Venice (Venezia)

In 9 words: There’s nothing like it anywhere that I know.
For your first visit you need no less than 2 full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace. Add a full day for visiting Burano, Murano and Torcello.
Distances are walkable in most cases, but occasional usage of vaporetti and traghetti is too much fun to pass by; you’ll have to use vaporetto to go to islands in the lagoon.
Love its architectural gems, but above all, its hidden corners, with narrow streets opening onto tiny campielli.
Don’t miss: Getting a forward seat on Linea Uno vaporetto for a cruise the length of the Grand Canal; taking a ride in a gondola; getting “lost” in the city; listening to live music on Piazza San Marco.
On the other hand: A valid concern in hot season – the stench rising up from many canals. Also, during the high season, the narrow passages in the city center tend to amplify the tourist crowds unlike anywhere else.
Worthy attractions: Basilica di San Marco with its many treasures; Palazzo Ducale; Campanile, with fantastic views over the lagoon; Rialto; Accademia; Ca’ d’Oro; Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari; Santa Maria della Salute; several other interesting churches; Murano [further afield]; Burano [further afield]; Torcello [further afield].
Left for another visit: Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Scuola Grande di San Rocco; Ca’ Rezzonico.
Last visit: (briefly) August 2014, (full) May 2009.
 

Grand Canal near Rialto

Venice is utterly unique in the Western world, and all the more fascinating for that. While there are other cities built on extensive canal networks, only in Venice those canals represent the actual transportation routes. And since the rest of the city is completely pedestrian, you get a feeling of immersion into something exciting and unfamiliar like nowhere else in Europe.

What people who have not been to Venice do not realize is that the city is not all made of canals. The central part of Venice is actually made of streets that mostly do not cross canals, and they are so narrow and short that the existence of the sky is not exactly apparent and keeping a geographic course is virtually impossible. You walk as if along a corridor, which abuts another corridor, which leads to a small “room”, – a square – from which another couple of corridors run off, and so on and so forth. Only when one of these little arteries happens to reach a large square or becomes a bridge across a canal, you realize that you are moving around a city. The sensation is very strange, but also very romantic.

Note for parents traveling with kids aged 7-13: At the very start of your visit to Venice, find a bookshop and buy “Venice for Children” book. It covers all of the major sights and is written in a way that’ll keep your child engaged. You’ll want to read it yourself…

Things to See

Hardly any person visiting Venice for the first time does not start with Piazza San Marco ♥♥♥. The only square in the city designated as piazza (all others are called either campo, “field”, or its diminutive, campiello), it is a most remarkable public space. Considerable segment of it used to be owned by thousands of pigeons (who were altogether missing on our latest visit in 2009), but neither that nor ever-present hordes of tourists diminish the impression.

The piazza is fronted by Basilica di San Marco ♥♥♥, a cathedral that is a splendid amalgamation of several architectural styles of West and East. The domes, the arches, the towers, the mosaics, the Horses of St Mark above the main doors – it all combines in one resplendent architectural spectacle. The interior splendor is almost blinding, with over 43,000 sq ft of golden mosaics. The treasury contains a number of magnificent artifacts collected by the Venetian Republic over the centuries. The gold-and-gemstones altarpiece, Pala d’Oro, is certainly worth the extra fee to view.

Another major attraction located right on the square is the Campanile ♥♥♥, which is actually the exact copy of the original tower that stood on this spot since the middle ages but collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike many other bell-towers in Italy, this one is equipped with an elevator, which means potentially longer waiting time to get in, but a much easier ascent than elsewhere. The view from the top over the city and the entire lagoon is through the wire-mesh, but is nonetheless breathtaking; beware – it might be very windy.

You can also view Torre dell’Orologio on the piazza, with its elaborate clock and two moors who hit the bell with their hammers when the time strikes. The rest of the buildings that surround the square on three sides are mostly of administrative nature and house expensive cafés and smart shops, plus a civic museum, Museo Correr, that we never visited.

