Venice Tours and Travel Guide
Venice Attractions & Landmarks Guide
Venice is unique in the world. Built on a lagoon, crisscrossed by canals and a maze of narrow, winding streets that lead to centuries-old palazzos, piazzas, churches, bridges, and art museums, Venice by all rights should have sunk into the sea years ago.
But somehow Venice manages to survive as very possibly the most beautiful and romantic city on earth. Take a gondola ride, wander the streets, savor a meal or glass of wine by the Grand Canal: you can’t go wrong.
History Tours of Venice
For more than a thousand years, Venice’s twisting and winding streets and canals helped to repel invaders and turn this remarkable city-state built on a lagoon and a prayer into one of Europe’s greatest seafaring powers.
Wealthy, worldly, and cultured, Venice developed into a dazzling fairyland of medieval places, Renaissance guildhalls, Gothic churches, Byzantine domes, and soaring spires and towers that seem to float on the sea.
For all of these reasons and more, going on a history tour of Venice, and learning about the city’s fascinating history is a must-do on your visit. Learning about Venice’s role in the renaissance, in European trade, and the legacy of its most important families are just some of the things that a history tour of Venice might touch on. With that being said, however, learning about Venice’s past isn’t the only thing to do.
To this day, Venice’s legacy of architecture, art, food, seamanship, and craftsmanship resonates throughout the Adriatic Sea and beyond. Its main industry now, of course, is tourism -- tours to Italy almost never miss a visit to Venice.
But it’s also a city that – while seeing much of its permanent population dissipate over the years – still supports residential neighborhoods with all the requisite local cafes, kids kicking soccer balls, and authentic trattorias serving up regional specialties.
So as wonderful as San Marco, the Academy Gallery, and the Grand Canal are, if time permits it’s rewarding to get off the beaten tourist track for a while, and wander aimlessly through the city, simply absorbing the sheer beauty of your surroundings.
Exploring Venice: The Grand Canal
Venice somehow manages to squeeze some 3,000 streets, 150 canals, and 400 bridges into an area just 1.5 miles north to south and 2.5 miles east to west. Many of the streets are little more than narrow alleyways, many of them dead-ending on canals or walls, while some of the canals are barely wider than the streets.
The Grand Canal, however, is appropriately named: snaking through the heart of the city, lapping at the foundations of aging palazzi and offering one of the greatest water spectacles on earth. Boats of almost every description – from commercial vessels to yachts, water taxis, and gondolas – share the canal, and a ride on a vaporetto (water bus) that circuits the entire canal is unforgettable.
Vaporettos can get very crowded at certain times of the day, with mostly standing room, but work your way to the front or back if you can and grab a seat when one becomes available. You can ride for hours if you like – just be sure to buy a ticket or a pass before you board.
Innumerable streets and smaller canals branch off the Grand Canal and lead to just about anywhere you want to go, albeit indirectly amid the twisted knot of passageways.
If you want to experience the canals in a more luxurious fashion, try taking a gondola ride through them. A gondola, not be confused with the box-like chairlift of the same name, is a traditional Italian boat that served as the main form of Venetian river travel for centuries. The skinny boat can only carry a few people at a time, and is propelled forward by a single, standing oarsmen at the back of the boat.
Taking a gondola is now a classic tourist experience in Venice, and so the boats are typically beautifully painted, and the gondolier may even break into song during your boat ride!
Crossing the Rialto Bridge
The top landmark along the Grand Canal is the high-arched, marble Rialto Bridge, which has spanned the canal in grand style since 1591 and serves as a rough midpoint between the train station on the northern edge of the city and San Marco to the south. It also represents the commercial heart of the city.
The 94-foot-long, 24-foot-high bridge is lined with shops in the middle and flanked by walkways on either side. It’s the oldest of four bridges that now cross the Grand Canal, and the second most visited tourist site in Venice, a masterpiece of Renaissance design and engineering.
Touring Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)
San Marco – a huge square just off the Grand Canal -- is Venice’s leading attraction. Lined by splendid palaces and pricey outdoor cafes where chamber orchestras play Puccini for Bellini-sipping guests, San Marco is the site of the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica, which graces one end of the square.
