The Most Serene Republic.
There is one special city in the world that is different from all others -- a city of canals with an endless labyrinth of narrow alleys, without roads, cars, buses or trucks. Located on a hundred little islands held together by 400 bridges, in the middle of a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, Venice is a dream come true. It is the most completely preserved historic town and largest pedestrian zone in the world!
In its glory days Venice was the richest and most powerful city in Europe, while now it is just the most beautiful. History-lovers will have much to discover, and for the shoppers, this is one big mall. While most stores are quite modern on the inside, the exteriors are all ancient, so you get a feeling for what Europe was like hundreds of years ago. Looking around, you will notice some of Venice seems to be crumbling, its buildings in various stages of disrepair with peeling plaster revealing old brick walls underneath -- but that is part of the charm people love so much. Always in the top ten of any list of the world’s best places to visit, Venice is a magical delight in any season, rain or shine, night and day.
It is so pleasant to be able to stroll everywhere and not worry about cars and trucks running you over or blasting you with noise and exhaust. Instead, Venice offers peace and serenity in a world of its own, if you know where to look. However, you will face a major challenge to get away from the mobs. With our help, you will cover the major highlights plus experience quiet neighborhoods far from the crowds where you will find colorful local life.
Most places you visit are worth more than a brief encounter, especially a destination as wonderful as Venice. Our approach has many tips for getting the most out of every hour in this precious jewel of a city. The best way to see Venice is by getting away from the tourists and walking through the little alleys. Don’t worry about getting lost -- you will get lost, and that is half the fun. You cannot stray too far because this is a small town, about one mile wide, so just absorb the overwhelming beauty and enjoy yourself.
Navigation tips: When you are walking in these twisting narrow alleys, there are several ways you can figure out which way to go. 1) Look for yellow signs with arrows pointing towards one of the four significant destinations -- San Marco, the Rialto, Accademia, and the train station. 2) When in doubt, follow the crowd. 3) You must get a good map, such as Falk, with all the alleys labeled, although these can be hard to follow. 4) Ask directions. This is always a fun ice-breaker anyway that helps you meet local people. Just learn to ask where, “dove” (pronounced “dough-vay”) or get fancy and preface it with excuse me, “mi scusi.”
Our hotel is in Venice near the train station, so you will have easy access to all parts of town, day and night. After checking in we will take a walking tour with a local guide, covering the basic highlights of the city.
The most important place in town is the Piazza San Marco, the city’s largest public plaza, the “outdoor living room” with the ancient Basilica, Bell Tower, Doges Palace, and other historic buildings all around the square. The Piazza is always filled with people feeding the pigeons, admiring the architecture, snapping countless photos, and perhaps sitting at one of the outdoor cafes soaking in the scene.
The ruler in the old days was the “Doge” who was elected for life by the upper-class merchants of Venice. You could enter the Doge’s Palace later on an optional visit. It is one of the grand buildings of Europe befitting the most powerful person in the richest city -- its beautiful rooms decorated with the most elaborate murals on the walls and ceilings.
Rich wooden carved frames covered with gold surround many of these huge paintings in an awesome display of art and architecture combined in this rich historical setting. The giant assembly room is 180 by 80 feet, fully loaded with ceiling murals and the world’s largest oil painting, “Paradise” by Tintoretto, 75 feet wide filled with hundreds of portraits.
Next door is the greatest single landmark of Venice, the Basilica di San Marco, consecrated in the year 1094, which makes it one of the oldest functioning buildings in Europe. This church is Europe’s most authentic surviving example of the Byzantine Style, with five domes hovering over a Greek cross floor plan and an interior covered by the world’s largest collection of mosaics.
The Basilica’s design is based on the plan of a 6th-century church in Constantinople that was built by the Emperor Justinian, who was also responsible for the Hagia Sophia, the definitive Byzantine building. The building is a pastiche of many precious parts brought from elsewhere, forming a cohesive artistic masterpiece.