At nights, there are live chamber orchestras playing at a few of the cafés around the piazza. If you decide to sit down to take in a performance, expect the food and drink bill to be outrageous. We decided that it was one of quintessential Venetian experiences, and are willing to put ♥♥ next to it; we picked café Quadri, and sat there for over an hour enjoying the music; two coffees each cost €8.50, plus there was a “music surcharge” of €5.70 per person. But if you don’t want to incur this expense and don’t mind standing right outside the last row of tables, you can listen to a pretty good performance gratis (still worth ♥♥) and even move from one café to another when the music sets alternate. If you’re not bashful, you may even dance.

Next to the cathedral, on what is an appendix to the piazza called Piazzetta San Marco stands Palazzo Ducale ♥♥♥. It’s a dazzling example of Gothic architecture. The tour of the interior includes several magnificent rooms and the famous Giant’s Staircase. There is no furniture in the palace and many works of art are recent additions to the ensemble, but the luxurious nature of this rulers’ residence is visible everywhere. The excellent audio-guide narration explores in detail the history of the Republic and its administrative structure and functions.

You’ll walk over the Bridge of Sighs while on tour of the Doge’s Palace. Afterwards, if you walk around the palace towards Riva degli Schiavoni, you will be able to see the famous passage from the outside. To be honest, I don’t rate it as anything extraordinary.

Piazzetta San Marco opens onto a vast expanse of water, from where the Grand Canal ♥♥♥ starts. You cannot walk along the canal, but you can ride its entire length on the route #1 of the vaporetto. I highly recommend doing that – and try to commandeer a seat at the front of the boat. Ride all the way to the final stop at Piazzale Roma… and then do it again going in the opposite direction. I don’t possess enough superlatives to describe the views.

If you’re up to it, try going for this vaporetto cruise in the very early morning, before most of the tourists – or even residents – are out and about. The sight of the palaces illuminated by the rising sun is mesmerizing.

Only three bridges span the Grand Canal, and the middle one of those, Rialto ♥♥♥ is one of the city’s symbols. It is a prime spot for observing the hustle and bustle of the canal traffic from above.

There are dozens of interesting churches in Venice, many of them containing important works of art. The grandest of them, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari ♥♥♥ and Santi Giovanni e Paolo ♥♥, are worth the nominal price of entry to explore. (Next to the latter is the beautiful marble façade of Ospedale Civile – you will be forgiven for thinking that to be the church’s entrance, at first.) Other churches are usually free for entry, and we stepped into quite a few of them. Santa Maria della Salute ♥♥, the imposing church at the mouth of Grand Canal, has interesting history and mostly ascetic interior. We also saw: Beautiful San Stefano ♥; unassuming San Maurizio ♥ with a fascinating exhibition of string instruments inside; Santa Maria Formosa; San Stae; San Giovanni Cristosomo; richly decorated San Zulian ♥.

Of the art museums in Venice, Accademia ♥ is probably the most impressive and comprehensive in covering the spectrum of the Venetian school. The collection is dominated by religious and ceremonial works, which unfortunately run on the fringes of our art affinities. Nonetheless, it is nearly a must for any art lover. Note of warning: The museum is not air-conditioned; on hot days, it can get pretty stuffy inside.

Some of art collections in Venice are located in former palaces, one of which, in Ca’ d’Oro ♥, we did visit. Despite the fact that many guidebooks mention this as a top sight, we came away underwhelmed. The palazzo is striking, even though there is none of the gold referred to in its name remaining; the interior and the collection are interesting, but no more than that.

Other art museums, such as Peggy Guggenheim Collection and especially Ca’ Rezzonico, will have to wait for our future visits to Venice.

The area known as Jewish Ghetto is not especially distinguishable from other parts of central Venice, but on its main square, Campo Ghetto Nuovo, there are a couple of poignant memorials and the little Museo Ebraica, where you can get on a guided tour of three adjoining synagogues ♥. You may have to strain your cognitive skills to decipher the guide’s English accent, but the Sephardic synagogue is very beautiful, and the 45-minute tour is probably worth the time and expense.

