Venice truly needs to be seen. No book, photograph or film can do the beauty of Italy’s Magical Floating City justice.
Dreamlike 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. There are no roads, just a network of canals lined with Renaissance buildings and Gothic palaces. In the central square is St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice's most iconic attraction. Originally the Duke of Venice’s private chapel, it is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. Alongside it, the Campanile bell tower stands tall.
A city reimagined, sufficient time in Venice unlocks its multi-layers, intricate contrasts and intriguing secrets. The Grand Canal remains the most prominent address and the waters reflect the architectural masterpieces and Byzantine and Ottoman influences. Flowing in a natural S-shaped channel towards Santa Chiara Church, it divides the city into two.
St. Mark's Square is where people gather to see and be seen, and where brazen pigeons demand to be fed. Three of Venice’s major attractions are located on this significant square, namely St. Mark’s Basilica a Byzantine marvel, St Mark's Clocktower and the Doge’s Palace – an opulent Gothic palace that was the seat of government and home of the Doge for more than 1,000 years. The Doge, Venetian Italian for ‘duke’, was the appointed head of state and highest-level servant of the Venetian Republic between 697 and 1797. St. Mark's Square 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. There are numerous cafés and restaurants dotted around the edge, making it the perfect place to relax and take in the atmosphere.
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 and found refuge on the sandy islands. Although the settlements were initially temporary, the Venetians gradually inhabited these islands permanently, driving wooden stakes into the sandy ground on which they were to construct their remarkable buildings.
In time a visit to Venice became a rite of passage for upper-class northern Europeans who congregated in the lagoon city as part of the Italian Grand Tour. Artists and writers followed, soaking up inspiration from the commanding architecture that reflected in the glimmering waters. The city fast becoming a symbol of Italian romance.
Venice is today divided into six neighbourhoods or sestieri, each with a distinctly different character. Across from the Rialto Bridge is San Polo, the “artisan” neighbourhood and to the south of the Grand Canal is Dorsoduro with its grand art museums and stylish piazzas. In the centre is San Marco – named after one of the many greats to have their origin in Venice – which enjoys the Grand Canal on three sides. At the outer edges are Santa Croce, Castello, and Cannaregio.
Iconic Venetian Moments
There were as many as ten thousand gondolas in Venice during the 17th and 18th centuries but today only around 400 remain. Painted jet black and featuring the characteristic 6-pronged iron prow or ‘Ferro’ which represents the district of Venice, they are topped with a gentle curve thought to resemble a Doge’s cap. In the past, it was common for the grand families of Venice to have gondolas and gondoliers operating out of their family palazzi. American heiress Peggy Guggenheim was known to take afternoon outing with her gondolier languidly steering at the stern as they glided along the waterways.
Enjoy a private ride through the iconic canals and along hidden waterways on your gondola. The experience is as real and rewarding as ever and remains the best way to experience Venice. Sharing a kiss as you pass under each bridge is obligatory romance, and according to tradition, will ensure that you stay in love forever.
For a bird’s-eye view of Venice, ride the elevator to the top of the Campanile bell tower. Completed in 912, it is the tallest building in Venice. In 1902, disaster struck, and it collapsed completely, but it was reconstructed staying as true as possible to the original. You might even catch sight of the Dolomites on a clear day.
Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for the modernist and surrealist art, including major works by Picasso, Magritte, Max Ernst, Giacometti, and Jackson Pollock. The private collection is housed in the Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace, which was the home of Peggy Guggenheim for three decades. The Accademia Fine Arts Museum displays a comprehensive collection of 15th to 18th century Venetian paintings. Napoleon was responsible for the location of this beautiful museum after he closed churches all over Venice, took their artwork, moved the works to the new locale, and established that it should be a gallery as well as a school - which it still is today.
The incredible Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop in Venice is a charming vintage bookshop named after the flood tides that sometimes submerge parts of the city. It’s a treasure trove and home to three very attention-seeking cats. Books are stored in decommissioned gondolas, bathtubs, and elevated shelves to protect them during flooding.
Walking down Calle Delle Botteghe, it's impossible to miss the Antonia Miletto Gioielli jewellery boutique with orange-silk walls that make it look like a lantern glowing from within. Inside, you'll find handmade pieces from materials like ebony & diamonds and coral & amber. An institution, Antica Drogheria Mascari is a 70-year-old spice shop in San Polo that sells unusual Italian liquors and has photogenic piles of ground herbs and walls lined with jars of dolci.
Allow yourself to get lost as you walk Venice’s enchantingly narrow streets and passageways, pause alongside the inky blue canals and cross some of the 400 bridges as you seek out the secret gardens for which the city is known. No matter how far you venture, it’s always easy to find your way back to St. Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal. For a reprieve, Venetians agree that the city’s best gelato is served at Boutique del Gelato, a tiny outlet on busy San Lio Salizzada.
The Culture of Venetian Opera, Carnival, Film and Festivals
Venice is the home of modern Italian opera with the legendary Teatro La Fenice a renowned landmark in the history of Italian theatre. Founded in 1792, a visit allows you to step back in time and learn the history and legends of this decadent Baroque opera house. Once the heart of Venetian high society, it has hosted performances by maestros like Rossini and Bellini and is where Giuseppe Verdi premiered two of his masterpieces, Rigoletto and La Traviata.
Marvel at the monument's stunning adornments of stucco and gold, learn the backstage secrets of the building and its stars while tracing its history from origin to present day. With Venice consistently drawing talent from around the world to perform, you’re bound to find something remarkable to attend while visiting this music-rich city.
