Venice is beguiling. Everywhere you tread you will be bewitched by its faded and evocatively crumbling grandeur. The palazzi rise straight from the water’s edge, ancient and beautiful bridges traverse the city and everywhere gondolas glide silently through the canals.
Rising straight from its surrounding lagoon, Venice’s islands and her streets are little changed since the centuries when masked and cloaked citizens went about their lives of intrigue and power struggles. As you wander this enchanting place –totally free of traffic –to explore the priceless treasures of the basilica, to climb ancient bell towers, to be bedazzled by the Doge’s Palace or simply to get wonderfully lost it takes so little imagination to be transported back in time.
Among the many islands you will find Murano which has jealously guarded the industry secrets of some of the best glass-makers in the world since the 13th century, lovely little Burano with its exquisite handmade lace and rainbow-hued buildings and Torcello with its incredible 7th century cathedral.
Sprinkled among all this glorious history you will encounter world-famous art museums, sensational seafood restaurants, gorgeous public gardens and shops packed with some of the most unique gifts for sale anywhere on the planet.
To set foot on this city on the water is to be instantly embraced by its magic and you will be left in no doubt whatsoever as to why Venice in her entirety is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Morning In Venice
San Marco is the city’s most well-known and therefore most tourist-visited area for the simple reason that the most glorious and famous sights are almost all here. Your Venice day begins exploring this quarter’s highlights, of which there are many, before the greatest of the crowds descend.
If you have time you can also complete your morning with a visit to one of the city’s most famous art museums which offer something for fans of both ancient masterpieces and the works of modern idols.
The Highlights of Piazzo San Marco
The most well-known of Venice’s squares, the vast and impressive St. Mark’s is home to some of the city’s essential inclusions which means you don’t have to wander far to pack a lot in.
One of the St. Mark’s must-sees is the campanile of the basilica and as this stately structure can be climbed this is a wonderful way to start your day.
Standing almost 100m high, the top of this ancient tower which stands apart from the cathedral marks Venice’s highest point. The tower’s history stretches all the way back to the 9th century when its dual purpose was that of lighthouse and watchtower. What you see today is the appearance of the tower as it finally became in the 1500’s after a series of repairs following lightning strikes, fires and earthquakes. One 18th century strike toppled masonry which led to the death of several citizens and some 30 years later a lightning rod was finally affixed to the spire to avoid further mishaps.
However, total disaster was still to come. In 1902 the entire structure collapsed, leaving nothing but a pile of rubble; miraculously the only casualty was a cat. The tower was painstakingly reconstructed with improvements to the structural integrity which help guard the tower against further subsidence, something common in this area where water is never far below the surface.
The Campanile has five famous named bells, each of which in bygone times had a different purpose. The Tottiera and Pregadi were used to call the city’s leaders to the palace; the Maleficio tolled at the time of executions; the Nona rang for 9 o’clock and the Marangona chimed twice daily to announce the commencement and end of working hours. Today the bells –which can be seen on ascending the tower -are less busy, calling out only the hours of midday and midnight.
In appearance the 12m square campanile is far from being the city’s prettiest building but people don’t really come here to gaze upon it but rather to scale it. Getting to the top is easy thanks to the elevator added when the tower was rebuilt in the early 20thcentury and the views you are rewarded with at the top are nothing short of sensational. The entire glorious city of Venice is spread out below you, allowing you to trace out the canals and islands from an elevated vantage point. Close by are majestic perspectives of the basilica’s domes and spires, further in the distance the islands of Murano, Lido, San Giorgio and Giudecca along with Adriatic views while on the clearest of days your north horizon shows you the Dolomites mountains.
The Torre dell’Orologio
Incorporated within another of the St. Mark’s Square’s structures can be found the lovely Torre dell’Orologio which is now more than 500 years old. Besides being simply beautiful this antique sapphire-colored clock is also a technological treasure which displays the hour, the phase of the moon and the current dominant zodiac sign. A common legend tells how the then-ruling doge blinded the clockmaker after its creation so that he could never again make something so beautiful. As tragically romantically story-worthy as this it has no basis in fact; instead the mechanics who worked on the clock were in fact given the roles as guardians and clock-keepers –a job which came with apartments within the tower itself.