Your sightseeing in Venice will likely be mostly confined to the central San Marco and San Polo districts (sestieri) of the city, with only parts of Dorsoduro and Canareggio visited. On our very first visit, we also explored parts of Castello, walking all the way to the pleasant Giardini Garibaldi far away from the tourist bustle.

I cannot overemphasize how delightful it is to get lost ♥♥♥ in Venice. Forget about your map for a while; ignore the ubiquitous signs that point to major sights on many corners. Just walk in any direction, make turns as you wish, pick a random estuary alleyway from any given square, see what you come across… I could do that for days.

Getting into a gondola ♥♥♥ should be no less delightful. Gliding under arched bridges in a sleek vessel is a romantic experience, and it is also the only way to get close to the feeling of waterway-enabled dwelling. I prefer the narrow side canals portions of the ride to being on the Grand Canal while in gondola, but the latter portion is still quite pleasing. This is not a cheap attraction, at roughly €100 for a 45-minute ride (open to negotiating at right periods of time; the prices seemed to be the same in 2009 as they were years ago), but in our opinion, very well worth it.

Based on my interactions with people I know, the impression of your gondola ride, should you decide to go for one, will color your entire impression of Venice. Not all gondoliers are made equal, unfortunately, and while I mostly observed them going out of their way to put their customers in the mood and at ease (tips above the negotiated price are very much welcomed, obviously), some may not be as attentive. Plus, in high season at peak times, you run a strong risk of being surrounded by other gondolas following largely the same circuit as you are, which definitely drives any romantic feelings away. To prevent any of this from happening, consider erring on the side of planning versus spontaneity in hiring a gondola: Pick the time when few tourists are doing the gondolas (the hours before dinner, 5-7pm, seem to be a nice slow period); look for places to hire a ride other than the main stations along the Grand Canal or near Piazza San Marco (this has the added bonus of prices being slightly lower away from the busy touristy areas); chat up your prospective gondolier for a minute or two before getting into the boat and try to gauge his level of friendliness, command of English, etc. This will very simply maximize your chances of getting a truly romantic and memorable experience.

Related to gondolas, a little sight that may be interesting to some is one of the few remaining gondola repair shops, found if you walk along Fondamenta Priuli and on, past San Trovaso in Dorsoduro.

For avid market-goers, Rialto market ♥♥, including its famous fish section, is a place to visit during morning hours.

Islands

Of the many islands in the lagoon, three are widely considered among top sights in Venice. It is possible to see all three in one day.

Murano ♥ is primarily famous for its glass-making, and the key attraction there is attending a glass-blowing workshop presentation ♥♥♥. There are several places that you can manage that along Fondamenta dei Vetrai or Fondamenta Daniele Manin near Colonna side of the island (where you will first arrive on vaporetto from Venice). Look for fornace signs.

Other than that, there is little to do on Murano. Glass art showcases are spectacular, but you see a couple of them and they start to blur. In any case, buying a Murano glass souvenir is more expensive on Murano itself that it is on Venetian “mainland” (I have no knowledge of whether there might be any authenticity concerns, though). There is a mildly interesting Museum of Glass and the architectural highlight of the island, the attractive church of Santi Marie e Donato ♥, which could be visited. The streets of Murano are not really exceptional.

Burano ♥♥♥, by contrast, is wildly colorful and delightful just to walk through. It is the local capital of lace, and there is even a museum of lace at Scuola dei Merletti, which we did not visit. The houses around the main square and along every street and canal are painted in various bright hues, giving the little town an incredibly festive air.

Finally, Torcello ♥ is a mostly uninhabited island, which is one of the earliest settlements in the lagoon. The main attraction here is Santa Maria ♥♥ basilica, with brilliant mosaics in the apse and on the walls. The campanile ♥ can be ascended (mostly via inclined ramps, there are less than 100 steps in total at the ends of ramps) for nice views of the island and nearby Burano. Church of Santa Fosca ♥ is quite interesting as well, and there is also Museo dell’Estuario that we did not visit. There is about a 10-minute walk from vaporetto stop to the “village” where all of the attractions are located, but even accounting for that, you may be able to fit exploration of Torcello into just one hour.

