WHAT TO DO
Venice is a city in northeastern Italy and the capital of the Veneto region. It is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. They are separated by expanses of open water and canals - portions of the city are linked by over 400 bridges. The name is derived from the ancient Veneti people who inhabited the region by the 10th century BC. The city was historically the capital of the Republic of Venice for almost a millennium, from 810 to 1797. It was a major financial and maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and a staging area for the Crusades, as well as an important center of commerce - especially silk, grain and spice, and of art from the 13th century to the end of the 17th. The city state of Venice is considered to have been the first real international financial center, emerging in the 9th century and reaching its greatest prominence in the 14th century. This made Venice a wealthy city throughout most of its history. The sovereignty of Venice came to an end in 1797, at the hands of Napoleon. Subsequently, in 1866, the city became part of the Kingdom of Italy. In April of 1945, a force of British and New Zealand troops of the British Eighth Army liberated Venice, which had been a hotbed of anti Mussolini Italian partisan activity. Venice was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, inscribing it as 'Venice and its Lagoon'. In the 21st century, Venice remains a very popular tourist destination, a major cultural center and has been ranked many times the most beautiful city in the world.
Venice is divided into six sestieri or districts, neighborhoods that have distinctly different characteristics. San Marco is the central one, surrounded on three sides by a great loop in the Grand Canal. Across the Rialto Bridge is the artisan neighborhood of San Polo and across the Grand Canal to the south is stylish Dorsoduro, with its prestigious art museums and lively squares. At the outer edges are Castello, Cannaregio and Santa Croce. Beyond the six sestieri, be sure to hop aboard a vaporetto to its islands: Burano, Murano, Lido and Torcello. Begin your adventure in the heart of Venice at St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco). The vast expanse of the city's largest square is brought together and made to seem almost intimate by the elegant uniformity of its architecture. St Mark's Square is loved as Venice's living room - the place where everybody gathers, strolls, stops to chat, meets friends or just passes through on the way to work or play. Three sides of the piazza are framed in arcades, beneath which are fashionable shops and cafes. The open end is bookmarked by the curves, swirls and mosaics of St Mark's Basilica. Above the square towers the brick shaft of the Campanile.
Venice's most distinguished church, St Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) was originally the doge's private chapel, decorated with Byzantine art treasures that are part of the booty brought back by Venetian ships after the fall of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The shimmering mosaics above the doorways on the facade of the cathedral only hint at the artistry inside, where more than 8000 square meters of gold mosaics cover the domes and walls. These set a distinctly Byzantine tone to its soaring interior, but you'll find treasures from other periods, including later mosaics designed by Titian and Tintoretto - names you will encounter all over the city. The magnificent golden altarpiece, the Pala d'Oro, one of the finest in Europe, was begun by early 12th century artists, and centuries later, adorned with nearly 2000 gems and precious stones. Be sure to see the gold reliquaries and icons in the Treasury (Tesoro). Standing like a giant exclamation point above St Mark's Square, the Campanile is not the first to stand here. The original one, erected as a lighthouse in 1153, collapsed dramatically into the piazza in 1902 and was rebuilt on a firmer footing. Today, the Campanile is a popular attraction for its commanding views over the city and lagoon. Note: try to go early or late in the day, as lines for the lift to the top can be very long.
The Doge of Venice, sometimes translated as Duke, was the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice between 726 and 1797. Holding pride of place on the waterfront is the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale). This pretty Gothic confection may be an unlikely setting for the political and administrative seat of a great republic, but it's an exquisitely Venetian one. Beyond its dainty colonnades and geometrically patterned facade of white Istrian stone and pale pink Veronese marble lie grand rooms of state, the doge's private apartments and a large complex of council chambers, courts and prisons. The doge's official residence probably moved to this site in the 10th century, although the current complex only started to take shape around 1340. In 1424 the wing facing the piazzetta was added and the palace assumed its final form. The most impressive parts of the palace are at the top. Ascend Sansovino’s 24 carat gilt stucco work Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase) and emerge into rooms covered with gorgeous propaganda. In the Palladio designed Sala delle Quattro Porte (Hall of the Four Doors), ambassadors awaited ducal audiences under a lavish display of Venice's virtues by Giovanni Cambi, Titian and Tiepolo. Note: not open on public tours but included on private tours is a walk across the Bridge of Sighs to the dark cells of the Prigioni - the prisons from which Casanova made his famous escape. The best view, and the postcard classic, of the Bridge of Sighs is from the Ponte della Paglia, on the Riva degli Schiavoni behind the Doge's Palace.
