- I have a friend called Paddy. Like me, he writes for a living, and like me, his profession brings him to various destinations around the world on a regular basis. The similarities end here however (professionally anyway) as Paddy, you see, pencils articles about cars, not the cities he visits to test-drive them. As you would expect from close friends, we talk a lot. A hot topic of conversation lately has been holidays, and he’s been venting his desire to go on one. I think I’ve found him just the place.
Venice, a city built on 117 islands, doesn’t have any cars. Four-wheeled vehicles aren’t the only mode of transport banished from this sinking city as it doesn’t have any bicycles either. Instead Venice has people. Lots of people. There are only 65,000 who have the privilege of calling themselves Venetian but for their troubles they rub shoulders with tourists basically twenty-four seven.
Wondering what draws so many tourists to Venice week-in week-out won’t exactly leave you boggled. It’s a tired cliché when it comes to so many cities around the world, but there really is nowhere else on earth like it. 150 canals flow through its 117 islands, and these are crossed by no fewer than 409 bridges. You can turn down a narrow lane to avoid the heaving crowds only to discover that lane will cease to exist, meeting a canal instead.
Thus, the streets, of Venice themselves are its number one attraction. Walking around its labyrinthine lanes and narrow alleys is a dream and something you could do all day. Even though those around San Marco and San Polo are incessantly busy, something will still urge you to propel yourself through the hordes of people to see what lies around the next corner.
If you want to explore parts of Venice that don’t require you to battle other tourists for vacant space, take the time out to visit Cannaregio, the district north of the Grand Canal. Walking down its main thoroughfares Strada Nuovo and Lista di Spagna is an altogether more pleasant experience, as is the wander from there to the Jewish Ghetto, believed to be the oldest Jewish Ghetto in the world. Dorsoduro, the southern end of the city, is also worth checking out.
If you do manage to tear yourself from the city’s streets for a couple of hours, there are some attractions you simply can’t ignore. Its best known, and an eternal symbol of Venice, is Ponte di Rialto (San Polo/San Marco), one of only three bridges that crosses the 2½ mile long Grand Canal which dissects this city. Built in 1592, this monstrous marble bridge affords those who cross breathtaking views over the Grand Canal.
Modelled on the Church of the 12 Apostles in Constantinople, Basilica di San Marco (Campo San Marco, open Mon-Sat 9.30pm-5pm, Sun 2pm-4pm; general admission free, admission charges to some parts of cathedral) is the other attraction in the lagoon city which tourists flock to. Originally consecrated in the 9th century, the original building burnt down in 932. Construction of the one that dominates a square of the same name began in 1094. A mix-mash of various architectural styles ranging from Baroque to Gothic, this cathedral is unquestionably one of Italy’s finest. But before landing yourself in a mile-long queue, be aware that if you reach the pinnacle of the line with a backpack lugged on your back, you will swiftly be ordered to lodge it in a baggage holding office two minutes from the entrance. Do yourself a favour and dispatch it before committing to an hour-long wait.
The Basilica overlooks Campo San Marco, the city’s largest square. Always a nice place to take it easy for an hour or two, string quartets entertain the elite sipping €15 coffees outside Café Florian. While such a coffee is beyond the realms of most backpackers, they can still enjoy the classical sounds once they don’t perch themselves on a seat outside Venice’s most famous coffee shop. But sufferers of peristerophobia (fear of pigeons) beware – this square is riddled with them.
Venice has countless other attractions well worth visiting. Palazzo Ducale, better known as ‘Doge’s Palace’ (Riva degli Schiavoni, San Marco; open daily from 9am-7pm), was home to the Doge (Duke), the highest political figure in Venice. The St Mark’s Square Museum Card costs €11 and admits you to the aforementioned palace, the Archaeology Museum, the Monumental Rooms of the Marciana National Library, and Museo Correr a renowned art museum, although not as prestigious as Galleria dell’Accademia (open Mon 8.15am-2pm, Tues-Sun 8.15am-7pm; admission €6.50), home to the most important collection of art in the city.
Eating and drinking
Dining out in Venice is unashamedly more expensive than any other city in Italy. Most eateries offer a ‘menu touristic’. This is a menu designed especially for, you guessed it, tourists. Consisting of a starter (antipasta), main course (second course) and side dish (usually some variety of potato or salad). They can cost anything between €13 and €18, but don’t be fooled by this misleading price. In truth, if you decide to go for one of these ‘specials’ for €13 you’ll actually end up paying around €18: €13 for the tourist menu, €2/€3 for a drink and then €2 service charge.
Instead, pizzas are the way forward in Venice, and pizzerias are plentiful. Arca (Calle San Pantalon, Dorsoduro; open daily from 8am-midnight) has been one of Venice's best-loved pizzerias for some time now, and deservedly so. Pizzas are gloriously tasty and extremely reasonable (between €5.50 and €8). Due to its popularity it always has a nice atmosphere with a mix of locals and tourists streaming through its doors all day. Osteria alle Botteghe (Calle dell Botteghe, San Marco; open daily from 11am-11pm) is another pizzeria that sticks out from the rest. It also does a wide range of ‘cicchetti’ (a Venetian version of tapas). When dining out isn’t feasible, you can pick paninis and a wide range of sandwiches for around €2 or €3 from snack bars, something Venice is laced with.
Once all the tourists retreat to their accommodations, Venice becomes a very serene place. Make no mistake about it; this city is not one for the party animal. Everywhere is shut by 2am because, as one Venetian proclaimed to me, ‘the buildings here weren’t built for people to be dancing in until early in the morning’. In saying that, Venice isn’t entirely lifeless after dark.
If, during the day, you trounce upon Campo Santa Margherita in the Dorsoduro district on your travels, take note. This is Venice’s most vibrant square and the only place that seems to have pulse at night. Bordered by numerous bars, the hippest is Orange. Bright, bold, and always buzzing, it’s the coolest bar on the square. Of all the other bars dotted around Campo Santa Margherita, Margaret Duchamp is the one most worthy of your attention. There are still a few bars over the other side of the city, most notably Paradiso Perduto (Fondamenta della Misericordia, Cannareggio; open daily from 11.30am-3.30pm and again from 9.30pm-1am), a bar where vino-filled Venetians serenade each other into the night after live jazz and one too many glasses of spritz, a local speciality.
To paraphrase Robert Plant, Tina Turner and numerous other singers, Venice has gotta whole lotta love. Having visited Paris, Prague, and other cities around the world synonymous with romance, I’ve never seen as much love in the air as the amount of amour in Venice. So as much as I love my friend Paddy, if he does decide to visit Italy’s most enchanting city, it is one holiday I won’t be accompanying him on.
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