Transportation

The vaporetto (water bus) network serves many points along the Grand Canal and around the perimeter of the city, and connects central areas with many islands in the lagoon. There is no form of public transport on any of the little canals, and while distances are always within walkable range, plenty of walking will be involved no matter what you plan to see that’s located “inland”.

If you are spending several days in Venice, definitely consider getting a 72-hours iMob pass. It pays for itself within 5 trips on vaporetto, and allows traveling on all lines around the lagoon. The countdown starts from the moment you first validate it, not when you buy it.

Water taxis are quite expensive, but they could get you into some smaller canals. If you fly into Venice, consider hiring a water taxi to get to the center of the city from the airport. It costs €95 for up to four people, which is actually less than what you’d pay for a party of four to travel on direct “express” water bus (€25 per person). There are cheaper ways to get to central Venice than that (a shuttle bus to Piazzale Roma plus regular vaporetto from there would cost around €35 in total for four people), but none as fun.

Since there are only three bridges along the entire length of the Grand Canal, crossing it may present a problem, which is solved with traghetto, a primarily standing-room gondola ferry. There are traghetto crossings at various points on the canal (but some operate only in the first half of the day). The cost is €0.50 per person.

If you cannot find an operating traghetto crossing, you can always get on linea 1 vaporetto an get off at the next stop; the stops alternate between the sides of the Grand Canal.

All islands are served by various vaporetto routes, but there are frequency considerations. For instance, Torcello can only be reached from Burano; the trip takes 5 minutes, but runs only once every half an hour. If you do go to Burano and Torcello, it may be wise to explore Torcello first and only then spend time on enjoying Burano, since the latter is connected to Venice via a relatively direct vaporetto route. Nonetheless, it takes about 45 minutes to reach Fondamenta Nuove in Venice from Burano.

The main train station is located directly on the Grand Canal, with a vaporetto stop directly in front of it. Transferring between a train and a vaporetto is a matter of minutes, regardless of whether you are arriving or departing.

Lodging

As in any tourist center, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless on major online platforms. Any location in San Marco or San Polo will put you within walking distance to most of the points of interest, but the other boroughs are not too much farther – and you can always take advantage of the vaporetto network.

On one of our stays, we rented an apartment within short distance from Rialto, Ca’ San Luca ♥♥ (website). Less than 10 minutes to Piazza San Marco from there as well. The apartment is nicely appointed, taking the entire second floor of a building on unassuming street. There are no views to be had, and you will be looking directly into offices and apartments across the street when you open the shutters.

There are two large bedrooms, a serviceable kitchen, bathroom with a shower and bidet, and a nice dining room. Almost perfect for a family holiday. The only shortcoming is the air conditioner, whose noise-to-efficiency ratio is not great. The unit sits in the hallway hidden only behind a drape, and if you do not shut your bedroom door, you will be bothered during the night every time it comes to life. It barely managed to keep the rooms ventilated; on truly hot days and nights I am not sure it would be up to the task. Last stay: 2009.

Note for apartment renters: Finding a supermarket to stock your fridge is not a trivial task in Venice. We bought foodstuffs at shops that we accidentally came across in our wanderings.

Places to Eat

Osteria San Marco ♥♥, a few blocks away from the eponymous piazza, was a semi-random choice off TripAdvisor listing.  Modern ambiance, efficient and friendly service.  Proscuitto con melone is simple enough, but both the choice of venetian-style liver (with polenta) and of pasta in black ink with some seafood were excellent.  The prices are higher in Venice than elsewhere in Italy: €82 for two with half-bottle of wine.  Last visit: summer of 2014.

In the spring of 2009, we dined at a number of good restaurants, which are listed below. All visited as a party of four (two adults, two children).