At the very peak of the tower is the 15th century bell, flanked by two bronze figures, clearly visible even from ground level. The hours are chimed by the figures –often referred to as ‘the Moors’ -striking the bell while on the occasion of Ascension Week and Epiphany special figures alsoemerge.
It is also possible to tour the interior of the tower where you will see the residential quarters and have an incredible close-up view of the bell strikers from the rooftop.
St. Mark’s Basilica
Almost 1,000 years old, the exquisite Byzantine basilica of St. Mark’s adorns the eastern side of the piazza, connecting to the Doge’s Palace and thus presenting Venice’s most magnificent sight. Once the personal chapel of the doge, its role as city cathedral actually only began in the early 19thcentury.The glittering-domed cathedral would also originally have been somewhat plainer than the exceptionally ornate structure you see today; the majority of the cathedral’s embellishments were antiquities and treasures plundered from other lands long ago. Richmosaics, grand columns and sculpted friezes were all the spoils of 13th and 14thcentury crusades and brought back from places such as Constantinople. Much of these exotic decorations of Eastern and Islamic origin are truly ancient and pre-date the actualbasilica itself. One of the most obvious examples of stolen treasure is the horses which sit above the main portal. Once part of Constantinople’s Hippodrome, these four statues came home with the Venetians after the Fourth Crusade in the 1300s and were plundered again by Napoleon in 1797, only brought back from Paris in 1815 to take their balcony position here for the second time.
Magnificent as the facade is the basilica’s mosaic-rich interior is, if possible, even more breath-taking. The whole appears on entering as one light-bouncing and dazzling display of gold covering every inch of ceiling and upper walls. What you see is the result of centuries of painstaking mosaic craftsmanship and inter-laid marble floors which are a rich riot of exquisite animalfigures and geometric design. The overall effect is almost overwhelming from a visual point of view.
While deciding quite what in this dazzling place is the most awe-inspiring and glorious is not an easy task the high altar has to be a definite contender for the title. Known as the Pala d’Oro, this sublime feature incorporates more than 1,000 pearls and hundreds of sapphires, emeralds and garnets.
Although such obvious opulence might be thought to represent the basilica’s greatest treasure, the high altar is in fact just one small part of the basilica’s riches. The cathedral’s treasury is home to a priceless collection of antiquities and reliquaries, most of which formed the plunder brought back to the city after the sacking of Constantinople in the 13th century. There is an extra charge to view this glittering array of gold and crystal pieces which are full of the bones and body parts of saints but it is often a lot quieter than the main section of the cathedral.
The Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs
Gothic in style, the beautiful and multiple-arched portico palace sits beside its ornate cathedral neighbor and offers the ultimate in lavish magnificence both externally and internally. The palace was formerly the residence and work place for the ruler of Venice –the doge or duke –with the current palace dating from the 15th century and constructed on the site of former castles and palaces.Besides being a palatial residence, this building represented the principle seat of the ruling powers and the place where Venice’s senate would meet, where judicial rulings were given and where laws were passed. It was also the site of its prison, reached by the connecting Bridge of Sighs. Today, the entire palace is a museum and packed with incredible sights to see. The whole is a collection of grand stairways, dazzling ceilings covered in gilding and rich paintings, wall frescoes, lavish apartments, masterpieces by famous artists and all kinds of architectural detailing which would take many days to explore fully.
The exceptionally beautiful 15th century portal which connects the palace to the basilica –known as the Paper Gate –is a masterpiece in itself. Incorporated within the whole are two flanking spires, a wealth of detailed carvings and statues including Venice’s symbol –the winged lion.
At the top of the grand sweeping exterior staircase known as the Scala dei Giganti you are greeted by Neptune on one side and Mars on the other before stepping into the palace.
The vast and spectacular Sala del Maggior Consiglio occupies much of the first floor. Once the council meeting hall, this awe-inspiring room has to be seen to be believed with its magnificent gilded ceiling and walls covered in a multitude of huge paintings, many of them created by such greats as Tintoretto, Bella and Veronese.
