Venice is a city that needs to be seen.
No book, film or photograph can prepare one for the beauty of this romantic city. Surreal in every way, the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. In Venice, there are no roads, just a network of canals lined with Renaissance buildings and Gothic palaces. In the central square, Piazza San Marco in St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world, and the Campanile bell tower that from the top offers unsurpassed aerial views of the city.
In such a city filled with tourist attractions, it’s hard for a first time visitor to know where to begin. Perhaps the best way is to simply get lost for a few hours, walking the enchanting narrow streets and passageways, pausing alongside the inky blue canals, crossing some of the 400 bridges and seeking out the secret gardens for which it is known. At every turn, you’ll find something to admire, and no matter how far you venture, it is easy to find your way back to St Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal.
The story of Venice begins in the 5th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire when the Venetian population on the mainland escaped to the nearby marshes to find refuge on the sandy islands. Although the settlements were initially temporary, the Venetians gradually inhabited the islands on a permanent basis, driving wooden stakes into the sandy ground on which they were to construct their impressive buildings.
By then a trip to Venice had become a rite of passage for upper-class northern Europeans who congregated in the lagoon city as part of the Italian Grand Tour. Writers and artists soaked up inspiration from the commanding architecture that reflected in the gleaming waters and the city soon became a symbol for Italian romance.
Today Venice is divided into six sestieri, or neighbourhoods, each with distinctly different character. San Marco in the centre surrounded on three sides by the Grand Canal. Across Rialto Bridge is San Polo, the artisans’ neighbourhood, and across the Grand Canal to the south is Dorsoduro, with its grand art museums and stylish piazzas. At the outer edges are Santa Croce, Castello and Cannaregio.
Must See Attractions and Experiences
Certainly Venice’s most iconic attraction, and one of the most easily recognised in the world, St. Mark’s Basilica was originally the Doge’s private chapel. Beyond it, Piazza San Marco, or Saint Mark’s Square, is the largest and most important square in Venice, a place where people gather to see and be seen and where pushy pigeons wait to be fed.
Adjacent to Saint Mark’s Basilica is the Doges’ Palace, the headquarters of the Doges, the rulers of Venice. This area is marked by two tall columns along the waterfront, which represent Venice’s two patron saints. The Column of San Marco is topped with a winged lion while the Column of San Teodoro holds up a statue of Saint Theodore.
The Grand Canal curves through the heart of Venice and is the principal thoroughfare through the city that connects St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge and arrival points of the rail station on the mainland. Only four bridges cross its 3.8 km length, with boat transfers to take you back and forth. The Grand Canal was always the most prominent address in Venice and the water reflects the glorious Venetian architecture of family palaces, Gothic and Early Renaissance facades.
A trip along the canal by vaporetto is the best way to enjoy it, although no visit to Venice would be complete without a gondola ride, especially at night. There are about 500 gondolas currently operating in the city, when once there were 10000 or more. It is an indulgent treat, so ensure you select a gondolier that can guide you through the main attractions, or you may opt to simply sit back on the satin and velvet cushion and enjoy the romance.
Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to see the modernist and surrealist art, including major works by Picasso, Magritte, Max Ernst, Giacometti and Jackson Pollock. Housed in the 18th-century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, a one storey building that was never finished by the Venetian family that commissioned it. The gardens are lovely, the museum shop is the best in Venice, and the bar/café makes a good lunch or tea stop.
For the art lovers, the Accademia Fine Arts Museum is a must with its comprehensive collection of 15th-18th-century Venetian paintings. Mostly assembled from monasteries and churches that were closed and from palaces of noble families, they are now displayed in the former Monastery of Santa Maria della Carità. The Venice Biennale, the world’s biggest and longest-running art show that takes place every two years, is not to be missed.
One of the greatest Baroque composers of all times Vivaldi was born in Venice, and experiencing Vivaldi in Venice is a must. Check the concert programs and ideally catch a performance at one of the stunning concert halls while there.