Sweeping through the center of Venice in a giant reverse S curve, the Grand Canal is the principal boulevard through the city, connecting St Mark's Square, the Rialto Bridge and the arrival points of the rail station and bridge from the mainland. Only four bridges cross its two mile length, but gondolas called traghetti shuttle back and forth at several points between bridges. The Grand Canal was the address of choice for anyone who claimed any influence in Venice. Palaces of all the leading families open onto the canal, their showy Venetian Gothic and Early Renaissance facades facing the water, by which visitors arrived. These grand palaces, or at least their facades, are well preserved today and a trip along the canal by vaporetto - Venice's floating public transport system, is the best way to see them. Note: you can see the palaces at a more leisurely speed on a Venice Grand Canal Small Group Boat Tour, which also includes some of the smaller canals. And, of course, a ride along the Grand Canal in a gondola is one of the most memorable things to do in Venice. Once the only bridge across the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge marks the spot of the island's first settlement, called Rivus Altus (high bank). Built in 1588, some 150 years after the collapse of a previous wooden bridge, this stone arch supports two busy streets and a double set of shops. Along with serving as a bustling crossing point midway along the canal, Rialto is a favorite vantage point for tourists taking, or posing for, photos and for watching the assortment of boats always passing under it. Note: on the other side of the bridge is the lively Rialto Market, where Venetians and chefs shop for fresh seafood and produce. In the narrow streets of San Polo, beyond the market, are specialty shops and carnival mask making studios.
Baldassare Longhena's magnificent Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is prominently positioned near the entrance to the Grand Canal, its white stones, exuberant statuary and high domes gleaming spectacularly under the sun. The church makes good on an official appeal by the Venetian Senate directly to the Madonna in 1630 after 80000 Venetians had been killed by the plague. The Senate promised the Madonna a church in exchange for her intervention on behalf of Venice - no expense or effort spared. Before the church could even be started, at least 100000 pylons had to be driven deep into the barene (mudbanks) to shore up the tip of Dorsoduro. The Madonna provided essential inspiration, but La Salute draws its structural strength from a range of architectural and spiritual traditions. Architectural scholars note striking similarities between Longhena's unusual domed octagonal structure and both Greco Roman goddess temples and Jewish Kabbalah diagrams. The lines of the building converge beneath the dome to form a vortex on the inlaid marble floors - some believe the black dot at the center radiates healing energy. The basilica's interior is flooded with light filtered through disks of pale tinted glass encircling the implausibly high dome. The main focus of devotion is the elaborately carved baroque high altar, with a 12th century Cretan icon of the Madonna of Good Health set into it. Note: entry to the church is free, but there is a charge to visit the art filled sacristy with its glorious collection of Titian masterpieces.
The impressive white marble Scuola Grande di San Rocco was built between 1515 and 1560 to house a charitable society dedicated to Saint Roch (patron saint of the plague). Soon after its completion, the great 16th century Venetian artist Tintoretto won the competition to paint a central panel for the ceiling of the Sala dell'Albergo by entering the building and putting his painting in its intended place before the judging, much to the irritation of his rival artists. Tintoretto later decorated its walls and ceilings with a complete cycle of paintings, which are considered to be the artist's masterpiece. The earliest works, in the Sala dell'Albergo, date to 1564 and 1576 and include The Glorification of St Roch, Christ before Pilate, the Ecce Homo and the most powerful of all, The Crucifixion. Those in the upper hall depict New Testament scenes, painted between 1575 and 1585. Next, head to the majestic Teatro La Fenice. Opened in 1792, this grand opera house hosted the premiers of many of the most famous Italian operas, including those of Rossini and Verdi, and today schedules performances of opera, ballet and musical concerts. Note: if you can't attend a performance, it's possible to explore the theater with an audio guide.
From there, make your way to the Ca' d'Oro. The delicate marble filigree by Bartolomeo Bon seems too lace like to be carved of stone and you can only imagine the impression this facade must have made covered in its original paint and gold. Along with the Porta della Carta in the Doge's Palace, also created by Bartolomeo Bon, the Ca' d'Oro is considered the perfect example of Venetian Gothic. You can also admire the interior, as this palazzo is now an art museum, restored to provide both a setting for the art works and a look at the way wealthy Venetians lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. The connoisseur responsible for saving the palace, Baron Giorgio Franchetti, gave his art collection to the state in 1922 - with works by Titian, Van Dyck, Lombardo and Bernini. Heiress Peggy Guggenheim was one of the great art collectors of the 20th century. Her palatial canalside home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, showcases her collection of surrealist, futurist and abstract expressionist art - with works by up to 200 artists, including her ex husband Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. The sculpture garden, Peggy's final resting place, features works by greats like Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Anish Kapoor.
