As the train approaches Venice railway station by crossing a long bridge in the lagoon, it is like leaving the real world behind and get transported into a magical dimension…a bit like going to Narnia without going through the cupboard!
Exiting the station, Venice appears right in front of your eyes and, it does not matter how many times you have heard about it and seen the pictures, the amazement of seen this legendary city for the first time will stay with you long after you leave.
As Venice is a pedestrianized city, the main mean of transport are water buses (vaporetto in Italian). Travelling around Venice is very expensive so, the first thing to do is to buy a Tourist Travel Card available in different denominations depending how long it will be required for: 12hrs, 24hrs, etc. A map of the water buses routes will be given with the ticket, an invaluable tool to negotiate the waterways.
Although travelling by vaporetto along the Grand Canal offers a first introduction to Venice from the water, the best way to really enjoy the city and soak up the atmosphere is by getting lost in the maze of narrow streets (called calli), crossing the bridges over the Grand Canal, admiring the palaces and churches found at every corner.
From the railway station follow the signs “San Marco” to reach Venice most famous square, Piazza San Marco (St.Mark’s Square) or hop on a vaporetto and alight at San Marco Vallaresso stop.
There are many buildings to visit around the square: the imposing St.Mark’s Basilica is the subject of countless photographs and long queues form outside to visit the church and enjoy the view from its terrace.
Opposite is the Campanile, it is worth to stand in line to get the lift to the top for fantastic views of Venice, the neighbouring islands and the famous Clock Tower below with the statue of the Two Moors on top.
As an espresso in one of the cafes in the square might be very expensive and, there is the danger of “an attack from the air” by one of the hundreds of resident pigeons, it is probably wise to move away from the square and look for a characteristic “bacaro”, a typical Venetian taverna offering “cicchetti” (something similar to Spanish tapas) washed down with an “ombra” (a glass of wine).
Returning to Piazza San Marco, walking south through Piazzetta San Marco, is the Doge’s Palace and walking further along the waterfront is the Bridge of Sighs; legend says that its name comes from the fact that, as it was the bridge connecting the Courts to the prison, convicts crossing it would sigh as they got a last glimpse of the lagoon before entering their cell to serve their sentence.
And talking about bridges, the most famous of them all is the Rialto Bridge. Spanning the Grand Canal it is the quintessential Venetian landmark: two rows of shops on the bridge and the Rialto market in its proximity, make this area very popular with tourists keen to stock up on souvenirs and those famous gondoliers hats.
And gondolas are synonymous with Venice; the characteristic flat-bottom boats were once a common mean of transport but, nowadays, are mainly used to ferry around well to do tourists, happy to be photographed by strangers as they pass under bridges in the city while being serenaded by a singing gondolier.
Venice is also a city of churches, too many to name them all but worth a mention are Santa Maria della Salute and Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore on the island of Giudecca; it was built after the Doge promised to build a church to Christ the Redeemer (Redentore in Italian) if the terrible plague that engulfed the city in 1576 ended. To these days the event is celebrated on the third Sunday of July (Festa del Redentore) and, on the night before, a spectacular fireworks display lights up the lagoon.
Venice districts are called “sestrieri” and one not to be missed is Cannaregio home to the Jewish community, with interesting buildings, five schools (here acting as synagogues) and a Kosher restaurant. As the Jews population was forced to live in the Ghetto (the word originates from here as “gheto” was a foundry adjacent to this area) to accommodate the growing community, buildings here were built upwards six to eight stories high, the only ones of this kind in Venice.
A total of 118 islands are scattered in the lagoon and, although it is not possible to see them all in one visit, tourists often go to the islands of Murano, famous for its glass making with factories exporting the famous Murano Glass all over the world and Burano where brightly colored houses and lace making businesses attract steady crowds all year round. One infamous island is Poveglia, the site of a quarantine station during the plague epidemic and later of a mental hospital and said to be one of the most haunted places in Italy.
Venice is best enjoyed during the quiet months, in autumn when the fog in the lagoon creates an almost magical atmosphere rather than in the hot summer months or during the world famous Carnival when, the prospect of attending one of the masked balls held all over the city, crowds of up to 3 million people descend on Venice and the hike in hotel prices somehow spoils the festive atmosphere.
Nevertheless a romantic weekend away in Venice can be enjoyed at any time or a visit to the city can be combined with a trip to nearby Verona, Lake Garda or further away to Milan.