Venice, Venice, Venice!!! Who doesn’t know about Venice? Probably the most famous city on Water everyone dreams of visiting. I saw many people go there for honeymoons and weddings and heard a lot about this gorgeous city and finally, in the spring of 2016, I packed my bags to run to the airport in excitement because I was heading to Venice or Venezia as the locals call it…
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Venice is made up of small islands and the old city is entirely standing on these islands with canals serving as streets and while I imagined only water streets and no actual streets it was not correct. The space between these small islands (118 in total) is served by canals with a major canal in the middle of the city called Grand Canal with that famous Rialto bridge standing in the middle.
Venice has so many claims to fame throughout its history that you will run out of time and I’ll run out of energy but the list won’t end. The city was built on marshy lands with some ingenious engineering. The city literally stands on a massive number of vertical logs that support the structures above in this soft marshy land. From those humble beginnings, the rise of Venice is unparalleled where they built an empire, a navy so big it made the English navy looks like ‘some ships’. There was no end to the wealth of Venice. While it stands as a city in Italy today Venice is nothing like other cities in the country. It was its own empire and its own trading routes, a system of government and a very ‘modern’ society.
The famous silk route ended in Venice which made it the gateway and the heart of trade in Europe with Venetians monopoly over exotic goods and spices as well as trade with East.
Fun Fact: Venice was known as the sin city in Europe because of its casinos, brothels and very liberal environment. At one time 12% of the population of the city was made up of prostitutes and unbeknownst of its time Venice used to serve women just like men giving them a somewhat equal status.
All things Venice
To and From Airports
The closest airport to Venice is Marco Polo Airport which is 20 minutes away by bus or you can walk 5-10 minutes and take the expensive water taxi (roughly 35 euros per persona and you have to wait for the taxi to get full. The other option which I used was to get in through Trevisa Airport which is 25 km from the Venice city. You can take the local bus there that runs till midnight and is quite cheap. The bus dropped us at Piazzale Roma which is the main bus station and from there we took the water bus to Rialto bridge where we stayed.
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Imagine your life without any ground traffic, pollution, honking cars, long queues outside stations and you will arrive at Venezia. The city has only one main station which takes you to Venice on the mainland and the other functional station which serves the whole of the region.
Now the structure of the city is important, you have the Grand Canal in the middle branching out into small canals in each direction. You have small streets on islands with a lot of bridges connecting islands on each street so walking is just as convenient or probably more than taking public transport.
You have the option of taking public boat bus called vaporetti which has set routes like any city but I’d highly recommend buying a day card instead of individual tickets which are expensive, to say the least. (A single ticket is €7 at least..).
You can download the official ARTE app that runs these water busses in Venice, it is pretty good and has the map as well. You can download it here.
The second option is taking Water taxi but I think they keep the merchants of Venice in mind when quoting the price because a single ride will cost you at least €40-50.
The third option is the least practical and that is to take a gondola (the longboats) but they mostly for a romantic ride to see the city and its inner canals rather than going from Point A to Point B. Additionally, a single ride will cost you at least €85.
Walking and Water bus are your best friends here unless you have a personal gondola which used to be the case in old times and almost every building in Venice has a water gate to get in and out of a gondola.
I find this oddly satisfying because no matter how rich you are in modern you have the same means of transport, slightly ironical for a city built on riches for the rich…
The main train station in Venice is Venezia Santa Lucia Railway station which is very convenient to go to the train station on the mainland and it also has trains to neighbouring cities.
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Like I mentioned above Gondola rides are mostly for pleasure than practical purposes. You can do this through people selling tours which will be slightly cheaper versus getting a ride on your own unless you want to be alone for romantic reasons. The ride lasts roughly half an hour and tickets are easily available from the stalls around Piazza San Marco.
Free Walking Tour
There is only one free walking tour of Venice and you can find the details here. You need to definitely book it well in advance as we were turned away on the first day as we didn’t have the booking…
The tour was pretty mediocre, to be honest, but it was still good to understand the city it is still not a bad option and remember it FREE if you don’t like it and are free to go at any point.
p.s I was searching the link to free tour that I attended and I can see plenty of free tours in Venice now so take your pick, hopefully yours will be better than mine.
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This is a hop on hop off bus version of Venice which stops at different important stops related to art and you can see the most important sights along the Grand Canal. You can buy the tickets online with different validations here.
When to Visit?
When to visit Venice is trickier than you imagine and I would definitely go for late spring. This is the perfect time because in winter the city is ridiculously cold because of all the water. In summer it stinks because of the polluted water and the putrefying junk in the canals of Venezia. That leaves autumn which is not a bad option either but I would imagine the smell lingering on till winter cools the process. Since you are heading to Venice you should familiarize yourselves with Acqua Alta. I have copied the explanation below from wiki but it basically means high tide which submerges some of the streets when the water level is high.
Acqua alta (high water) has become a fact of life in Venice. The lagoon water level occasionally rises above the level of the squares and streets, flooding them. This can happen several times a year, at irregular intervals, usually in the colder months. Acqua alta usually lasts a few hours and coincides with high tide. You’ll see raised walkways inside alleys ready to be pulled out when acqua alta hits. When the city begins to flood, sirens will sound to warn residents and businesses. If you speak fluent Italian, tune into news programs since their predictions of the times the flood begins and ends are usually on the spot. Normally, the tide rises and falls in six-hour cycles.
