Overview

Venice, Italy, is romance: a bridge arching over a canal, a gondola gliding by, the moon reflecting off water. Venice is history: the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace), Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, great art and great museums. Venice is modern: the headline names and paparazzi of the Venice Film Festival, the buzzing excitement of Carnival in the 10 days before Lent begins.

Venice has a plethora of world-famous museums and artistic treasures. The Basilica di San Marco, with its spectacular Golden Altar; the Bridge of Sighs, where prisoners could enjoy one last glimpse of the beautiful city before entering the dark jail; the Gallerie dell'Accademia, with its collection of art of the 14th-18th centuries; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of 20th-century art—the list is long. Pick and choose which places you'll visit in-depth, or just skim the surface and soak up the atmosphere.

Venice is set on islands connected by bridges, with the Grand Canal as its main thoroughfare, and traffic moves by boats that range from the traditional gondolas to refuse barges. The absence of automobile noise means you can hear the laughter of children from your window, as well as footsteps seemingly just around the corner. But what makes Venice so unique also challenges its existence. The rising sea levels of global climate change threaten the city, and now, more often than in the past, high tides from the Adriatic Sea can flood whole sections of the city.

Although the resident population in Venice has declined as many young people have moved to the mainland, where real-estate prices and the cost of living are lower, the city continues to draw tourists. In fact, the central areas can be packed, people may be brusque, and prices are high. Even so, Venice remains a treasure to be savored.

Geography

Venice sprawls across hundreds of low-lying islands in a lagoon in the northern crescent of the Adriatic Sea. A single bridge links it to the mainland city of Mestre. Traffic ends at Piazzale Roma, making the city serenely free of buses, cars and motorcycles—even bicycles are prohibited.

The city's main thoroughfare is the Grand Canal. The islands are also crisscrossed by 177 smaller canals and connected by more than 400 pedestrian bridges. Streets are narrow and winding—some little more than sidewalks between buildings. The city is divided into six sestieri (districts): Cannaregio, San Polo, San Marco, Dorsoduro, Castello and Santa Croce.

A map of the city resembles a labyrinth, but surprisingly, it is not too difficult to find your way to the main attractions. Yellow signs are posted on the buildings at most major intersections, with arrows directing you to Piazzale Roma, Ferrovia (the train station, Santa Lucia), Rialto Bridge, Accademia Bridge and Piazza San Marco.

Specific addresses, however, can be hard to find, as many streets are so small they aren't on maps. Phone directories usually list addresses by the name of the sestiere and the number of the building, with no reference to a street. Often the easiest way to find a shop or restaurant is to ask—most people are helpful, and many speak English. Hotel employees and shopkeepers are usually quite knowledgeable about their neighborhoods.

Several islands in the lagoon are also part of the city area or connected to the city by regular public boats. In addition to Giudecca (the large island across from the Zattere) and Lido (where you'll find beaches), the best-known are the glassmaking island of Murano, colorful Burano and the lagoon's original seat of power, Torcello. The airport is on the mainland, north of Mestre.

History

As invaders swept down from the Alps in the fifth century, the farmers and fisherfolk living along what is now Italy's northeastern coast sought refuge on nearby scrub-covered islands. From the safety of their lagoon in the Adriatic, Venetians began building a powerful trading empire. By the ninth century, religious and political power had moved from Torcello to the island of Rivoaltum, where the Venetian leaders began clearing the land and driving wooden piles into the mud beneath the water—laying the foundations of modern Venice.

The city's merchants and traders (including Marco Polo's relatives) amassed huge fortunes, which were invested in the city. The fortunes built grand palaces and huge churches, and funded precious art collections (some of which still adorn the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale).

At its peak in the 1400s, the Repubblica Serenissima (the Most Serene Republic, as it was known) ruled the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean—its democratic-style government served as an international model for centuries. But the republic soon began to decay, weakened by expansion wars, famines, plagues and finally by invading French troops, led by Napoleon in 1797. French control ended when Venice was ceded to the Hapsburg Empire a few years later. In 1866 it switched hands again, joining the Kingdom of Italy.

Today, Venice is the capital of Italy's Veneto region and one of the country's most visited cities. Its watery setting and tourism-based economy bring modern challenges, such as structural erosion caused by motorboat wakes and a steadily decreasing population as younger generations move to less-expensive cities with more job opportunities. The proud Venetians are not ones to give in easily, though, and as measures are being taken to protect this fragile city, more travelers from around the world will have the opportunity to discover the treasures hidden within it.

Sightseeing

The best introduction to Venice is a boat ride on the Grand Canal, and it doesn't really matter whether the vessel is a velvet-cushioned gondola or a utilitarian vaporetto (public water-bus). The S-shaped canal slices the city in half: Lining each side is an astonishing collection of 12th- to 18th-century buildings. Some of the baroque palaces look as elegant as they did when the doges ruled the city, though other architectural gems are crumbling into the murky water.

As you travel along Venice's Grand Canal, you'll also see what life is like in a city without automobiles. Cargo barges ply the narrow waterway along with police- and fireboats. Classic wooden cabin cruisers take tourists to luxury hotels, and skilled gondoliers navigate their sleek black vessels under bridges and around bends. Venice's canals are a visual parade.

Once you have oriented yourself to the waterways, set out on foot. Pick up a map, but expect to get lost—it's an inevitable part of the experience. Streets meander across canals, through campi (squares) and around buildings—often changing names as well as direction. If that isn't confusing enough, some streets are flooded in the winter because of aqua alta—high water.