The next convenient sight is the Bridge of Sighs, seen from the first bridge behind the Doges Palace on the Riva degli Schiavoni, the grand promenade along the lagoon waterfront. Named after the sighs of prisoners brought across it from their trial in the palace to their punishment in the prison.
The best photo-op in all of Venice is right here along the waterfront looking out across the lagoon towards the island church of San Giorgio Maggiore. You want to frame your shot so you have a row of gondolas tied up in the foreground, with the Palladian church majestically rising like a mirage from the sea.
You will undoubtedly come back to Piazza San Marco repeatedly in your visit, for it is the town center -- and at night you must experience the atmosphere of its cafes with their live orchestras. Nothing can be better than sitting at an outdoor table sipping a drink, listening to the light classical or pop sounds of the small orchestra, looking at the floodlit façade of the Basilica, and just soaking up the scene. Florian on one side and Quadri on the other have been entertaining their guests for 300 years, so they must be doing something right. Don’t worry about the prices; it’s really not that much of a rip-off, and with this setting, who cares? Or, if you are really tight, or on a tight budget, you can just stand next to the tables or sit on the steps and listen.
Finishing up with the piazza for the time being, go explore the busiest shopping neighborhood and end up at the Rialto Bridge. Walk north through the arch underneath the Clock Tower into the Mercerie, a series of several parallel and cross streets that are always packed with tourists browsing in the many shops. There are other neighborhoods with better shopping deals -- but the Mercerie is a mandatory part of your visit and the many enticing shop windows might even tempt you. For centuries this has been the commercial center of town.
The shops of Venice offer a wide variety of top goods, famous for glassworks, lace, fashions, shoes, handmade paper, fine arts, and souvenirs of all kinds. You will find that this center of Venice is like a giant shopping mall that is more rewarding when you get away from the tourist shops and into the neighborhoods with local residents, tomorrow.
Probably the main thing to buy in Venice, aside from the obvious postcards and t-shirts, is glass, and you will find all kinds of glass goods throughout town. Rather than just buying from any old shop, be careful to find quality items. One of the unique shopping experiences is to visit a glass factory, where you can see a demonstration of glass blowing and find out how they actually make the vases, pitchers and wine glasses you see everywhere. Murano is a whole island filled with these factories, but you don’t have to go that far unless you are a major glass collector. Wander through the rest of the Merceria, heading north to the Rialto, searching through the many side streets if you are a serious shopper, or just following the signs to Rialto if you have seen enough.
Walk up on the Rialto Bridge and look out both directions for the stunning views of the Grand Canal, but save the market area on other side of the bridge for tomorrow morning. By now, depending on how many of our tips you have followed, it is getting late in the day and you are ready to stop walking and have dinner.
The foods of Venice! One could write a long book about that topic and never completely cover it, but here are a few suggestions in the neighborhood: Next to the Rialto Bridge, the small square of Campo San Bartolomeo, with the smiling statue of playwright Goldoni in the center, has a wonderful inexpensive cafeteria-style restaurant called the Rosticceria, open all day, where you point at tempting dishes behind the counter and eat for under $10.
Or, cross over the Rialto and go left one block to Ala Madonna, a large bustling place filled with locals and tourists, noted for fresh fish, a Venice hallmark. For a much simpler meal there are numerous snack bars all over town that sell inexpensive sandwiches, or try one of the “Bacari” wine bars that serve tasty small appetizer portions.
If you have an early dinner, you will have time to hear some classical music, for there is a chamber orchestra concert nearly every night. Listening to Vivaldi or Mozart in the divine surroundings of the old churches or concert halls is a sublime experience that should not be missed. Just at the Rialto is one of the main venues, the Chiesa San Bartolomeo, with performances by Interpreti Veneziani who also appear at other churches on different nights.
