A magnificent city built in a sinking lagoon, Venice is like no city you have ever visited before. Once a powerful and central port connecting East to West, it is still welcoming visitors from far and wide. Cultural, romantic and unforgettable, this city of water will seep into your heart.
Venice is full of history and rich culture and gained a reputation as a huge presence in terms of trade between Europe and Asia throughout the Middle Ages and Medieval periods. However, it was only founded 1500 years ago and so grew to notoriety quickly. Once just a malaria riddled swamp, Venice was built by those fleeing persecution. Later on in the 1600’s, another disease made the city infamous - The Bubonic Plague. The deadly illness was spread by rats from the ships that were frequently in and out of this huge trading port. Plague masks worn by the doctors and physicians of this time are now infamous and synonymous with Venice.
In an attempt to prevent the illness spreading further, boats were required to spend 40 days outside of the port to ensure that the vessel was disease free. Between 1630 and 1631, almost a third of the citizens of Venice (46,000 out of 140,000) were killed by the plague, with 16,000 alone dead in November 1630. The island of Poveglia was used to hold the victims who were close to death to avoid it spreading further and attempt to quarantine. Over the years it has been used for other dreadful medical purposes and after years of being abandoned has recently been bought by a private owner.
The historic centre of Venice is made up of 118 individual islands which are joined together by 400 bridges. These islands are grouped into six main districts; San Marco, San Polo, Castello, Dorsoduro, Santa Croce and Cannaregio. There are no cars in the city and bicycles are illegal to ride on the streets of Venice so locals and visitors need to be able to navigate the bridges and narrow streets on foot or take water taxis or water buses. Bus stops and taxi stops are dotted up and down the canals and with many larger depots and ‘stations’ to guide you. It’s easy to travel around once you get the hang of it!
We visited Venice on a 20-day summer cruise with the city being one of the star attractions of the whole itinerary. For us it was going to be a special one. Neither of us had visited before and it featured on both our ‘bucket list’ of places to see. We had also been disappointed the previous summer when we missed out on visiting as we left it too late to book a cruise of a similar itinerary and headed elsewhere instead.
We arrived into the area early and had been briefed in our Horizon (the daily guide provided by P&O which outlines the activities of the day) that from approximately 7am we would gain the best views of the city as we sailed into port passing many famous sights, including St. Mark’s Square. There was also to be a speaker in the Crow’s Nest Bar pointing out the sights for anyone who preferred to stay indoors. Bleary-eyed and armed with a brew and muffin, we found a spot on the starboard side of the ship and watched as we glided past more and more of this majestic city. It was one of the most stunning experiences we’ve had on a cruise to date - and we’ve done a lot of cruising!
We were lucky enough to have a later than usual departure as our next port of call was Rovinj, just a few miles across the Adriatic in Croatia. This meant that we didn’t need to be back on the ship until 9pm giving us a whole 12 hours to explore. Our visit was in mid-August; it was extremely busy and a very hot day. If you’re not a fan of overly busy public places avoiding the peak season might be better if you want to get around without too much hassle. Although we were in St Mark’s Square for about 8.30am there were already tourists everywhere and attractions had queues of people waiting for the doors to open at 9am. So, with a long day to explore ahead of us, plenty of water in our backpack and cameras at the ready, we set out to discover a city we had always longed to see.
St. Mark’s Square or Piazza San Marco in its native tongue, is the central tourist point in the city and probably one of the most famous squares in the world. Almost everyone has heard of it - even if just by name. In terms of proportions, it is 1000m (3281 feet) by 500m (1640 feet). However, despite its name the square isn’t square at all! With beautiful and iconic buildings on every side of the square you will need to set aside some time to stand here and take it all in! Here you will find The Palazzo Ducale (The Doge’s Palace), The Basilica di San Marc, The Campanile (bell tower) and the Torre dell’orologio.
Your senses will be extremely busy here; the 5 bells within the Campanile ringing at various points throughout the day, the live bands playing to diners sat outside each restaurant along the perimeter of the square and occasionally (and unfortunately) the unique smell of the canals and waterways in the summer months. You can’t help but get caught up in the romanticism of it all and that’s without mentioning the stunning feast for the eyes!
