A Guide to Venice (part one)

Oh my goodness, I love Venice! Venice, or Venezia in Italian, is one of the most popular destinations in all of Europe. This UNESCO World Heritage site welcomes tens of millions of visitors every year. My favourite Italian city is this floating city of 117 small islands separated by canals and linked by bridges, but it can also be terribly expensive and feel like a tourist trap if you don’t do your research. I try to include Venice in every trip to Italy. I have led student groups on performance trips and travelled there with ATB #1 and on a couple of solo trips. None of my visits have been longer than 4 days but multiple trips have given me the opportunity to explore the area pretty thoroughly. Today's post is going to cover an overview of Venice and a few of the highlights in each of the neighbourhoods. This is part one and is longer than usual but it is packed with information. Grab a cup of coffee and settle in.

Venice has fought with water and tides since its formation. The clay is soft and buildings settled and settled some more and continued to settle. Traditionally, residents abandoned the lower floors and would build new floors on top of their existing homes. Adding floors (or any additions) is strictly forbidden in modern times. As you move around Venice, you will notice that each floor of the buildings often has a different style of window, arch, and design. You see canal waters lapping right into the lower (abandoned) floors of homes and businesses. Human activities and changing climatic factors have hastened the process. Respected studies suggest that the city will be underwater by the end of this century without major interventions. The Italian government is working with UNESCO and other experts to try to protect the city with ambitious plans including limiting tourism, tourism fees, stronger regulations for cruise ships, as well as building sea walls and flood gates. The city was founded in 421 AD during the time that the Roman Empire was defending the area from constant invasions. The first Doge of Venice was elected in 697 AD as the leader and magistrate of the area. Subsequent doges ruled from the Doge's Palace in Piazza San Marco until the end of the 18th century.


As a great maritime power, the Republic of Venice was one of the wealthiest states in Europe, specializing in the trade of silks and spices. Wealthy patrons supported the artistic and musical scene during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, creating a home for great artists and musicians such as Canaletto, Giorgione, and Vivaldi.


During the Age of Discovery (15th - 17th centuries) new land trade routes were opened and Venice lost its importance. Napoleon invaded at the end of the 1700s and Venice was annexed to the Austrian Empire. Eventually, the city joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.


The Sestieris


Venice has six different and unique neighbourhoods, known as sestieri. While they have canals and stunning architecture, each has their own unique highlights and atmosphere. From touristy and spectacular San Marco to the more relaxed Santa Croce or the authenticity of Cannaregio, each sestieri has its own charm.



San Marco

The most famous and popular neighbourhood in Venice is also the smallest. Named after the patron saint of the city, Saint Mark, it is filled with attractions and many, many people.

Piazza San Marco

The main plaza of Venice is San Marco. This expansive plaza is where you will find some of the most well-known sights and buildings. It's also one of the places where you can arrange a gondola ride (more on that in the next post ~ L).

The plaza is surrounded by shops and restaurants with seating in the plaza. Many of these restaurants do not welcome solo diners at the prime tables during peak meal times and frankly, offer over-priced and mediocre meals.

Torre dell'Orologio

The Torre dell'Orologio is one of the original Renaissance buildings in the city. The central tower is beautifully decorated with an ornate mechanical clock that includes the signs of the zodiac and the moon/sun phases.

Look for the sculpture of the Lion of Saint Mark on the facade and the Two Moors Bell on the top.


The Torre is open daily from 12pm to 4pm by reservation only and visitors must be accompanied by a guide. Tickets cost €12 and can be purchased from the official website, Civic Museums Foundation of Venice. For those who want to visit even more museums and cultural spaces, a Museum Pass is available (€36) which gives access to 12 museums in the city.

Basilica di San Marco

The Basilica di San Marco is likely the most famous basilica in Italy and is located beside the Doge's Palace. This basilica was inspired by the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles in Turkey, formerly Constantinople.

