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There aren’t many breaks more romantic than a weekend in Venice—a city of winding canals and mystical alleyways. For a long time a world leader for art and design, Venice is now able to proudly display its architectural treasures and museum collections to the hordes of tourists that visit the city’s squares and waterways.
It’s easy to catch a cheap flight to Venice, so don’t wait any longer to visit this unique ‘floating’ city.
The story of this unlikely city built on water began sometime around the 5th century, and on another island in the lagoon, Torcello. Early settlers were refugees trying to escape the mainland and a barrage of attacks by Germanic tribes.
Torcello island thrived as a major trading hub and port for the Byzantine Empire, and some of the earliest constructions in the whole lagoon can still be found there. Eventually, an increase in sediment in the rivers and a dangerous rise in the mosquito population sent all inhabitants over to Venice.
After gaining independence early in the 9th century, Venice expanded its commercial and military activities rapidly. Upon joining the Christian crusades, Venetian fighters began to bring back scores of looted treasures to adorn the ornate buildings under construction on the island.
In its heyday around the 14th and 15th centuries, Venice was a world leader in architecture, maritime activity and printing. However, the discovery of the Americas weakened its commercial position and then successive bouts of the plague decimated the population.
Napoleon ended almost a millennium of Venetian independence at the close of the 18th century. Then, after a brief spell under Austrian rule, the islands became part of Italy in 1866.
Venice mercifully avoided serious damage during the two world wars, with concerns more focused on the threat of flooding and the possibility of the city sinking into the swamp on which it is built. Still surviving the dangers that have faced it, today it is one of the world’s premier tourist destinations.
Boat tours are available that will take you out to Murano Island, where you can watch a glass-blowing demonstration at one of the island's many studios.
After visiting Murano Island, continue on to Burano Island; there, you'll be able to see some of Italy's finest handmade lace.
Foodies will find a stroll through the Rialto Market to be a very cultural experience, as you will see how the locals source their own food.
If you want to spend some time away from the crowds, have a vaporetto take you to Torcello Island, where the bulk of the island is actually a nature preserve.
Take the elevator to the top of the Campanile, one of the most recognizable symbols of the city. There, you can have a bird's-eye view of the domes on St. Mark's Basilica as well as the piazza.
The Doge's Palace, located next to St. Mark's Basilica, is one of Venice's most popular attractions. Make sure to take a walk across the Bridge of Sighs while you're there.
Considered to be one of the most impressive art collections in the world, the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim was assembled by American Peggy Guggenheim.
This boatyard, which originated in the 17th century, is the perfect photo opportunity and also allows you to see gondoliers behind the scenes.
Carnevale is one of the most important annual events in Venice. The party goes on for 10 days prior to Lent.
Although you really can't go wrong with any restaurant in Venice, Osteria Oliv Nera gives a modern twist to Venetian classics.
Everyone who’s been to this magnificent 9th century piazza—from Napoleon to today’s tourists—has been blown away by its jaw-dropping architecture and carnival atmosphere. Ornate arcades enclose the square on three sides, while St Mark’s basilica dominates the eastern edge. The square backs onto the Venetian lagoon, where transport boats pick passengers up and drop them off under the gaze of the city’s patrons, St Mark and St Theodore. During the day the square is a circus of day-trippers, pigeons and salesmen, so it is best to admire early in the morning or late at night.
A throwback to Venice’s Byzantine era, this majestic church is one of the world’s finest. The basilica incorporates a mesh of architectural styles and forms, laid out in a Greek cross but with onion-shaped domes and a Gothic facade. The interior is covered almost in its entirety in elaborate gold and bronze mosaics, while the majestic high altar contains St Mark’s relics. The main area of the church is free to enter, but there are three paid museums—Treasury, Pala d’Oro and Museo de San Marco—that are worth a visit for the vast array of treasures looted during the Crusades.
The political nerve-centre of Venice for centuries, this palace is now an unmissable stop on any itinerary. The inside is full of grand staircases and important-looking halls, where Venetian art history is laid out in a masterful collection of canvas paintings and sculptures. Tours of the palace also visit the criminal court and adjoining prison, crossing the famous Bridge of Sighs, where the condemned were said to take their last look at the sun before heading to the dungeon.
Originally an art school, this gallery museum now contains a remarkable collection of Venetian art dating from the 14th to the 19th century. Standing head and shoulders above the list of household names is Leonardo da Vinci, and his sketches of the Vitruvian Man.
Taking a ride on a gondola is the ultimate Venetian experience, but be sure to ask your gondolier to get off the Grand Canal and take you through the back waters so that you can get a more intimate look at the city.
If you're an early riser, grab a coffee and head out to St. Mark's Square before the crowds get there, and you'll swear you're a local.
Plan to visit one of the city's many mask shops, such as La Bottega dei Mascareri; you'll be amazed at the craftsmanship and variety of masks that you simply won't see anywhere else.
The classic Bellini, made from peaches and champagne, is a product of the infamous Harry's bar on Calle Vallaresso. Even if you choose not to imbibe, you'll find yourself in surroundings that have hosted people like Ernest Hemingway and Woody Allen.
The Basilica di San Marco is certainly impressive, but the Loggia dei Cavalli is less crowded, and you are able to get a much more up-close view of the mosaics.
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Like many destinations, Venice's high tourist season is during the summer months, when the weather is warm but not oppressive, usually topping out at 27Â°C. The crowds can be daunting, though, and the cost prohibitive. Consider visiting between September and November. Temperatures may fluctuate between 4 and 14Â°C, but you'll be gifted with thinning crowds and lower rates. The city doesn't miss a beat when the crowds leave, as there are several major festivals that take place in the fall, such as the RegataStorica in September and the Festadella Salute in November. No matter what season you choose to make the journey to Venice, remember to use ebookers to get access to some of the lowest prices available on airfares and hotels.
It might sound like zany travel advice, but losing yourself in Venice’s labyrinth of canals and alleyways is the best way to escape the hordes and find the city’s hidden treasures. You’ll never be too far away from a major landmark and reference point, and you can’t stray too far anyway because you’re on an island. So put the map away, pick a direction, and walk—it’s probably the thing you’ll talk about most when you get back.
Take the lift to the top of Venice’s tallest building, the campanile (bell tower) on St Mark’s square. Just barely shy of 100 metres, the viewing platform has an unbeatable panorama of red roofs, winding canals, and the surrounding lagoon. The tower was built in the 16th century, and then rebuilt brick-for-brick in the early 20th century after it collapsed, mercifully causing little damage to the square. In an effort to avoid a repeat of history, today’s tower is still undergoing sporadic restoration work, so sometimes access to the top is limited.
Some of Venice’s most lavish façades can be found along the main waterway, which is nearly always full of boats carrying people in and out of the city. Vaporettos—water buses—run up and down the canal, providing the nearest equivalent to a city bus tour to introduce you to your surrounds. Keep an eye out for the resplendent Ca’ d’Oro (Gold House), the supposedly cursed Ca’ Dario, and the Palazzo Pisani, which James Bond dramatically helped destroy during the finale of the film Casino Royale.
To experience an altogether different side of the city, jump on a waterboat and cross the lagoon to the island of Lido, Venice’s primary beach spot. Around a dozen kilometres of sandy shores draw the tanning crowds in the summer, especially on the side facing the impossibly blue Adriatic Sea. The most popular option for visitors is to hire a beach hut, which offer great places to shelter but tend to be booked up early.
There are so many options when looking for a hotel in Venice. Remember that anything too close to St Mark’s Square will come with a premium price tag, which is often unnecessary given how easy—and pleasant— it is to walk around the city.
For a no-holds-barred Venice experience, try the Canal Grande Hotel, which backs on to the city’s main watery thoroughfare. The restored palace building takes you straight back to the 18th century, when the city was basking in the glory of its world-renowned Renaissance artists. It’s a bit of a walk from the main piazza, but that could be considered a benefit in a city made for strolling.
In a prime spot within earshot of the campanile in St Mark’s square, La Fenice et des Artistes Hotel is a charming hotel with a bohemian soul. A handful of rooms are each decorated differently, though all follow a typical Venetian theme.