The doge’s canal-side apartments are on the second floor and to reach them you have to ascend one of the palace’s major highlights. Built in the 16thcentury, the Golden Staircase –Scala d’Oro –was intended to be a grand and majestic entry for VIP visitors on their way to the doge’s private rooms. The name of this covered stairway is derived from the incredible gold painted and highly ornate ceiling which arches overhead.
The doge’s apartments are a collection of rooms which unfortunately have nothing of their original furniture, this having been plundered during the occupation of Venice by Napoleonic forces in the late 1700s. Their interiors are still however magnificent, filled with the kind of embellishments which could not be removed such as grand carved fireplaces and sensational painted ceilings.
The former prison complex is accessed through the Sala de Maggior Consiglio and by crossing the most famous of all Venice’s bridges and one of the most well-known in all the world –the Bridge of Sighs. Totally covered and with the only natural light entering by way of its tiny windows, this 15th century bridge is where condemned prisoners would cross, full of sighs at their impending fate. The damp and oppressive prison complex is made up of cells, passageways and torture chambers and it takes little to imagine the misery of those incarcerated here.
The museum’s policy for visiting the Bridge of Sighs and the prison areas are forever changing, sometimes included within the general ticket price and at others only accessed by way of special tour so if you want to include these on your visit it pays to check ahead.
Other St. Mark’s Sights
Adjoining St. Mark’s Square is the city’s principle waterway –the Grand Canal. Running for almost 4,000m, this canal has for centuries formed Venice’s backbone and where the majority of its trade took place. As a result the buildings which flank its sides are among the grandest in the city, once owned by the wealthiest of its medieval citizens. It is spanned by four ancient bridges and photographs from these spots offer some lovely views as well as giving some of the most iconic camera shots too.
Outside of the square but still within the district of San Marco can be found the Grand Canal’s oldest crossing –the Rialto Bridge. Widely considered the most beautiful of all Venice’slovely bridges, the Rialto was designed by the uncle of the man who was responsible for the Bridge of Sighs. It was constructed in the 1500s to replace a series of wooden bridges which had occupied this spot. The covered bridge which is lined with shops is centered by a raised portico, flanked on either side by twin ramps which give an especially beautiful shape to the structure.
Backed by a wall of the palace can be found a little tranquil oasis known as the Royal Gardens.Hidden from plain sight and only accessible via the waterside, these small gardens full of flower-draped pergolas are generally all but empty of tourists and offer a wonderful greenery-filled place to escape the major bustle of the square for a while.
Morning Coffee in Venice
When you arrive at the need for a pause in your morning you are perfectly placed in San Marco to visit the Caffe Florian. As one of the entire city’s most famous and ancient coffee-houses and located within the actual square itself this venue is far from being a hidden gem but you would be hard pressed to find anywhere more iconic. First opening its doors in the early 1700s and not closing them once since on any kind of permanent basis, the Florian is not simply Venice’s oldest coffee-serving establishment but the oldest in the world with the exception of the Procope in Paris which pre-dates it by only 40 odd years. For many, coming to the city without taking a coffee or cocktail here, at what has quite rightly become a very symbol of the city itself, is simply unthinkable and this venerable institution is popular with both locals and tourists.
Of course the outside terrace tables see a constant stream of takers, offering views over one of the most famous squares on the planet as bow-tied pianists and violinists serenade the customers. However, step inside the Florian’s doors and you can drink your coffee in a choice of salas which surround you with extravagant opulence and bygone elegance. Shimmering golds, plush red velvet, gilt panels, ornate mirrors and antique art pieces make up the décor of an establishment once a favorite haunt of Casanova. Lord Byron, Hemingway, Dickens, Goethe and Proust are just a few more of the other famous regulars this cafe has known.
If you are in search of something rather more tucked away and additionally are only content with high standard coffee the Cafe del Dogenot far from the Rialto Bridge is perhaps more likely to suit. Roasting their own beans on-site,this artisan cafe which ethically sources its coffee is a modern interior space which offers a sprinkling of tables outside if you prefer to take your morning coffee break alfresco.
