Venice Overview

Venice from San Giorgio Maggiore
Venice from San Giorgio Maggiore

We are just back from a long weekend in Venice. It was Lynn’s first visit, and barring a two hour dash through with Hank Adams and Scott Larese in 1998, mine as well. I’m going to post some restaurant reviews and a “Venice How-To” guide over the next few days, so this one will be just an overview aimed at first time visitors

So first, why should you go to Venice? It seems to be on everyone’s bucket list and if you have the chance to make multiple trips to Italy you should certainly include it sooner or later. However it’s important to know where it fits in the priority list.

Point number one – Venice makes a nice weekend trip but it ain’t Rome or Florence. The city itself is unique and attractive but it does not have anything like the megawatt artistic and cultural attractions of those places. And it has some significant disadvantages, which I will get back to in a moment.

There are three first rate things to see in Venice: the Basilica San Marco, the Palazzo Ducale (aka the Doge’s Palace), and … Venice itself. Beyond that there are a number of good-but-not-great galleries and museums, some interesting churches, and a lot of very swish and usually very expensive shops selling the best of Italian design, fashion and jewelry.

You could easily spend a week ticking off these attractions, but a long weekend is really all you will need to hit the high points and drink in the atmosphere. Our recommendations (in priority) are:

1. On your first morning head across the lagoon to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Have a look around before taking the elevator to the top of the campanile. (Entry to the church is free, the elevator is €3 each). The view of Venice is stunning – it’s the best spot to take in the whole panorama of what is a very compact city. Grab the obligatory photos and then take some time to get a feel for what it means to operate a city with no roads and no cars or trucks. It’s not just tourist hype – everything (everything!) moves by boat. You will see a huge variety of specialized boats going about their business in a tightly choreographed ballet. It often looks like they are one step away from multiple boat pile-ups but they seem to have a finely developed sense of relative motion and near-misses are rare.

Once you have had your fill, hop back on the vaporetto and cross to the main island for a coffee and a pastry (suggested location in a subsequent post).

2. Having planned your itinerary with care you then saunter up to the Palazzo Ducale, and smiling courteously at the hundreds of sad people queued up in the sun, walk straight in via the special access lane and start your Secret Itinerary tour. After the tour, take a break (the only option is the dreadful café) and then finish touring the Palazzo at your leisure. Finish the day with some wandering and a slap-up dinner.

3. The next day, arrive early at the Basilica San Marco (check the website for opening times). Because you have wisely arrived in the off-season you can visit the church at your leisure, as opposed to the ten minutes (!) you will be allotted if you go in the high season. I will post a more detailed overview of the Basilica, so for now let’s just say that for these two cathedralophiles, San Marco has to be one of the all-time top five. Entry is free, though there are a few extra fees along the way.

Basilica San Marco. For the Venetians, more is more.

Take the rest of the day to visit some of the other attractions, or even better get off the beaten path and walk through the parts of Venice that Venetians live in. One good option is to take the vaporetto to San Basilio and visit the church of San Sebastiano. This was Paolo Veronese’s parish church and over his lifetime he contributed some really stunning paintings and frescoes. (The Wikipedia page has images of the major works). Have a cool drink at a nearby café and then walk back to the city centre through uncrowded back streets mercifully free of masses of day trippers.

So that’s Venice in two days. Well worth the visit, but now for the due diligence:

1. Unless you absolutely can’t avoid it, DO NOT GO TO VENICE IN THE HIGH SEASON. Even in the first week of April the seething masses of humanity in and around the Piazza San Marco were a significant detriment to our enjoyment. In the summer the crowding is severe, the prices are even higher and the untreated sewage in the lagoon creates what is generously described as a memorable odour. Planning your visit for late October, November or March will radically improve the chance that you will have a positive experience.

2. Try to stay in Venice rather than day-tripping. A lot of travel guides will recommend that you stay outside of Venice (in Padua, e.g.) and take the train in. This will doubtless save you some money, but remember that this is not exactly a secret. Imagine you and fifty thousand of your best friends descending on the city at the same time and you have the picture. You would also miss an early morning visit to an uncrowded café, and some rather pleasant wanderings around the evening streets after the crowds have headed for home.

So that’s Venice in a nutshell. I hope this helps. If you have useful advice to add or just want to let us know how your trip went use the Comments function.

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