Over many years and countless visits to Venice, I have never got past the initial thrill of that first sight of this magical city. For four of those years I lived just a short train-ride away, as those of you who have been following my blog for a while will already know.
The excitement begins immediately upon exiting the railway station. Spread before you is all hustle, bustle and an air of excitement; gondolas, water buses and taxis, barges, emergency vehicles and police launches, all jostling for space on the gleaming waters of the Grand Canal.
Getting my bearings in Venice took me a few years and it entailed several interesting trips in order to feel at home there. First of all, a great deal of interesting research was involved as I endeavoured find the best places to eat that did not charge tourist prices and serve boring tourist-type food. Secondly, I needed to discover where to bring friends and relatives when they visited, which was indeed a voyage of discovery.
If I were advising anybody who is thinking of visiting (or revisiting) Venice, there are a number of places I think should be seen and interesting things to experience if time allows. In the meantime, bear in mind that Venice is a city made for walkers and it is difficult to get lost for long.
Simply pick up a handy pocket-sized map and off you go.
The Grand Canal
First of all, you must take a trip down the Grand Canal. I always undertake this on the No. 1 vaporetto (water bus), which stops several times between the station and St. Mark’s Square, giving one the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of La Serenissima.
One’s inaugural trip down this famous waterway is guaranteed to stimulate the imagination of even the most jaded traveller. The vaporetto passes Venice Casino and several magnificent palazzi (palaces) on its journey down the canal……
…..past the Rialto Market…..
…..and underneath the famous Ponte di Rialto.
You will then glide beneath the wooden Accademia Bridge…..
….and have a close-up view of the iconic church of Santa Maria della Salute. In the meantime, St. Mark’s Square is ahead, where you will alight onto a floating docking station.
Bridge of Sighs
Before entering the piazza itself, let’s venture over to the right-hand-side where you will see a gaggle of tourists packed onto a small footbridge. They are there to view and take photographs of the famous Bridge of Sighs, so called because of the sighs of the prisoners taking their last look at Venice, while crossing over to their dark prison cells. I would recommend you join the throng and have a look. It is pretty stunning.
St. Mark’s Square
St. Mark’s Square has been known as ‘The Drawing Room of Europe’ since Napoleonic times. It is overlooked by the free-standing bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica. There is a long loggia along three sides of the square, where jewellery outlets, coffee shops and restaurants are situated, the most famous being Caffè Florian, the oldest in Europe….
and Grancaffè Quadri, both of whom boast orchestras that play out of doors almost directly opposite one another. Hot chocolate in Caffè Florian, cosy on a cold winter’s day, is a real treat.
Take a walk in the fog and, whatever you do, don’t feed the pigeons!
The Doges’ Palace
On one side of the square is the Doges’ Palace (Palazzo Ducale), which is a must-see for all visitors to Venice. It is an enormous twelfth century edifice, which is, apparently, visited by more than one million people each year. It was the seat of power for the Doges (governors) of Venice until 1797 when the city fell to Napoleon.
Climbing the Grand Staircase complete with colourful frescoes…..
…you will be struck by the lavish rooms with wonderfully decorated ceilings and a strong sense of the history of Venice. You will also see the largest room in Europe…..
….a fantastic architectural triumph, having no pillars to support the ceiling, which is suspended from gigantic beams. This vast room also contains the largest complete oil painting, Il Paradiso by Tintoretto.
From there, you can cross the Bridge of Sighs to visit the prison. While crossing this famous bridge it is worth stopping briefly to take a look through the latticed windows in order to view the Venetian Lagoon – and all the tourists staring in your direction.
The Doge’s Palace also organises visits to its attics, dungeons and torture chambers. This is a fascinating tour, which I can strongly recommend.
St. Mark’s Basilica
Just a stone’s throw from the Doges’ Palace is the Basilica of St. Mark, an example of Byzantine architecture which was built in the eleventh century. It is the principal Roman Catholic cathedral of Venice.
For me, the highlight of a visit to the Basilica is what is to be found when one heads up a steep, narrow flight of steps to the right-hand-side of the main door. Here you have the gallery with a birds’ eye view of the rich golden mosaics which stud the vaulted ceilings and walls.
