is admittedly a challenge. A city this beautiful, this ancient, this steeped in culture and history has no shortage of attractions and activities that could be described as must-see or must-do. Ideally, in order to get a true flavor of the city one must return multiple times, experience different seasons, holidays and festivals, and take the time to truly get to know the people that inhabit Venice.

Realistically this just isn’t possible for most people. For the majority of visitors to this magnificent city this will be their one and only opportunity to experience Venice, and the time in which to do so will seem sadly lacking. Hopefully this list of 5 of the top things to see and do in Venice, Italy will help you make the most of your limited time, and allow you to maximize your time there and experience the best the city has to offer. Here are my picks in no particular order.

5 – Take an elevator ride to the top of the Campanile

Want a great view of St. Mark’s Basilica from above rather than from below? Nab yourself a ticket and take the elevator to the top of the bell tower in front of the church. From this vantage point you can see both the piazza as well as the basilica. Prepare to be amazed at the giant bells that peal out over the city throughout the day. Just make sure you aren’t up there when the bells are ringing if you value your hearing!

4 – Take a Gondola Ride

Yes, it is incredibly touristy and can be supremely expensive as well. However, there are few more romantic vacation experiences to be had anywhere than a boat ride on the famous canals of Venice. Would you go to Cairo and not visit the pyramids at Giza? Would you visit Paris and not take a trip up the Eiffel Tower? Don’t let the jaded opinions of others influence you. Take advantage of what will likely be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Right around dusk is the most romantic time to take a gondola ride. If price is an issue remember that no price is set in stone, and if you are willing to haggle a little you can save some money. Your ride will last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, but will be an experience you’ll remember for a lifetime.

3 – Visit the Doge’s Palace

This beautiful 3 story palace is a must stop for anyone coming to Venice. Dating back to before the Renaissance the Doge’s Palace is one of the most spectacular constructs to be found anywhere in Europe. The interior of the palace is breathtaking, and once inside you can appreciate the artwork of such masters as Bellini, Titian, Veronese and more. Art lovers will be awestruck as they enter the Grand Council chamber and feast their eyes on Tintoretto’s Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world. And of course, I can’t forget the spectacle of the Golden Staircase. The sheer opulence of the palace is staggering and I promise you’ll quickly have a kink in your neck from trying to gawk everywhere at once.

2 – Take a trip to Murano

Okay, technically not in Venice proper, but it is very close and not a trip to be missed if you are in the region. If you are in St. Mark’s Square you can take advantage of the free boat ride offered over to Murano to check out the beautiful hand-blown glass shops and watch a glass-blowing demonstration at one of the factories there. Once upon a time glass-blowing artists moved out of Venice to Murano to lessen the risk of their magnificent works being destroyed by fire. They remain there to this day, and have a wide selection of amazing wares to choose from. If you want to buy then this is the place to do it, as the shops in Murano are significantly cheaper than the ones in Venice, and again you can do a little haggling to reduce the bill even further. A couple of hours in Murano will probably suffice, then you can grab the vaporetto (water bus) back to Venice in time to enjoy supper.

1 – Visit Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) and Basilica San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica)

Of course, anyone traveling to Venice, Italy is not about to miss this destination. Like the Vatican in Rome, or the Pyramids of Giza this is the main attraction in Venice, and for good reason. The square, once a central meeting place for Venetians, has now become a tourist haven, and crowds flock there to visit the Basilica, the clock tower, the incredible array of various political and religious buildings, and of course the myriad of shops and cafes. Stop for an espresso at Café Florian, a historical spot dating back to the 18th century.

St. Mark’s Basilica itself is of course the highlight. Almost one thousand years old the basilica (the third building to rest on the spot) was constructed in the year 1063. Its impressive façade boldly displays the symbol of Venice – a golden winged lion representing St. Mark. A plethora of domes, statues, and mosaics await the visitor, and a viewing of the High Altar, which is believed to house some of the remains of St. Mark is a must.

Want to see St. Mark’s Square without fighting the throngs of people to do so? Come back and visit the piazza at night. With the crowds gone and the square empty you can truly appreciate the beauty of this ancient square.

These are just a few of the best things to see and do on your Venice, Italy vacation. Others include a visit to the Rialto Market, or a day trip to Burano or Torcello Islands. Or spend a day shopping in Venice at the shops of hundreds of local artisans. And if your timing is good take in the grand Carnevale which takes place for 12 days before Lent each year.