Most of know these basic things about Venice. But how many of us know Venice is really a “city of islands?” This city that in Italian is called Venezia was built on 118 islets and is just a collection of all of them. This capital of the Veneto region has all of these islets separated by 170 canals, and connecting all of them is around 400 bridges.
There are dozens of small and large bridges in Venice, the most important of which is undoubtedly the Ponte della Libertà (Liberty Bridge) which connects Venice to mainland Europe. Many tourists come into Venice over this road or the railroad on the bridge. Venice is the only major city in Europe in which vehicles are not allowed.
Venice is known by names like “City of Canals,” “City of Masks,” “City of Water,” “City of Bridges,” and “The Sinking City.” There are endless numbers of things to see in this city and endless numbers of things to do. Even though those things may vary from person to person, there are a few things that should make everybody’s list.
- Hang out in St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)!
- Look out over the city from Campanile di San Marco!
- See the Bridge of Sighs!
- Take a cruise on the Grand Canal!
- Go under the Rialto Bridge!
- Take a gondola trip!
- Buy a mask as a souvenir!
Whatever’s left is up to you, your only limit is your imagination!
Venice is a city where there are more tourists than locals… Most of the people who actually live there today live on the main road in the district of Mestre and the tourists live in the more historic part of the city.
The New York Times referred to Venice as “Undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man”, and there are enough tourists that there’s not even enough room for a pin to drop to the ground instead of landing on a tourist’s foot. As a result, let yourself go and give in to the crowds. Rather than fighting your way through side streets just follow the crowds. Leave your maps and guidebooks at home, you won’t find your way with those maps anyways, you’re in a city that’s perfect for getting lost. There’s only two signs that you need to be your guide for the city. One of them is to the Rialto Bridge and the other is to Piazza San Marco. Look for these signs and for the crowds.
All roads and canals in Venice lead to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), the square famous all over the world. Some of the great works in the square include the Byzantine-inspired St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco), the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), St. Mark’s Clock Tower (Torre dell’Orologio) and St. Mark’s Campanile (Campanile di San Marco). Piazza San Marco’s reputation doesn’t come only from all of these famous works, but also from the masses of pigeons that hover around and encircle you and who can be fed with biscuits and breadcrumbs right out of your hands. The square is full of lovely cafes where you can sit and admire the buildings around you, and also full of shops to buy lovely souvenirs. When you go to Venice you’re going to want to spend some of that time right in the heart of the city, and this square qualifies as one of those places.
Before leaving the square one of the things you have to do is head up to the top of the 98 meter high Campanile to look out over the magnificent views of Venice. This bell tower was originally built in 1514 and renewed in 1912 after it had collapsed in 1902, and its views still remain absolutely breathtaking.
Around the square is the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) that’s connected to the Doge’s Palace and is an absolute must-see. Rumor has it that prisoners would pass over the bridge and that the views off of it provided their last views over the city, and thus led them to emit one last sigh before continuing on. This is how the bridge got its name. According to another story, because the space between the prison bars is so small you can’t see anything at all. At that time people who were imprisoned by the Venetian Republic tended not to leave imprisonment. As a result people who had to pass over the bridge would sigh.
As you continue to follow the signs, this time you’ll reach the Grand Canal and the oldest and most famous bridge that runs over it, the Rialto Bridge.
The Grand Canal has a depth of about 5 meters and the whole 4km of the canal runs from one end of Venice to the other in an inverted “S” shape. Because transportation in Venice takes place mainly through the canals, you can call the Grand Canal the “main road” of the city and there are a number of places to see along this main strip. As a result, if you have time to take a tour of the whole canal then it’s worth it.
Along with the more newly built bridges there are four big bridges across the canal connecting its two sides. Of these bridges the most famous and prettiest is the Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto). This bridge was built in 1591 as a modernized version of the original wooden bridge that collapsed in 1524. Nowadays the bridge is absolutely packed with souvenir shops.
We’ve got one more stop left. Right over the Grand Canal is the Santa Maria della Salute rising up in all its glory. This church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the mid-1600s during a period in which the plague was reaping havoc amongst the populous of the city. It’s worth seeing both for its architecture and for the works of art inside.
So that’s Piazza San Marco and the Basilica done. We’ve gone and looked out over the city from the top of the Bell Tower. Afterwards go to the stores in between the streets that sell different sizes of those beautiful masks with handmade lace, and we personally also spent a lot of time examining the various glassware. We of course did not neglect to purchase a mask as a souvenir of Venice for ourselves. Afterwards we went to the Grand Canal. Water buses, vaporettos, gondolas… this is the traffic in Venice! We looked out over Venice from the Rialto Bridge and its buildings, each of which was lovelier than the next. We were really ready for a gondola tour after being worn out from all the travel!
When you talk about Venice one of the first things anyone things about is its gondolas. Books, films, documentaries… Every time you see Venice you see gondolas. When you go and you see the approximately 400 gondolas you understand and you look at the city that way too. In the old days, gondolas were the only way to get around even though now it’s mostly touristic and trips along the canals are one of the main activities for tourists in the city. The gondoliers that you see in films with the striped shirts and hats with musicians on the boat is truly an amazing experience. Make sure you don’t see Venice without having taken one of these trips through the side canals and make the little discoveries one does along these beautiful waters.
Before signing off there’s one more piece of advice I’d like to give: Murano and Burano. There are dozens of buildings to see in Venice, hundreds of bridges, endless works of art, and even though there are millions of people you can still see most of the city in 1-2 days. As a result once you’ve gone all the way to Venice you should take a vaporetto and see the islands of Murano and Burado. Each of these islands has its own feel and it’s worth it to hit both of them up.
Since the early 10th century Murano Island has been known for its glasswork. Historically the wealthy and nobility of Venice had the glass for their homes done here. Now you can still tour the current glass factories, watch glass blowing shows, and participate in a glass blowing workshop yourself. You can also buy some of the beautiful glassworks that are on sale.
The other important island, Burano, is famous for its lace work. The island is covered with row upon row of colorful buildings and there’s a lace craftsmanship school along with many workshops.
For those interested in photography The Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia) and for cinema enthusiasts the Venice Film Festival are both can’t-miss events.
The city’s canals, gondolas, festivals, islands, flavors for every taste all await your visit.
So don’t keep them waiting any longer!