When at last you leave these waters, all the old dazzle of Venice will linger in your mind; wherever you go in life you will feel somewhere over your shoulder a pink, castellated, shimmering presence, the domes and riggings and crooked pinnacles of the Serenissima.
- Jan Morris
There's nowhere in the world quite like Venice. An impenetrable labyrinth of crisscrossing canals framed by spectacular architecture, the city has a magical atmosphere that has to be experienced to be understood. If you've never been to Venice then now is the time to include it in your travel plans for your next trip to Italy - and if you've been before, then now is the time to come back! This week we kicked off series two of our TE Destinations travel series with a visit to the Floating City. And to celebrate, our latest blog gives you the lowdown on what you need to see and do on our first visit to Venice.
1. Admire the mosaics in Saint Mark’s Basilica
Venetians are quick to remind visitors that their city exists where the worlds of East and West meet, and nowhere reflects Venice’s cosmopolitan heritage better than extraordinary St. Mark’s Basilica. The city’s cathedral was founded in the 9th century when enterprising Venetian merchants smuggled the apostle’s body from Egypt concealed in a barrel of pork fat (a picaresque tale immortalised in 13th-century mosaics on the facade), and the current edifice dates from the following century. Amazingly, the massive church only officially became Venice’s cathedral at the beginning of the 19th century; before then, it served as the Doge’s private chapel.
A dizzying array of domes and arches make the basilica instantly recognisable as it swells to dominate St. Mark’s Square, whilst a smorgasbord of artistic treasures lie in wait within. Fully 8,000 square metres of dazzling mosaics shine down from the basilica’s walls and ceilings, their glittering gold intended to recall the light of heaven. Unmissable is the Pala d’Oro, an extraordinarily sumptuous altarpiece studded with precious gems and stones, as are the famous bronze horses that for centuries graced the Loggia dei Cavalli. To get an in-depth experience of extraordinary St. Mark’s on your next trip to Venice, check out Through Eternity’s Venice in a Day tour.
2. Take a gondola ride along Venice’s canals
There’s really only one way to travel in the Floating City. Four-wheeled transport is out for obvious reasons; to get around Venice, you’ll need to take to the water. And whilst the city’s network of water buses is efficient and economical, no trip to Venice is complete without hitching a ride in a gondola. With their jauntily striped shirts and distinctive wide-brimmed hats, you might be tempted to think that gondoliers and the crafts they pilot are nothing more than a touristy gimmick. But these flat-bottomed boats have an august history. Perfectly adapted to the canals of Venice, gondolas were the primary mode of transportation in the Serenissima for centuries - it's estimated that up to 10,000 of the vessels traversed the floating city in its 18th century heyday. Today the number stands at a more modest 400, but there’s still nothing like scudding along the Venetian waterways in one of these iconic boats.
3. Discover Venice’s Sistine Chapel in the Scuola di San Rocco
Where Rome has Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, Venice has Tintoretto and the Scuola di San Rocco. This was perhaps the most impressive of Venice’s great scuole, or schools - powerful lay-religious institutions dedicated to charity that played a central role in Venetian public life for centuries. Founded by a prosperous confraternity devoted to the plague-busting Saint Roch, the School’s elite membership was determined that their headquarters would be the most lavishly decorated institution in the city. After bribing the bigwigs with a dazzling painting to get the commission, local master Tintoretto spent more than 20 years labouring to realise their vision between 1564 and 1588.
Tintoretto adorned the walls of the school with more than 60 massive paintings depicting religious themes, each of which shimmers with the unique light effects and dizzying perspectives that made the artist famous. Make the spectacular journey upwards via the magnificent Grand Staircase to the enormous Sala Grande Superiore, where Tintoretto’s dramatic Old Testament cycle culminates in a truly awe-inspiring depiction of the Crucifixion - one of the greatest achievements in Italian art. Discover the Scuola di San Rocco on our Art of Venice tour.
4. Drink in Venice’s Aperitivo culture at a traditional Bacaro
Although Venice is a city with a well-earned gastronomic reputation, restaurants tend to be on the pricey side. But you can still sample some of the delights of the lagoon for a pittance if you know where to go. When you’re looking to give your wallet a break, follow the locals to one of the city's legion of traditional wine bars, known as bacari, to tuck in to plates of cicchetti accompanied by a glass of wine wine known to locals as an ombra (shadow) – so called because the wine-sellers that once plied their trade in St. Mark’s square followed the shifting shadow of the bell tower as the sun moved across the sky to keep cool.
Our favourite bacari include the Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, where local legend Sandra tirelessly knocks out a bewildering array of cicchetti and crostini each day; historic Osteria all’Arco near the Rialto Fish Market, and Bacaretto da Lele, whose spectacular canalside perch is perfect for a sunset spritz surrounded by the chatter of locals.
5. Get to Grips with Venetian art in the Academia
Venice is a worthy rival to Rome and Florence in the Italian artistic pantheon, and there’s nowhere better to get a good grounding of the city’s artistic heritage than the Academia. Home to some of the most glittering highlights of Venetian painting housed in the former religious complex of the Scuola della Carità, the gallery boasts works from the hands of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini, Leonardo and many more. Amongst the highlights, don’t miss the cycle of paintings dedicated to the miracles of the Holy Cross originally painted for the Grand Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista.
