I think it’s safe to say that Venice would be just like any other place in the world with a quaint old town and narrow lanes if it wasn’t for its waterways. The canals within the inner city as well as the Canale Grande (or Grand Canal) are features that are so characteristic that they are easily recognisable by pretty much anyone in the world.
What I find personally very fascinating about Venice is the unique ways how the citizens are using and making do with the waterways and the unique set-up of their city. For example, the garbage is collected with non-motorised handcarts. Deliveries are brought to backdoors that are right on water level. Church portal steps flow down to the water’s edge for easy access by gondola or boat. Police are chasing criminals with jet-skis. Commuters are travelling on bus ferries.
But there’s more to Venice than just its waterways, of course, although on the bottom of this post you will find a collection of my most favourite water views shots.
Here are a couple of highlights that you shouldn’t miss when visiting Venice, all quintessential Venice attractions brought to you in a concise and easily digestable way, with a first time visitor in mind.
Top things to see when in Venice (my personal selection)
Piazza San Marco: This square is the heart of the city. You will find here the most recognisable Venetian landmarks such as the Campanile, the St Mark’s Basilica, the Duke’s Palace, The Museum Correr and – behind the Duke’s Palace – the Bridge of Sighs. As I have written in my other post earlier the square is overrun with people, at least in summer, and it’s really heard to enjoy the many sights and the beauty of the buildings surrounding the Piazza.
Having said that, you cannot visit Venice without visiting the Piazza San Marco, in particular because of the remarkable facade of the basilica which so beautifully illustrates 500 years of Venetian merchant, military and cultural power in the Mediterranean region. Better even – visiting the basilica and one or two other buildings on the inside will take your breath away, but you need to get your tickets/tours organised before you go.
Incidentally, the Piazza San Marco is also one of the major vaporetti (bus ferries) interchanges, so chances are you will end up here during your stay anyway.
If you need some respite from the crowds, pay a visit to the nearby Rio dei Giardinetti to rest your feet on one of the benches and cool down under the shady trees.
Murano: Beautiful Murano Island is just a ferry ride away from the main island. You can catch a ferry from the main stop S. Zaccaria (which is the stop nearest to the Piazza San Marco). The trip is only 40 minutes and very rewarding because you also get to see some of the other islands in the lagoon including the cemetery island of San Michele.
Murano is world-famous for its glass manufactures, so when you are visiting the island think about visiting also one of the glass blowing demonstrations or the Glass Museum. We just strolled along the main canal of Murano and enjoyed the displays in the shop windows – many shops have a very unique inventory with very bespoke designs.
It’s great for shopping, if you can spare the money: jewellery, vases, bowls, lanterns… many of the designs are absolutely stunning and will make wonderful presents or souvenirs. It is also easy to get a good meal here, with less people competing for a free table than in the inner city.
If you have not so much money to spend, don’t despair! Cheaper, machine-made versions of pendants and bracelets are also available, still very beautiful and unique to Venice.
Burano: My favourite destination in Venice is definitely the island of Burano. Getting there takes a bit more time than the more famous glass blowers’ island of Murano but you can combine a trip to these islands and visit both of them on the same day.
Burano is a photographer’s dream come true. The houses here come in all colours of the rainbow: blue, green, pink, orange… Add to that the display of potted flowers everywhere, the intricate designs of glass lanterns above the doors, the curtains and cloths blowing in the lazy breeze, and you have one of the most appealing European destinations right on a silver platter.
But Burano is also famous for its lacework, and again, if you don’t have the money to buy one of the handmade designs for your own collection, just get one of the machine-made ones. Nobody would know the difference, and the ribbons, butterflies and flowers are just as beautiful as the proper pieces.
Lido: The narrow island of Lido is considered a great choice for travellers who want to escape the more urban feel of Venice proper and who don’t mind the added bonus of a beach. The Lido is the barrier island that faces the Adriatic Sea, great for swimming (the Blue Moon is the public stretch of the beach), ship watching and leisurely walks along the water.
Getting to the Lido is easy via vaporetto, with direct routes even serving the island from the airport. No wonder many families prefer this convenient location over the more pricier accommodation options in the city centre.
The Grand Canal & the Rialto Bridge: The Grand Canal is the canal that serves as a motorway from Santa Croce (this is where you will find the Cruise Ship Terminal, the parking Piazzale Roma and the main station St Lucia, to the inner core of the city, the Piazza San Marco.
The best way to experience this busy yet very scenic canal is by boat, for example with the vaporetto or in a hired gondola. You will glide past some of the most beautiful Venetian buildings, including palazzos with intricate columns and pointed arches and the famous fondaco houses. These are big merchant residences that also include the warehouse.
For best views of the canal visit the Rialto Bridge. This bridge in itself is a fascinating part of Venice as it is home to a number of shops to both sides. For a great photo of the canal just find your way to the backside of these shops to the platforms that overlook the water.
Ponte dei Sospiri: What I really like about the Ponte dei Sospeiri is its name – the Bridge of Sighs. Why is it named like this? Because its sole purpose was to transfer prisoners from the prison to the Doge’s interrogation rooms. Lord Byron saw it befitting to call the bridge The Bridge of Sighs as he suggested that views from the iron barred windows were the last thing many prisoners saw before facing their punishment.
Add to that a bit of romance – legend has it that lovers need to kiss in a gondola under the bridge at sunset as the bells of St Mark’s Campanile toll to secure eternal love.
The bridge is hidden behind the Duke’s palace but you can get a good view from the neighbouring bridge along the Riva degli Schiavoni which is just along the water’s edge to the east of the Piazza San Marco.
Scala Contarini del Bovolo: This is my little secret that I will share with you. Not many people will know about this little gem. The Scala Contarini del Bovolo is an external spiral staircase with beautiful open arches. The staircase resembles a snail, hence the name. It is located in a little square, hidden away from the public eye and not exactly close to where most tourists will roam. The staircase is part of a small palace that belongs to the noble family of the Contarini, which produced eight Doges over the course of roughly eight centuries.
To get to the staircase you need to find your way to the Campo Manin (which is on the other side of the Rialto Bridge if you are coming from the Piazza San Marco). Really, if you didn’t know it was there you wouldn’t find it.
This is what I love about Venice. There are so many corners and little laneways and hidden passageways that there is always something interesting and unexpected to see. This 15th century staircase is certainly one of the highlights.
What? And that’s all?
Venice has so much more to offer than what I listed above. However, if you are short of time or don’t like walking too much or if you just want to focus on the overall romantic flair of the city then these attractions should come up on top of your list. To widen the selection you may want to add some of the museums such as the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, throw in a gondola ride, and enjoy food and shopping opportunities.
But the best thing you can do is to just lose yourself in the maze of bridges, laneways and canals and enjoy the ancient buildings and hidden corners of Venice.
If you are a first time visitor, please also have a look at my Beginner’s Guide to Venice with some useful tips for orientation and pre-trip planning.
And you, have you already been to Venice? What are your personal highlights of la Serenissima?