For those who have something of a sweet tooth there are a range of excellent cafe/pastry shops in Venice one of which is the lovely Pasticceria Chiusso, not far from St. Mark’s Square. Step through the doors here to be confronted with an almost impossible array of mouth-watering treats, all hand-made on-site by the husband and wife team which run the shop. The artisanal range here includes just about everything you can imagine –from croissants to huge chunks of cake and cream-filled cannoli to bite-size fruit tarts. The atmosphere is homely and tranquil and the service friendly and warm with a few tables outside to enjoy your hand-crafted treats and coffee.
Once you have refreshed yourself you can continue your morning discovering the Venice sights. With so much to see in just St. Marks Square alone it is highly possible you’ll need more time to finish exploring here but if you feel you have had enough of the bustle you can finish your morning with a visit to one of the city’s excellent art museums.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Housed in a former palace and collecting together the art of the modern era’s most famous names, the Peggy Guggenheim art museum is only beaten by the Doge’s Palace when it comes to the most visited of the Venice sites.
Built in the 1700s, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was the mansion of Peggy Guggenheim for 30 years –an American heiress and socialite who spent a lifetime amassing an incredibleavant-garde art collection. This included examples of abstract expressionism, cubism and surrealism among others. Not only did she appreciate and collect art but was also part of the social circle of the artists themselves. It was in this way she discovered and then through her patronage essentially gave the world a stream of artists that might never have otherwise have come to the public eye such as Wolfgang Paalen and Jackson Pollock.
Featuring names such as Picasso, Ernst, Magritte, Dali, Duchamp and Klee, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is essentially a fantastically comprehensive exhibition of pieces by anyone who is anyone in the world of modern art. Many agree that the museum’s highlights are a collection of early Pollock pieces along with the lovely sculpture garden.
Peggy Guggenheim’s grave is actually inside the museum, her ashes placed here in 1979 so she could lay at rest with her beloved dogs.
The Gallerie dell’Accademia
Not far from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s palace can be found an art museum of a very different kind –the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Comprised of three separate buildings which were once a church, a monastery and an ancient school respectively, this 18th century-founded treasure collection really sprang to life under the command of Napoleon in 1807 when it was moved to its present location. Napoleon’s ransacking of Venice’s churches considerably enhanced the existing collection and today the museum is home to such masters as Titian, Veronese and Giorgione and a wealth of other priceless pieces including an original da Vinci drawing.
Lunch in Venice
The excellence of Italian cuisine generally is something now long since discovered and Venice has an especial reputation in the country as one of the best places to eat seafood. Venice’s surrounding lagoon is positively teeming with fish which are caught and delivered straight from boat to restaurant on a daily basis to ensure a freshness second to none.
When it comes to places to sample this incredible bounty Venice has something for everyone –from tiny and hidden away gems known only to locals to large establishments which seem to feature in every guidebook. One of the former kind which will suit those looking for an authentic lunch away from the tourist hordes is the Antiche Carampane. Truly hidden away amid the city’s little back alleys in the San Marco area, chance encounters are not a likelihood here. As a result this family-run traditional inn is typically only frequented by discerning Venetians and the occasional foodie traveler who has made it their goal to track down the city’s best. Choose a seat in the charming antique air interior or one of the street tables and select from a menu whose specialties include such things as sweet and sour sardines, soft-shell crab salad and a range of traditional Venetian dishes straight from grandma’s kitchen.
Another more authentic dining experience can be had at L’Osteria di Santa Marina, another spot favored by lunching locals which lies east across the Grand Canal from San Marco. Traditional and rustic inside, this restaurant also offers a lovely alfresco area which places you beneath a canopy in a small and tranquil piazza surrounded by ancient buildings. The menu’s focus is fish and also offers a tasting option so you can sample the whole range of this delightful venue’s specialties such as an almond milk cerviche of Amberjack fish; a lemon and rosemary eel risotto and the duck tortelli duck ragout with truffles.