Once the political heart of the city, it is now the tourist centre with plush hotels and high-end restaurants and more importantly beautiful palaces and churches at every turn and alleyway. When Napoleon first arrived here in 1797, he described it as ‘the finest drawing room in Europe’. There is something here for all types of tourists; museums and places of interest for those seeking cultural and historical education, wall-to-wall designer shops on the streets coming off the Piazza for tourists looking for retail therapy and restaurants and eateries for the travelling foodies among you.
Flooding in St. Mark’s Square happens frequently due to it being the lowest point within the lagoon. Known to locals as the acqua alta it involves the combination of three key elements; high tides, the moon’s gravitational pull and a strong, warm wind blowing across the Mediterranean and up the Adriatic into the lagoon. This unique natural phenomenon often takes place between October and December, so bear this in mind if you are planning your own trip. With several feet of water filling the square at times of heavy rainfall, it is of no surprise that the authorities are becoming concerned with the amount of damage taking its toll on the many historic building within the square. In the autumn of 2018 water rose 5 feet above sea level creating millions of pounds (GBP) worth of damage to the Basilica’s mosaics alone.
The Campanile bell tower is the tallest building in Venice. A climb to the top not only offers you fantastic views across the city, but on a clear day you can see the outline of the Dolomite Mountains. However, the current structure is relatively modern as it was built in the 20th century. The 8th century building collapsed without warning in 1902 (the only fatality of this event was a cat belonging to the tower’s caretaker). It stands at 98.6 metres (323 ft) and is 12 metres (39ft) wide on each of its four sides. Placed right at the top of the pyramidal spire is the golden weathervane of Angel Gabriel watching over the square.
The Clock Tower is a 15th century early Renaissance building comprising of a tower with stunning clock and lower buildings on either side. It was positioned so that the time could be seen across the square over to the water. In fact, it was named the official timepiece of Venice from which all other clocks are set! There is an archway through the building connecting the social hub of the piazza to the financial hub of the Rialto. Visually it is magnificent, with its deep blue and gold design contrasting beautifully against the white walls on which it is housed. Of course, the clock tells the time but as well as this shows the dominant Zodiac sign and the current phase of the moon. It’s not just a pretty face.
Museo Correr is located on the south side of the square opposite St. Mark’s Basilica. It has a wide and varied collection of the art and history of Venice which has been collected and added to for years, having been bequeathed to the city by the Correr family in 1830. Along with the family’s collection of art and artefacts, their family home - the stunning palace where the collection still remains - were gifted.Biblioteca Marciana is named after St. Mark himself (he is after all the patron saint of Venice!) This library and Renaissance building is another stunning landmark in the piazza. It holds one of the greatest collections of classical texts in the entire world. But you will be impressed before you even cross the threshold. With its glorious arcaded bays, it stands beautifully opposite the Doge’s Palace as a perfect gateway to the square from the waters of the lagoon. The carvings, friezes, obelisks and statues of deities leave you mesmerised by the many different images to take in here. There are just so many beautiful buildings within the square to look at, each unique, each grand in its own way and each one able to still stand out from the rest for one reason or another.
Before visiting we had watched a BBC documentary called Italy’s Invisible Cities. This hour-long programme explored buildings using 3D technology, discovering how these buildings were created and some of the architectural secrets hidden within them. This really piqued our interests further and gave us some additional knowledge before heading to the city. If possible, we would recommend a watch. There are also clips and snippets online including some awesome 360 footage - great if you have a VR headset to fully immerse yourself!
The Grand Canal is the central part of Venice and is a good way of navigating as the bridges and streets can quickly become disorientating with their similar looks and sheer number of them. There is 2.5 miles (4km) of river in the Grand Canal with 4 bridges cross it. Keep an eye out for signs directing you back to the Grand Canal and try to keep tabs on which side you are on. It’s worth spending a few minutes studying a map so that you have a general idea of the layout of the city too!
