Never mind the doge: insatiable curiosity rules Venice, and inside the Museo di Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History) it runs wild. The adventure begins upstairs with dinosaurs, then dashes through evolution to Venice's great age of exploration, when adventurers like Marco Polo fetched peculiar specimens from distant lands. Around every turn, scientific marvels await discovery in luminous new exhibits.
The obvious stars of the museo are the spotlit dinosaurs, including a terrifying ouransaurus from the Sahara and a psittacosaurus mongoliensis, a 120-million-year-old baby-dinosaur skeleton from the Gobi Desert. But the curators and designers of the museum's stunning new exhibits steal the show, leading visitors through evolution with a trail of dinosaur footprints and into galleries that follow the tracks of Venetian explorers. In hot pursuit of ancient legends from mummies to headhunters, macabre colonial trophies like elephant's feet, and circus-sideshow curiosities including a two-headed goat, Venetian explorers like Giuseppe Reali and Giancarlo Ligabue stumbled across wondrous scientific specimens.
As you might expect from this lagoon city, the marine-biology exhibits are especially breathtaking. The most startling ceiling in Venice isn't a salon Tiepolo fresco but the museo 's 19th-century wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities), covered with shark jaws, poisonous blowfish and other outrageous sea creatures. Corals and starfish fill glass columns in the glowing tidepool chamber, leading into a marine-blue room with deep-sea specimens encased in glass bubbles. This undersea journey is accompanied by a spooky soundtrack that brings to mind whale-song recordings and Philip Glass.
The museum's grand finale downstairs is comparatively anti-climatic: a fish tank of Venetian coastal specimens bubbling for attention. Still, don't miss a close-up glimpse of the enormous dugout canoe moored at the water door – an unexpected sight for vaporetto riders along the Grand Canal.
Alongside the exit staircase you'll notice charming marble heraldic symbols of kissing doves and knotted-tail dogs, dating from the building's history as a ducal palace and international trading house. The dukes of Ferrara had the run of this 12th-century mansion until they were elbowed aside in 1621 to make room for Venice’s most important trading partner: Turkey. Turkish merchants were a constant in Venice throughout the maritime powers’ rocky romance, celebrated with favoured-nation trading status and inter-Adriatic weddings, and tested by periodic acts of piracy, invasion and looting.
Dubbed the Fondaco dei Turchi (Turkish Trading House), this building remained rented out to the Turks until 1858. Afterwards, a disastrous renovation indulged 19th-century architectural fancies, including odd crenellations that made the gracious Gothic building resemble a prison. Luckily, the renovation spared the courtyard and charming back garden, which is open during museum hours and ideal for picnics.