A city like no other, Venice is situated across a group of over 100 small islands, separated by canals and linked by some 400 bridges. And of course, it is those stunning waterways which give the city its many monikers – the City of Water, the City of Bridges, the Floating City, the City of Canals, and perhaps most fittingly given its grandeur, the Queen of the Adriatic.
Gliding along the waterways as you recline on your gondola, enjoying panoramic views of this charming European city – is there a more iconic way to enjoy Venice? Of course not! And what a city it is – colourful, lively, romantic, regal and steeped in history.
The essentials – top five
St Mark’s Square – The beating heart of the city, this is the principal public square and one of the city’s top tourist destinations (so, yes, it is expensive and very busy too – oh, and expect pigeons, drawn by the food scraps, amongst the tourist hordes). Surrounded on three sides by breathtaking architecture, including the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of St Marks, the glittering canal is its fourth wall, lending the already massive square an impressive openness. No visit to the city is complete without dropping by “La Piazza” to soak up the atmosphere and the views.
St Mark’s Basilica – This mighty monument, a mixture of Byzantine, Roman and Venetian architecture, stands as the jewel in the crown of La Piazza. With a richly mosaiced interior to match its grand, arched exterior, expect lots of gold. The cathedral is open to the public, though there are restricted opening hours on Sundays and other special occasions, as well as seasonal variations.
Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) – Formerly the seat of the government of Venice as well as the home of the elected ruler (the Doge) it was also the venue for the city’s law courts, civil administration and bureaucracy and, until its relocation across the Bridge of Sighs, the city jail. The Palace is another example of stunning Gothic architecture, with its location next to St Mark’s Basilica adding even more to its charm (and handiness of course). Apparently, back in the day, death sentences were declared between the 9th and 10th columns (the red ones) with executions carried out between the freestanding columns in the piazzetta next to the lagoon, hence passing between the columns is said to be bad luck.
Grand Canal – Lined with beautiful, ageing palazzos, churches and mansions and crossed by the Accademia and Rialto Bridges, the Grand Canal is one of the city’s major waterways. Of course, the best way to see the Grand Canal is on the water itself but don’t worry if you can’t afford a gondola – catch a vaporetto (1, 82, N also 3 and 4), sit out the front and take in the sights from the best view.
Venice Lido – A skinny island that separates the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea, the Lido is a popular (and less expensive) beach destination in the summer. There are two large, public beaches and the northern tip is home to the Film Festival, the Venice Casino as well as lots of nightlife spots, plus the lido is a break from the hectic, tourists hordes in the city.
The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)
Back in the day, visiting a casino in Venice was about more than just a game of roulette – they were opulent establishments where you could go for a spot of debauchery – dancing, flirting and of course, yes, gambling. Situated on the first floor of an otherwise boring building on Ponte dei Bareteri is the Casino Venier. Dating back to 1750, here you will find the opulence of the past retained, from marble floors to golden stucco and ornate mirrors; there’s even a peephole hidden in the floor of the entrance hall to check out who was entering!
In May this year, in an effort to preserve the “decorum and traditions” of a city which is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, the authorities banned new kebab shops and other fast-food outlets from opening, as well as limiting shops selling pizza by the slice. It is also worth noting that consumption of takeaway food in St Mark’s Square is prohibited and plans are in place to develop picnic areas aimed at deterring visitors from eating takeaway food in other ourist hotspots..
These steps by the authorities may seem harsh but in reality, the move isn’t aimed at being “anti fast food” or stopping tourists grabbing a quick bite to eat, but rather to preserve the culture of the city and encourage visitors to try local produce.
So, if you are forgoing a kebab in favour of something a touch more authentic, here’s some ideas for you to try. With rice a commonly grown staple in the Veneto region, risi e bisi is a tasty and local dish to savour or, for the more adventurous amongst you, the Risotto al nero di seppia is delicious if a tad disconcerting to look at (the black colour comes from squid ink). Seafood is of course popular, and the oleche (small green crabs), are a seasonal favourite in spring. For those with a sweet tooth, keep an eye for the delicious, deep fried fritole balls.
As well as all its watery nicknames, Venice is also known as the City of Masks. Venetian masks were typically worn during the Carnival of Venice and, in the past, when needed to conceal the wearer’s identity. In keeping with this traditional dress, there are lots of stunning, handcrafted masks to buy in the city, from the simple to the sublime (think feathers, sequins, lace and even Swarovski encrusted etc) as well as ceramic masks perfect for hanging on walls.