You'll want to spend most of a day visiting the sites close to the Piazza San Marco. The Doge's Palace offers a fascinating look at how the city's leaders lived and managed the republic, and the colorful religious mosaics at the Basilica di San Marco are some of the most stunning in the world. Take in the view from the top of the Campanile di San Marco if it's a sunny day. From the piazza, it's an easy walk to the Rialto Bridge, where you can browse the shops and enjoy views of the Grand Canal.

Across the Grand Canal from San Marco, via the timber Accademia Bridge, is the Dorsoduro neighborhood, where you'll find two very different museums. The Gallerie dell'Accademia is the city's signature art repository, containing the best works of the prolific Italian Renaissance painters. A few blocks away (but worlds apart) is the Guggenheim Collection, a canal-front palazzo that was fashioned into a modern and avant-garde art gallery by an American heiress.

There's a host of other spots to visit—from the Jewish Ghetto and the city's many ornate churches to the islands of Murano and Burano. A moonlit walk along a canal or an early-morning stroll through the winding streets of a secluded residential area can prove just as illuminating as a tour of the city's major attractions.

Note: Venice offers several multipurpose tourist cards, each with unique features. For museums, the Venice Card and the museum passes are the primary options, providing discounts and allowing visitors to skip ticketing lines. The Venice Card provides discounts on most museums, churches, historic sites, performing arts events and more, and can be purchased at all Hello Venezia offices and most APT tourist offices. It remains active for seven days after initial use and costs 39.90 euros adults. Notably, it does not provide discounts on public transportation. http://www.venicecard.com.

Alternatively, there are several types of museum passes, such as the Museum Pass and the MUVE Friend Card, that offer entrance to multiple museums for one discounted price. Museum Passes can be purchased at all participating museums or online. http://www.visitmuve.it.

Visitors can also take advantage of the Chorus Pass, a card that gives a single user unlimited entrance to most Venice churches for a period of up to one year. (Visit the website for a complete list of churches.) It's definitely worth the price just to visit the Basilica di San Marco several times. Offered by the Venice Church Association, the card costs 12 euros. A Chorus Pass Family (for two adults and children younger than 18) offers the same plan as the Chorus Pass and is available for 24 euros. Chorus Associazione per le Chiese del Patriarcato di Venezia, San Polo 2986, Venice. Phone 041-275-0462. http://www.chorusvenezia.org.

Nightlife

If it weren't for the city's university students, Venice's streets would be empty after dinnertime. The city is not known for having a stellar nightlife. Most discos and movie theaters are on the mainland, which is within easy reach via bus or cab. But you aren't completely without options in Venice: A number of small bars and pubs serve food and drink. Called bacari, they are similar to osterie, serving snacks (called cicchetti locally). The Campo dell'Erberia, right on the Grand Canal, is lined with such bacari, as well as wine shops, and is a great area to find a spot for a light meal or after-dinner drink.

There are a few clubs to choose from, and many little bars have begun offering small-scale jazz or Latin-music shows. In the summer, these live shows multiply, and places such as Cafe Rosso hold concerts once a week.

Free local publications put out by the Tourist Office contain live-music, event and show schedules. Bars and pubs usually close at 2 am.

If you're visiting during Carnival, expect to find a great deal of life in the city. Kiosks are set up throughout town with brochures explaining when and where the parties are. Organized events are centered in Piazza San Marco and the Arsenale.

Dining

There are a number of good places to eat in Venice, especially if you're in the market for seafood or regional dishes. In fact, with such a prolific number of places to get a meal, it may be hard to choose. If you're looking for a break from Italian food, your choices are dramatically lessened. As a general rule, reservations are recommended.

Seafood is king of the table in traditional Venetian cuisine. One local delicacy, sarde in saor (fresh sardines, fried and then marinated in onion, vinegar and raisins), gives an idea of the strong and tasty flavors to be found in Venice. Baccala (salt cod) dishes are on many menus, as is crab (variably called granseola, moleche and other names), as well as exotic seafood salads and squid. Risottos of all colors are common.

Don't look for genuine Venetian recipes (or even particularly good food) in restaurants with a menu of the day prominently displayed in four languages. You'll find better meals elsewhere, usually just off the main streets. If you are on a budget (or even if you aren't), follow the locals to a bacaro or osteria (small publike restaurant). The delicious cicchetti (little appetizers often made of fish or meat) and ombre (glasses of wine) are too good to pass up. There are several choices around the Rialto area.

Vegetarians usually don't have problems in Venice, as many pasta dishes, salads and pizzas are made without meat. If you drop by a bacaro, you'll also find a variety of Venetian-style vegetables to choose from. Families will gravitate to pizzerias, which really aren't just for children and will probably offer more variety in toppings than you expect. Pizza is a common meal for adults and children alike.

At coffee and pastry shops, as well as bacari, you'll find two prices for every item on the menu—the standing price and the sitting price. Often you will see a sign added to the price list, letting you know that it refers to products consumed at the bar only.

Dining in Venice (and the whole of Italy) has become far more pleasant for nonsmokers, as all restaurants by law have posted "no smoking" signs in their indoor dining rooms.

Restaurants are generally open for lunch 12:30-3 pm and for dinner 7 pm-midnight, and most close one or two days a week.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks: $ = less than 30 euros; $$ = 30 euros-40 euros; $$$ = 41 euros-50 euros; $$$$ = more than 50 euros. Tax is legally included in menu prices, but watch out for an extra servizio (service charge) and coperto (cover charge). Tips are automatically included at the more expensive places.

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