You can get an acqua alta map at the tourist offices either at the railway station or St Marks. This will show you the higher, dry routes and the ones with walkways set up during the various flood alerts. There is a tide measuring station at the Rialto Vaporetto piers and a noticeboard at the base of the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco that shows a live tide reading and predictions for the next few days.
Fun Fact: Perhaps it was high tide or the infestations that travelled through Silk Route Venice had a lot of outbreaks of plagues and Black Death. They created an ingenious system which today we call Quarantine. They used to separate people with symptoms on a different island hospital which till this day remains as a macabre souvenir of those days. Additionally, merchants coming into Venice had to spend 40 days on an island in isolation to make sure they weren’t bringing any plague with them. What fun!
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Venice is a very touristy place and most of the places are very touristy unless you find a good Osteria which were traditionally small cafes with homemade food. Today they are not present in the traditional sense but the name refers to smaller establishments. My favourite was Osteria Antico Giardinetto and I’d recommend a reservation for dinner. The food was delicious and the way to this small restaurant is through those beautiful streets of Venice which you love even more when you just had some good food.
Another place for some cheap local food is Osteria ‘Ai Osti with a more canteen like atmosphere and good pasta with fish and seafood. It is a perfect stop if you want to stop on the way.
Near Rialto Bridge, I’d recommend Da Mamo for some good pizza and risotto. Most of the restaurants lined around the Rialto and Grand canal are pretty poor quality with high prices and tourist traps and I got food poisoning from a seafood pizza from one of these places (which shall remain nameless to protect you from all of them..)
Fun Fact: Pasta didn’t originate in Italy as most people believe, it came from China with Marco Polo and to shake you a bit more, risotto isn’t Italian either.
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Like all cities in Italy, Venice doesn’t have a dedicated gay area and the dedicated gay establishments are few and far. There are a few gay hotels in the city but the bars and clubs side is pretty limited. There is a retro bar owned by a lesbian couple called I Due Girasole with music from the ’70s and ’80s. Another famous bar in Porto de Mar but that’s pretty much it for Venice. Most gay guys head to nearby towns for the gay scene but Venice is generally very tolerant and friendly and at no point I felt threatened or judged or discriminated.
Grindr and scruff, however, have a good crowd and most guys are quite nice and friendly (DUH we are talking about Italians here, who doesn’t love these guys!).
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Accommodation in Venice is not cheap by any means especially the hotels and if you want a good deal head to Airbnb like me. The best area to stay is around Rialto Bridge because it has good links and you can travel in most directions from here in equal time.
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Things to Do
You can spend weeks in Venice and places to visit won’t end. We saw some of them with the tour and the rest here and there. I highly recommend booking your tickets for most of the attractions in advance because every day hordes of tourists descend upon Venice with cruise ships and the queues just eat into your day.
Grand Canal of Venice
Grand Canal runs through the whole city and you will come back to this every time you want to go in or out somewhere unless you go through the bridges. It is really beautiful especially at night and the houses that line the canal are stunning. It is very busy during the day with cruise ships coming in and tourists running around but that has its own charm, surely it wasn’t any different in the old trading days.
Rialto Bridge is the main and the biggest bridge in Venice and it is a good example of Venetians trading minds. The bridge is lined with shops on both sides with the left side disappearing into smaller streets that eventually take you to St. Mark’s Square. On the right-hand side, there is a small square with a local market with fresh stuff. I liked it because it presented some form of normality in this town completely modified for tourists.
Piazza San Marco
The walk between Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s square is short and sweet with many surprises typical of Venezia. Every street, every canal opens up to a new scenery with gondolas floating around. The upscale shopping area is also on the way and it is called Le Mercerie.
We arrived at the main square with a massive queue in front of us to enter the St. Mark’s Basilica. The piazza is big but not the biggest in Venice but it is the lifeline of Venetian life now and even back then with the Basilica in front and links to terra ferma or mainland from here and Doge’s palace on the right-hand side of the Basilica. The buildings in the square today have been converted into restaurants and cafe’s and while I wouldn’t recommend the food there, these are perfect places to get a drink or coffee and enjoy the beautiful Venetian spring sun..
Fun Fact: The top floors of the buildings in past were brothels for visitors, which is quite fascinating considering how the place was supposed to be ‘Holy’ with the Church as the focus of Piazza.
St. Mark’s Basilica
The main church has such a beautiful facade it glitters from a distance. It is the symbol of all the wealth. The whole church is made of golden murals and it is a stunning sight inside and out. We walked inside and then headed to the upper floor to see those beautiful horses standing atop the western facade of Basilica. The view is staggering and you can see the beautiful roofs of houses on each side. I will definitely recommend this and to avoid wasting time in long queues I reserved us the spot on the official site. You can do it here.