For those who really appreciate gorgeous and tranquil settings try the seafood-focused Corte Sconta whose magical little sun-dappled courtyard seats you beneath a canopy of grape vines. This family-run establishment has a well-established reputation for serving up some of the finest seafood dishes in the city, offering inventive twists on such staples as pasta classics along with home-made bread. Another delightful element is the inclusion of their very own Prosecco for an elegant lunch with fizz. If you want to try a little of everything here one way to do it is by ordering the five course starter –sufficient for a lunch all by itself –and offering a constantly changing set of five separate fish dishes according to season.
An Afternoon in Venice
With a collection of around 400 bridges linking over 100 islands, Venice is all about its weaving waterways and the shallow lagoon which surrounds the city. You can spend time in Venice without ever setting foot in a boat but doing so means you will miss out on a fair proportion of its magic. Additionally, although several of its tinier islands are uninhabited there are also many islands which are destinations in themselves and can only be arrived at by boat.
Your afternoon adventures will take you to explore three of the most alluring islands of Venice –Murano, Burano and Torcello –each very famous for something different. If you prefer you can just pick one and devote your afternoon to discovering its charms in depth. As to getting there, you can either visit all under your own steam and on your own schedule with Venice’s water-buses known as vaporettos or sign up for a tour which covers one or more islands.
The closest to central Venice of our three featured islands, Murano is best known for its exquisite glass-making –an industry which has been thriving in the city for hundreds of years.
Although quite where it all began is something of a mystery it is known that its roots are truly ancient, weaving back all the way to the days of the Roman Empire. In the 1960s the remains of a glass furnace were uncovered in Venice which dates back to the 8th century.
The history from the 13th century however is well documented and tells how the Glassmakers’ Guild was established. Methods and techniques were closely guarded secrets of the city and in the 1200s a law was passed which forced all glass-making furnaces to relocate to the island of Murano. The reasons given were to protect the city from possible fire hazards although historians now believe it was actually to make it more difficult to share any secrets with outsiders. In a further move to prevent anyone but Venice having the most precious trade skills a further law was passed a few years later which forbade any glass-maker from leaving Venice at all.
The reward for these highly skilled craftsmen in suffering such restrictions was an elevated status in society, so much so that they were even allowed to marry into noble families.
Today, the name Murano glass is still synonymous with the highest quality products found anywhere in the world and its exquisite artworks, which include mirrors, chandeliers, goblets and highly intricate decorative pieces, are exported to every corner of the planet.
For those who want to see exactly how a glass furnace works and watch artisans at work factory tours are very popular. One of the most highly rated factory tours is that of the Linea Murano Art. Here you can watch a demonstration of glass blowing and also visit showrooms where you can see some of the most exquisite creations of sculpture, chandeliers and even fountains at close quarters and marvel at their seemingly impossible intricacies.
For an even more in-depth insight into the city’s glass-making history and that of the world in general visit the Glass Museum –el Museo del Vetro. In the beautiful surrounds of a Gothic patrician’s palace from the 1600s complete with antique ceiling frescoes you can trace the entire story from its known beginnings to the present day and view a variety of ancient pieces. Laid out according to time periods, the oldest pieces on display here are from the first century and include not just Roman blown glass objects but also pieces from ancient Syria, Palestine and Greece.The museum also displays fragments of the most ancient Murano glass-making times with 10th century examples unearthed from a nearby church.
Murano’s Other Sights
While glass-making remains Murano’s biggest draw the island has several other highlights too. Just like Venice central, Murano is broken up by canals and to the north of its own Grand Canal can be found the exceptionally lovely waterside Basilica di Santa Maria e San Donato. With a history which stretches back to the 7th century, the church’s present appearance dates from the 12th century and it represents one of the entire area’s oldest religious buildings. Its beautiful curved Byzantine split-level facade is embellished with columns and arches constructed in brick and marble while its bell tower stands separately.
While the exterior is lovely to gaze upon it is really the exceptional mosaic floors inside which get star billing. Almost 900 years old, these colorful art works depict a multitude of animals and birds and swirling geometric designs while the apse contains an even older blue and gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary above the altar.
The church is also home to a rather bizarre collection of bones which hang behind the altar and although you can view them few actually realize they are there. According to legend, these bones were once those of a dragon killed by St. Donatus. This saint’s name was added to that of Santa Maria to make up the church’s title in the 12th century after the saint’s bones and those of the dragon he killed were seized from Greece by a Venetian doge during a crusade.
