If you know me at all, you are likely pretty well aware that I’m not much of a romantic. I mean, I love sunsets and walks on the beach and all that, but I hate the thought of traditional romantic gestures like giving a gal a teddy bear or stuffed animal on Valentine’s Day, or writing cheesy romantic poems, flower petals on a bed or engagements at the Eiffel Tower (sorry to anyone that’s actually done this). I hate the cliché; it all feels a bit fake or at the very least, unoriginal. Makes me cringe. Venice though, now this place had me feeling all sorts’a warm and fuzzies, even in the arctic temperatures there in January.
So, if you’ve ever heard that Venice is one of the most romantic places in the world, I would have to say I agree. But what makes a place romantic? What makes a place “the City of Love“?
Well to start off with, you can actually hear each other speak when you’re out for a walk in Venice. There are no roads, just a framework of narrow streets and canals, preventing cars from intruding and wrecking the place. Which means no engines rumbling, no whooshes of cars flying past you, no worrying about looking both ways before crossing the street… Just a lot of space to wander and marvel at the uniqueness of this beautiful place.
Venice is the world’s only pedestrian city, which means it’s very easily explored by foot. It’s also very easy to get lost. But apparently, that’s one of the most popular things to do in this town. There are so many twists and turns with a lot of them being dead ends; you’re lucky if the path you’re on leads to a footbridge over a canal to another area to get lost in. But that’s part of the charm of it all; I loved getting unintentionally lost and taking in all of the classic Venetian scenes like their clotheslines overhanging canals and streets (or waterways) crowded with market stalls.
The plus side of visiting Venice in the middle of winter is the lack of tourists, making your strolls even more peaceful. I can’t imagine coming to Venice in the high season, considering the amount of people that were here even in the coldest months. Either way, Venice was styled la serenissima (“the most serene” or “sublime”) in its days as a republic, and I must say I felt pretty serene while sauntering around the cobblestones. Especially at night, the city of Venice becomes so still and slow, without the tourists and street vendors you just hear the occasional splash of water and oars.
Secondly, there’s the constant presence of water everywhere you look. What is it about water that makes places so much calmer and prettier anyway? Around every corner in Venice is a canal, with gondolas gliding along the surface.
On top of the near-silence and ever-present rippling of water, the sunsets in this place are incredible. I mean, really, just look at this place…
This was picture was taken from our bus window as we drove over the bridge to Venice. So this was our first view of the place. How could we not instantly fall in love with it and be absorbed into the air of romance?
So, being the unromantic person I am, you might wonder how I ended up in Venice for a weekend in January… Well, funny story. I was three months into dating a Lithuanian when he made the mistake of calling me an American. His apology for such an insult? Booking us a trip to Italy. Somehow, I’m still with the guy. 😉
A Brief History of Venice
The city of Venice is built on a group of 118 small islands situated in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. Not the most logical place to build a city, but definitely worth the effort. 400 and some-odd pedestrian footbridges connect something like 177 canals, with the biggest canal splitting the city in half with its backwards S-shape.
Unlike many places in Europe, the formation of Venice was due to the decline of the Roman Empire. With the collapse of the empire, Italian refugees were forced to flee from the invasion of northern Europeans. They camped on islands in the lagoon where their enemies could not easily follow as they did not have a knowledge of the sea or the boats to do so. For quite some time they continued to traverse back and forth from the mainland to the lagoon, until the arrival and devastation of Attila the Hun forced them to rethink and realize that trying to live on the mainland was no longer reasonable.
For nearly 1400 years, the couple of miles of sea separating Venice from mainland Italy protected them from both the invaders and the politics involved with Italy at the time. For over 1000 years, it was the only Italian city to avoid invasion – they finally succumbed to the French in 1797 with the invasion of Napoleon.
The inhabitants of Venice acquired wealth with the fish and salt from the lagoon and turned their sights to the East, the markets of Levantine and Constantinople, leading to the great commercial empire of Venice. In late medieval Europe, Venice was the greatest seaport and cultural and commercial link to Asia.