A short ride across the lagoon on the Murano Island, the Locanda Conterie Hotel offers a more tranquil location that is still within easy reach of the city’s main attractions. Offering simple comfort and cleanliness, the hotel is well suited for budget travellers, though nightlife lovers should bear in mind that Murano can get pretty quiet later on.
In close proximity to the legendary Rialto Bridge, the Santa Marina Hotel is an elegant four-star lodging with a cheery yellow exterior. Common areas are lavishly decorated with old-world fabrics, while the rooms have a slightly more contemporary feel.
The constant stream of tourists shows that Venice doesn’t really have an off season. But it does have a clear change in seasons, with hot, humid summers and sometimes bitter winters.
The rainfall is highest during winter, and the rising tide of water sometimes leads to extensive flooding. While this can be a novelty—those ornate buildings look just as good reflected on the floor—it also means you should check the weather forecast in advance, and think about bringing a pair of wellington boots.
If you want to see the elaborate masks of carnival, time your visit to coincide with the two weeks before Lent begins. Be aware that prices at this time, and during the Venice film festival, will be higher than usual.
Marco Polo is the nearest airport, at a little over 10 kilometres from the centre of the city. However, some airlines use the San Giuseppe airport, which is around an hour away by road. Frequent, comfortable buses connect both terminals with the island.
Aside from walking, the only way to get around Venice is by boat. Private gondolas are a popular tourist activity, though the prices can be extortionate, especially if you want someone to do the punting.
Vaporettos (water buses) are the most convenient way to traverse the city, though they are by no means cheap at around £5 for a single journey. There are a handful of boats that run through the night, in case you don’t fancy the walk back to your hotel in the dark.
Obviously, with no roads to speak of in the city itself, having your own wheels is unnecessary if you plan to stay put. However, if you have a bit more time and want to explore the mainland region—perhaps to visit Juliet’s balcony in ‘fair’ Verona—consider a cheap car hire in Venice.
There are plenty of eateries to choose from in Venice, but too many offer mediocre imitations of Italian—not Venetian—classics to tourists who don’t have the time or inclination to find anything more authentic. To get the real experience you should wander off the main trails, look for queues of Italian-speaking people, and never, ever choose somewhere with an English tourist menu.
If you manage to find Antiche Carampane (San Polo 1911), the ‘no tourist menu’ sign will make it immediately obvious that this isn’t one of the city’s disappointing eateries. The staples here are strictly Venetian, so forget any cravings for pizzas or pastas and tuck in to some well-prepared seafood dishes. Though the prices are quite high, the quality of the food means this is a good place to treat yourself.
Sample some exotic catches from the lagoon at Trattoria Alla Madonna (San Polo 594). For over 50 years this cosy place has been serving fried eels and cuttlefish eggs to local and inquisitive tourists. There are also more basic options for those not feeling adventurous: try the grilled fish of the day or a tender cut of veal.
Stopping for a gelato is an essential part of any Venice trip, and at the Alaska Gelateria-Sorbetteria (Santa Croce 1159) you can find all the classic flavours alongside some more unusual options like artichoke and asparagus. Almost as popular as the ice cream is the man who makes it: owner Carlo Pistacchi is a local legend and always available to talk about his twin passions of football and ice cream.
No specific vaccinations are required to enter Italy, though you should always make sure your basic boosters are up to date before you travel.
Malaria is not a risk, though mosquito bites on some of the outer islands can be a problem so take repellent and cover up if you are outside during the twilight hours.
Tap water is drinkable throughout Venice, though bottled varieties are also widely available. The water in the canals, however, can often be dirty and is not suitable for bathing in.
In case of an emergency, dial 118. The health infrastructure is excellent though bear in mind that ambulances cannot travel around the city centre.
Venice is largely a very safe place to walk around, though it is unwise to stray too far from your hotel at night. It is also wise to carry a torch around at night, as some alleyways are uneven and not lit very well.
The sheer number of tourists means that pickpockets are commonly found, especially around the main attractions. You might want to consider storing cash in a hidden money belt rather than pockets.