There are 118 islands, 177 canals and 450 bridges in Venice with 170 ancient buildings lining its main waterway, that unforgettable Grand Canal. This colourful and ancient city quite literally ‘floats’ on the water. Criss-crossed by dozens and dozens of waterways, it is also a place that can possibly best be admired from the water.
For cruise passengers, sailing into or out of ‘La Serenissima’, the ancient name for Venice, and through the gorgeous Lagoon of Venice is an awe inspiring experience. As you would expect, the cruise terminals and piers are located outside of the historic centre so you will need transport to get to the heart of everything. Public transportation on the water is possibly the best option and it is not terribly difficult to get to the top spots like the San Marco’s Piazza by water bus.
Almost everyone takes advantage of the water transport in Venice as they are the equivalent of city buses. For those arriving by ship, there will be tours being offered by the cruise line but it is quite easy to take in the sights on your own. Most ships are docked in the Stazione Marittima piers and from here you can make use of the ACTV water buses. The names may be confusing of the boats may be confusing (vaporetti, motoscafi, and motonavi) but think of them as different types of buses: bendy buses, double decker buses…you get the picture. If you plan to use water buses all day, it is worth getting a 12 hour pass from an ACTV ticket booth (biglietteria). Also best to check the website for current fares and timetables.
From the Cruise basin/Stazione Marittima stop (look for the yellow and white floating platform) you will take the No.1 line toward San Marco (for instance). Be sure to validate your ticket by ‘showing’ it to the electronic reader that will then bleep when it has registered.
You will likely enter the Piazza San Marco, possibly the most famous public square in the world, from the water. Here, at the waterfront, is an open space known as the Piazzetta which is flanked by two enormous columns (on this very spot used to be public executions!). Luckily, it is now street sellers hawking their wares that draw our attention offering iconic Venetian masks, wooden marionettes and souvenirs all available for purchase. The Piazzetta has the gorgeous San Marco Basilica on the right and the Biblioteca on the left. As you carry on walking around to the left, you are in the middle of the piazza with the Basilica behind you and the Ducal Palace now on your right.
The Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, is a light coloured and unique building that takes up one entire side of the Square (Piazzo). The palace we see today is made up of three large blocks. The wing which faces towards St. Mark’s Basin (the water) is the oldest, rebuilt from 1340 onwards. The wing towards St. Mark’s Square was built in its present form from 1424 onwards. And the canal-side wing, housing the Doge’s apartments and many government offices, dates from the Renaissance and was built between 1483 and 1565. Definitely book a tour to see the Ducal Palace with its stunning apartments, gardens and libraries.
The Ducal palace and other buildings on the square are supported by colonnades (Gothic loggia) with stores, restaurants and curio shops often tucked behind. The more upmarket shops here sell Murano jewellery, antiques, leather goods and Italian designer clothing.
In the summer months, San Marco Piazza is full of spectators and tourists enjoying its history and unique architecture. From its earliest days, Venice was run by powerful families like the Medicis with the Doge being the elected ruler of the city. The first Doge ruled in the 7th century. From that point on, with their sailing fleets, the Venetians built a huge trading empire and amassed enormous wealth.
St. Mark’s Basilica is a work of art in its own right that most tourists will queue up to see. Filled with frescoes, statues, chapels and art work, it is a breath-taking sight to behold.
Tucked away behind the Piazza, away from the Grand Canal and the hustle and bustle of the crowds are several trattorias worth trying out. Some are family owned and have traditional checked tablecloths with honest Italian food such as pizza, snacks and pasta. Here are a recommended few.
For practical purchases, look for kiosks branded ‘Tisaks’ which can be found near train, bus and ferry terminals. Here you can purchase postcards and also newspapers, cigarettes and lighters, sunglasses, sweets, soft drinks and chocolate. Phone cards, batteries, mobile phone recharges and local bus tickets are also for sale. These kiosks are usually closed on a Sunday.
La Perla Ai Bisatei, Castello 738, Secco Marina, Murano Island. This restaurant only has the sign ‘Osteria’ outside. Do not be fooled by its simplicity, it is a wonderfully cheap local’s haunt that is open for lunch only. This is a typical checked tablecloths restaurant with a roomy interior and fantastic fresh seafood. Order big steaming plates of pasta (spaghetti with clams, spaghetti al bolognese) or seafood risotto and don’t forget to wash it all down with a reasonably priced Italian table wine. What more could anyone ask for.