An 11th-century Byzantine-style multi-domed, spired church, San Marco is on the list of virtually every Venice visitor, so lines to enter are often long. But don’t let that deter you – this is one of Italy’s greatest sites, with a stunning interior lined with exotic gold mosaics.
Buy a ticket to the second floor to view the small museum containing the famous four bronze Horses of St. Mark -- then go out on the balcony to overlook the square in the company of four replica horses placed there to protect the originals from the elements
Across from the Basilica is the Campanile Bell Tower, which you can climb for panoramic views from the top -- best tackled before a big pasta lunch. And adjacent to St. Mark’s, overlooking the Grand Canal, is the ornate pink-tinged Doge’s Palace, where the rulers of Venice once governed an empire during its past glory days as a nation-state.
The palace is replete with artworks and is the location of the aptly named Bridge of Sighs, where prisoners caught their last glimpse of Venice as they were led to their cells.
Viewing Venice’s Artistic Masterpieces
The Academy Gallery (Accademia) is Venice’s top art museum, displaying works from the Byzantine and Gothic periods through the Renaissance and into the 18th century, with an emphasis on Venetian painters.
Renaissance-era artists represented in the Gallery – whose works reveled in deep, rich tomes – include Giorgione, Carpaccio, Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, and Veronese. The Gallery’s 18th-century artists -- who often painted scenes of Venice -- include Canaletto and Guardi.
You can also find great artworks away from museums, if you get off the beaten track a bit.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco – a 500-year-old guild hall in the San Polo district – is adorned with 56 remarkable paintings by the 16th-century Venetian master Tintoretto, including his monumental Crucifixion. Another finding is the 16th-century Scuola Dalmata dei Santi Giorgio e Trifone, where a little chapel is lined with some of Italy’s most captivating masterworks – panels depicting scenes from the lives of three saints, painted by the Venetian Vittore Carpaccio. It’s in the Castello district beyond St. Mark’s, tricky to locate but unforgettable.
Jewish History in Venice
Venice is a beautiful city, but it also has a darker history, particularly surrounding its Jewish heritage. In the Cannaregio district, you can tour the old Jewish center of Venice, and see the square that was the first “ghetto” in the world.
Like in much of Europe, the Jews were persecuted in a variety of ways. They were forced to pay extra taxes, were not allowed to settle in the city, they were forced to wear badges, they were not accepted on ships...the list of the restrictions they faced goes on and on. Starting in the 16th century, many Jews came to Venice fleeing persecution in Spain and other lands.
The Venetian government decided to allow them to stay, but only if they lived inside the Ghetto. Over the centuries, thousands of Jews lived in the Ghetto, held in by gates, guards and nighttime curfews – both to restrict and protect them.
Today, the area is particularly special because it is one of the few untouched ghettos in the world. You can still see historic “skyscraper” buildings, the original five synagogues, the Jewish Museum, as well as some shops.
Most of Venice’s Jews left the city due to hostilities, or were transported out and murdered during the Holocaust, though there a few remaining Jewish families. Visiting the Jewish quarter in Venice is a great way to understand and see a side of a shared European history that is usually skipped over, and that most visitors never experience.
Crossing the Venice Lagoon to the Outer Islands
The Venice Lagoon actually holds some 100 islands, most of them uninhabited, while others thrive as tourist attractions.
The best known are Murano, Burano, Torcello, the Lido, and San Michele, all easily reached by water bus from San Marco or other vaporetto stations.
Murano is renowned as a center of glass-making. You can watch glass-blowing demonstrations and buy beautiful, often elaborate glassware, or just wander the streets and have lunch in a less crowded (though still heavily visited) area than San Marco.
Burano is best known for lace-making and colorful houses, while Torcello’s main attraction is a thousand-year-old cathedral. The latter two islands tend to be quieter than Murano. Quieter yet is San Michele, where a walled cemetery invites perusal if you have time.
The Venice Lido is the city’s beach resort area, home to a number of hotels, restaurants, and sandy beaches.
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