Another of the island’s churches –Santa Maria degli Angeli–which dates from the 16th century has an especially plain facade but has some wonderful medieval paintings within.
On crossing the Long Bridge southwards across the Grand Canal you will arrive at the fantastical Palazzo da Mula whose water-facing architectural mix facade has almost something of a gingerbread house appearance. Dating from the 1100s, this former summer residence of the Venetian nobility with its grand Gothic window arches and ornate balconies is not just remarkable for its age but because it has a garden; something rare indeed in this city of canals.
A little further south of the palace you can find the 16th century St. Pietro Martire Church which is most remarkable for its art collection. One of the paintings here –’The Baptism of Christ -is thought to be the work of Tintoretto, arguably the most famous of the city’s medieval artists while other 15th and 16th century works include two Bellini paintings.
While Murano’s major export is glass that of Burano is lace and, just as Murano’s glass story is an ancient one, so too is that of Burano’s own exquisite specialty. Don’t expect to be able to pick up any bargain pieces –the exceptional products here are for discerning customers and the most intricate can take a team of workers months to complete. Burano’s lace-making industry reached its heyday in the 1700s and then, much as now, its skilled craftspeople were considered the finest on the continent.
Its lace-making aside Burano is a charming island, criss-crossed like Venice proper by waterways which are spanned by picturesque bridges and in bygone times as now peopled by a community which relied on fishing the lagoon to make a living.
The most striking thing about Burano and impossible to miss is its colors. Every house here has been painted in a different vivid hue, thuslime green stands next to terracotta and sky blue next to peach or violet. Interestingly, nothing can be painted here until a request is submitted along with an inclusion of the intended color which the authorities must approve. Legend has it that the tradition started as a way for fishermen to identify their dwelling when out at sea which although perhaps not actually having any basis in fact makes for a poetic story. The most colorful streets and therefore those which make the loveliest photos are Via Giudecca and Via San Mauro which border canals, just to make everything just that touch more scenic. The most photographed of all the Burano houses and a common theme for postcards is Bepi’s House which has been painted in bold geometric designs in contrasting primary colors.
While the heyday of Burano’s lace has long since gone, its peak reached in the 1500s, the island is still home to some artisans though as the years go by these numbers reduce even further. If you wander the Burano streets and particularly Galuppi Square you will find shops dotted around where you can browse some of the exceptional quality handmade goods which may have taken months to make. Martina Vidal is one such where you can watch lace-makers at work while the award-winning Emilia Burano is also a good option for authentic gifts, home-wares and clothing.
Burano is also home to a lace museum which displays some antique pieces 400 years old and is located in the former lace school which ran for 100 years from the late 1800s.
Burano also has one more must-see sight –its leaning bell tower. Standing 53m tall, the incline of this tower which has been caused by subsidence in the soft ground is 1.83 meters off perpendicular and extremely obvious. Besides its lean this 17th century tower is also quite beautiful and the most iconic shots taken from the Terranova’s Marble Bridge capture the rainbow-hued houses lining the canal while behind can be seen the ornate tower rearing up over the rooftops.
Last on the tour of the trio of islands is Torcello which sits 1km north of Burano. Inhabited by a tiny population, this island offers a peaceful escape and seems all but deserted much of the time. As sleepy as it is today this was not always the case as Torcello was the seed from which all Venice grew with roots that stretch back to the 5th century. Long before St. Mark’s Basilica was conceived Torcello had a cathedral, raised by a people who had originally fled to this salt-marsh enveloped island to escape barbarian incursions. As the centuries rolled on all but a few gradually left to settle instead in the more easily accessed center of Venice as we know it today and little remains of the palaces and churches which once graced the island. The majority of their stones were plundered and used to build grand buildings elsewhere.
What does remain is exceptionally beautiful and the reason most make the trek out to this island far from the Venice bustle. The brightest jewel is the 7th century cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta which is just a few years short of being Venice’s oldest church.