The gallery contains the magnificent original four bronze horses, brought from Constantinople in 1204, which used to adorn the front of the Basilica but now reside indoors to preserve them while the ones on the façade are actually replicas.
Venturing out onto the external terrace, the view of the piazza and the island of San Giorgio is highly photogenic.
Descending the stairs and entering the main part of the Basilica, one can walk to the front and see the spectacular altar which houses the remains of Saint Mark, Venice’s patron saint.
Back in the piazza once more, a short vaporetto trip across the lagoon to visit San Giorgio Maggiore is well worth the effort.
San Giorgio Maggiore
This beautiful church was designed by Palladio in the sixteenth century and was built facing west so that the façade turns pale pink at sunset. On one chilly winter’s afternoon, we crossed the lagoon to visit this magnificent church with the aim of ascending to the very top of its bell tower.
The church itself is a perfect example of Palladio’s genius, with a clean, unadorned interior. Along the left hand side, watch out for the presbytery, which contains two of Tintoretto’s masterpieces.
Reached by lift, the walls at the top of the tower, where the viewing platform is located, are high and thick; good news for those of you who, like me, have a bad head for heights. The views from the bell tower provided me with probably my best ever photos of Venice. Looking over the island of Giudecca and Palladio’s other masterpiece, Il Redentore, I then swung my lens towards Santa Maria della Salute and Piazza San Marco and marvelled at the city and lagoon spread beneath me.
La Scuola Grande and Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Not far from the railway station are situated three of my favourite places to visit in Venice.
The Scuola Grande, which dates back to the 15th century, houses a huge collection of paintings by famous painter Jacopo Tintoretto, who worked on these magnificent rooms for several years. Across the calle (alleyway) is the jewel-like Renaissance Church of San Rocco.
Around the corner is the enormous church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The Fransciscans built this enormous church during the 14th century and the bell tower is the second largest in Venice. The choir stalls are incredibly beautiful and the memorial to neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova is a must-see.
Within easy walking distance from these gems is the Rialto Bridge and its eponymous markets full of fish, fresh from the lagoon and fruit and vegetables from the surrounding islands. Colourful and noisy, it should be visited early in the morning.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Near the Accademia Bridge sits the unusual one storey palazzo which houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This is a unique gem of an art gallery containing works from artists such as Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso. It was Peggy Guggenheim’s home for more than 30 years until her death in 1979 and I would highly recommend a visit here. Peggy’s ashes and those of her adored little dogs are buried in the garden.
A Gondola Factory
Strolling nearby, you may notice a gondola factory, Squero di San Trovaso. You can see it best from the opposite bank of the canal. Head to Fondamenta Nani for a look.
Islands of Burano, Murano, San Michele and Giudecca
Do try to find time to visit at least one of the islands in the lagoon. My favourite has to be Burano, famous for its colourfully painted houses and lace making industry. There is a small lace museum there, which I found pretty interesting.
Murano is the island where all the wonderful glass hails from that can be seen worldwide. On visiting there, it is possible to tour the glass factories (fornace) and to see a demonstration of glass blowing. This is the place to buy beautifully crafted glass; the chandeliers are particularly fabulous.
On the way out to Murano lies the tranquil Island of San Michele where Venetians have buried their dead for centuries and there is also Giudecca, home to the famous Palladian church of Il Redentore and a lovely place to take a peaceful stroll…..
….unless, of course one of the – highly controversial – massive cruise liners sails by with Pavarotti blaring from its decks.
Creating your own Carnivale Mask.
If you are looking for an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, look no further than painting your own Carnivale mask.
Ca’ Macana is the place for this and I spent a wet winter’s morning there having great fun and being creative in a most unusual way. I never imagined I would have such fun painting, gluing diamante studs and tying ribbons to a little mask, which still occupies pride of place in my home.
Of course, if you feel like splashing out, you can always take a heady, romantic trip in a gondola.
As there are so many varied and interesting things in Venice to see and do, I do hope that I have covered the essentials and that I have managed to capture just some of its magic for you.
Some of the tours I undertook were courtesy of Walks of Italy.