The lagoon city has a long and glorious culinary tradition based on fresh seafood and the stalls of the Rialto and Chioggia markets offer fresh product ready for the local kitchens. Most Venetians agree that some of the city’s best gelato is served in Boutique del Gelato, a tiny outlet on busy salizzada San Lio. Try the Venetian tapas, but do save space for a proper sit-down Venetian meal of lagoon seafood at one of the canal side bistros.
The incredible Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop in Venice is a treasure trove and home to three very characterful attention-seeking cats. Books are stored in repurposed gondolas, bathtubs, and elevated shelves to protect them during flooding.
Tour Lido on foot or a bicycle to get a closer look at the Art Nouveau villas and hotels. The long strip of sand here that separates the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea was Europe’s first real beach resort and at the turn of the 20th century, Europe’s most fashionable watering hole.
Islands to visit from Venice
Beyond the city of Venice, you’ll find a scattered collection of islands, each with their own history and significance. These can be visited by private tour or ferry.
Murano Island is famous for its glass making craft and the most popular Venetian island among tourists. A few centuries ago, all glassmakers were required to live on the island to protect the glass-making secrets – and avoid fire from breaking out. Today the tradition of glass making continues here and you can find a glass museum and watch a glass blower at work.
Burano with its enchanted colourful painted houses and picturesque canals is worth a trip. Famous for artisan lace, you can buy lace products in many of the shops and visit the Lace Museum. There is even a leaning tower on one of its churches and a selection of very good restaurants.
The Venetian lagoon’s smaller islands often had more specific functions. These are Lazzaretto Nuovo, which was once a quarantine island, and San Lazzaro degli Armeni, home to an Armenian monastery. For something very different, take the hourly ferry to Sant’Erasmo, the largest island in the lagoon and sometimes referred to as the Garden of Venice, which is purely agricultural and produces much of the fresh fruit and vegetables sold in the city.
San Michelle is Venice’s cemetery island with two churches and many tombs, including Ezra Pound in the Protestant section and Igor Stravinsky in the Orthodox section. The island can be an interesting place to wander and is an easy stop on the way to Murano.
Useful Tips and Recommendations
– Staying in Venice may be more expensive than staying on the outskirts, but there’s an undeniable magic to walking the streets late at night, taking in the views of the gondolas on the canals first thing in the morning, and having the luxury of this dream city to yourself (well almost), once all the day visitors have left for the evening.
– A trip in a gondola can cost as much as 100 Euro for 20 minutes, which means that a shared water taxi may be the more affordable way to cruise the canals. Always confirm the price before taking the trip.
– Venice is a city of 54 500 residents, yet saw 30 million tourists visit last year, of which 4,5 million were overnight tourists. As one of the most visited cities in the world, if you’d like to avoid the crowds, travel out of season, when there are fewer visitors.
– Ensure you speak to some of the Venetian locals while there.
– The Carnival or Carnevale di Venezia is an annual festival and spectacle of costumes, masks and theatre that ends forty days before Easter. Time your visit accordingly if you want to witness it.
– Recommended hotels that I have stayed at include Al Ponte Antico and the family-run Bellini Venezia Hotel.
Venice is best out of season, when Venetians outnumber tourists, and you can get a more authentic sense of the romantic city of love.
Getting there made easy
The quickest flights from South Africa are usually with Swiss International Air Lines via Zurich to Venice Marco Polo Airport, although numerous airlines service the route. You could combine Venice with an Italian road trip, as the driving time from Rome to Venice is just on 6 hours and from Florence to Venice for 3 hours. On arrival take a Vaporetto, or water bus, to the Grand Canal and from there use a water taxi service. Be sure to use a licensed one with a yellow stripe and number on the side.
Last year in a bid to protect the fragile structure of the water city and minimise pollution, Italy banned cruise liners from docking in the Venice city, instead they now sail through the Venice lagoon at a distance from the city and dock on the mainland at Marghera, the industrial centre of the Veneto region.
** Some photos sourced on Pixabay, the rest are all mine.