In the 9th century, Venetian merchants visited the Egyptian city of Alexandria and returned to Venice with the rumoured relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist. The church was built to house these relics and was rebuilt, refurbished, and renovated several times over the following 200 years. It took more than 500 years to complete construction. The Basilica follows the Greek Cross Plan with six naves, a crypt, baptistery, sacristy, a high choir, and an altar canopy.

While inside, look for Pala d'Oro (the main altarpiece) and the Horses of Saint Mark. The Horses is a set of four bronze statues taken from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusades. There are many, many reliefs, sculptures, and mosaic featuring marble, bronze, gold, and gems.

The Basilica di San Marco is open every day from 9:30 am to 5:15 pm (Monday to Saturday) with shorter hours from 2 pm to 5:15 pm on Sundays and holidays. There are several different types of tickets that include different areas of the Basilica. Be sure to check out your options on their official website.


Campanile di San Marco

The Campanile di San Marco is the 99-meter-high bell tower of the Basilica. Some historians believe that it may have been a lighthouse at one point. It was originally built in the 11th century to replace an old Roman watchtower and was completely rebuilt twice in the early 1500s. It was during this time that the carillon, spire, and stunning golden weathervane featuring the figure of the Archangel Gabriel were added. The bottom of the square tower is decorated with bronze statues and marble reliefs.

The Campanile di San Marco is open every day from 9:30 am to 5:15 pm. Be aware that the Campanile sometimes closes in poor weather. Tickets cost €10.


Palazzo Ducale

Hands down, my absolute favourite building in the Piazza is the Doge's Palace, aka the Ducal Palace. This is an awesome masterpiece of the Venetian Gothic style of architecture. The gallery of columns thrills my nerdy soul.

The Palace was built in the 14th and 15th centuries to be the Doge's residence and the administrative seat of the Venetian Republic. It also received embellishments and renovations through the Renaissance era. The Palace has two facades, one on the quayside and one facing into the piazza. The facades include two galleries of arcades. The second floor includes large oval windows and a balcony. The exterior of the building is a work of art in itself with carved marble and some fascinating sculptural work, statues, and magnificent columns. Even the entrances are spectacular.

Inside the Cortile del Palazzo Ducale (courtyard) is the access to the Scala dei Giganti (Giant's Staircase) which is named after the huge statues of Mars and Neptune, signifying Venice's strength on land and water.


The Courtyard is surrounded by porticoes and logge and connects the three wings of the Palace. The two oldest wings are the Piazzetta and the Molo, both are brick. The Renaissance Wing to the east is the most recent. This wing uses marble extensively even includes an additional floor.

The Sale Istituzionali (Institutional Rooms) group of rooms is where the political and judicial administration happened during the Republic of Venice era. Each have decorative elements representing their function and purpose. These elements were created by some of the most famous artists of the era including Pisanello, Bellini, Carpaccio, Titian, Tintoretto, and many, many other equally renowned artists. Take time to examine the paintings, portraits, and frescoes covering the walls and ceilings.


The Armeria, (armoury) is a small 4-room military museum with over 2000 weapons and arms. It is a fascinating look at the evolution of weapons including swords, crossbows, quivers, halberds, and many evolutions of firearms from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Some of the exhibits I find most fascinating are horse armour, various instruments of torture and even a chastity belt.

The Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) was built in the early 1600s to connect the Doge's Palace to the Prigioni Nuove (New Prisons) in the next building. The bridge is covered on all sides with two open windows looking out across the Basin. There are two separated corridors, one that took prisoners from the prison to the criminal courts in the Palace, and the other leading to the Prisons.

The name refers to the sighs made by prisoners taking their last glimpse of the lagoon or the canals of the city through the small windows as they were being led to their cells.

The New Prisons were built in the mid-1500s with the intention of improving conditions for the prisoners and providing more light and fresh air.

The Prison tour is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon on one of the stifling hot summer days that Venice experiences. The coolness of the prisons will encourage you to linger and check out the cells with ancient graffiti from the criminals and political prisoners who were incarcerated here.