Not really a fan of clams, oysters and fish? Then head for La Bitta, Dorsoduro 3815, Calle Crosera, (00 39 041 523 0531) a warm and rustic restaurant with a small courtyard offering the Veneto regional tradition of meat and vegetables. Dishes like straccetti di pollo ai finferli (chicken strips with chanterelle mushrooms) or oca in umido (stewed goose) make a welcome change to seafood. They also have a good selection of cheeses, served with honey or chutney, and intelligent by-the-glass wine options.
Trattoria Storica, Cannaregio 1847b, Rio Terà Farsetti (00 39 041 822 6919) is near the Jesuit church and offers good prices. A two-course-plus-side €12 lunch menu is good value. There is also €15 grilled-fish-plus-side offer, which might consist of an orata (gilt-head bream) paired with a mixed salad or roast potatoes. The feel is down home Italian trattoria with the checked tablecloths and all the ‘trimmings’ (pardon the pun!). They even have free WiFi, which is quite a bonus. In the evening, it's à la carte, but even if you push the boat out you're unlikely to spend more than €30 a head with drinks. The house wine hits the spot.
…and slightly more expensive.
This reliable San Polo restaurant, housed in a 16th-century palazzo, has taken a gourmet turn in recent years, but has kept its warm, friendly atmosphere. Vecio Fritolin, Dorsoduro 1473, Fondamenta Zattere al Ponte Lungo, (00 39 041 522 7621; ristoranteriviera.it) has a cosy interior and the lack of outside tables make this a good winter or rainy-day option. The seafood here is excellent and they have a Tagliatelle dish that’s to die for. The good-value €28 'Tasting Venice' lunch menu includes three traditional dishes and a glass of wine; this same option is available in the evening, with the addition of a pasta course and costing about €45 per person.
Most of us have grown up with the image of the gondola steered by a romantic gondolier using a huge oar to manoeuvre and row their craft down the deep canals. With his cocky hat, usually festooned with a ribbon and wearing a striped shirt, this image is firmly implanted in our minds. This ancient profession still does exist but most gondoliers take tourists across the Grand Canal rather than ferry passengers long distances through the ‘back streets’ of Venice.
A gondola, the traditional flat bottomed rowing boat, was the preferred mode of transport on the Venetian Lagoon and also the Grand Canal for many centuries. Until the early 20th century, as many photographs attest, gondolas were often fitted with a ‘felze’, a small cabin that protected passengers from the weather or from onlookers. Its windows could be closed with louvered shutters—the original "venetian blinds".
Gondoliers, the professional mariners that ply their trade and row tourists about the city, are very serious about what they do. Apparently there are even female gondoliers these days but this really bucks the trend.
The profession of gondolier is still controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses (425). These are granted after periods of training and apprenticeship and, not to mention, a major comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in handling the gondola typically necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals. Who knew??
This is the main waterway running through the city and is lined with buildings that were built between the 12th and 18th centuries. With its unique architecture, gondolas skimming along the water, as well as water taxis carrying tourists and locals alike, it is really quite a sight.
If you want to cruise up and/or down the Grand Canal, use the ACTV No. 1 vaparetto line.
One of the many islands surrounding Venice, Murano has been known for its glass blowing since 1291. This was when the glass blowers, who were based in Venice, were forced to leave their workshops and move lock, stock and barrel to Murano Island due to the fire hazard in respect of Venice’s wooden buildings. These Murano glassblowers were an elite class of workers and the only people in Europe who knew how to make glass mirrors. They also developed or refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enamelled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multi-coloured glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Their virtual monopoly on quality glass lasted for centuries, until glassmakers in Northern and Central Europe introduced new techniques and fashions around the same time that colonists were immigrating to the New World.
For our purposes, the colourful yet delicate items produced here (from jewellery to vases and, on a grander scale, glass chandeliers to statues) are very desirable collectables.
You can witness the masters of this time honoured tradition at work in their factories. Look for open factories on weekday mornings, though not in August. Don't count on much action during the lunch hour (which can run from noon or 1 p.m. until mid-afternoon). As you walk around Murano, you're likely to find mass-market fornaci (furnaces) that welcome tourists.