Another not to be missed museum is the Gallerie dell'Accademia (Fine Arts Museum). Venice's historic gallery traces the development of Venetian art from the 14th to 19th centuries, with works by all of the city's artistic superstars. The Accademia inhabits three conjoined buildings. The Scuola della Carita (founded 1260) was the oldest of Venice's six scuole grandi (religious confraternities); the current building dates to 1343. Bartolomeo Bon completed the Gothic edged facade of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Carita in 1448. A century later, Palladio took a classical approach to the Convento dei Canonici Lateranensi. From 1949 to 1954, Carlo Scarpa chose a minimalist approach to restorations. The bulk of the collection's treasures are on the 1st floor and this is the best place to start your visit. Take the stairs up from the grand entry hall and prepare to be overwhelmed by the sensory overload of Room 1, where a swarm of angels flutter their golden wings from the carved ceiling, gazing down upon a swirling polychrome marble floor. Room 20 is full of large canvases taken from the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. Gentile Bellini's Procession in Piazza San Marco offers an intriguing view of Venice's most famous square before its 16th century makeover, while the former wooden version of the city's most famous bridge appears in Vittore Carpaccio's Miracle of the Reliquary of the Cross at Rialto Bridge. The former church (Room 23) is a serene showstopper fronted by a Bellini altarpiece. Sharing the space is Giorgione’s highly charged The Storm. The rear of the church displays massive canvases looted from the Scuola Grande di San Marco. The Sala dell’Albergo (Room 24) has been left untouched from when it was the Scuola della Carita's boardroom. Titian closes the 1st floor circuit with his touching Presentation of the Virgin. Here, a young Madonna trudges up an intimidating staircase while a distinctly Venetian crowd of onlookers point at her.
A soaring Gothic church from 1340, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari's assets include marquetry choir stalls, Canova's pyramid mausoleum, Bellini's achingly sweet Madonna with Child triptych in the sacristy and Longhena's creepy Doge Pesaro funereal monument. Upstaging them all is Titian's 1518 Assunta (Assumption) altarpiece, in which a radiant red cloaked Madonna reaches heavenward, steps onto a cloud and escapes this mortal coil. Titian himself, lost to the plague in 1576, has his memorial here. Note: the current 14th century brick basilica was constructed by the Franciscans to replace a smaller church built on land donated to the order by Doge Jacopo Tiepolo in 1231. The 12 round pillars running between the nave and aisles are said to represent the apostles. After the vast grandeur of St Mark's Basilica and the soaring expanse of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, little Santa Maria dei Miracoli is like a fresh breeze - a masterpiece of Early Renaissance architecture by Pietro Lombardo. This jewel box of pastel inlaid marble was built from 1481 to 1489 to enshrine a miraculous icon of the Virgin. Unlike Venice's other churches, whose facades are embellished with architectural flourishes and statues, Lombardo used painstakingly matched colored marble to create delicate patterns of rosettes, circles, octagons and crosses on the facade. The method continues inside, which heightens the effect of the golden domed ceiling rising above gray and coral marble walls.
Lastly, a visit to Venice would not be complete without hopping aboard a vaporetto for the ride across the lagoon to Murano and Burano. Murano has been the home of Venetian glass making since the 13th century. Today, artisans continue to ply their trade at workshops dotted around the island. Note: to learn about local manufacturing traditions and view a collection of historic glass, visit the Museo del Vetro. It's a quick hop to the next island, Burano, a fishing village of pastel colored houses, renowned for its handmade lace. Note: the Scuola dei Merletti (lace school) and its small museum will help you distinguish the real thing from the cheap imports you will find in most shops.
WHERE TO EAT
Venice has a number of great places to eat and have a drink or two. Start your day at Caffe Florian, located at Piazza San Marco 57. The oldest still operating cafe in Europe, Florian maintains rituals established in 1720 - besuited waiters serve cappuccino on silver trays, couples get cozy on plush banquettes and the orchestra strikes up as sunlight illuminates St Mark’s mosaics. My favorite food in Venice, like most others, is cicchetti (pronounced chi-ket-tee). Venice cicchetti are the local cibo da mangiare con le mani - food eaten with your hands (finger foods) - that the city has become famous for. But the cicchetti experience isn’t just about yummy hand held morsels, the social setting is as much a part of the experience as the food. Essentially, cicchetti is Venetian tapas or small snacks. Now let's talk about where you’ll find and eat cicchetti - at a bacaro (wine bar). These tiny little taverns are scattered throughout the city. Cicchetti are usually pre made ahead of time. Guests select a few at the counter along with a small glass of wine (known as an ombra) or an Aperol Spritz, the popular Italian cocktail that originated in Venice and head outside to nosh and mingle. Whether you eat cicchetti in an osteria, cantina, cicchetteria or enoteca, they are all considered bacaro.
Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi can be found at Fondamenta Nani 992 in the Dorsoduro district. It may look like a wine shop and function as a bar, but this legendary canalside spot also serves the best cicchetti on this side of the Grand Canal. Choose from the impressive counter selection of sarde in saor (sardines with a sweet and sour Venetian mixture of cured onions, raisins and pine nuts) or baccala mantecato (traditional salted cod mashed into a creamy paste and formed into balls). Enoteca Al Volto is at Calle Cavalli 4081. Join the crowd working its way through the vast selection of cicchetti in this historic wood paneled bar that feels like the inside of a ship's hold. Lining the ceiling above the golden glow of the brass bar lanterns are hundreds of wine labels from just some of the bottles of regional wines that are cracked open every day. Cantina Do Mori is located near the Rialto Market at Calle Do Mori 429. You'll feel like you've stepped into a Rembrandt painting at this venerable rustic bar dating from 1462. Under gargantuan copper pots, nostalgists swill one of around 40 wines by the glass or slurp prosecco from old school champagne coupes. Bar bites include pickled onions with anchovies, succulent polpette (meatballs) and slices of pecorino cheese. My favorite bacaro in town is All'Arco, found at Campo San Polo 436. Search out this authentic neighborhood bar for some of the best cicchetti in Venice. Armed with ingredients from the nearby Rialto Market, this quaint space serves miniature masterpieces to the scrum of eager patrons crowding the counter and spilling out onto the street.
Osteria La Zucca is at Calle del Tentor 1762 in the Santa Croce district. With its menu of seasonal vegetarian creations and classic meat dishes, this cozy restaurant consistently hits the mark. Herbs and spices are used to great effect in dishes such as the nutmeg tinged pumpkin and smoked ricotta flan. Osteria Bancogiro can be found at Campo San Giacometto, Ponte di Rialto 122. The ambiance is relaxed and inviting, with a great view of the Grand Canal. Menu highlights include seafood tartare with sea bass, amberjack, scampi, red prawns and caviar, plus seared octopus with ink sauce and sea bass ravioli with caviar. Osteria di Santa Marina is located at Campo Santa Marina 5911. Do not be fooled by the casual piazza setting, this restaurant saves all the drama for your plate. Each course of the tasting menu brings two bites of reinvented local fare - prawn in a nest of shaved red pepper, artichoke and soft shell crab with squash saor marinade, while homemade pastas marry surprising flavors such as shrimp and chestnut ravioli. Found at Campiello de la Fenice 1939 is Taverna La Fenice. Step back in time at this historic dining room with a coffered wooden ceiling, gleaming terrazzo floors, and red and gold wallpaper. The official caterer for Teatro La Fenice, it serves a refined menu with the likes of beef fillet in Barolo wine, truffle ravioli and delicious little bowls of hazelnut ice cream.
Another top notch spot is Trattoria Vini Da Arturo, located at Calle dei Assassini 3656 in the San Marco district. Everyone in this lively little eatery (only 10 tables) comes for the same reason - the fantastic array of salads and Arturo's vinegar soaked pork chop. For more than 40 years he has served his classic meat menu to loyal regulars who include a long list of celebrities. Come for the cozy atmosphere, great food and charming service. Trattoria Corte Sconta can be found at Calle del Pestrin 3886. Well informed visitors and celebrating locals seek out this vine covered corte sconta (hidden courtyard) for its trademark seafood antipasti and imaginative house made pastas. Inventive flavor pairings transform the classics: clams zing with ginger, prawn and courgette linguine is recast with an earthy dash of saffron and the roast eel dazzles in a drizzle of balsamic reduction. Osteria Anice Stellato is at Fondamenta de la Sensa 3272. Tin lamps, unadorned rustic tables and a small wooden bar set the scene for quality seafood and other Venetian specialities at this elegant canalside bacaro. You can munch on cicchetti or go for the full menu and swoon over mantis shrimps with pomegranate puree and market fresh fish. Note: reservations are recommended.
