Venice, the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region, is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has no roads, just canals – including the Grand Canal thoroughfare – lined with Renaissance and Gothic palaces. The central square, Piazza San Marco, contains St. Mark’s Basilica, which is tiled with Byzantine mosaics, and the Campanile bell tower offering views of the city’s red roofs Venice is the consummate magician. It makes marble palaces vanish into silent fogs, labyrinthine calli (streets) disappear at the whim of moody tides, and can even turn the most pedestrian of people into fantastical, masked creatures.
1. See three major sights in one square
Standing in the middle of the magnificent piazza San Marco is an experience in itself: Napoleon referred to it as the ‘drawing room of Europe’, apt today as, at times, it appears that much of Europe’s population is crammed into this great square. But it’s St Mark’s basilica (Basilica di San Marco), often seen as the living testimony of Venice’s links with Byzantium; Doge’s Palace, once Venice’s political and judicial hub; and Torre dell’Orologio a clock tower built between 1496 and 1506, that are, not just the square’s, but some of the city’s main attractions.
- Get around in a gondola
No trip to Venice would be complete without a punt down one of the city’s picturesque waterways in an iconic gondola. The Istituzione per la Conservazione della Gondola e Tutela del Gondoliere .Prices below are for the hire of the gondola, for six passengers or less. Having your own personal crooner will push the fare up.
8am-7pm €80 for 30 mins. 7pm-8am €100 for 35 mins.
- Tour the Venetian masters of art
Venice is a unique and precious repository of art. From the late Middle Ages until the mid 18th century, artists of the highest caliber left their mark all over the city and works by Venice’s grand masters Titian (c1488-1576), Tintoretto (c1518-94), Canaletto (1697-1768) and Tiepolo (1727-1804) can still be viewed in situ today. See Titian’s glorious ‘Assumption’ above the high altar at I Frari, Tintoretto’s epic masterpiece ‘Crucifixion’ at Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and Tiepolo’s monumental frescos at the Pietà and Ca’ Rezzonico.
- Drink like a Venetian – and go on a secret wine tour
To the usual Italian breakfast, light snacks, pastries and alcoholic beverages routine, Venice contributes its own specialities: the ombra and the spritz. The former is a tiny glass of wine – bianco or rosso – which is knocked back in no time and is often the whole point of a giro di ombre – an ombra-crawl around selected bacari (the accent is on the first ‘a’). A spritz is an aperitivo of white wine, Campari and a shot of seltzer or sparkling water; a sweeter version is made with low-alcohol Aperol. Also flowing freely into Venetian glasses are prosecco, the bubbly white made in the hills of the Veneto region, and spento, a bubble-free version of the same wine.
And for true Venetian oenophile immersion, discover the wine cellars that only the locals know about – together with a healthy dose of chicchetti (Venice’s version of tapas) – on a covert wine tour of Venice with worldwide city-tour specialists Urban Adventures.
- Get a bird’s-eye view of Venice
At almost 99m (325ft), the Campanile is the city’s tallest building, originally built between 888 and 912 (in July 1902 it collapsed, imploding in a neat pyramid of rubble. It was rebuilt exactly ‘as it was, where it was’, as the town council of the day promised). Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III rode a horse to the top of the original in 1451; these days visitors take the lift. The view is superb, taking in the Lido, the whole lagoon and (on a clear day) the Dolomites in the distance.
- Take a trip down the Grand Canal
The best way to take in the Grand Canal is on board a vaporetto (Venice’s ubiquitous waterbus). The canal may no longer be teeming with merchandise-laden cargo boats, but it is still the main thoroughfare of Venice, and only a little imagination is needed to understand its historical importance. The three and a half kilometre (two-mile) trip from the railway station to San Marco provides a superb introduction to the city, telling you more about the way Venice works – and has always worked – than any historical tome. Every family of note had to have a palazzo here, and this was not just for reasons of social snobbery. The palazzi are undeniably splendid but they were first and foremost solid commercial enterprises, and their designs are as practical as they are eye-catching.
Vaporetto tickets should be purchased before boarding at most stops, or at VeneziaUnica offices (see Tickets and passes). If you board without a ticket at a stop where they aren’t sold, you can buy a single-trip ticket on board. Tickets are for single trips (€7 – valid 60mins on multiple boats), 24hrs (€20), 48hrs (€38), 72hrs (€40) or seven days (€60). The fare for a shuttle journey (ie one stop across the Grand Canal, the hop across to the Giudecca, or from Sant’Elena to the Lido) is €4.
- Get a taste for true Venetian cuisine
Try traditional dishes from the Veneto – like oca in onto (goose in its own fat) or freshwater lagoon fish done insaor at Antica Adelaide, get the best polpette (meatballs) in Venice at Ca d’Oro (Alla Vedova), and a strong selection of Venetian antipasti, including raw sea food, at Vini da Gigio.