Once an independent republic that stretched down the Balkan coastline as far as Crete, Venice is now sought out for its leisurely cafe culture, cutting-edge arts scene and renaissance palazzos, the grandest of which line the banks of the Grand Canal. Here’s why we think everyone should visit this unique city at least once, from the joys of getting lost in an ancient floating maze, to experiencing its February Carnival and biannual contemporary arts festival.
Founded by refugees from the collapsing Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, Venice is a history buff’s dream. It’s worth a trip just to see the 11th-century St Mark’s Basilica, the interior of which features 4,200sqm (45,200sqft) of gold mosaics and an altarpiece inlaid with almost 2,000 precious stones. Take a gondola or traghetti ride down the 3.8km (2.4 mile)-long Grand Canal to admire the Venetian gothic and renaissance facades of the city’s grandest palazzos.
When in Venice, you’ll have the opportunity to view the planet’s largest oil-on-canvas painting – Tintoretto’s gigantic depiction of paradise in the 14th-century Palazzo Ducale. To see more by this master of the Venetian School, as well as several pieces by his near contemporary Titian, head to the Fine Arts Museum (Gallerie dell’Accademia). Here, you’ll find the world’s finest collection of renaissance Venetian painting displayed under carved, gilded ceilings, dating from the 15th century.
Getting lost in any of Venice’s six districts is inevitable, but not something to fight against. In fact, it’s the best way to acquaint yourself with this floating labyrinth. Put aside an entire morning, afternoon or evening – so you’re not time-conscious – and head off the main tourist routes between the port, train station and St Mark’s Basilica. Even if you just venture off by a street or two, you’ll discover hidden alleys, squares and see day-to-day canal life unfold all around you.
One of the pleasures of a trip to Venice is loafing in its traditional bars – collectively known as bacari or osterie – and snacking on cicchetti, bite-size nibbles usually accompanied by a glass of local wine. Typical cicchetti include mini sandwiches known as tramezzino, fried mozzarella and slices of bread topped with fresh fish and seafood. Try Al Timon, where you can sit on a wooden boat on the canal, or Al Merca, where the house tipple is a cocktail of prosecco, soda water, Aperol or Campari.
Venice’s canal-oriented layout and arresting buildings have earned it lead roles in dozens of films over the decades. Architectural stars to look out for include the Accademia and Rialto Bridges, both of which appeared alongside Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006). Additionally, the Chiesa di San Barnaba served as the library facade in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and the Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel was a key location in Casanova (2005), in which Heath Ledger plays the Venetian adventurer and playboy.
The best way to appreciate the water-facing facades of Venice’s most ornate palaces is from a boat on the Grand Canal. You can cruise the length of the city’s snaking thoroughfare on Line 1 of the vaporetto (public Venetian waterbus), from San Marco to Porta Roma. Keep your eyes peeled for masterpieces such as the Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande, built in 1545 for the aristocratic Cornaro family, and the 15th-century Ca’ Foscari, one of the finest examples of late gothic architecture in Venice.
For an insight into the secretive world of Venetian glassmaking, take a vaporetto to the island of Murano. The city’s glassmakers were moved here in the late 1200s, ostensibly to reduce the risk of fire on Venice itself. Browse the studios and workshops along the waterfront promenades, visit the Glass Museum inside the 17th-century Palazzo Giustinian – where the permanent collection ranges from the Roman era to the present day – and watch a glass-blowing demonstration at the Vetreria Murano Arte factory.
Venice’s annual Carnival runs for the two weeks preceding Lent, plunging all six districts into a period of refined, colourful hedonism. Its headline events include the Festa delle Marie, a parade featuring 12 Venetian women dressed in elaborate costumes and masks, and the Volo Dell’angelo (Flight of the Angel), in which the previous carnival’s beauty queen glides along a rope above St Mark’s Square. Soak it all up by wandering among the masked crowds and attending a masquerade ball – book months in advance.
See what Venice has to offer by booking through Culture Trip – select a stay in a dreamy spa hotel, have a beautiful boutique break or opt for a more local stay. Indulge in fresh local cuisine to satisfy your hunger and explore local attractions with our essential guide.
This is an updated version of an article originally written by Ione Wang.
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