There are 2 restaurants on Burano that are worth the vaporetto ride out to the island. The first is Trattoria al Gatto Nero, located at Via Giudecca 88. This long standing, homey trattoria delivers lagoon fresh seafood and homemade pastas. Once you’ve tried the house made tagliolini (ribbon pasta) with spider crab and the mixed seafood grill, the ferry ride to Burano seems a minor inconvenience. Note: be sure to call ahead and plead for canalside seating. The second is Trattoria da Romano, located at Via San Martino destro 221. While you can find a ton of excellent seafood at this family run trattoria - ranging from clams, mussels and shrimp - the signature dish here is the risotto which is served tableside and made with a tiny fish found in the lagoon called go (grass goby). Note: don’t linger too long looking at the impressive art collection that features sketches by Henri Matisse, Joan Miro and Giorgio de Chirico - the last vaporetto back to Venice is just before midnight. Back in town at Calle Tron 1961 is the excellent Ristorante Glam. Step out of your water taxi into the canalside garden of this inventive Michelin starred restaurant in the Hotel Palazzo Venart. The contemporary menu focuses on local ingredients, pepping up Veneto favorites with unusual spices that would once have graced the tables of this trade route city. The service and the wine list are equally impressive.
Ristorante Quadri can be found at Piazza San Marco 123. When it comes to Venetian glamour, nothing beats this historic Michelin starred restaurant overlooking St Mark's Square. A small swarm of servers greet you as you're shown to your table in a room decked out with silk damask, gilt, painted beams and Murano chandeliers. Dishes are precise and delicious, deftly incorporating Venetian touches into an inventive modern Italian menu. Note: reservations are essential. Also outstanding is Antiche Carampane, located at Rio Tera de le Carampane 1911. Hidden in the once shady lanes behind Ponte de le Tette, this culinary indulgence is hard to find but worth the effort. Once you do, say hello to a market driven menu of Venetian classics, including fegato alla veneziana (veal liver with onions) and an abundance of seafood. It is never short of a convivial crowd, so it's a good idea to book ahead. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. One of my favorite places in town is the charming Ristorante Al Covo, found at Campiello de la Pescaria 3968. Chef and owner Cesare Benelli has long been dedicated to the preservation of heritage products and lagoon recipes. Only the freshest seasonal fish gets the Covo treatment, accompanied by artichokes, eggplant, cipollini onion and mushrooms from the lagoon larders of Sant’Erasmus, Vignole, Treporti and Cavallino. Meat is also carefully sourced and much of it is Slow Food accredited.
Conclude your evening in Venice with a drink or two. Il Mercante is located at Campo dei Frari 2564. An hour's changeover is all it takes for the historic Caffe dei Frari to transform itself into its night time guise as the city's best cocktail lounge. If you can't find anything that takes your fancy on the adventurous themed cocktail list, the expert bar team will create something to suit your mood. I thoroughly enjoyed the Buttery Charger (tequila espolon anejo, cocoa butter, melon liquor, lemon verbena and orange cordial). Perhaps the most well known watering hole in town is Harry's Bar, found at Calle Vallaresso 1323. Locals and tourists alike hold court at tables well scuffed by Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Orson Welles and Michael Lichtstein. Enjoy the signature Bellini (Giuseppe Cipriani’s original 1948 recipe: prosecco and white peach juice) or my favorite - an ice cold dry martini, which is served in a small glass without a stem. If you're in the mood for wine, head to Vino Vero at Fondamenta de la Misericordia 2497. Lining the exposed brick walls of this intimate canalside bar are small production wines, including a great selection of natural and biodynamic labels. The cicchetti here lift this place above the ordinary, with arguably the best selection of crostini (open face sandwiches) in the city, including wild boar sausage with aubergine, gorgonzola drizzled with honey or baba ganoush topped with prosciutto. Finish up at Malvasia all'Adriatico Mar, located at Calle Crosera 3771. Wine lovers should stake out a place in this small, upmarket and extremely welcoming bar and let owner Francesco guide them through the range of naturally produced regional wines.
WHERE TO STAY
Venice offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is The Gritti Palace, located at Campo Santa Maria Del Giglio 2467. Set in a 15th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, this lavish hotel is just across the water from the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Elegant rooms feature chandeliers, French doors, antiques and art. Amenities include free WiFi and flat screen TVs. Upgraded quarters add living areas, balconies and canal views. There is the beautiful Bar Longhi, an ornate lounge and a restaurant with a terrace offering canal views. There is also a spa and a cooking school.
A second option is Hotel Danieli, located at Riva degli Schiavoni 4196. Housed in a lavish Venetian building, this luxurious waterfront hotel is a short walk from St Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace. Featuring high ceilings and plush drapes, the opulent rooms offer complimentary WiFi and flat screen TVs. Upgrades add tapestries, sitting areas and lagoon views. Other perks include a refined restaurant, a cocktail bar, a wine suite and a terrace with lagoon views.
Venice is loaded with incredible beauty, unique culture, fascinating history, amazing art and delicious cuisine. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.