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A marshy lagoon in the Adriatic Sea hardly sounds like the setting of an opulent weekend away, but trust me, you won’t need your wellies for this wet wilderness. Built upon over 100 small islands, the city of Venice is akin to a butterfly breaking free from its murky chrysalis, emerging into a grandiose cornucopia of exquisite art and architecture. The gold-dipped city quite literally seems to grow from the depths and holds a unique charm that, in my mind, should appear on everyone’s ‘bucket list’.
In previous travel guides, many of the adventures I’ve retold have spanned over several weeks, but Venice is different. Not all trips away need to be for weeks, or even months; the magical experience of Venice is actually best kept short and delectably sweet, if for nothing more than your bank balance! Yes, the rumours are true- tourists to Venice can be charged a premium and a short visit here could cost you rather more than you were expecting. However, in this Venice Travel Guide I’ll show you how and when to save and when to completely splurge!
What I love most about Venice is the sheer ambiance of this remarkable sliver of Italy. It’s so rich in history that you can almost hear the Renaissance painters’ brushes embellishing the medieval walls of the awe-inspiring buildings! Culturally, this is not a city to just dip your toe into; be prepared to be totally submerged.
But before we dive in, a small caution: I’ve heard many negative reports about the hospitality of the locals, claiming that they are ‘rude’ and ‘unhelpful’. The truth is that Venetians want their remarkable city to be respected and appreciated, not gawped at and treated like a theme park. Venetians themselves welcome the cultural connoisseur with open arms, favouring them to the snappy-happy day-tripper. Personally, as someone who wants to be immersed in the atmosphere of everywhere I travel, I found the people I met wonderful, warm and passionate about their marvellous city. If you adore art, architecture and history, Venice is for you and I know that you’ll love it!
Piazza San Marco
Despite only being 5 square kilometres in size, Venice is a labyrinth of innumerable winding streets and trails. So it makes sense to start our journey on the most trodden path- Piazza San Marco (Saint Marco’s Square).
Once described by Napoleon as ‘the drawing room of Europe’ Saint Mark’s, along with ‘La Piazzetta’ (a small extension of the main square) form the social, religious and political centre of Venice. The square gives visitors incredible views of the Adriatic, but beware if you visit at high tide, as part of the square can flood! I’d recommend going either early in the morning or late in the evening, outside of traditional ‘touristy’ times, when you can relax and soak in the imposing architecture and beautiful views.
Campanile di San Marco (Saint Mark’s Campanile)
Literally meaning Saint Mark’s bell tower, this monument is one of the most recognisable in Venice and, at over 300 feet tall, offers the best view of the city. The initial building of the tower began in the 9th century and was completed in 1514. Sadly, the tower that stands in the corner of Saint Mark’s Square today is a restored version, as the original collapsed in 1902, but it is still an architectural must see when in Venice.
Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco (Saint Mark’s Basilica)
If you are looking for one piece of architecture that typifies Venice, it has to be Saint Mark’s Basilica. The cathedral is a breath-taking work of art, both inside and out, and in all honesty words cannot do it justice. The domed and spired structure is an incredible example of Byzantine-Italian architecture and no expense was spared in its creation, for example the interior boasts enough intricate mosaics to cover 1.5 American football fields!
I would recommend taking a guided tour of Saint Mark’s Basilica, so that you can hear about the long standing history, wonderful stories, which includes tales of everything from kidnap to the Crusades, and see the glittering delights of this formidable attraction, which ordinarily you would not be permitted access to. The highlight for me were the Pala d’Oro, which, comprised of 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes, make the Crown Jewels pale in comparison! The best time to take the tour is at 1030, so that you will also be able to see the lighting up of the mosaics at 1100.
Venice conjures up many famous names: from the fiction ‘Merchant of Venice’ to the real life Pope Giovanni XXIII, but none are as notorious as Giacomo Casanova. Once the serial seducer’s favourite haunt, a visit to Café Florian will allow you to sample the truly decadent side of Venice whilst lapping up sumptuous coffee at the infamous lover’s old hang-out. It’s pricey, but worth the cost.
La Fenice Teatro
Now you’ve splurged, it’s time to save! The beauty of Venice is that waking tours are popular and relatively cheap. You can of course make your own way around the city, so the following are suggestions of sights to see along your travels.
Roughly a 5 minute walk from Saint Mark’s Square, is one of the most famous landmarks in Italian theatrical history, La Fenice Teatro (The Venice Theatre). A tour of this remarkable building costs a very reasonable 10 euros each and will allow you to peak into Italy’s opera history and bask in the gilded glory of the ornate auditorium.
To truly experience La Fenice Teatro you need to go and see some opera in this spectacular venue. Even if you’re not a huge fan of this medium of entertainment, the sheer ambiance is so moving and poignant that you will be blown away.
I’d also suggest to follow your visit to the theatre by a wander along Calle delle Carrozze and on into Salizada San Samuele, where you can see some very interesting art galleries, shops and design boutiques.
Dorsoduro District- Churches and Local Pasta!
Second only to Saint Mark’s Basilica, I Frai (church of the Franciscan Friars) is an incredible church meets art gallery. This soaring Italian- brick Gothic church is the hub of some of the most important art in Venice, including Canova’s pyramid mausoleum, Bellini’s ‘Madonna with Child’ and Longhena’s ‘Doge Pesaro’ funereal monument. However, the real start of the show is Titian’s altarpiece, which depicts Madonna’s departure from this Earthly coil. Titian himself is actually buried here, forever guarding his masterpiece.
