Benvenuto a Venezia!
Once I decided I was definitely going to quit my job and go travelling the world for a few years, the reality suddenly hit me!! Where exactly was I going first, second, third etc etc and how was I going to arrange that.
Well, I started a list of what I wanted to see – yep a classic “must see” list but I knew that there were a dozen or so places that just have to make it onto that list – and to be seen as soon as possible before any accident or budget constraint forced it off.
Venice was up in the top 10 in the world … why? … I guess I fell into the trap of just hearing so much about its romantic beauty, majestic charms, historical past … and a certain amount of bragging rights afterwards, as strangely so many of my worldly mates had not actually been there.
I am embarrassed to now admit that even though it was in my top 10 it was actually about the 30th country/city I visited. It just fell that way, can’t really fathom out why but there you have it.
But by the time it came round to get on that plane to see it, I had such high expectations and they needed to be fulfilled. Here I tell it all from a personal perspective.
Is Venice on your bucket list of places to visit? Always wanted to go there but never seem to get round to organising it? Well do it soon as you can, as this glorious city, set in the middle of a vast lagoon and transversed by a myriad of wide and narrow canals, is one of the most wonderous places to explore.
So much to see, so little time
The list of places to see in Venice is long but up there at the top must be St Mark’s Square, the Doges’ Palace, the Basilica, the Campanile, Rialto bridge, Bridge of Sighs and the Grand Canal.
Then just throw in a plethora of baroque churches, highly decorated 15-18th Century palaces, Museums of all types, from glass to paintings, gondola rides, island visiting and ice cream. Now you have an exhaustive list of places that will keep you walking (remember Venice is completely pedestrianised) for hours or even days, if you want to see it all.
I have to say that whenever I mentioned I was just back from Venice, my friends’ eyes would light up. They would marvel at the statement and ask how it was there – not the same reaction if I mentioned many other places in Europe that are my personal favourites.
Other world cities have extensive canal systems – I have written about them on my website traveltheworldclub.com so check there for further info – St Petersburg in Russia and Amsterdam in the Netherlands for example but Venice seems to be top of the list for “canal cities”.
Clearly everyone has their own vision of Venice and the only way to get a reality check on what it’s truly like, is to actually go there yourself and experience it.
Which airport for Venice – Marco Polo or Mestre?
Venice has two airports – Marco Polo and Mestre (Canova) . Both are connected to the island of Venice by transport links but Marco Polo is by far the best with bus, express coach and water boat links direct to the centre or berths on the island.
Marco Polo, (see website for transport info here). Marco Polo is 13 miles and 25 mins away from Venice by direct bus on Line 5 or 35 from outside the airport terminal. It also has a water boat station for links to the island too.
Treviso/Canova airport, (click here for transport connections), is 27 miles away and used mainly by budget airlines. Whilst it has bus/train links to Venice they are not so convenient and take more time.
There is also a direct bus service to Venice but even this takes just over an hour.
Where to stay in Venice?
Get to know your geography of Venice before booking accomodation. Outlying areas like Lido, Mestre and Burano are actually far away and not so well connected to the island of Venice.
They will involve public transport (think cost and time!) and are awkward to get from early morning or late eve. They are also not as pretty as Venice island itself.
The outlying areas have the advantage of being much cheaper, and more modern. That can be a big draw for many – it was for me – and if you can live with the travel to and from Venice that a great choice.
Central Venice hotels are much more expensive as they carry the prestige of actually being on the island and often a short walk away from the attractions. They are often in older buildings, have more charm and sometimes with a view.
If you need luxury then The Gritti Palace or Danieli are your choice for ultra-luxury at a high price tag.
Remember however, Central Venice hotels are often very old and thus may be dated, garishly ornate (a typical Venetian design!) and smaller. You may want the charm of a 17th century feel with a canal side view but remember noise from nearby restaurants and bars can be intrusive.
Also remember Venice island is uniquely pedestrianised – and it is a big island. You won’t be able to hail a cab or catch a bus on the island for that walk home so check if there a water bus stop nearby. Don’t get caught with a great hotel but exhaustive walking to get to the sights each day!
Campo San Giovanni e Paolo – Venice, Italy
This is a square often missed out by tourists as it is not on the beaten track. It is a square that in any other city would be a major attraction in itself … but in Venice it has to compete with so much that it kinda gets overlooked.
The Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, is majestic and decorative with striking buildings that are resplendent in different architectural styles. Here is housed the intricately carved Scuola Grande di San Marco and next door the huge Gothic styled Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The past Doges, all 25 of them, are buried here – a rather less grand affair than the palace they all lived in!
The square has a huge statue in the middle and lots of open-air restaurants and cafes around it. On my visit the eateries were packed (it was lunchtime) so get here early if you want to get a seat and soak up the ancient atmosphere of this resplendent square.
It is also a Gondolier embarkation point – clearly attracted by the diners wanting a lift home!
As I said, you will have to walk a lot in Venice’s pedestrianised streets and alleyways. Crossing the small bridges and looking down the narrow waterways evoke views of history from the hundreds of years old crumbling walls of buildings knarled from the waters.
I came to realise that this decaying state was normal and just gave a hint to how difficult it is to upkeep buildings that are actually built into the water. The decay, however, gave an atmosphere of history and mystery.
I walked through several small, what can only be called alleyways but are actually important thoroughfares. I went past old shops selling artisan masks and costumes and was lead along passageways and small quaysides more reminiscent of small villages and forgotten docklands.
Gondolas will come into view every now and a while, silently slipping through the waters. If you get one passing with an architecturally interesting building in the backdrop you have a ready made photo opportunity. I took many atmospherical photos of the decaying old buildings, silent canal waters and a solitary peaceful boat meandering past.
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Condition of the buildings
It was at first shocking to see the decrepit state of some of the houses on the canals and the worn, cracking and roughed up brick work and stucco, but after a while it becomes the norm.
If you are planning a walking trip round Venice you will enjoy the views and sights on the way as without car traffic there is only the people traffic.
You will simply wander down many stone flagged walkways passing lots of tourist bars, restaurants, gift shops, ice cream parlours and small grocery shops, up and over canal bridges and occasionally stop to admire a view down the length of a waterway.
The crowds can be very heavy and at times you have to go at the pace of the multitude. Overtaking or speeding up is impossible with these numbers.
Take into consideration when moving around that your pace is slow because of the crowds ahead of you. Venice is considering limiting the number of people who can visit per day (and I totally understand why) and introducing an entrance fee.
This is definitely one location of over-tourism in the world.
Rialto Bridge, Venice
What I encountered was a crowded bridge with almost people queueing to get onto the bridge. Just not what I was expecting. It is much more solid in look and feel than the elegant, elaborate bridge that I was expecting.
I was expecting something more historical and open to the water on both sides but the unexpected plethora of shops actually on the bridge caught me off guard.
I walked along part of the bridge, but yet again got caught up in a slow moving mass of people that took the edge off the visit. I decided therefore to admire it from afar and went down to the quayside nearby and got the view that I was expecting and my long anticipated photos.
It is an imposing looking bridge, quite different to the surrounding buildings. It did look a little out of place …. but then this is Venice so be prepared for many, many different styles of architecture.
The crowds spoilt it for me, as at one point I could not move either way and it became claustrophobic. You just have to soldier on and do what must be done to see this world famous structure however.
St Mark’s Square and Basilica
This is a huge square – actually it is L shaped just to be precise and cannot fail to impress
Its symmetry was unexpected and the long covered walkways an unexpected surprise. Lots of restaurants and bars, some usual tourist shops and a few average shops are here. In Summer the restaurants spill out onto the Square itself which somewhat intrude into the public space.
People watching is clearly a favourite pastime here and who doesn’t want a selfie with the Basilica behind them while clutching an Aperol aperitif at the restaurant table!
The big St Mark’s Basilica, stands at the corner of the square, in all its glory, with its many domes and intricate statued roofline. It usually sports a huge long queue snaking from its entrance across one part of the square.
To get in, there is no other way than to joined it and spend the usual 30 mins wait in Summer. Let me warn you now that apparently there is always a long, long queue.
Really old interior with lots of iconography and paintings and actually smaller than expected for such a famous venue. Frustratingly, photography and talking is not allowed inside . The guards will regularly bark “no photos” and often Shush people who are talking. Weird but true!
However – I snuck a few pics like everyone else when the attendants were out of sight.
There is a set route around the interior which is crowded, full of line jumpers and frustratingly slow and unnatural. Bear with it as this is the only way to see the interior – treat it as a challenge!
Freedom comes when you reach the upper area where there are no attendants and you can move freely. The best part however is going to the roof to look over the square and see the massive horse statues and domes above you.
Here you can get great shots of the Renaissance era clock tower to the right and in front of you is the imposing Campanile with its unusual red brick facades.
On one side are the views down one side of the square towards the water edge and the view of the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore overlooking the entrance/landing quay of St Mark’s Square.
You get a full-length side shot of the side of the Doge’s Palace with its intersecting arches and the National Library opposite.
Gondola Station – Bacino Orseolo, Venice
So , you wonder where all the gondoliers are based. A bit like every city has a central bus station, Venice has its central Gondolier station.
Visitors queue at the quayside and like a shuttle system, gondolas arrive, pick up/drop off passengers. The basin can be noisy with the gondoliers shouting at each other in their efforts to avoid collisions and move the masses on.
It contained the biggest numbers of gondolier boats I had ever seen. It was indeed a hub with many people waiting to get on/off and the boats circling in a big circular canal basin as they entered then left.
Doge’s Palace, Venice
This is possibly the highlight of a trip to venice. It may take 40 mins to queue to get in but, in my view, the wait is definitely worth it.
