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 photographs, 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 City Pass ; it can be customised to add discounted tickets to tourist attractions, transport and parking if coming by car. A map of the water buses routes will be given upon collecting the ticket, an invaluable tool to negotiate the waterways.
The Grand Canal snakes through Venice connecting the Railway Station with St.Mark’s Square, what is considered to be one of Italy’s most beautiful squares. It is a short trip on the water and en route look out for some beautiful buildings along the canal like the Guggenheim Museum, the Ca d’Oro e the richly decorated Palazzo Barbarigo to name just a few.
A trip along the Grand Canal will give you a glimpse of what the city has to offer but the best way to really enjoy Venice and soak up the atmosphere is by getting lost in the maze of narrow streets (called calli), crossing its many bridges and admire the palaces and churches found at every corner.
If you opt to walk, from the railway station follow the signs “San Marco” to get to St.Mark’s Square or alight at San Marco Vallaresso stop if using the vaporetto.
There are many buildings to visit around the square: the imposing St.Mark’s Basilica it is a masterpiece of architecture both inside and out and a visit to the church can be combined with enjoying the view of the bustling square from its terraces.
Opposite the basilica is the Campanile, it is definitely worthy to stand in line to get the lift to the top for fantastic views of Venice. Look out over the rooftops to the neighbouring islands and see the square below from a different perspective. From here you get the perfect view of the Clock Tower 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” (small dishes 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; the latter 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 many interesting buildings including 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, where the famous Murano Glass blowing factories are located and Burano where brightly coloured 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.
The island of San Michele houses Venice cemetery where among others the famous Russian composer Igor Stravinsky is buried.
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, at 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 of the year. A visit to the city can be combined with a trip to nearby Verona and Lake Garda or for a longer stay, it’s a short train ride to Milan or head south on a fast train to Florence and explore the beautiful region of Tuscany.
For the hopeless romantics planning a wedding proposal, Venice is the perfect place to do so, no one would say no being presented with a ring while sitting on a gondola with “O sole mio” playing in the background!