There are few more romantic cities in the world than Venice, its canals and gondolas only part of the attraction that sees more than 20 million visitors arrive here every year. Famously built on 117 tiny islands, Venice is linked by more than 150 canals and 400 bridges, but the city is actually sinking as water levels rise every year. The city centre is divided into six quarters (sestieri) – Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, Sam Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce. Venice enjoyed a long history as a powerful trading post before being eclipsed by other cities and nations, but today its art, historical buildings and museums remain a remarkable treasure trove, while a romantic ride on a gondola is a must for any visitor. Here is a guide to Venice.
Venice has mild winters and hot and humid summers, so spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit. Fog can be a problem in winter months and occasionally public transport, particularly on the canals, may be disrupted.
Venice is a popular tourist destination all year round with carnivals, religious festivals and regattas taking place every month. Its carnival, starting on Shrove Tuesday, officially marks the start of Lent and has been a public holiday in the city since 1296. Do as the locals do and buy an extravagant mask to join in with the revelry and merriment. Other major events throughout the year include the Feast of the Ascension on May 15 when Venice marks its long association with the sea; Regatta of the Redeemer on the third weekend of July that remembers the end of the plague in 1576 when a bridge of boats carried the faithful across the Grand Canal; and the Historical Regatta on the first Sunday of September when the rowing skills of the city’s people are showcased before a final race between gondoliers.
Venice is served by Marco Polo Airport, around eight miles (13km) north of the city with regular train, bus and vaporetti (water taxi) services into the city centre. For obvious reasons – those canals and bridges – driving in Venice is difficult but there are car parks at the Ponte della Liberta bridge that connects the city to the mainland. Visitors arriving by train will reach Santa Lucia railway station near to the start of the Grand Canal and within walking distance of the city centre. Waterbuses and taxis are the best way of getting around, while a gondola ride is also an experience not to be missed.
Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) is undoubtedly the heart of Venice where tourists are happy to pay well over the odds to sit in its elegant cafés and watch the world go by. Hotel prices reflect this area’s popularity and its proximity to St Mark’s Basilica and the Grand Canal. The Dorsudoro quarter is Venice’s artistic hub while San Polo and Rialto are a window shopper’s dream. The areas around Piazzale Roma and the railway station are the busiest but also closest to the main tourist attractions.
SIGHTS AND ATTRACTIONS
Napoleon described Piazza San Marco as “the finest drawing room in Europe” and this spectacular square, with the magnificent cathedral on one side, is unmissable.
The main water thoroughfare through Venice is an extraordinary sight, lined with Renaissance palaces and packed with gondolas and vaporetti. A trip along the Canal is one of the best ways to see the city’s most incredible architecture, particularly at night when the buildings create amazing reflections in the water.
Cross the Bridge of Sighs to the Palazzo Ducale, a waterfront palace that is a stunning example of Gothic architecture and is packed with masterpieces from the likes of Bellini, Picasso and Titian among many others.
The best way to see Venice is by foot – or by boat. So take an organised island tour and see Venice as visitors have for centuries. Daily tours run from April to November from near Piazza San Marco.
The incredible white dome of this 17th century church towers over the Grand Canal, its baroque architecture reflecting in the water.
Built as a lighthouse for sailors navigating the lagoon on which Venice stands, today the bell tower of San Marco is a fantastic tourist attraction, whisking visitors by elevator to its top to enjoy magnificent views of the city, the lagoon and, in the distance, the Alps.
THINGS TO DO
Climb aboard a vaporetto in the centre of Venice and in a matter of minutes you’re on the beach. The Lido is 11km of sand across the lagoon from the city, offering a little oasis of beach life for city slickers.
In the heart of Venice, is the Rialto Bridge, set in the oldest quarter in the city. Lined with shops, the bridge is surrounded by souvenir stalls, fruit, vegetable and fish markets, giving the area an unmistakable buzz of activity. From the Rialto to Piazza San Marco are the Mercerie and Calle dei Fabbri, the main shopping streets in Venice with upmarket and designer stores alongside more affordable gift shops. Look for leather goods, beautiful shoes and wallets, and traditional, colourful Venetian slippers.
Unlike other Italian cities, Venice is not renowned for its cuisine and visitors are often disappointed by overpriced food that doesn’t hit the mark, particularly in the most popular tourist area. However, it is possible to find decent eateries – why not eating as the Venetians do, tapas style, while standing at a bar? Seafood and fish are among the most popular dishes to eat in Venice – look for sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines) or seppie in nero (cuttlefish in its ink). Polenta is a speciality of the region and is served with fish, meat and vegetables.
From every bar on every square of the city, but particularly on Piazza San Marco, comes music of every kind, from jazz to traditional Italian folk songs. And, of course, no trip to Italy would be complete with sampling opera – in Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, you can enjoy opera in less grand but still compelling surroundings, a great choice if you’re new to this form of music. Jazz clubs are popular throughout the city while Hemingway fans may feel the need to pay homage to the writer in his Venetian drinking den, the legendary Harry’s Bar, also home of the Bellini cocktail.
The Venice Film Festival, the oldest film festival in the world, takes place every September when the Leone d’Oro (Golden Lion) is awarded to the best film. The Venice Biennale is an international contemporary art exhibition that takes place every two years (the next is in 2019). If you’re visiting Venice for New Year, stick around until January 6 when the ancient Italian tradition of Regata delle Befane takes place. This rowing competition along the Grand Canal features men dressed as witches, known to Italian children as “befana”|.
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