Venice is one of the world’s must-visit cities. Many people share that opinion and recently plans to control visitor numbers were announced. Locals and tourists will be segregated in some of the most popular spots. But the spectacle of gondolas, iconic canals and ornately decorated churches means this UNESCO World Heritage city will remain on the bucket list of many of Venice’s four million annual visitors.
That’s why I was hesitant about visiting Italy’s second-biggest tourist attraction. I’d heard tales of overcrowded streets and squares and opportunist cafés selling €20 cappuccinos. But I actually found a cost-effective way to see the city and avoid some of the queues and congestion.
President of Venice’s Tourist Guide Association, Caterina Sopradassi, met me in St Mark’s Square and showed me some of the lesser-known sites of the city. If you listen to the radio broadcast below, you’ll hear Caterina’s tips for the best time to visit Venice. Caterina also explains why you might want to avoid the periods when the high tides reach their peak.
Accommodation is more expensive and it is busier around St Mark’s Square. But as the city is made up of a series of islands, you can easily save money by staying on a nearby island, catching one of the vaporetto water buses to reach your accommodation.
The boats run on 19 routes along the canals and across the lagoon. It’s quite exciting to board a boat straight from the airport or train station as you head for your hotel. You catch the vaporetti on what seem to be floating bus shelters or pontoons.
Choose your accommodation carefully. Some islands receive a less frequent service, especially at night, and you do need to see central Venice in the evening. I chose the pleasant and peaceful island of Lido.
If you’ve ever been to a British seaside ‘Lido’ then it was named after this 7-mile-long, half-mile wide island. It’s lined with rows of wooden bathing huts or cabanas. And it’s lovely. There are plenty of great restaurants, pavement cafés and boutique shops along the wide, central boulevard. It’s less touristy than the city centre and home to 20,000 Venetians.
Lido’s tree-lined streets are filled with attractive houses and villas, which are far more modern than you’d expect from Venice. This area attracts architecture fans for its distinctive Art Nouveau buildings, designed in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly the Palazzo del Cinema which hosts the annual film festival.
The island’s highest point is just 10 feet above sea level so cycling is a great way to get to the beaches from your accommodation.
My hotel was the 3-star Hotel Rigel. It was built in the 1960’s and has retained much of its original period décor. It was spotless, very friendly and I felt like I was immersed in the glamorous, bygone Italy of Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida.
Heading back to the centre of Venice on the boat, the Venetian skyline of domes, brick towers and arched waterfront palaces was stunning. And just ten-minutes boat ride from Lido!
Today we think of Venice as one of Italy’s great cities but the former Venetian Republic was a world superpower in its own right between the 8th and 18th century. The Venetians dominated much of the coast around the Adriatic during the peak of their power in the 15th century.
I stood in the middle of the vast St Mark’s Square surveying the ornate wedding cake-like buildings on every side of the plaza. The Republic’s wealth and glory is still apparent and impressive. At one corner is St Mark’s Campanile – a tall, square redbrick bell tower with a green pointed roof, once used as a lighthouse.
The arched, stone Rialto Bridge is one of the city’s most-pictured landmarks. Steps lead pedestrians up and down the bridge’s single span. You can’t really tell you’re crossing the Grand Canal when you’re waking over it because there are shops on either side of the bridge.
With so many canals to cross, it’s no wonder that many of Venice’s’ most recognisable sights are its bridges. Listen to the radio show and you’ll hear Caterina explain how a British poet’s romantic fiction led to one of the crossings getting its famous name – The Bridge Of Sighs.
Casanova lived in Venice and you can see the hotel that was once his home.
Another famous Venetian’s former home can also be seen – adventurer Marco Polo’s place is found in a quiet courtyard.
Venice’s merchants liked to flaunt their wealth through lavish palace interiors. The family that owned Ca’ Rezzonico went to town with their designs, which included sweeping marble staircases, balustrades and grand, gilded mirrors.
Curator Daniele D’Anza showed me this Baroque-era excess and we started in the room designed to impress guests, the ballroom. Its wall and ceiling frescoes depict Apollo and the four continents. Paintings by Canaletto are on display in the museum, showing how the Venetian view has hardly changed.
But here’s how to enjoy the best Venice vista – for free. Head to the DFS department store close to the Rialto Bridge. It’s a high-end shop owned by the Benetton family, housed in an incredible 15th century building with four balconied floors, set around a central atrium. You’ll hear Caterina talk about the history of this building on the audio link at the bottom of this page. The views from the roof deck are simply stunning.
The island of Murano, a mile from Venice’s centre, is also formed of many, small, bridge-linked islands. Its main thoroughfare is a canal, lined on both sides by endless stores selling the distinctive Murano glassware. It’s known for its bright colours – yellows, reds and greens.
Listen to the audio broadcast to learn about the history of Murano glass and why it features such distinctive colours.
You can watch glassblowers in action on Murano.
This island is all about glass. The main artwork in the square outside the basilica is a spiky blue snowflake-like sculpture, fashioned unsurprisingly from glass.
After another short boat trip I was on the nearby island of Burano. It’s a photographers’ favourite because of the bold painted colours applied to the island’s cottages.
The 53 meter high Burano bell tower leans ominously above the school next door with a Pisa-style list of 2m.
The island is known for its fishermen. While the men were on the water, their wives produced lacework. There’s a lace museum on the island now.
One thing you’ll notice in Venice’s narrow streets are shop windows filled with masks. They are part of the dress code for attendees of the city’s hugely popular carnival each February. The masks vary from simple white bands to cover the eyes through to lavishly designed decorative disguises, sparkling with sequins or featuring feathers. There are also sinister, creepy, pointed masks resembling bird beaks.
Ca’ Macana is a long-established, traditional mask maker. I walked in on one of their workshops filled with locals and visitors creating their own masks. Listen to Davide Belloni explain how the tradition started on the radio show replay below.
In a global tourism destination like Venice you can buy any international food to suit any taste or dietary need. If you’re seeking Kosher cuisine then there’s the former Jewish ghetto, a small island of streets and squares where that community was confined from the early 16th century. The English word actually comes from the Venetian name for this area – Gheto.
Venice has its own version of tapas, called cicetti. You’ll be able to pick from a range of cheese, fish or meat dishes usually presented on pieces on bread.
There’s a saying – ‘See Venice and Die’. I’m not following that advice literally, but I understand the sentiment. With so much history and miles of magnificent buildings, it’s a magical and romantic place. Venice has to be viewed, at least once.
Hotel Rigel kindly accommodated me and you can book your Venice stay directly on their website at HotelRigel.it.
Listen to the full radio show, as Keri tours the sights of Venice, here: