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Once a powerful and commanding Republic, Venice is one of the most celebrated cities in Italy. Built on 118 small islands linked by canals and bridges, it remains largely as it would have looked in medieval times. Now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its pivotal place in Italy’s past and present makes it an attractive destination for historians, art lovers, chefs and romantics of all ages. From its ostentatious churches and palaces housing medieval masterpieces to tiny backstreet chapels that are home to priceless artworks, it’s a city of high culture known for its pioneering ideas and healthy disregard for convention.

Other cities have canals, but there’s nowhere quite like Venice. For the bigger picture, you need to venture beyond the busy central areas, exploring the city’s northern and eastern districts, and the marshy lagoon islands.

Italy specialist Shannon

Things to see and do in Venice

St Mark’s Square and Basilica

San Marco is the historic core of Venice and at its heart is Piazza San Marco, or St Mark’s Square, the focal point of this striking city. Surrounded by imperial apartments and some of Venice's oldest cafes, it’s dominated by an imposing basilica dedicated to Saint Mark who, as the legend goes, was destined to rest here by divine prophecy. So, when the city's patron saint died in Alexandria in 828, Venetian authorities set about secretly bringing him home.

Today, the basilica is one of the grandest in Italy, awash with gilded mosaics and showcasing some exceptional Romanesque architecture.

The Doge’s Palace

Seat of the Venetian government and official home of the Doge, this remarkable Gothic palace lay at the very heart of the city's political, judiciary and administrative life. The intricate exterior with its geometrical patterns and marble colonnades has been described as Islamicized Gothic, whereas the internal courts and apartments are much more traditionally Venetian in style. Extravagantly decorated with ornate fireplaces, gilded stuccowork and lavish artwork by Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Veronese, the chambers are an exuberant proclamation of the power and ambition of the Venetian Republic. The palace was also home to the city's prisons, linked to the main building by the historic Bridge of Sighs.

Murano Island and glass-blowing experience

Glass has been made on Murano since the 13th century, when the city's glass makers retreated to the island to mitigate the risk of fire to the main city and to better protect the valuable secrets of their art. The glass made here is prized across the world for its high quality and incredibly intricate patterns, made from mixing minute portions of glass. We can arrange for you to take a factory tour to see the glassblowers at work or visit the Museo del Vetro to learn about the long history of glassmaking on the island.

Burano Island

Winding lanes of brightly painted houses line the canals in the fishing village of Burano set on an outlying island just a 15-minute boat ride beyond Murano. It's a delightful place to explore and makes an excellent day trip from the city.

The island is known for the ancient art of lace making. Artisans here have long boasted their own intricate style, which produces highly detailed and elaborate pieces so fine and valuable that they are always framed rather than worn. Today, however, lace making here is a dying art with just a handful of women with the skills to painstakingly produce the traditional designs that made the island celebrated.

Venice Carnival

During the ten days running up to the beginning of Lent, Venice comes alive in the most spectacular fashion with its annual carnival. The carnival dates back to the 11th century but reached its heyday in the 18th century, when festivities were known to last over two months. Under the cover of their disguises, rich and poor were able to engage in illicit liaisons and social transgressions in a great celebration of excess.

Today, the carnival's balls, music and pageants are just as exuberant and you'll encounter masked merrymakers, bedecked head to toe in elaborate costumes, thronging the streets and creating a celebratory atmosphere.

Take to the canals

Gondolas, VeniceDesigned in the 16th century specifically for navigating the narrow Venetian waterways, the gondola is Venice's most romantic mode of transport. A trip along the canals by gondola is a quintessential Venice experience. Your gondolier takes you down a number of scenic canals, so you can see some of Venice’s hidden waterways before you venture out onto the Grand Canal.

For a more hands-on approach to the city’s watery culture — known as cultura acquea locally — we can arrange a rowing lesson for you to learn the specific Venetian style of rowing. Gondoliers developed this technique, where the rower stands up and faces forward, but it’s become a signature of the city.