But building this unique city was no easy task. Because of the sandy ground, the inhabitants had to drive huge wooden stakes into the mud and clay and build wooden platforms on top of these. It may seem a bit crazy that these are still in place and holding the city up to this day, but thanks to the wooden structures being submerged underwater, the wood hasn’t been exposed to the eroding effects of oxygen. This has led to the foundations being petrified into a solid, stone-like state, and thus, able to support the impressive buildings of Venice to this day.
It feels like being transported to another world when you arrive in Venice, with the marble palaces, bell towers and luxurious buildings mixed with waterways, gondolas and market stalls. I think what really made me love Venice was the constant contrasts of this place; bustling streets and quiet walkways, a sense of busyness yet calmness at the same time, and extravagant next to modest and thrifty.
This was our very first trip together and I’m not sure it could’ve been any more perfect, other than if Mother Nature had maybe dialled up the temperatures a bit. Unlike in Milan, I came more prepared with fleece-lined leggings to wear under my jeans, two or three pairs of gloves, scarves and hats. And although I was more bundled up, it obviously would’ve been a bit nicer to enjoy the outdoor attractions without looking like Joey dressing up in all of Chandler’s clothes.
We arrived in the evening, just in time to catch the sunset while we searched for our Airbnb. Google told us the quickest way from the bus station was to take line 5.1 – a water bus (also known as vaporettos) – to the Castello district. Since the city doesn’t allow automobiles, their transport system consists of 159 types of watercraft to get you around. So rather than bus stops, you get these floating ports…
If you prefer a more direct route, however, you can order a cab just like you would in any other city. Except here, they’re on water.
Piazza San Marco – St. Mark’s Square
We were up early the next morning and headed out for the main square in Venice: Piazza San Marco. Considered one of the finest squares of the world, this place has been the centre of both public and religious life in Venice since its days as a republic. Three sides of the square are made up of stately public buildings, and the fourth is the Basilica di San Marco along with St. Mark’s campanile.
The square is the lowest point in Venice, which makes it the first place to flood during the Acqua Alta. When it becomes flooded, several times a year, authorities place wooden footpaths for both locals and tourists.
The Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore were placed near the entrance of the square in 1172. These columns are made of granite and marble and were placed to make the ‘gate’ from the canal into Venice, but on a not-so-nice note, became the site of public executions as they took place between these two pillars during the 18th century.
Originally, there were three columns brought from the city of Tyre, Lebanon, but one slipped into the sea somewhere while unloading them. To this day, it still hasn’t been found – likely swallowed up in the muddy bottom of the lagoon. It all worked out though, as the two columns were decorated with statues atop to mark the two patron saints of Venice – Mark and Theodore. The winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark and can be spotted all over the city as it came to be known as the symbol of Venice.
Basilica di San Marco – St. Mark’s Basilica
The Basilica di San Marco has been an important religious landmark since the remains of St. Mark were brought to Venice (AKA, smuggled out of Alexandria, Egypt) in 829. It became unbelievably wealthy after Venetian crusaders brought back shiploads of Byzantine art treasures after Constantinople fell, as demonstrated by the 4240 square meters covered in gold mosaics and inlaid marble floors. Nicknamed the “Chiesa d’Oro” (Golden Church) thanks to the abundance of gold decor, this place is worth checking out just to bear witness to how lavish this place is.
The cathedral is shaped in a Latin cross, with three main aisles and five domes. Honestly, you could spend hours in here just staring at the insane amount (over 8000 square metres) of mosaics covering the interior, depicting stories from the bible, myths and local legends. We were told that the bright ceilings contrasting the dark floors is meant to represent the contrast of life in heaven and life on earth.
One of the craziest things I’d learned about this place was that it wasn’t even built as a public basilica, rather it was built as an extension to the Doge’s Palace, to be the private chapel of the Doge (AKA, the duke, AKA most senior official of Venice). I mean, how big of a chapel does one man need? It wasn’t until the fall of the Republic that it became open to the public, thanks to Napoleon in 1807.
Entrance is free, although there are areas which require a small admission fee to see, such as the Museum, the Treasury, and the Pala d’Oro.
Palazzo Ducale – The Doge’s Palace
Speaking of the Doge, the Palazzo Ducale stands right next to the Basilica di San Marco. The interesting thing about this place is that its use has been for everything from the Doge’s residence to a Venetian prison. Originally a fortified castle in the 10th-11th centuries, the place had to be rebuilt in 1172 after a fire destroyed parts of it.
