Romantic, beautiful, fascinating – Venice is a dream destination and one of Italy’s most beatiful cities. It’s everything you want it to be, and more.
Fairy tale palaces line the curving Grand Canal, Venice’s ‘high street’. By day the colours – of the buildings rising from the water and the endless variety of traffic along its route – are mesmerizing. At night, as street lamps drizzle gold and silver patterns over rippling waters, chandeliers tease from palazzo windows and candles flicker on waterside tables, it is magical.
There’s so much to see around St Mark’s Square and on the Grand Canal that on a first visit it’s tempting to spend all your time there. But it’s also very crowded. Surprisingly there is a quiet Venice, a city of dark-watered canals and tree-filled squares, where the only sounds are your footfalls and the water lapping against the boats moored below you – and it is not far, sometimes only moments, off the tourist track.
It’s easy to get lost in Venice, but not for long, and not disastrously. Soon you’ll come across a wall sign directing you to a main route or the nearest vaporetto stop. And there’s a huge pleasure in simply wandering and making endless discoveries along the way – tiny shops, craftspeople in their workshops, local cafés, art-filled churches, and the narrow, washing-hung lanes of real life Venice.
Things to Do
The Grand Canal
Venice’s main waterway is the Grand Canal, which splits the city into half with sestieri in equal parts to the west and east of it. On board a ferry one can explore the architectural splendor of the Renaissance buildings and their facades, which encircle the Canal and testify the welfare of the Republic of Venice, one of the most dominating mercantile sea powers in history.
Travelling the length of the Grand Canal is the perfect introduction to Venice. It snakes its way through the city for around 2 1/2 miles (4km), passing under elegant bridges, curving past stylish palazzi, domed churches and tall towers. Its traffic is an endlessly watchable theater of grunting vaporettos and sleek waterborne taxis, camera-toting tourists in gondolas, red fire brigade launches, high speed police boats and barges laden with anything from fruit to fridges, cabbages to concrete. Vaporetto nº 1 stops everywhere and takes ages, but the views are magnificent. Grab a front seat and let the show begin.
Among the 170 buildings built from the 13th to the 17th Century, one can see the Gothic building ’House of Gold’ (Ca d’Ora), Palazzo Corner-Spinelli and Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, which combine classical and Byzantine elements, Palazzo Grimani di San Luca, Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni, which hosts the Guggenheim collection, and many others.
The Rialto Bridge
The Rialto is the place where the first bridge over the Grand Canal was built. The original wooden bridge collapsed and it was replaced in 1588 by the single stone arch designed by Antonio da Ponte. It is the most important crossing place on the Canal and it is visited by locals, unlike the other tourist bridges, also there are many souvenir shops and a fruit, vegetable and fish market.
Piazza San Marco
St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is the only square and the nucleus of Venice. It is connected to Rialto through the Mercerie, the main throughway, the heart of the city’s commercial trade since ancient times, which cut the old city centre into two parts.
Crowded as it may be, with people and pigeons, the magic of ‘Europe’s drawing room’ never fades. Crowned by St Mark’s Basilica, lined with colonnades, overseen by a tall campanile and flanked by two smaller squares, one of them leading out to the water and presenting an idyllic vista, it is where every visitor to Venice heads to first, and so compelling is it, some never see anything else.
Elegant cafes and designer shops line the streets that radiate from the square. In Venice, traditional pubs, called “Bacari”, serve little portions of food called “Cicchetti”, like hard boiled eggs, “Sarde in Saor”, “Trippa”, fried “Baccala’, “Acciughette”, and “Folpetti” (baby boiled octopus), served with “Spritz”, a cocktail must in Venice prepared with ice, a slice of lemon, and a mix of dry white wine, Aperol or Campari, and soda.
Beyond the square there is the triumphal Torre dell’Orologio and the Procuratie Vecchia and Nuova, which houses the Museo Correr, the Archaeological Museum and the Museo del Risorgimento.
Doges’ Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
This pink and white, gothic fairytale concoction was the centre of the Venetian empire. From state apartments and council chambers down to the prison cells, the place breathes power. Its decorators included Veronese and Tintoretto (whose awesome Paradiso in the Great Council Room is the biggest oil painting in the world – he painted it for free at the age of 72). Don’t miss Titian’s painting of St Christopher, hidden away above the back of a door on the first floor.
