One of the highlights of a trip to Venice is simply arriving. If you’re not the romantic type, you could take a bus across the causeway that connects the city with the rest of Italy. But if you want to enter Venice in style you have to do it by water.
Boats leave the airport for the city hourly, gliding across the shallow waters of the lagoon that has kept Venice safe from invaders for twenty centuries. You’ll disembark at St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) in the shadow of the famous campanile bell-tower. From there, a journey back in time begins.
Venice was an independent republic from the seventh century AD to the eighteenth. Traditionally, she – Venice is always a ‘she’ – was ruled by a duke, or doge, who was elected for life. Just walking around you still feel what it was like to live half a millennium ago.
Most of the streets, of course, are not streets at all, but canals. Take care walking around at night – sometimes it isn’t obvious where solid ground ends and water begins! The canals are packed with traffic – ferries, police launches, traders’ boats and dozens of black gondolas, the symbol of the city for centuries. Locals say that on a busy day you can cross the Grand Canal by stepping from boat to boat.
The fastest way to get around Venice is by water taxi. These are small motorboats that can accommodate four or five people. Gondolas are slower, but much more romantic. Gondoliers gather with their boats on the San Marco waterfront and in the Bacino Orseolo, a little to the north of St. Mark’s Square. A ride in one of these sleek, black craft is definitely part of the Venetian experience!
Venice is very compact. There are no wheeled vehicles in the city, but you can walk most places in minutes. If you don’t want to walk far, stay in a hotel in the central San Marco area. Otherwise, the Cannaregio district, north of San Marco has some beautiful places to stay. There are some excellent hotels on the Strada Nuova, the ‘new street’ built by the Austrians in the nineteenth century. Some of the best value restaurants are in Cannaregio, too. My personal favourite is Vini da Gigio, on the Fondamenta San Felice, where the friendly staff serve a delicious range of Venetian specialties, including the famous sardine in soar – sardines in a soured cream sauce. If you love seafood, Venice is the place to go!
Don’t expect to see everything in Venice – that would take weeks. But there are three things you mustn’t miss:
- The Doge’s Palace
The Palazzo Ducale, as it’s called, is the most famous building in the city. It was built in the fourteenth century, when Venice had a lot of trade with Arab nations – you can still see the influence of Islamic art on its façade. Inside you can visit the grand state rooms of the doge and the gloomy pozzi, or dungeons – which the kids will love!
- The Shops
Venice is just great for shopping, especially if you’re looking for high-quality or designer clothes and footwear. There are many shops dedicated to selling art, or the famous hand-painted masks worn during the city’s carnival in February. Venice isn’t as expensive as you might think, either. A well-made Italian suit or pair of shoes can be picked up for less than you would pay back home. There are shops everywhere in the city, though a good place to start might be in the area around the Calle Larga Dell’ Ascensione, immediately west of St. Mark’s Square.
- The Accademia
The chances are you want to soak up a little culture during your stay. The Accademia – just the other side of the Grand Canal from San Marco – is a treasure house of European art, with works by masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. Get there by heading west from St. Mark’s Square and crossing the Accademia bridge.
Right now a lot of work is being put into shoring the city up. This is because the lagoon – for centuries a source of comfort and protection – is now the greatest threat to the city’s future. If you stay for more than a few days, especially in winter, you’ll probably witness a flood. They’re rarely deep, but stick to the boardwalks the authorities erect when the waters rise. It’s also a good idea to pack a pair of gumboots!
They say when you finally leave Venice, you take part of her with you. The city is so old, and so unchanged by modern times, it’s a life-changing experience just to visit. Go to Venice – and find the whole world!