A wonderful option is the Musica a Palazzo which brings a new way to experience an opera in one of the most fascinating Venetian palaces – the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto. This noble Venetian Palazzo dates to the 15th century and consists of three halls facing the Grand Canal and just as many on the Rio Zaguri. During the first half of the 18th century, this palazzo was embellished by the work of artists whose fame and talent are still acknowledged today. The Musica a Palazzo ensemble conceives the ‘Chamber Opera’, which replaces the traditional setting of a theatre. Instead, every act of the opera takes place in a different hall of the palace, with the magnificent baroque furnishings perfecting the set design. Attending one of these evenings is an emotional affair that promises memories for a lifetime.
The Venice Carnival is a celebration of magical and mythical Italian artistry, a time for all kinds of worldly pleasures. The floating city sees street performances and concerts taking place around the city each February and March in a spectacle of costumes, masks and theatre that culminates with the start of Lent. Should your visit overlap with the festival, mix with the crowds, taste fritole and galani, don a mask – and arm yourself with confetti. According to tradition, Venice's Carnival got its start in 1162 when townspeople celebrated a victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia. Over time the event appeared and disappeared, becoming strictly forbidden in 1797 under the rule of the King of Austria. It returned gradually in the nineteenth century, and it was in 1979 that a group of Venetian artisans banded together to resurrect the Venice Carnival as we know it today.
The annual Venice Film Festival in Lido draws celebrities and enthusiasts from around the world each year, setting the city alight. As does the Venice Biennale, referred to as the ‘Olympics of the art world’, which is a revelation to any creative.
Island Hopping Beyond the City
Beyond the city of Venice, you’ll find a scattering of islands, each with their history and significance. Burano with its enchanting colourful houses and picturesque canals always delights. Known for intricate handcrafted lace products, there’s a leaning tower at one of the island, churches and a selection of good restaurants to savour. Not to miss is Emilia Burano, a gloriously old-school linen & lace shop.
Murano is famous for glass making. A few centuries ago, all glassmakers were required to live on the island to protect their glass-making secrets – and minimise the risk of fire in the city. Today the tradition of glass blowing continues with the Ellegi Murano Glass Shop one of the more impressive places to visit for a demonstration as well as some shopping. You can even try your hand at the craft.
For those wishing to discover more about the first settlers in the Venetian lagoon, a visit to the charming island of Torcello is recommended. First settled in around 400-500 BC, today Torcello is home to only a few inhabitants. Much of the island is a nature reserve, with walking paths connecting the attractions. The spectacular Byzantine mosaics in the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Dell'Assunta are a highlight. The Venetian lagoon's smaller islands mostly have specific functions allocated to them. Lazzaretto Nuovo was once a quarantine island, while San Lazzaro degli Armeni is home to an Armenian monastery. 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. Sant'Erasmo, the largest island in the lagoon is referred to as the Garden of Venice and is dedicated to agriculture, producing much of the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in the city.
Where to Eat, Drink and Bellini
Aligned with the many luxury hotels and historic addresses in Venice is the pursuit of gastronomic excellence. Venetian dishes are largely based on freshly sourced seafood with Baccalà Mantecato considered one of the city’s most traditional offerings. Arde in Saor served with sardines, onions, and balsamic vinegar as well as risotto al nero di sepia, risotto cooked with cuttlefish ink, are also found on most menus. Be sure to pop into any local Bacaro or Venetian bar for an ombra and cicchetto – glass of wine and local tapas.
As of now, five restaurants boast Michelin Stars in Venice:
The Glam inside Palazzo Venart is headed by multi-starred Enrico Bartolini and has two Michelin Stars while the One-Starred luxurious Belmond Hotel Cipriani’s Oro restaurant offers refined contemporary dining. Ristorante Da Fiore’s spouses Mara and Maurizio Martin’s unusual flavours and family atmosphere matched with interesting gastronomic dishes has earned them one Michelin Star.
A sumptuous, typically Italian restaurant with one Michelin Star is Quadri Alajmo, renowned too for its incredible views towards St. Mark's Square, while Il Ridotto, a small, elegant restaurant run by Gianni Bonaccorsi presents ingredients from the land and the sea and has been Michelin starred since 2013.
Other recommendations include Ristorante Wistèria, a short walk from Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Bistrot de Venise, an elegant restaurant serving traditional Venetian dishes with a modern twist and Club del Doge, for upscale Venetian dining in the opulent Hotel Gritti Palace where the terrace offers unbeatable views across the Grand Canal.
Harry’s Bar, one of Venice's famed hangouts, celebrates nine decades of patronage. A Venetian institution credited with inventing Bellini cocktails and carpaccio – it was once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. Opened in 1931 by bartender Giuseppe Cipriani, it has a genteel, old-worldly atmosphere true to that era and a visit is obligatory.
Similarly, Caffè Florian in all its Neo-Baroque splendour has been serving delicate pastries from silver trays since 1720. In the early days it was the watering hole for the likes of Proust, Dickens, and Casanova and it remains charming, beautiful, and inarguably romantic with musicians playing in the square out front, and patrons clustering around low marble tables, sipping on espressos and endless Campari.
Staying within Venice
Staying within the city or on one of the adjacent islands is the only way to go. 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 the day-visitors have left for the evening.
Indulgent Accommodation Options
You will be spoilt for choice when it comes to luxury accommodations in Venice:
Numerous airlines service the Venice Marco Polo Airport.
Navigating the Floating City
Taking a private water taxi from the airport to the city is the most convenient option. Depending on where you’re staying, this will likely be arranged on your behalf. Once in the heart of Venice, gondolas are the ultimate option, and you’ll want to thoroughly explore on foot. A personalised tour with a private guide will further unlock this unique destination.
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