Fun Fact: Saint Mark was originally buried in Alexandria in Egypt under Muslim rulers but Venetians were dying to have his body back because he was the patron Saint of the city. Two merchants cleverly dug his body up and hid it under pig meat. Muslims don’t like touching anything pig-related and they were allowed to go out and this way St. Mark came here to Venice to this beautiful church. A dignified funeral? Perhaps not.
Warning: if you are not ‘appropriately’ dressed they will refuse entry and that means no bare legs or shoulders…
We came down satisfied to have seen this beautiful church and headed to Campanile, the tall bell tower with stunning bird-eye views of Venice. Unfortunately, the queue was ridiculously long and there is no way to pre-book these tickets so we passed on these but you shouldn’t miss the lion; the symbol of Venice standing on top of a column on the far right in front of Doge’s Palace.
Fun Fact: The lion that represents Venice and St. Mark was actually looted from Turkey and not something original, Venetians bought some of their wealth and the rest was simply taken by force. I think this is where they use the proverb ‘by hook or by crook’?
The next stop was Doge’s palace which is a massive complex and obviously, it has a massive queue in front as well. You can avoid that as well by buying the tickets here. Unfortunately, the ticket has to be combined with other museums which you can choose at the link even if you don’t want to see the rest like we didn’t.
You need a good hour or two to the beauty of this ridiculously beautiful palace. Every room is more beautiful than last and while Doge was head of the Venetians state and this was his palace, it has an awful lot of space for the rest of bureaucracy and even some dungeons and torture chambers…
Fun Fact: Venice had a very complex Government system and while the Doge was the head of the city-state of Venice his power had a lot of checks with different councils and bureaucracy. In the main hall there are portraits of all the previous Doges with one blackened out, he was the Doge who tried to get too much power…
Bridge of Sighs
The bridge of sighs connects the palace with another prison. It is called the bridge of sighs because it was often the place where the prisoners saw their last views of Venice before executions. Nothing romantic the story is rather gruesome but the bridge is beautiful but smaller than I had thought.
Basilica de Santa Maria Della Salute
The floating church across from Piazza San Marco and my absolute favourite! Coming in and out of Venice it just puts life into the view. The interior absolutely matches the exterior, both grand and elegant.
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Venice is full of churches one more gorgeous than others. We were brought here with the tour and there is something really beautiful about this church that separates it from the rest, definitely worth a peek.
Carampene is the old red-light district and the bridge right in front of it is called the bridge of tits; how fitting! There isn’t much to see around but the area is really beautiful and quite devoid of tourists.
Fun Fact: Venice was the Las Vegas of Middle Ages with Casinos and brothels everywhere. This is where Jacomo Casanova got his fame as the womanizer…
Venetian Ghetto is the ancient area where Jewish population lived. Venice had a slightly liberal stance towards Jews but they were still confined to a few jobs like banking and lending money. With time the Jews grew in power and influence and built beautiful synagogues hidden in plain sight.
The Jewish population of Venice was sadly deported during WWII but synagogues remain there and you should definitely check one in the area.
Fun Fact: The English word Ghetto comes from the ghetto in Italian and it comes from Venice from this conferment of Jews in a single area.
Squero di San Trovaso
This is the area where they build gondolas and you can see the workshop in front with gondolas in production. Quite an interesting experience. The houses here are slightly different because the labour came from different areas and they preferred wooden houses to the brick ones in Venice.
Fun Fact: Venice established the first manufacturing assembly line in the world, 500 years before the modern manufacturing boom. They gave specialised tasks to teams with standard measurements and the ship was combined at the end with a staggering amount of 3 ships per day. No one had the same capability in Europe and even the Tudor Kings’ naval fleet seemed like ‘a few ships’ in front of Venetian Navy which they fiercely used to protect the city and their trade routes. You can still visit Arsenale to see this old shipyard.
No visit to Venice is complete without a visit to these two beautiful islands. You can either go with some tour which might add Torcello as well to the list but we wanted to be independent and do it our way so we took the bus from San Marco Piazza and headed first to Murano. The ride is peaceful and you get to see some more of this beautiful city from different angles. In 15-20 minutes you will arrive at Murano famous for its glass factories. There are quite a few around the landing area and you can walk into any one of them, buy the ticket and see them blowing glass and forming some beautiful shapes and animals. I’d recommend coming towards the end of the day so you are not rushed and there are less tourists. It is a quick and commercial experience and there isn’t much else on the island honestly so we headed to Burano, the prettier sister of Murano.
The boat will bring you to the beautiful docking area but nothing compared to when you walk in the streets and get to the central canal. The houses lined on both sides, the beautiful balconies and everything around especially those flowers pots neatly decorated in balconies are just so beautiful. The food situation here is also better. We stayed there till it started getting dark and then headed back to Venice. I’d recommend heading back before it gets dark so you can see these colourful houses from a distance. It is such a beautiful and rich coloured spectrum, etched in my memory forever along with the beautiful dream we all call Venice…
You can spend ages in Venice and not be able to discover all the jewels of this beautiful city but it was time to go. We packed our bags and headed to the Railway station to take the train to Trieste. The views of the Italian North-East coast reduced the sadness of leaving Venice quite rapidly. Don’t forget to give it this beautiful city a try as well…
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