The Doge’s Palace is a magnificent building containing a variety of architectural styles and features. It was built to house the Government but also offices, law courts, assembly rooms and even prisons. The building was the seat of the Government for 700 years, with Doges being elected for life. The building is filled with works from the greatest Venetian artists, in huge rooms making the overall experience feel very majestic. To us it had features that reminded us of the Louvre in Paris, with its large rooms full of ornate decoration, friezes and spectacular artwork. You have a choice of either completing a tour of the complex at your own pace, there are plenty of information boards or an audio guide on offer for the more independent traveller, or alternatively you can book yourself a guided tour gaining insights from experts.
It started off as a fortress in the early days of the city before taking its current shape in 1438. Little of the original fortress can be seen today. Whilst waiting for entrance to the ticket office, you are treated to the beautiful architecture of the lagoon-side arcades with columns and vast ceilings. From the beginning of the 1800’s Venice changed hands several times, from French rule to Austrian and then finally became part of Italy in 1866. During this time the powerful seat of the Doge was no more and the building, whilst used for administrative purposes, began to fall into decay. Luckily, the Italian Government spent time and money in restoring it back to its former glory for tourists and locals alike to enjoy.
The Main Hall was the meeting room of the Senate - the oldest public institution in Venice founded in the 13th century. As it evolved over the centuries it became more and more powerful and this cannot be ignored from the layout and decoration of the room even today. The main seat of the Doge is placed in a dominating position, directly underneath a colossal image of Christ - a placement unlikely to be coincidental! Every available inch of this room is adorned with paintings and gold decorative wood and carvings. It is grand beyond words! The lower walls are lined with seats for the most important members of the Senate often made up of the wealthy families of Venice. The two clocks in this room are also magnificent and are similar in appearance to the one on the clock tower in St. Mark’s Square - one features a 24 hour clock whilst the second shows the 12 signs of the Zodiac.
The famous Ponte dei Sospiri (known as the Bridge of Sighs) was built in the early 1600’s to link the Palace to the prisons. The name came from the prisoners sighing as they crossed the bridge to their incarceration and paused to take their last look at freedom through the tiny windows within the design of the bridge. However, crossing this way as much better than the alternative - being imprisoned in the sodden wells or under the sweltering roof of the palace. Standing on the Bridge of Sighs you will have a palace on one hand and a prison on the other, a stark contrast between two very different ways of life. A view from inside and outside are a must - you will be surprised at its small stature to say that it is such a famous landmark within the city.
It was decided in the mid-16th century to build a structure to house the prisons, on the opposite side of the canal to the palace of course! The intension had been to build these cells in a way that would improve the conditions of prisoners by creating larger, airy cells with more daylight. However, most areas of the build did not achieve this with many cells having no access to sunlight due to the many passages and the high number of cells in every direction. Well at least the intension was there! The prisons are a rabbit warren of seemingly never-ending tunnels, cells and dark corners. There are inches and inches of stone and metal bars here and it is hard to see how infamous prisoner, Casanova, managed to escape across the roof in 1756.
If you have paid to take a guided tour, you will get the opportunity to see Cell 10. During restoration in the 1980’s, graffiti was uncovered beneath centuries of dirt and lime. Here a biblical painting (and one by a talented artist it should be noted) depicting the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus surrounded by saints was found on one wall, the opposite wall of the cell displayed an image of the Crucifixion. Historians believe that this may be the work of fresco painter Riccardo Perucolo who was held prisoner in this cell in 1549 whilst accused of heresy. He never finished his masterpiece as he was released and spent the next 20 years appearing to devote himself to the Roman Church but was actually continuing his work with other sects. He story ends 60km north of Venice in the town of Conegliano where he was burned at the stake.
The Church was set up as a shrine to house the relics of Saint Mark whose remains were stolen from a tomb in Alexandria by two merchants in 828AD. The amazing vision that you can see today is a later version built at the end of the 11th century as the original was burned down during protests in the late 900’s. The Basilica itself is almost Mosque-like in appearance, probably due to the Eastern influences that were coming here from the merchants and ships delivering their goods.