Trattoria Da Nico ♥♥, on Frezzeria, was suggested by our apartment hosts. Nice place on a comparatively quiet street that is nonetheless part of the walking route between Rialto and San Marco. Most of the patrons were seemingly tourists, but the place did not feel like a tourist trap. Unobtrusive service. Excellent food, starting with an incredible seafood soup (in terms of both quality and presentation); very good vegetable soup; superb sea bass; nice vermicelli with clams; not bad lamb chops. Our damage: €140, including a bottle of wine, before gratuities.

Leon Bianco ♥♥, on the corner of Campo San Luca, was another recommendation by the apartment hosts, its garden directly below the courtyard windows of the apartment. The garden is quite nice to be seated in, the service is very friendly, the food pretty good. We had mostly pastas. Huge portion of mussels and clams for a starter went down very well. Great dessert: panna cotta, tiramisu and a sweet concoction called chocolate “salami”. Our damage: €120, including a bottle of wine, before gratuities.

Vini da Gigio ♥♥, on Fondamenta San Felice in Canareggio, was a recommendation by our good friends who dined there in the past. Two small dining rooms facing the canal quickly filled up. We sat in the corner with a pretty good outside view. The menu is not very extensive. We had fairly simple starters, such as fried cheese and tomato and mozzarella salad. Among main courses, ossobuco was fantastically tender and succulent, and pasta “i mori” with tuna or duck with potatoes were pretty good as well. Only one dish received a lukewarm reception, eel. All dishes were accompanied by polenta on the side. Excellent dessert in the form of strawberry tart with cheese. Stupendous choice of wines. Friendly and pleasant service. Our damage: €166, with a bottle of wine.

The same friends also recommended L’Anice Stellato ♥♥♥, which is located well into the depths of Canareggio, on Fondamenta della Sensa, along the eponymous medium-sized canal, of which we had a pretty nice view. The dining room filled up with tourists and locals alike, plus there were a few tables outside on the canal. Several walk-in potential customers were turned away for lack of seating space – reservations are recommended. There is no English menu, so an English-speaking waiter performed several acts of detailed explanations to tables occupied by tourists. There are no meat dishes, only seafood and pasta.

Starters section is dominated by bocconcini, which is loosely translated as “small bites”; we tried one of salmon and one of ricciola, a local fish. Our main course selections consisted of a pretty good sea bass, very tasty cota di rospa (some sort of fish in pesto-like sauce), and a gigantic heap of seafood and vegetables, frittura mista, which included one whole fried ricciola. Nice dessert and wine. Our damage: €138, including a bottle of wine.

Gam-Gam ♥♥, on Fondamenta di Canareggio, is in the Jewish Ghetto. Cuisine is Jewish-Mediterranean; definitely order at least one assaggi Israeliani, a sampler of various delicacies. Everything is very tasty. Our damage: €80, including gratuities. Cash only.

Pizzeria Ai Coghi ♥, on Campo San Silvestro, was a random choice for lunch on one of the days. Very good pizza. Our damage: €54, including half-bottle of wine.

While on Burano, we arbitrarily picked restaurant-pizzeria Principe ♥ for lunch. It is located across the bridge from where the main street of the island, Via Baldassare Galuppi, starts. There are probably 50 different varieties of pizza on the menu, plus other dishes. Our damage: €52.

On our first trip to Venice, in 2003, no specific records of the couple of meals that we had were kept, except the names of Ristorante La Gondola, not far from Piazza San Marco, and Ristorante Al Peoceto, near Rialto on San Polo side. I sort of recall the former being a typical tourist-oriented place, and, unfortunately, I have no memory of the latter.

Car parking

If you come to Venice by car, you have to leave it in one of the car parks on Piazzale Roma.  We used Garage San Marco twice, in 2003 and 2014. On the latter visit, the cost was €15 for the evening, with no problem getting in at 6pm but seemingly a problem later in the evening for others. Multi-day stays are possible, but obviously more expensive.

 


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