Consecrated in 1492, the current basilica was constructed by the Franciscans to replace a smaller church, built on land donated to the order by Doge Jacopo Tiepolo in 1231. The 12 round pillars running between the nave and aisles are said to represent the apostles.
It’s simply stunning inside and out and is less of a tourist trap than Saint Mark’s. From here you can also walk down to the other churches of Chiesa di San Barnaba and Chiesa Dei Carmini, both of which boast beautiful architecture and art works and can be found in the Dorsoduro district of the city.
I’d suggest that you veer off the beaten track on your walk to these churches, so that you can experience the residential area packed with local food shops selling hand-made pasta and quaint, and reasonably priced, local eateries such as Al Vecio Marangon, which specialises in Venetian cuisine.
If local produce is your passion, it’s worth a visit to Campo San Barnaba and the Pantagruelica food store, where you can purchase hand-made pastas, salamis and lots of other goodies. Apparently the local gelato is amazing, but sadly I opted out of this during my visit, as it was a rather chilly January day!
No trip to Venice would be complete without going to see at least one of the famous bridges which connect the islands. And, if you want the ‘authentic’ (or rather ‘clichéd’) experience, you’ll probably want to do this via gondola.
I have absolutely nothing against gondolas, but am wary of gondoliers! Being a tourist, they know that people will pay over the odds for a very short trip of the waterways. My advice to you is take a gondola out of peak times (late afternoon is a good option) and keep away from the more commercial boats. Also, agree the price upfront- not whilst you’re mid-voyage! It cost me and my wife around 80 euros for 30 minutes, which is not the bargain of the century, but is a slightly more palatable price. The trip also allowed me to take in this incredible view of the Rialto Bridge.
The Rialto Bridge is one of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal in Venice and is the oldest bridge across the canal. It was also the dividing line for the districts of San Marco and San Polo. Today, it is also a great spot to watch the fishing boats delivering their wares to the Mercado de Pesce if you arrive before 0700. It was a great experience to see the traders setting up the colourful array of fresh vegetables and fish, knowing that I’d be sampling them later (more on this shortly).
The second ‘must see’ bridge is The Bridge of Sighs. This white, stone, enclosed bridge. Its history is actually very similar to the Tower of London, in that the view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. Lord Byron gave the bridge its name, taken from the Italian ‘Ponte dei Sospiri’, as he believed that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells.
A local legend says that lovers will be granted eternal love and bliss if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the Bridge of Sighs as the bells of St Mark’s Campanile toll. Maybe a local gondolier wrote this tale…
If you have had your fill of Venice, why not take a short trip to the neighbouring collection of islands of Murano. Famed for the production of glass and lace, Murano is also a brightly coloured, slightly more relaxed, cousin of Venice.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to take a free water taxi from our hotel to the glass factory on Murano where we were wowed with the intricate and beautiful creations being made before our eyes. It was fascinating to watch and I’m really pleased that we set aside half a day to visit this charismatic place.
Whilst on in Murano, we also visited The Basilica dei Santa Maria e San Donato, which is renowned for its 12th century Byzantine mosaics, both on its floor and in its dome. Its floor is actually very similar to that of Saint Mark’s Basilica, but is much less know. This church also claims to house the bones of a dragon slain by Saint Donatus.
I’m really pleased that we visited Murano and I would highly recommend it to anyone who would like to see a less well known corner of this incredible collection of islands.
You will be spoilt for choice for places to eat in Venice and I urge you to try as many different restaurants, bars and cafes as possible. The ones found down tiny side streets, tucked out of the way of the bulk of tourists, will often offer you the best value, but here are some of my favourites:
• All’Arco: A chic but petit piano bar with cichetti (snacks). Located between Rialto and Mercado de Pesce, it’s great for drinks after a meal.
• Harry’s bar, near San Marco, which was Ernest Hemmingway’s favourite bar and famous for its Bellini’s. It’s also a favourite of many other famous celebrities and has the most atmosphere on a Friday or Saturday night.
• Al Volto, Calle Cavalli 4081, San Marco,
• Bacaro Jazz, San Marco 5546
• Ai Canottieri, Ponte Tre Archi 690, Cannaregio, Cannaregio 690, Fondamenta Del Macello,
• Café Blue, Dorsoduro, 3778,
• Alle Corone, Castello Campo della Fava 5527, 30122 http://www.hotelaireali.com/reali_restaurant.htm
• Taverna al Remer, Cannaregio 5701, which has live music, a great atmosphere and lovely food. http://www.alremer.it/
• Il Ridotto, which offers Michelin star quality without the price tag. I recommend to opt for the tasting menu, which offers a delicious fusion of Italian and Bengalese food.
• Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti, Fondamenta della Toletta Dorsoduro, 1169/A, 30123. You’ll need to book for this restaurant.
• Al Vecio Marangon (close by to Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti) is also lovely and there is no need to book.
• Poste Vecie, Mercado del Pesce Rialto. The oldest restaurant in Venice, serving good quality, value for money food, for Venice prices! www.postevecie.it
I hope that has whet your appetite for some of the incredible sights and tastes that Venice has to offer. It really is an exquisite place that will truly inspire your artistic side and let you indulge in life’s finer luxuries.
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