Get ready for another fascinating walking tour, beyond the Rialto, along a local shopping street, to the Church of the Frari and back across the Accademia Bridge. This is the best way to enjoy Venice, walking away from the main areas, experiencing the back streets, looking at building details, stopping at the top of little bridges and looking up and down the canals. Then take the afternoon to wander on your own to see some quiet residential areas, narrow canals, with more churches, palaces and museums.
After breakfast, we find our way back to where we left off yesterday at the Rialto and cross the bridge to the market side, in the district of San Polo. This is where Venice was first founded, and it still has some of the oldest buildings in town. “What news on the Rialto?” wrote Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice, for it has always been the center of action and gossip. The Rialto is one of the liveliest neighborhoods in the morning because it is the main outdoor fruit and vegetable market, always packed with locals picking up that day’s fresh produce. Your eyes and ears will be delighted with the most wonderful sights and sounds.
The sounds of Venice are another one of the compelling charms of this unique town. One is so conditioned to tuning out offensive noises, but here your ear can be a pleasure organ because the background noise is made by people, boats, birds, and water. This city is a place where you can really enjoy listening, which is an experience so different from the usual pounding our ears take in any other town.
Next, walk from the Rialto along a local shopping street in the direction of Campo San Polo. From the market you can spot this lane, for it has a number of sidewalk stands selling t-shirts, aprons, lace, bags, and various other souvenirs, at prices much less than in the main shops by San Marco. Don’t worry about looking for a street sign for this lane changes names several times, ending up as Calle Madonna when entering Campo San Polo. Now you are getting away from the touristy areas and walking into a bunch of people heading for work.
This is a good time to go to get spiritual and visit the Church of the Frari, just around the corner. You cannot miss Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, a huge gothic structure with the second tallest bell tower (229 ft.) and many famous art masterpieces inside well worth the small admission charge. Especially notable are paintings by Titian and Giovanni Bellini, but the star attraction is the architecture, with a soaring ceiling of pointed arches tied together by elaborate wooden beams and tiles in the typical red and white chromatic pattern covering the expansive floor.
Another good reason to visit the Frari is the excellent little glass shop next door, Vetri Artistici Di Murano, a small family operation that offers some of the best prices for glass beads, paperweights and jewelry. It will save you a trip out to Murano Island.
The walking tour continues through a little tunnel outside the back of the Frari, heading towards the Accademia. It is a pleasant stroll along several canals and campi, quite far from the tourist center.
We arrive at Campo Santa Margherita, a large fascinating square always busy with local folks out shopping or just sitting around under the shade trees passing the time of day. It is one of the delights of Venice, so pause here for a while and soak up the atmosphere.
Just past Campo San Barnaba, heading south, you will come across a most picturesque floating vegetable market on a boat tied up along the sidewalk, or fondamenta, as paths along a canal are called. Follow the crowd or signs pointing towards Accademia, just a few blocks ahead, while walking along another beautiful fondamenta with its tempting snack shops and gelateria with very reasonable prices.
Cross over the large wooden Accademia Bridge, pausing at the top for a sweeping view down the Grand Canal. Now you are back in the center of Venice at the far western end of the San Marco district in Campo Francesco Morosini. Notice the former church of San Vidal on the left, which usually hosts a classical music concert most evenings by Interpreti Veneziani, an excellent chamber music ensemble, with tickets on sale throughout the day.
If you would like a refreshing drink, turn right and go to the Gritti Palace Hotel for the world’s finest Bellini -- a blend of fresh peach juice and sparkling white wine, served outdoors on the finest terrace in town with a sweeping view of the Church of Salute and the busy mouth of the Grand Canal. Or just drink fresh peach or strawberry juice if you abstain. You will never forget this moment.
You could wrap up the day with an easy walk from Gritti Palace back to the Rialto in 15 minutes, but better yet, take your time and enjoy the sights along a variety of wonderful walking routes, which could easily occupy another few hours. One option is the direct route from Gritti Palace to Piazza San Marco, and from the piazza you can easily find your way once again through the Mercerie to the Rialto, then back to the hotel.