Byzantine in style, the cathedral has a relatively plain exterior while its interior is home to the most ancient mosaics in the entire city. In every way a treasure trove, the glittering west wall is nothing short of stunning while the curved wall above the main apse is where you will find a further glittering mosaic with an entirely gold background.
Standing apart from the cathedral is a 10th century campanile which can be climbed for views of the lagoon, the Adriatic and the ancient towers of Venice on the horizon. Ernest Hemingway, who retreated to Torcello in the 1940s for a while makes references to the tower and its views in the novel which he partly wrote during his time on the island –’Across the River and Into the Sea’.The only other remnants of Torcello’s ancient past are the 11th century Santa Fosca Church which adjoins the cathedral and two palaces from the 1300s which are today home to the Museo Provincial di Torcello.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Venice
Packed with wonderful things to see and do Venice is no less exceptional when it comes to places for eating and drinking. Join the locals in the pre-dinner tradition known as aperitivo at a canal-side bar before heading off to sample some of the freshly caught seafood which is so plentiful in this lagoon-surrounded destination.
As the sun starts to sink in the Venetian sky you can turn your thoughts to that most wonderful of Italian traditions –aperitivo. This ages-old custom of pre-dinner drinks combined with small plate dishes and finger food is what you will find a great quantity of Venetians doing in the evening with of course a plentiful supply of tourists joining them.
The traditional aperitivo drinks are such things as the bitter-tasting Campari and Aperol but you can order whatever you like. The tapas-like snacks –known as cicchetti –are served in bars known as bacari and they are found just about everywhere in the city. While the whole idea is really to whet your appetite in reality some of these cicchetti are so substantial that if you are not a big eater in the evening it can suffice as a dinner option.
If you want to sample a little of the traditionally atmospheric and authentic Venice along with your aperitivo head to Al Bottegon. Located across the Grand Canal from San Marco, Al Bottegon sits on the beautiful Rio di San Trovaso Canal right beside a gorgeous little stone bridge of the same name and is known to locals as one of the best servers of cicchetti in Venice. Run by three generations of the same family, the cicchetti here are adventurous and inventive and are decently enough priced to make it possible to sample a vast array without breaking the bank.
Another option for the aperitivo hour is the lovely Osteria da Filowhose street tables are always full of locals. Sometimes offering live music or filled with the sounds of a customer tinkling on the piano, this bar has a really cozy interior full of wood and sofas with a small selection of free bar snacks for all to enjoy.
For aperitivos or cocktails with a high-rise view check out the Skyline Bar. Sophisticated and elegant, this rooftop venue which was once a grain mill is located in the Giudecca area. From here, to the north, you have views over all of central Venice while to the south nothing but lagoon and sea. Tastefully luxurious, this high-end bar is beautifully lit so as not to spoil those amazing sunsets which you can enjoy from a range of comfy sofas.
Exceptionally wonderful food is really not hard to find anywhere in Italy and in Venice you can add into the mix any number of superb fish and seafood restaurants. As if all that wasn’t already enough Venice also offers something else. This is a city which is, without even trying, imbued with an air of romance so those venues which make an effort elevate it to a whole other level. Dining by the light of the moon and candles beside a canal surrounded by ancient facades and bridges is a dining experience for couples which is perhaps unlike anywhere else on Earth.
One of the choices of this highly romantic kind is the Riviera which while offering one of those ultimately lovely waterside terraces also places an exceptional and passionate emphasis on food appreciation. The Riviera’s dedication to offering their clients a place in which to enjoy their dining experience to the full –something which they deliver as an art form -includes the banning of cell-phones. Otherwise relaxed in atmosphere, this lovely venue serves classical Venetian fare from a large menu with some modern inventive twists and with a seafood focus.
Another option for those with romance in their soul is the meat and fish Venetian cuisine-focused La Caravella. This time your beguiling surrounds are a gorgeous garden courtyard in a venue which has been going strong for half a century. If you prefer you can dine inside in a choice of two rooms. One of these –the historic and elegant Caravella Room –is designed like the interior of a bygone sailing vessel which makes for an intimate dining venue surrounded by rich wood and warm lighting.