A visit to this place will take you from the wealth of Venice to the poor, beginning with a golden staircase and the Doge’s apartments decorated with works of art, to the armoury with a vast collection of weapons from various periods, to the dungeons of the prison and humid wells.
This tour also gives you access to the Bridge of Sighs from the prisoner’s point of view, connecting the interrogation rooms in the Old Prison in Doge’s Palace to the New Prison across the river.
Ponte dei Sospiri – The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs is an enclosed bridge made of white limestone passing over the Rio di Palazzo. Despite building such an ornamental piece of architecture with its graceful arch, the bridge served a very simple and practical purpose: transporting prisoners to their cells. According to legend, the prisoners crossing this bridge were likely to be incarcerated for a very long time, or condemned to death. Looking out from this bridge would give them their last view of freedom, leading them to sigh as they see the lagoon for the last time. Hence, the “Bridge of Sighs”.
“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.”Lord Byron, 1812 – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Although the poet Lord Byron also popularized this theory in some of his writing, there is another story to go with this bridge from a more romantic point of view. It is said that couples will enjoy eternal love if they sail under the bridge in a gondola and kiss as they pass underneath, so the sighs could be from the couples drifting below the bridge instead. Being the anti-romantic-cliche person that I am, I’ll stick to believing the prisoner story.
St. Mark’s Campanile
St. Mark’s campanile gives the square its height, standing at 98.6 metres with a 3-metre tall golden statue of the Archangel Gabriel sitting at the top. The wings of the angel indicate the direction of the wind as they rotate when pushed by wind. For the people of Venice, when the angel is facing the Basilica, it is a sign there will be high water.
Other uses of the tower range from scientific to scenic to sentencing; in the Middle Ages, it was used as a pillory to punish wrongdoers by confining them in a cage and hoisting them halfway up the tower – abuse which could last for several weeks. Galileo Galilei used the bell tower as a viewing window to study the ways of the sky, and is where he presented his telescope to the Signoria in 1609. Today, you can use an elevator to reach the platform at the top for some fantastic views across the city and the lagoon.
Torre dell’Orologio – Clock Tower
Yet another Venetian icon in St. Mark’s Square, the Torre dell’Orologio (alternatively known as St Mark’s Clocktower or the Moors’ Clocktower) was designed and built between 1496 and 1499.
The two bronze Mori (Moors) on the terrace strike the bell to mark the hour, but the clock face itself is an elaborate timepiece showing the hours, phases of the moon, and the signs of the zodiac.
This clock is so reliable that it was made the official timekeeper of Venice in 1858 – the clock to which every other clock should be set.
The most direct route from here to the Rialto Bridge (about a ten minute walk) is through the arch at the base of the clock tower. It leads to Merceria, the original shopping area of Venice. The narrow streets are home to shops and boutiques of the largest top Italian and international fashion.
Ponte Rialto – Rialto Bridge
The oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, Rialto Bridge was built on something like 12000 wooden pilings between 1588 and 1591. Those same wooden pilings still support the bridge today, more than 400 years later.
One of the most well-known sights in Venice, the bridge actually has three walkways: two on the outer balustrades, and a wide central one taking people through two rows of small shops aimed at the tourists taking selfies on said bridge.
The Piazza San Marco may be the biggest square in Venice, but this area is the real heart of the city. The Rialto area was the first district to be settled in the ninth century and where the first inhabitants concentrated their trading. To this day, it is still home to Rialto Market, a very colourful market packed with fresh fruits, vegetables and fish just on the other side of the Rialto Bridge.
The Rialto area is also a very popular spot for people to hire gondolas, but like so many other blogs also suggest, don’t hire them here. You’re better off going and finding ones in the back streets that will take you through much more scenic and much less busy canals than the Grand Canal.
There are plenty of nice restaurants and shops here too, but also arguably the most overpriced ones. Sure, it’s nice to say you bought a souvenir on the Rialto Bridge but due to the high price of real estate in this area, you’re going to overpay for anything you purchase here.
Instead, head farther into the San Polo district and you’ll find more authentic places to grab a good meal.