The Doge's Palace of Venice is open daily from 9am to 6pm with a ticket price of €26 and should be purchased from the official Civic Museums Foundation. A guided tour is highly recommended, whether you choose a human guide or an audio guide.

Teatro La Fenice

The Teatro La Fenice is a stunning theatre that has survived and been rebuilt after two devastating fires, the most recent in 1996. Re-opened with a week of grand performances in 2003, the theatre showcases amazing operatic and classical performances. By tradition, every performance ends with the famous aria "Libiamo ne'lieeti calici" from Verdi's La Traviata.

If an opera or classical concert isn't your thing (or out of your budget), visitors can also visit to see the stunning atrium, foyer, and Apollonian Rooms. The boxes are luxurious, with thick red leather armchairs, gilded railings, and an amazing view of the central chandelier.


The third row of boxes is a permanent exhibit dedicated to Maria Callas, the Italian-American soprano, and pride of Italy.

Be aware that there is a dress code for performances. Opening Night requires formal attire. Other evenings require evening wear. Afternoon performances are more casual but shorts and sleeveless t-shirts are not acceptable and underdressed ticket holders will not be seated. The Theatre is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. For show information check their website. Tickets can be purchased directly from the box office.

San Polo


San Polo is the oldest neighbourhood in Venice and home to the popular Rialto Markets. It is the smallest sestieri, but is one of the most engaging. The neighbourhood was named for the San Polo Church and the main square, Campo San Polo.

Ponte de Rialto

The oldest and most famous of the Venetian bridges is Ponte de Rialto, built in the late 1500s, to replace a wooden bridge that had a tendency to collapse. The bridge isn't just a way to get across the canal but it is also home to many luxurious shops, most selling jewellery. It is always crowded.

I like to grab a gelato and linger in the middle to enjoy views of the busy canal below. At the footings, there are several places to sit beside the canal to enjoy a panini and people watch.

Rialto Market

Every morning the Rialto Market is filled with locals. There is a vast array of food from fresh fish, seafood, and produce to oils, wines and pastas. Boats delivering fresh supplies arrive constantly. It is loud, raucous, and full of energy.

I make a point to pick up olive oil and balsamic vinegar to bring home. I often pick up bread, cheese, wine and olives for enjoying in my room or for a picnic in a plaza.


This is the neighbourhood to purchase a quality-made Venetian mask. Your challenge will be deciding which shop and design. These are not tourist-quality and will set you back a good deal of cash.

Campo San Polo

This is the largest campo in Venice and often is the site of concerts, special events, and festivals. In summer, movies are shown in an open-air cinema. It is much less ornate than San Marco, mainly because it was originally a farm that became a market in the 7th century and a sports field in the 16th century. Like most Italian piazzas there is a fountain. When there isn't a special event happening, the Campo is often full of local families or can be very empty, depending upon the time of day.

The Churches of San Polo

Travelling in Italy sometimes seems like the "AFC" (another f'ng church) tour and for the non-religious, it can be tempting to pass by. In Venice, this would be a mistake. A surprising number of churches have been deconsecrated and serve as art exhibition spaces. The consecrated churches are filled with amazing fine art.

The San Polo Church features a fascinating ship’s keel roof and a lot of important works of art inside. The Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto is the big highlight but there are also famous works from Piazza, Guarana, Veronese, and Palma il Giovane. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (St. Mary of the Friars) is the largest church in Venice. From the outside, it doesn't look very exciting but inside is an amazing interior that features Titian's famous "Assumption of the Virgin" altarpiece painting.


Scuola Grande di San Rocco is dedicated to the patron saint of plague victims. The church features 50 extraordinary ceiling scenes by Tintoretto.

Dorsoduro

The Dorsoduro is the university district of Venice and a fabulous place to get away from the bustle of San Marco. It's an energetic student neighbourhood with an intriguing mix of attractions. The Dorsoduro is a large part of the island south of the Grand Canal stretching from the viewpoint at Punta della Dogana to the Piazzale Roma and includes Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore islands. Ponte dell’Accademia

The Ponte dell’Accademia is the arched wooden bridge connecting the neighbourhoods of Dorsoduro and San Marco.