If you prefer a more modern boat, consider a private kayak tour of the canals. You’ll still get to enjoy the water-side views, but in a smaller, more agile vessel.

Rialto Bridge and Market

With its curved arches and grand central portico, the Rialto Bridge is one of Venice's best-known sights. Until the 1850s, it was the only bridge crossing the Grand Canal, making it an important commercial hub and a vital thoroughfare linking the San Marco and San Polo districts.

The bridge, which is lined with shops, leads to the Rialto Market, where traders have plied their wares since 1097. While at first glance, the Rialto can appear one of the touristy areas of Venice, step off the busier streets and you'll find some of the city’s most authentic bacari (wine bars).

The ghetto

At first glance, Venice’s Jewish ghetto is an anticlimax. The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the oldest section, looks like little more than a desolate square with a wellhead and a few lonely trees. The space is hemmed in by high, shuttered buildings (in such a confined space, the inhabitants had no choice but to build vertically) and the odd shop selling Hanukah lamps.

Around the corner you’ll find kosher shops, a library and a bakery, but to really unlock the area’s secrets, you need to take a tour with a local Jewish guide. They’ll be able to take you behind the buildings’ impassive façades to reveal their secrets: the ornately decorated, candlelit synagogues concealed inside.

Incidentally, Venice’s ghetto is believed to be the oldest in the world and the originator of the word ghetto, which means foundry in Italian. A foundry once occupied the site where Venice’s Jews were first segregated in 1516.

La Fenice 

Appropriately named ‘The Phoenix’, Venice’s opera house has bounced back from three fires in its canal-side location just west of St Mark’s Square. A classical-style building dating from 1792, the city’s oldest opera venue came into its own during the 19th century when great Italian composers such as Verdi and Rossini premiered their latest works here (including La Traviata).

During the Austrian occupation, La Fenice witnessed fervent displays of patriotism. Audience members showered the stage with red, white and green flowers, shouting ‘Viva Verdi’ — the composer’s name being an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia (Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy). Today, La Fenice hosts opera, ballet and classical music concerts.

Venice’s art galleries

The Accademia is a gallery occupying three former religious buildings and overlooking the Grand Canal in the southern Dorsoduro district. It houses Venice’s largest collection of art. The bulk of the works were gathered together by Napoleon in 1807, who’d confiscated art from churches and monasteries (though it’s said he kept the best works for himself). Its maze of galleries contains Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces, including Tintoretto’s Stealing of Saint Mark. We recommend you visit with a guide, as signage and captioning is poor.

Farther south in Dorsoduro, in a quiet residential quarter, is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Its leafy, shaded sculpture garden and light-filled rooms full of bold modern art can make for a pleasant contrast to viewing pieces in Venice’s dimly lit churches. Here you’ll find pieces by Max Ernst (heiress Guggenheim’s second husband), Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky, Miró and Pollock. There’s also Marini’s provocative Angel of the City, a sculpture of a well-endowed figure seated on a horse and looking out to the Grand Canal.

To the north, in the San Polo sestiere (district), you’ll find the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a charitable institution that commissioned Tintoretto to create its frescoes. The result is a vast, dramatic cycle of paintings, the most moving of which is the Crucifixion (1562), praised by Henry James for containing more ‘human life’ than any other picture.

Nearby, you’ll find the Frari, a cavernous Gothic church best-known for its altarpiece, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin. It’s a painting that seems even taller and more luminous when viewed in real life. You can view both buildings, and their art, on a guided secret walking tour.

Finally, there’s Ca’Rezzonico, a Baroque palace on the Grand Canal. Not strictly an art gallery, it immaculately preserves the 18th-century golden age of Venetian living. Its rooms include a restored ballroom and they contain gilded chandeliers, 18th-century frescoes, paintings and, more unusually, puppets.

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who's been there
Audley Travel Specialist Joanna

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Venice by calling one of our Italy specialists on 01993 838 960

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