These evocative canvasses depict the pomp and ceremony of the Renaissance city at its peak. In Vittore Carpaccio's Miracle of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto we see the 15th century city coming vividly to life: a fleet of gondolas throng the waters of the Grand Canal, whilst the great and the good of the city wait at the water’s edge - all true-to-life portraits of Venetian aristocracy. A precarious looking wooden bridge spans the canal - the bridge would collapse in 1524, paving the way for the iconic structure of the Rialto Bridge that we know today.
6. Take a stroll over the stunning bridges of Venice
Crisscrossing the waterways of Venice, a series of spectacular bridges ferry the city's denizens to and fro each day. From the magnificent Rialto Bridge soaring over the Grand Canal right at the heart of the action to more humble affairs such as the Ponte del Chiodo (the last bridge in Venice without a protective balustrade), to get to know Venice you need to know its bridges. First amongst equals is the Bridge of Sighs, whose poetic name conceals a grim history.
Located in the Doge's Palace, Venice's glittering waterfront bastion of power, the bridge was constructed in the opening years of the 17th century to link the palace's old prison with a newly constructed slammer across the canal. According to legend, the bridge takes its name from the sighs of prisoners gazing out at the beauty of Venice through the shuttered stonework as they were led away to their dark future of imprisonment. Its combination of beauty and intrigue makes it one of our favourite places in Venice.
7. Follow in the footsteps of power in the Doge’s Palace
Perched on a sweeping curve of Venice’s Grand Canal, the iconic pink arcades of the Doge's Palace are the most recognisable symbol of the city state's powerful past. It was from here that a succession of all-powerful Doges ruled over the maritime Republic for centuries, and you can still sense the grandeur of those epic days echoing down its halls and galleries today, surrounded by masterpieces of Renaissance art by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Carpaccio.
A series of fabulously decorated chambers housed the complex machinery of one of the early modern world's most efficient bureaucracies; the Chamber of the Great Council meanwhile is one of the largest rooms in Europe, where important meetings took place surrounded by massive paintings glorifying the history of Venice. Climb Jacopo Sansovino’s Scala d’Oro, a lavish golden staircase, to reach the private apartments of the Doge himself. On any tour of Venice, a visit to the Doge’s Palace is a must.
8. Join in the revelry at the Venice Carnival
Nothing heralds the passing of winter like the Venetian Carnival, a joyous riot of colour, sound and spectacle. Extraordinary costumes, elaborate masks and fascinating historical re-enactments all make the festival an unforgettable experience that attracts legions of masked revellers from all across the world for the two week extravaganza. In the past the art of disguise was a year-round gig in the Serenissima - the luxury loving Venetians were so fond of the anonymity the masks gave them that they wore them whenever they could, facilitating secret trysts and gender bending parties, trips to the brothel and the gambling house. Masks became so ubiquitous that they even had an official function, allowing votes, trials and ballots to be undertaken anonymously. These days masks are the preserve of Carnival time, which usually happens sometime in February. It’s without doubt one of the best times of the year to visit Venice. To learn more about the sights, sounds and traditions of Carnival, check out our Venice Carnevale virtual tour!
9. Bag a Bargain at Libreria Acqua Alta
There’s nothing like visiting Venice in the autumn or winter, when a mysterious and peaceful calm hangs over the usually thronged city. But you’ll need to come prepared for the city’s famous Acqua Alta, the seasonal tidal flooding that submerges Venice’s streets and piazzas for a few days each year between October and January. When the waters rise, one of our favourite things to do after donning our galoshes is to head to the wonderfully quirky bookshop Libreria Acqua Alta, where endless piles of books are protected from the floodwaters by being stashed away in old gondola’s ships’ hulls, buckets and bathtubs. Be sure to head out the back of the shop too, where a marvellous view of Venice’s canals await.
10. Relive the Opulent World of 18th-Century Venice in the Ca Rezzonico
The bombastically Baroque Ca Rezzonico is one of the most splendid palaces in all of Venice, its beautiful façade loftily overlooking the Grand Canal where guests would arrive and enter through a monumental entrance directly on the water. Begun by the Bon family but abandoned when they went bankrupt, the building was completed by the eye-wateringly wealthy Giambattista Rezzonico in the 1750s. Strolling through its opulent chandelier-lit halls today is like stepping back in time to the splendours of 18th-century Venice – the palace boasts its own massive ballroom, countless boudoirs, and even a throne room adorned by a fabulously frothy ceiling fresco by Giambattista Tiepolo where the Rezzonico clan are being introduced to heaven. More masterpieces from Tiepolo’s brush adorn the other salons, alongside works by Canaletto, Guardi, and more. The palace so enchanted Cole Porter that he rented the entire pile in the 1920s, throwing lavish parties that rivalled the Venetian golden age complete with gondolier footmen and a troupe of tight-rope walkers.
Remember, Through Eternity Tours offer a range of insider itineraries in the Serenissima, so if you’re planning a trip to Venice check out our website or get in touch with our expert travel planners today! To get you in the mood for travel to the Floating City before your trip, join our Venice Virtual Tour for a taste of what's in store.