It is well worth crossing the bridge, not only for the sights and the less-expensive shops and restaurants but it is also a fabulous place to take some great photos of the Grand Canal. Squero San Trovaso

The gondolas of Venice are built in Venice. There aren't a lot of gondola builders remaining but the most famous is Squero San Trovaso. It is located not far from the Accademia Bridge. Grab a coffee and sit at the osteria across the canal to watch the builders at work.

Ca' Rezzonico

In the mid-1600s one of Venice's wealthy patricians, Filippo Bon, began construction of his family home. It was to be an elegant Baroque-style palace overlooking the Grand Canal. Unfortunately both Bon and his architect died before the work was completed. Eventually Giambattista Rezzonico completed construction in 1936. It displays collections belonging to Museo Correr.

The Ca’ Rezzonico is open every day (except Tuesdays) from 10 am to 5 pm for a ticket cost of €10.

Gallerie dell’Accademia

The renowned Gallerie dell’Accademia is a museum and art gallery, with collections from the 13th-18th centuries. The foundation dates back to 1750, when the city's first school of painting, sculpture, and architecture was founded. A visit here is highly recommended. I love looking at the masterworks by Veronese, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Bellini, da Vinci, Tintoretto and many more.

The Gallerie dell’Accademia is open every day from 8:15 am to 2 pm (on Mondays) or to 7:15 pm (from Tuesday to Sunday). Tickets are €12.

Collezione Peggy Guggenheim

Just steps away from the Accademia is the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim . This modern art museum is part of the Solomon Robert Guggenheim Foundation that has similar museums in New York, Bilbao, Las Vegas, and Berlin. Featured artists include most of my favourites: Kandinsky, Picasso, Magritte, Dalí and Jackson Pollock as well as many other 20th Century greats.

The Collezione Peggy Guggenheim is open every day, except Tuesdays, from 10 am to 6 pm. Tickets cost €16.


Castello


Castello might be the most overlooked and least explored neighbourhood in the city. This is a very diverse neighbourhood with a lot of greenery, residential areas, and many plazas, churches, and historical sites. This is a place to experience an authentic residential Venetian neighbourhood with a surprising lack of tourists.

Via Garibaldi

The refilled canal of Via Garibaldi is the widest street in Venice. Lined by plenty of restaurants, cafés, bars and shops it is a great area to choose for drinks, cicchetti, and people-watching as tourists and locals parade by in the evenings. At the very end of via Garibaldi is a floating market made up of produce boats.


Ponte de Quintavalle

Another great bridge of Venice is Ponte de Quintavalle. It a very large wooden bridge with incredible views of Canale di San Petro. Make a point to stop here for some photos.

Giardini della Biennale

There isn't a lot of green space in Venice which is part of the reason that these gardens are such a treat. These lush gardens were created by Napoleon and are where the Biennale exhibition is held. The exhibition opened in 1895 and includes many pavilions from around the world displaying artworks by their national artists.

Libreria Acqua Alta

Thanks to a suggestion from a friendly barista, I was delighted to discover Libreria Acqu Alta (high water). This bookstore is a warren of shelves, tables and stacks of books as high as the ceiling. Books are piled into several gondolas and there is even a bathtub full of books! Book lovers will lose a lot of time here.

Isola di San Pietro di Castello

San Pietro Island is on the far eastern edge of Castello. This quiet and picturesque area has a very impressive church (of course), some lovely buildings, and narrow alleys. Fewer tourists make it out this far, so it's fairly quiet and calm.

Arsenale

Arsenale is the historical shipyard that was crucial to the navy during the Middle Ages. Those who enjoy military history, especially naval history, will be fascinated. The teenagers that I took to Venice enjoyed the break from churches and art museums.