When standing in St. Mark’s Square, take some time to admire the stunning exterior of the Basilica. You’ll also have plenty of time to do this whilst queuing and be aware that backpacks and bags are not allowed inside. Just around the corner from the Basilica there is a baggage hold where you can keep your items for an hour whilst visiting. It’s not the easiest place to find but bear in mind that you can ‘queue jump’ if you have a ticket from here so that you don’t waste your hour just waiting to get in.
The exterior has a vast array of beautiful stonework and carvings. The most famous part of the front façade are the four horses of Saint Mark which stand on the roof. They are only replicas now as the original pieces are now housed in the Basilica to keep them from weathering. Towering above the horses are the three stunning domes making the cathedral look more like a palace than a place of worship (after all this building needs to keep up with its neighbour the Doge’s Palace!) Finally, and most spectacularly are the mosaic arches of dazzling colour and shining gold. You can’t help but be impressed especially as the sun catches sections of gold and produces an almost God-like image. The imagery across this façade includes The Last Judgement, Virtues and Beatitudes and Signs of the Zodiac. You could spend hours admiring the many religious images spread across this already beautiful building. However, you might need a sunhat or umbrella for shade whilst you look!
The Basilica was built in the style of a Greek Cross meaning the floor plan has a square central mass and four arms of equal length coming from this central area. However, the shape of the interior isn’t going to be the first thing you notice when you walk through the doors. There are 4000 square metres of mosaic within the building, adorning domes, arches, walls and floors. It really is a breath-taking sight to behold. In fact, St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most decorated and ornate Roman Catholic Churches in the world.
One part of the Basilica is the treasury, which requires an entrance fee (€5 at the time of our visit). The ‘treasure’ is divided into four sections; Antiquity, Byzantine Art, Islamic Art and Western Art. In total there are about 300 pieces housed here from bowls and chalices to vases and reliquaries. There are many pieces here that have been looted from elsewhere during the Venetian’s many conquests especially in holy lands such as Constantinople. If you want to do the Basilica properly (and not just follow the thoroughfare of tourists making a single loop of the interior of the building) then we would recommend visiting this. Whilst not huge in size there are some interesting and significant pieces to be found here.
The most precious ‘treasure’ within the building is the sarcophagus of St. Mark. His stolen body (apparently his head is still in Alexandria) sits in a tomb beneath 4 columns in the presbytery. However, in recent years many historians speculate that the remains may belong to Alexander the Great rather than that of Mark the Evangelist as both mummified bodies were buried close together. The Basilica’s second great treasure is the Pala d’Oro altar which is made with 2000 precious stones and enamelled panels. It shines in the most magnificent gold that it looks truly holy. The opulence and splendour of this church is one that will leave a memorable image in your mind.
The Rialto Bridge is the most famous Venetian Bridge, built at the narrowest part of the Grand Canal. It is the oldest of the 4 bridges over the canal and was built between 1588 and 1591 to replace the boat bridge and three wooden bridges that had been across this point at various points in the 12th century. It was the only way to cross the Grand Canal for many more centuries until the Accademia Bridge was built in 1854. The wide stone arch required support due to the soft soil underneath it. To solve this dilemma 6,000 timber piles were driven down under each abutment and each bed joint with stone. There was an adjustable central section to allow the mast of ships through for the boats passing here on their way to the Rialto Market. However, today there is just a single span bridge as the boats are now much smaller.
To cross the bridge, you have three options; a walkway along each side of the outer balustrades or down the central walkway between the two rows of shops on either side. Most of the shops found here are aimed at the tourist trade with jewellery, linen and Murano glass being some of the wares being sold here. But in actual fact, if you are wanting to admire the bridge as a structure, it is far better to see it from the water side than to travel across it itself. From this vantage point you can see the steadily climbing arches above the huge main arch as it effortlessly spans the most famous canal in the world.