A different walking route takes you from the Gritti Palace past the Fenice Opera and through a tangle of little lanes where you might get a bit lost but you will have some fun in the process.
Walk north a couple of blocks to Campo Manin, then turn down the tiny alley marked by a sign “Scala Contarini del Bovolo” which leads to the famous Snail Staircase, a spiral wonder that you could pay to walk up (it’s fun going round and round, reaching a nice vista at the top) or just admire from the tiny dead-end courtyard.
Continue to nearby Campo San Luca, where seven little alleys converge, bringing a constant stream of locals through this pleasant meeting spot. This is the kind of place where you will benefit by stopping for a minute or two and just observing the scene, appreciating the murmur and flow of people passing through. One block further east, Calle dei Fabbri is a lively shopping street with many places to eat.
This longer route also will reach the Rialto, where you can continue walking towards Cannaregio, are more quiet part of town with three canals lined by walkways all along them, making this is a great place to stroll and soak up the watery atmosphere. There are some excellent restaurants in this neighborhood, with outdoor seating by the canals. You will also pass the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, the main square of this part of town, surrounded by six-story buildings, very tall for Venice.
Tonight would be the perfect time for your gondola ride. Late in the day is the best time, an hour before sunset when the light is most magical and you can still see clearly. After dark is not so good because you can’t see anything, but mid-day is a decent time and would give you a nice rest while you sit and glide along.
If you do have any more time and desire for exploring, this would be a great time to go get completely lost. Put away your map and books and just follow your instincts, turning this way or that depending on how interesting the choices look at each moment. The worst that can happen is you will run into a few dead ends at canals, or, you might wind up on the completely opposite side of town! No problem -- this town is small you will be quickly back in the center so just follow the crowd and look for the yellow signs pointing the way. You are now an accomplished Venetian explorer, having already survived frequent disorientations, so you definitely know how to get around.
So that you can better understand the sights, it helps to know some of the fascinating history of Venice -- which can be summarized here in a nutshell. Before the first settlers arrived in the 5th century, this was a series of low muddy islands in the lagoon, about three miles offshore. With the frequent warfare of northern barbarian tribes invading Italy, increasing numbers of mainlanders took refuge on the mud flats and were protected by the shallow channels that invaders could not navigate. The early simple economy was based on fishing and collecting salt but soon developed into a trading society that was importing goods from Asia and selling them throughout Europe.
By the 9th century the first Basilica was built and Venice was on her way to becoming an important regional force. The peak of power was reached in the 13th century when Venice conquered Istanbul and many coastal areas throughout the Mediterranean, while expanding trade with Asia thanks in part to the travels of Marco Polo. With continued growth during the 14th century Venice kept building more palaces, shops and warehouses to form most of the precious historic city one sees today.
How were these buildings ever constructed in the water, sand and mud? Special techniques evolved using a combination of pile-driving and stone foundations, which have survived these many centuries. Trees were brought from the mainland and driven into the soft mud until they reached a harder clay layer, forming a foundation of piles. It took about one million trees to create the foundation for the Basilica, so you can imagine that Venice now stands on an underwater forest, taken from the distant Alps and Balkans. Rather than rot, these trees have petrified and become stone. On top of the wooden piles the Venetians created another layer of foundation using bricks, wood beams and large stones brought in from Dalmatia, then erected their buildings on top. This is why much of Venice today leans left or right, not politically but physically.
Venice developed a powerful navy defending its many colonies and was the main European power fighting against the expansion of the Muslims, but the inevitable decline of power began in the 15th century due to expanding strength of the Turks, and the discovery of better trade routes to Asia by sailing around Africa. Venice continued as an important sovereign Republic, despite increasing decadence and endless partying, until the 1797 conquest by Napoleon, bringing to an end 1,000 years of independence. Controlled by France, Austria and finally Italy during the 1800s, Venice became a popular visitor destination for aristocrats on their Grand Tour, and it has since developed into one of the world’s great destinations.