The first citadel the Palazzo Ducale and church the Basilica di San Marco were erected on St. Mark’s square’s stony foundations. The Basilica di San Marco is a unique juxtaposition of Byzantine, western European and Islamic architectural styles. The Bell of San Marco (the Campanile), stands in front of the Basilica. Since it’s a symbol of the city and the tallest building, there are always queues to ascend it.
Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs connects the Palazzo Ducale, where prisoners were tried, to the prisons known as the Piombi. It was decorated on the outside with Baroque patterns. The beauty of the structure has given the bridge a romantic connotation and the sighs that it inspired once from the prisoners sentenced to jail, have been replaced by the sighs from people in love.
The most famous and beautiful Churches in Venice are probably Santa Maria della Salute (curvy shaped, completed in 1681) and Church of the Santissimo Redentore (Renaissance, built in 1577-1592).
Scala Contarini del Bovolo is an interesting 15th Century building characterized by an external spiral staircase with an abundance of arches.
The island of Murano is worth a visit because it is where the glass has been made for more than 700 years and one can visit the workshops.
In a palatial setting above the colonnades of St Mark’s Square, an esoteric collection of intriguing memorabilia with a stunning collection of art on the top floor. The Correr links with the Archaeological Museum and Sansovina’s breathtaking Biblioteca, a library in a million.
Santa Maria e Donato, Murano
A short trip across the Lagoon, Murano, famed for centuries for its glass-making, is a miniature Venice of weathered brick and pink stucco, built on several islands and with its own ‘grand canal’. Among all the shops selling glass, in designs from the kitsch to the superlative, is the church of Santa Maria e Donato. The 12th-century mosaic floor is rivaled only by that in St Mark’s Basilica, and the Byzantine mosaic of the Virgin set in an apse of gold, looking down on a colorful marble altar, takes your breath away.
Planning Your Visit
The city’s huge popularity means it’s worth planning ahead. Venice is busier and much more awkward than a normal city. For example, access by road is virtually impossible. Venice’s medieval design means there are no cars in most areas, parking is limited even on the outskirts and the bridge linking it to the mainland is often a stationary traffic jam. It’s best to not even try to drive to Venice.
Flying is easier. And check out the possibility of a water taxi from the airport across the Lagoon to the city – it’s pricier than a transfer bus but a memorable way to arrive.
There are at least 200 hotels but hoteliers know they don’t need to try hard to fill their rooms. Many are in buildings little changed for hundreds of years – don’t expect uniform rooms and facilities here. And, whenever tourists visit, it’s wise to book in advance. Hotel rates are among Europe’s highest and guests will probably be charged extra for breakfast and air-conditioning. A room with a view will cost more again – but may be worth it. After all, those views are what they come to Venice for.
Many visitors opt to stay in one of the cities nearby, like Padua, Treviso or Verona and take day trips to Venice on Italy’s excellent rail service. Venice’s main station is handily placed alongside the Grand Canal. From there it’s a memorable half-hour walk to the tourist honeypot of St Mark’s Square.
Those neighbouring cities are wonderful historic places in their own right and good bases to explore the Veneto area – but note that visitors lose the chance to explore Venice at night, when it is at its quietest and, sometimes, it’s most atmospheric.
Fast Facts of Venice
Venice is extremely hot in July and August, but outside these months the weather is not too excessive and is quite often pleasant. However, bear in mind that Venice, suffers from frequent thunderstorms and rain showers due to its location on the Adriatic coast. High water (“acqua alta”) occurs regularly because of the tidal flow of the Adriatic that pushes water into the Venice Lagoon. This happens between September and April, though it’s not unheard of at other times. It is advisable to wear boots when the flooding occurs, also it does not happen everyday and is temporary (lasting a couple hours per day).
When not to go
Venice is always crowded with tourists, particularly in summer (from June to early October). To avoid the crowd, the quietest season is winter, excluding the Christmas holidays and New Year’s Eve and the two weeks of Carnival. Unless you are fascinated by high water avoid November as it has the highest flooding.
The national currency is Euro (€). Banking Hours are Monday – Friday 8.30 am – 1.30 pm and 2.45 pm – 3.45 pm. There are also plenty of money exchange offices.
Italian. The locally spoken “Veneziano”, characterized by a hard “g” or “z,” normally not heard in Italian, is more than a dialect: nearly another language itself. It is easy to find someone who will speak English.
Voltage Guide: 220V, 50Hz. Standard European two pin plugs.
Country dialling code: +39
City dialling code: 041
British, New Zealand, Australian and United States passport holders will not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
There are no formal rules (waiters are on salary). In restaurants leave 5-10% in cash, and for bell boys at the hotel a couple of euros.