The Doge’s Palace (click here for info), dates from the 10th century and is an eclectic mix of architectural styles side by side. The Palace was constantly added to and amended with the latest building fashion. In the big marbled entrance courtyard, the facades can be anything from the 10th to 18th Century.
The interiors are richly lavish with painted walls and ceilings that are over-the-top ornate. The feeling can be somewhat religious in some room due to the church inspired decorations and were clearly meant to impress.
The wooden wall panels are an artwork in themselves. Intricately painted with figures, scenes and semi-religious works. Gold is a dominant colour and biblical and battle scenes dominate but there is a real lack of furniture or accessories in the rooms. They can thus often feel huge and imposing and even overwhelming.
Room after room of intricate and ornate designs are on the walkway through the Palace but one place everyone wants to get to is the Bridge of Sighs.
You get to actually walk over the Bridge of Sighs that everyone photographs from the outside and take a peek through the small windows at everyone gawping up at you!. You even get to go inside a prison cell and experience the darkness yourself.
This ends the tour through the Palace but once outside head for the quayside nearby.
Whilst the architecture of the square itself is imposing don’t forget to take in the view across the waterway moorings of the gondolier station towards the Island and Church of San Giorgio Maggiore.
These are beautiful and picturesque and shows you another view of a skyline like no other in the world. You are now looking across the Grand Canal – it looks like a small estuary with its waves lapping the quayside and the flurry of gondolier activity.
The opposite side of the Grand Canal houses the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, another majestic building worthy of a visit. I did not get there on this trip, so again, it’s on the list for the next one.
Bridge of Sighs, Venice
Why called is it called “sighs”? – well, apparently, because of the sighs let out by prisoners when walking over it, knowing they were heading to incarceration on the other side!
So you want a photo of the Bridge of Sighs from the outside by the Doge’s Palace, Venice? Well, like thousands of other tourists you will have to fight to get to the front of the area that faces it.
I joined what felt like a crowd from a football match in its size. Step by step you slowly make your way to the viewing bridge over the canal opposite the bridge.
You gradually move towards the front and then have a brief moment to capture a picture before the sheer weight of the crowd moves you on. The crowds were overwhelming – I hate huge throngs of people – but you just have to grit your teeth and join in the melee if you want that photo.
Water ambulances and canal-side hospital!
Ok, some thing unique to Venice – ever seen a water ambulance? Me neither.
Here I did see one, speeding along the canal, siren blasting and whizzing into the canal side entrance to a hospital. Patient was whisked off the boat on a stretcher via a rampart, taken swiftly through the entrance and the boat turned around and sped off. Don’t think I will witness that again in a long time!
Nearby was the ambulance park – full of speedboat-like ambulances – amazing – well their roads are canals after all! Only in Venice can you probably see this!
San Michele Island and Cemetery, Venice
The huge island cemetery of San Michele island is where the composer Igor Stravinsky is laid to rest and many come to the island for that reason only. There is not much more to see here, as it is a cemetery for the city in the middle of the lagoon, with a church and graveyards and some houses.
From the water is has high brick walls and turrets and even looks fortified. I gave it a miss due to time constraints but it is on the list to see for my next visit.
Murano Glass on Murano Island
The world famous Murano glass is made in various factories on the nearby island of Murano. A water boat ride to the island is easy and the island itself is pretty gorgeous. The island is a real alternative to the island of Venice. It has a Tuscany style piazza, complete with a small commemorative statued garden with an old church from the 14th Century opposite its campanile and a bridge over the canal.
Throughout the island are glass sculptures donated to the public areas by the glass companies and lend a real artistic and modern air to what is a very historical place. Get your tickets online for the glass factories where they show glass in the making, styling, blowing and design and of course the opportunity to buy something of what you have just seen.
The brightly coloured houses in canal settings – often seen on postcards – are a feature of the island. There are cafes and eateries galore and some pretty seating areas with canal and moored boats views, overlooking old buildings. On a warm day this island is a real retreat from the hectic and cramped Venice island, so give it a try even if just for an hour or two.
So, Venice ticked off the list of places I have always wanted to visit!
Did I enjoy it ?: Yes and no.
What did I like: Absolutely loved the architecture, impressive buildings and the unique atmosphere that Venice (and for me Murano Island) create. Loved the water boats that people take just like we take buses. Loved the feeling that I was on an island in a lagoon and there was water all around me.
What didn’t I like: The massive, overwhelming crowds that at times become choking in their density. Also the crumbling state of many waterside buildings that seemed to be lacking in maintenance in a world famous setting.
However don’t let anything detract you from getting here – it has to be seen to be appreciated either way!
As a travel blogger for the last 3 years I have so far visited 72 countries (and counting) and over 115 world-famous locations. I have managed to fill my website traveltheworldclub.com with 1000’s of photos recounting my experiences and travels.
It’s a passion I love, with a target of being one the lucky few in the world to visit every country in the world …. eventually!