In fact, it was in the San Polo area that I tried one of Venice’s traditional dishes: Risotto al nero di seppia. This seafood-based risotto may cause initial alarm when it’s delivered to your table, thanks to the squid ink adding what looks to be an inedible black colour to the rice. I was quite pleasantly surprised however, with the flavour of the squid, wine, onion, tomato and ink braise beating out my skepticism in the end.
The Church of Santa Maria di Nazareth
The Church of Santa Maria di Nazareth is home to the ashes of the last Doge of Venice. Although it may not be the most well-known church in Venice, many reviews say it is not to be missed while visiting the city, as it is not only breathtaking but also has so much in it to see. Plus, there are lovely gardens to wander in.
We walked by this place and I thought the exterior was interesting enough to look at, but didn’t think about going in. It wasn’t until after we left Venice that I realized what the building was, so we didn’t get to check out the inside. But from what I’ve seen in pictures, we might’ve missed a pretty exceptional church.
Chiesa di San Simeon Piccolo – San Simeone Piccolo
Just across the canal from this church is the San Simeone Piccolo, an early-1700s church with a dome; a Grand Canal landmark sitting across the water from the city’s train station. When you arrive to the city by train, this will be the very first thing you see, despite its relative unimportance. One quirky thing about it however: mass is still celebrated in Latin here, the only church in Venice with this rite.
From the train station, we began to loop back toward St. Mark’s Square. We came across the Ponte Tre Ponti (Bridge of Three Bridges), a quaint little pedestrian thoroughfare consisting of (you guessed it) three bridges. There’s really nothing special about this place but I enjoyed just taking it all in for a moment here.
Before too long, we stumbled into the Campo San Barnaba, a campo featuring the neighbourhood church San Barnaba. It looked familiar to me for some odd reason, and if it does to you too it may be that you recognize it as the exterior to the library in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I can’t usually remember specific buildings in old movies I haven’t seen in years, so I’m sure it’s more of a coincidence than anything, but it’s a fun fact to point out for anyone that’s actually a die-hard Indiana Jones fan.
The Dorsoduro district of Venice is a lovely area to walk through due to its unpretentiousness and significantly quieter atmosphere than the rest of the city. Here you can get a real feel for Venice without the crowds and also grab a bite for a cheaper price. This is the university area, so you’ll find a younger, more relaxed and artistic vibe here.
We crossed the Ponte dell’Accademia, a wood-&-metal bridge over the Grand Canal home to plenty of padlocks and linking Dorsoduro with San Marco. From here, it’s about a ten minute walk to both Rialto and St. Mark’s. The bridge has two of the most picturesque views of the Grand Canal: the dome of Santa Maria della Salute on one side, and the quiet bend leading to the Rialto Bridge in the other direction.
So we wandered our way through more narrow streets and found Campanile di Santo Stefano – Santo Stefano Bell Tower. Standing 66 metres high with an inclination of 2 metres, the tower has had a rough go of it over the years. It was struck by lightning in 1585 which melted its bells, and an earthquake damaged it in 1902. The earthquake affected the base of the tower and as a result, the tower now has a bit of a Leaning Tower of Pisa vibe to it. Under danger of collapse, the leaning tower appears to be twisting as well as leaning.
Arriving back in St. Mark’s Square, we looked across the lagoon to the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, a 16th century Benedictine church on an island of the same name. We didn’t make it over to the island, but the views of Venice from its tower are supposed to be worth the trip.
Libreria Acqua Alta – Bookstore of High Water
One of my favourite places in Venice was a bookstore, Libreria Acqua Alta. I absolutely love libraries and although this is a bookshop, it’s the quirkiest one I’ve ever visited. Because of Venice’s constant battles with flooding, this shop came up with the idea to house its books and magazines in various ways – waterproof containers, a gondola, and even bathtubs! It’s also got a few stray cats hanging about…
Venice is such a unique place. And I know I say that about a lot of places I’ve been, but they’re all so different from each other with their own uniqueness… I’ve never been to a place like Venice, with canals rather than car-filled streets, and luxurious grand structures next to crumbling buildings. And I doubt I’ll ever be anywhere that makes me feel like such a romantic ever again, but you never know. Maybe I’ll end up enjoying the Eiffel Tower more than I expect…