An Evening in Venice
Enchanting by day, Venice is also exceptionally beautiful by night –perhaps even more so as the day trippers depart, the heat of the day cools and lights wink into life to illuminate ancient buildings and bridges and add shimmering reflections to the canals.
Now is the time to simply wander, perhaps exploring some of the hidden corners cloaked in the atmospheric glows of the night or to pass the peeling facades of grand buildings which are softly lantern-lit and then pause as you cross ancient bridges to watch gondolas quietly gliding beneath you. For those who want something a bit more lively you can head to Saint Mark’s Square where you can hear musicians performing such as those at the historic and exceptionally elegant Caffe Florian which was once the haunt of such famous figures as Casanova and Lord Byron.
Gondola Rides by Moonlight
While almost anything you do in the Venice night is going to seem romantic, perhaps the most romantic of all is to climb aboard a gondola and glide noiselessly along the city’s canals. There are many who argue that you have not seen Venice until you have seen it from the water and there are indeed many sights to be enjoyed which can’t be experienced when you explore on foot. The Grand Canal is lined with a stream of palace-like buildings where Venice’s most wealthy and powerful resided in bygone days. The most opulent facades of these are often those which front the canals which you will be able to see up close from a gondola –a type of Venetian transport which dates back 1000 years. Additionally, gondolas allow you to pass beneath even the lowest of bridges and through the narrowest of the city’s waterways to take in a wealth of incredibly lovely detail.
Free Walking Tours
If you prefer to stay on dry land Venice also offers some very high quality free night walking tours. These fun tours are led by professional and highly knowledgeable locals who often have specialty learning in areas such as art or architecture. As you explore the city’s ancient treasures, poking into corners where the typical tourist doesn’t go you will be regaled by stories, anecdotes and fascinating histories of long-ago Venice.
In case you are not familiar with the ‘free walking tour’ concept, such things are offered on a voluntary tip basis. At the end of the tour you simply pay whatever you feel the experience was worth to you.
Venice, as you may have noticed during your explorations of the day, is a city full of artisan workshops which are lovely to browse or ideal for hunting down exquisite and unique gifts or souvenirs. The evening is a wonderful time to goshopping in Venice with many stores open until late and less full of tourists than during the day. While quite what you might find is varied something you can’t have failed to see after spending any time in Venice is the number of masks for sale.
Mask-wearing to hide your identity was once common practice in this city full of power struggles and intrigues although it was outlawed in the 1700s. Today, around February or March every year, Venice again becomes a city of mask-wearing and cloaked people during the Venice Carnivale –itself a tradition with ancient roots. During this time a huge number of parties and balls are held –some of the most famous attracting entrance fees of hundreds of dollars.
Mask shops come in every guise –from those with cheap imported goods to those which only stock elaborate and astonishingly lovely hand-made works of art. Vibrantly dyed feathers, sparkling sequins and glitter, encrustings of jewels and dazzling gilding are all seen and the most splendid shops are nothing short of Aladdin’s caves. One such is the Ca’ del Sol which feels like stepping through a portal into another fantastical world.
Masks aside, Venice also has many other shopping gems to discover. For book-lovers or those who just appreciate the unusual there is the Libreria Acqua Alta. Self-proclaimed as the ‘most beautiful bookshop in all the world’ (which incidentally might just be true) this wonderfully quirky store haphazardly displays its wares in bath tubs and a real gondola to keep them safe from the inevitable floods which assail the premises in winter. Cats weave their way in and out ofthe towering piles and the shelves while out back you can find a series of steps built from books which you can climb to get a lovely canal view by peeking just over the other side of the wall.
For those who prefer writing or sketching to reading the exquisite hand-bound books made by Paolo Olbi in his shop also make unique and high quality gifts. Alternatively art appreciators can peruse places such as the Malandrin Art Studio which has both watercolor paintings and photography for sale in its gallery, all created by a father and son team.
Another artisan worth checking out as he is considered one of the city’s best is Moulaye Niang –a Venetian with African ancestry who trained in the art of glass-making on Murano and now makes sensational jewelry with his glass beads. No two beads are the same which makes his lovely creations truly one-of-a-kind items.
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