The V.I.A. factory is a good example: look from the glass factory tour sign From the Colonna waterbus stop, turn left as you exit the boat platform and walk along the water until you reach a ‘Fornace Glass’ sign on a door below the Calle S. Cipriano street sign. Pass beneath the ‘Fornace - Entrata Libera’ entrance sign, follow the sidewalk, and enter the factory to view a free glassmaking demonstration. (Afterwards, you'll exit through the showroom.) The demonstration takes less than 10 minutes, but it's still very interesting, particularly if you haven't seen a glass furnace before.
Murano jewellery and knick-knacks such as paperweights are sold on the island and all over Venice. You might pick up some bargains here as there is no duty or shipping costs to pump up the price.
The walled cemetery of San Michele, Cimitero di San Michele, is the focal point of this island. It might sound like a gruesome place to visit but it is a fascinating place. The island itself is landscaped with tall cypress trees and a 15th Century church with a cloister that leads you to the cemetery proper. But it is also worth taking in the Protestant and Orthodox cemeteries, less formal and more neglected than the Catholic sections, where you'll find graves of 19th and 20th Century foreigners. This includes celebrities like Ezra Pound, Serge Diaghilev (whose grave normally is decorated with a ballet slipper), and Igor Stravinsky.
In a city where the water table lies almost at ground level (and sometimes above), disposing of the dead has never been as simple as digging a grave and covering the body or coffin with dirt.And In a city like Venice, with limited real estate, finding enough room for departed citizens was always been a challenge. After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the Napoleonic authorities decreed that bodies would no longer be buried within the historic centre. Instead, the dead were dispatched to a new walled cemetery on the island of San Michele, which is within a gondola's rowing distance of the city's northern waterfront.
Take the No. 4.1 or 4.2 motoscafo from the Fondamenta Nove water bus stop on the northern edge of the historic center. The ride to the Cimitero stop takes only six minutes.
The Bridge of Sighs, a completely covered footbridge that crosses the Grand Canal, was originally used for inmates crossing from the Doge’s Palace where interrogations took place, to the prison over the Grand Canal. Its design has been copied all over the world. It was christened by Lord Byron as it is the final sigh of the prisoners being sent to the executioner or to the jail.
The photogenic Rialto Bridge is the large, covered main pedestrian bridge over the Grand Canal and is lined with shops on either side.
Scalzi Bridge is named for the nearby Chiesa degli Scalzi, literally the ‘church of the barefoot monks’. This stone bridge links the Santa Croce and Cannaregio neighbourhoods. The Scalzi Bridge dates from 1934 and is one of four bridges over the Grand Canal. If you are arriving in Venice via rail to the Santa Lucia Station, the Scalzi Bridge will be one of the first you will cross after disembarking.
One of Venice's newest bridges, the Ponte della Constitution (Constitution Bridge), was completed in 2008 and designed by the famous Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava. The final of four bridges to span the Grand Canal, The steel and glass bridge has been a controversial addition to Venice's architectural landscape. Not only because of its modern appearance, but also its cost – approximately 10 million euros. But it has served its purpose; to link the Santa Lucia Rail Station to Piazzale Roma, a bus depot and also a car park.
The Academy Bridge (Ponte dell'Accademia) is so named because it crosses the Grand Canal at the Galleria dell'Accademia, one of the top museums in Venice. While the Ponte dell'Accademia is not a new bridge – it was first erected in the mid-19th century then replaced in the 1930s – it is interesting for its high arch construction and the fact that it is wooden.
Ponte della Libertà, (Freedom Bridge) is a road bridge connecting the historical center of the city of Venice, that is a group of islands, to the mainland. Designed in 1932 by engineer Eugenio Miozzi, and opened by Benito Mussolini in 1933 as Ponte Littorio, the bridge is the only access for road vehicles to the historical center of the capital city of Veneto. At the end of World War II it was renamed Ponte della Libertà to honour the end of the Fascist dictatorship and of the Nazi occupation.
London based travel writer and photographer, Lynn Houghton was a concert performer in her early life before throwing off the choir robes and deciding to write full-time about travel. Born in the Canadian Rockies, of English and Welsh parents, she is naturally drawn to the outdoors and nature. Now travelling on assignment, she covers culture, cruise and cuisine for websites and consumer and trade publications. She writes extensively about the U.S. and Canada but also covers Africa as well for targeted consumer titles.
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