The bridge has always been a meeting point and where people went to get the gossip and news of the city. Shakespeare's characters in The Merchant of Venice repeatedly ask: "What news on the Rialto?" Nowadays, it is tourists who gather here to feel the beating heart of the city and to discover all that there is to offer. Don’t miss out! Grab a gelato and wander around this area to pick up your souvenirs, memories and a wealth of fabulous photo opportunities.
The Rialto Market was one of the largest and most important markets in the Mediterranean in its heyday. From here the value of commodities across the whole of Europe was dictated, demonstrating both its power and importance. Whilst Venice's power has dwindled, the markets can still be found close to the Rialto Bridge (cross the bridge if you have come from St. Mark’s Square and follow the Grand Canal round until you arrive at the markets if you don't want to get lost). A market has been here for almost 1000 years but in 1514 a huge fire destroyed the entire area other than the church, San Giacomo di Rialto, which can still be visited today. The markets were rebuilt and re-established quickly due to their importance as the key economic hub of the city. It would take a few years longer for the new world-famous Rialto Bridge to be constructed further along the Grand Canal.
Back through the Middle Ages and Medieval periods you would have come across merchants from all over the world, with languages varied and exotic. Today is similar but now the people thronging between the stalls are tourists from all across the globe. You would have been able to pick up items never seen before; spices, coffee, silks, ivory, Chinese lace, seafood and exotic creatures and fruits from far-off countries.
Nowadays there is a mix of touristy items; Venetian masks, Murano glass, Burano lace and also ingredients and food; seafood, vegetables and fruit for the 55,000 locals who live in the city. Open Tuesday through to Saturday from 8am until 1pm, you will need to be up with the larks to get the best quality produce and good prices. As the markets are closed on a Monday, locals recommend not ordering seafood in the restaurants on this day as it will not be fresh!
Travelling by water is an essential part of visiting Venice, although it is faster to get from A to B on foot a lot of the time, it’s an absolute must! As the lagoon waters are all quite shallow it makes it far easier for the gondoliers to punt through the waters with their skill and accuracy. It’s impressive to watch as they effortlessly glide between each other and miss the many bridges by sheer millimetres! If you want to take the totally tourist trip then a gondola ride should be on your list.
Depending on when and with how many people you plan to travel, the prices can vary a lot and you will need deep pockets regardless. However, if it’s something you need to tick of the bucket list then go for it! We did and we really enjoyed it. It wasn’t the romantic experience that people stereotype it to be - but that may be due to our Gondolier being the Venetian equivalent of Danny Dyer! It was though, a great experience and we got to see the city from a different perspective. Using water buses and water taxis is another great way to get around on the water - it's a much cheaper option and an easy way to travel.
Murano can be visited but will probably take at least half a day with travelling to and from the island and so isn’t possible in a single day unless you’ve visited Venice before and don’t want to see the main attractions again. It lies 1 mile (1.5km) north of Venice and is made up of seven smaller islands with 8 water channels weaving their way through the land.
It is famous for its glassmaking and the term ‘Murano glass’ instantly brings to mind beautiful, coloured glass and jewellery, famous the world over. Venetians have been making glass here since the Republic ordered the glassmakers to relocate from the city centre in 1291 due to the fire risk that this industry created.
There are pretty churches to see here during your visit; San Pietro Martire and Santi Maria e Donato. As well as the glass-blowing district you will find the only museum on the island, which as you would imagine is dedicated to glass - Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum). Here you will be able to see some spectacular examples of mirrors and glassware from over the centuries and can learn about the techniques and complexities of glassmaking.
If your visit to Venice gives you enough time, then a trip across the water to Burano is worthwhile. A 40-minute vaporetto trip across the lagoon will find you visiting the colourful set of islands 4 miles (7km) north-east of St. Mark’s Square. These 5 islands are linked to Mazzorbo by a large bridge and is also close to Torcello so fitting all three regions into a visit is possible.
Its main economy is tourism with visitors flocking to see the brightly coloured houses (supposedly painted to help fishermen identify their own homes whilst out at sea) and to buy and view lace work that was the famous export of this region. You can still see lace being made here but very few still use the time-consuming traditional methods of times gone by.
The most noteworthy church to visit in Burano is San Martino which has a ‘drunken’ bell tower. Built in the 1600’s it is located on subsiding land which gives it its famous lean (and you thought there was only one leaning tower in Italy!) Depending upon where you are in Burano will depend on how you see the tower - from certain angles it looks relatively straight but from others you feel like it may tumble to the ground at any moment!
The cuisine of Northern Italy is somewhat different to that of its Southern regions. With neighbours such as Austria, Croatia and Slovenia sharing some culinary similarities, Venice has a cuisine all of its own. Don’t be fooled by restaurants offering pizza and pasta in highly populated tourist areas, this isn’t Venetian food and is a common misconception of visitors to northern Italian cities.
The most common dish you will find in the region is polenta, which is extremely versatile and can be cooked in many different ways. It had humble beginnings as a cheap food for peasants and has carried the reputation of having a bland taste. But if cooked right, maybe flavoured with mushroom or truffle, it can bring a dish to life whether it accompanies seafood, meat or vegetables. Venetians can do flavour! Remember, this is the port where spices were originally arriving from the East many centuries ago and the locals would have been the first to experiment with these new and exotic ingredients.
As always, we can’t forget to include a passage for the sweet toothed among you and fear not Venice does not disappoint! Naturally you can pick up a gelato along many of the streets, particularly in the Rialto area. (We had the most amazing one here and found the choice of flavours in Venice was better than any other Italian city we had visited!) The Baicoli biscuit originates from Venice and translates to mean golden oval. They were created as a biscuit that would last for long periods of time due to their dryness, making them perfect to take onboard ships that were travelling for many weeks. They take a long time to prepare as they need to have periods of being left and also require double baking, but once made they were lovingly stored in yellow boxes which is how they are traditionally sold.
Italy is a place that runs on an excess of caffeine. Brought up from childhood on drops of dark Robusta roasts, Italians tend to demand coffee that is bitter, scalding hot, and made in a hurry. As a visitor, we would recommend you order your coffee directly at the bar to avoid paying a service charge for being served at a table, which often doubles your bill. When you enter a cafe, locate the cashier and place your order, then take your receipt to the bar to collect your beverage of choice. Italians don’t linger over coffee and an espresso only takes a minute to drink, so it’s easy and enjoyable to drink standing up. If like us you enjoy a traditional English tea, your choices are quite limited. Italians just don't have the knack of making tea, and you won't find it served in many restaurants or cafes in the city. If you are desperate keep an eye out for international cafe chains as you might have a little more luck there.
A symbol of Venice is the Spritz, usually made with Aperol, white wine and sparkling water, it is the ultimate aperitif. It is finished off with a green olive and a slice of lemon or orange to give it that lovely Italian flourish. Keep an eye out for the locals each evening (usually around 7pm) enjoying happy hour under the warm sun along the canals of the city. In the heat of the summer nothing will quench your thirst better and is a really easy drink to drink!
Don’t forget about a bottle of Soave, an Italian white wine made from locally grown grapes. Its flavours are a taste sensation with lemon, honey, marmalade, fennel seed and beeswax which just the description alone gets the palate excited! If you are a red drinker then why not try Valpolicella or Amarone which go great with many salsa-based dishes which the Italians do so well!
We would love to revisit this area of Italy and visit more of the smaller islands that make up Venice and its surroundings. Do you have any extra tips for fellow travellers? Got your own scenic shots to share with us? We’d love to hear your own thoughts and see your photos, so please leave us a comment on social media and connect with us. If you’ve found this guide to Venice useful, please like and share our page using the buttons below. Ciao for now!
Many visitors to Italy get around without speaking a word of Italian, but just a few phrases go a long way in making friends, inviting service with a smile, and ensuring a rich and rewarding travel experience.
An unbeatable pocket-sized travel guide to Venice, packed with insider tips and ideas, colour maps, top ten lists and a laminated pull-out map, all designed to help you see the very best during your trip to Venice.
This gorgeously photographed journey through entrancingly beautiful Venetian interiors is sure to appeal to Venice's many admirers interested in the elegance and refinement of classical interior design.