From Florence to the Amalfi Coast, Melissa Schollaert has guided us through some of Italy’s most picturesque honeymoon locations. Next on the list, the floating city of Venice. Get lost in the maze of pathways, dine on delicious seafood and watch as gorgeous gondolas drift down the Grand Canal in one of the most magical cities in the world.
I often tell people that every city in Italy is almost like a different country – and Venice may as well be another continent! There’s a certain aura to this enchanting city that I’ve only found stateside in places like Charleston, SC. The past definitely lives in the present here and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
(The expansive Piazza San Marco is magical at sunrise and sunset)
Situated in the northeastern part of Italy, Venice is the capital of the Veneto region and lies in the Venetian Lagoon. Unlike any place I’ve ever been, Venice is built in the middle of the lagoon and is completely surrounded by water. The city is divided into six districts – Santa Croce, Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, San Polo, San Marco and Castello. The Grand Canal separates most of the districts and winds its way through the entire city. Those districts are further broken up by canals and waterways with only pedestrian pathways and bridges crossing from one block to the next. You won’t find any wheeled or motorized vehicles on this island! One of the most charming aspects of Venice are the pathways, which aimlessly wind through the city with no rigid system and often leave you completely and utterly lost. It’s one of the most magical things about this beautiful place, and you’ll find that getting lost is part of the fun.
(One of the many canals and the winged lion which symbolizes the city and pays homage to it’s patron saint, St. Mark)
HOW TO GET THERE
The first time I arrived in Venice, was after a long night and day of travel. Groggy-eyed, I stepped off of the train and walked into a fairy tale. It is awe-inspiring, you’ll feel like you have arrived into a different world. The city’s charms will grab you as soon as you step off the train.
(View as you exit the train station with one of Venice’s many charming canals and churches lying before you with gondolas, ferries and boats ready to usher you to your hotel.)
If you’re going straight to Venice, you should fly into Marco Polo Airport. From there you can take a water buses (boat) from the airport to several main spots along the Grand Canal. The most expensive option is a ‘water taxi’ which is a private boat that will take you directly to your destination. There are buses and taxi’s (with wheels) that will take you from the airport to either the Mestre Train Station or to other locations on the mainland. However, these aren’t good options for actually getting on to the lagoon.
From other parts of Italy, the best way to travel to Venice is by train. The train travels over the lagoon and straight into Santa Lucia station right onto the island of Venice. As I mentioned earlier, it is a spectacular arrival both coming over the lagoon and once you step out of the station onto the Grand Canal.
(The doors of Venice deserve an entire article all on their own. One of the many Venetian gondolas floating in milky waters of a canal.)
Once in Venice, you can take a Water Bus to different stops along the Grand Canal. However, I suggest that once you’ve checked into your hotel, that you explore the city on foot.
(The end of one of the many alleyways in Venice and the sculpted iron window grates at the famous Harry’s Bar.)
WHEN TO GO
In my opinion, the best time to travel to Venice is during the off-season. The island is tiny, and the summers are hot. I would avoid going during that time as it can get quite crowded. Instead, opt for April through mid-June or September through the end of October. The weather is nice and temperatures are pleasant, but it isn’t too terribly crowded. You can also choose to visit during the winter when the city often gets veiled in mist and fog. The beginning of November signals the start of the rainy season, so if you come during this time bring your rain boots. Many of the streets, pathways and piazzas will be flooded from high water.
(A quiet canal with a humorous doorbell and mail slot)
Rialto Bridge – The oldest bridge that crosses the canal is the Ponte Rialto which spans from San Marco to San Polo. There have been several bridges in this spot over the course of history, however the current stone bridge was built in 1591. The bridge houses a series of shops and is a great spot to watch boats float down the canal. Many markets line the canal near the Ponte Rialto and sell fresh vegetables and fish from local sellers.
Piazza San Marco & Basilica di San Marco – The Piazza San Marco and Basilica di San Marco are two must-see places when visiting Venice. It can get quite crowded so I suggest visiting the piazza during sunrise or later in the evening. Lines to visit the Basilica can also get long, so come early. The Basilica di San Marco is one of my favorites in Italy (after the Duomo in Milano), and has a unique way of blending Italian and Byzantine styles of architecture. It features gold statues brought from Constantinople in the 13th century, gold mosaics and it’s signature domes, all of which symbolize Venetian wealth and power. The church as you see it today is actually the third church to be built on the site. The first destroyed by fire in the 9th century and the second church was torn down so that a structure that symbolized Venice’s growing power could be built. The design of the church was modeled after the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople and was the doge’s private chapel until 1807.
(The glorious domes of the Basilica San Marco, the design highly influenced by oriental architecture.)
(Piazza San Marco filled with people and Venice’s famous pigeons)
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) – The official residence of the Doge or ruler of Venice, was built in the Venetian Gothic style and served as a meeting place for the Great Council as well as other institutional chambers. The tour takes you through the Doge’s apartment and living quarters. Next you travel over the famous Bridge of Sighs to the prison chambers where Casanova is rumored to have attempted an escape. Filled with a rich history, the palace is a must-see when visiting Venice and gives you a real glimpse into its past.
(Exterior facade of the Doge’s Palace with windows in the Venetian Gothic style)
(Interior view of the courtyard at The Doge’s Palace)
Accademia Bridge – Like the Ponte Rialto, the Accademia Bridge is one of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. Crossing from San Marco to Dorsoduro, the bridge is built of wood and is a well-known spot for lovers to attach “love locks”. While most honeymooners would love to do this, I would not suggest it, as the weight of the locks is currently causing damage to the sensitive structure. Instead take a stroll over the bridge and watch the gondolas float down the canal or treat your love to a gelato (instant way to win my heart).
Gondola Ride – So, I admittedly have never taken a gondola ride in Venice, however I have watched these majestic vessels gently gliding down the canals throughout the city. They’re one of my favorite things to photograph in Venice, as they’re constantly moving and drifting under bridges. Maybe one day I’ll take a ride on one of these beautiful boats.
(Gondolas navigating near the Ponte Rialto)
(Gondola rides with Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti in the background)
Santa Maria della Salute – Standing proud at the entrance to the southern end of the Grand Canal is the beautiful Santa Maria della Salute church. Designed in the baroque style, this church was built to signify the end of the city’s plague epidemic. Each November citizens celebrate this by a procession of candles over the canal and into the church.
(Santa Maria della Salute as seen from the docks near Piazza San Marco)
Cannaregio Neighborhood – I typically like to wander off the beaten path when traveling. If throngs of tourists are going one way, I typically head in the opposite direction. Cannaregio is definitely one of the quieter spots in Venice, mostly consisting of residential homes. So if you want a peek into the daily life of Venetians, this is the place to explore.
(One of the sleepy canals in Cannaregio)
Here you can find the historic Venetian Ghetto where the Jews were forced to live under the Venetian Republic. Visit Ca d’Oro (golden house), a 15th century palazzo built on the Grand Canal in the Venetian Gothic style. Take a ferry over to the island of San Michele, which mainly houses a historic cemetery. In Cannaregio, you can also see the house of the famous painter Tintoretto.
(A lone gondolier in Cannaregio)
Getting Lost – My favorite thing to do in Venice is to get lost, literally. The layout of the city and design of the pathways is a maze which I believe was designed to make people get lost and wander, and that is the true beauty of the city. The maze of pathways typically leads you to some of the most beautiful and private areas, where you’ll find old iron gates, smiling doorbells, sculpted building facades and alleys that dead end into the milky white Grand Canal. If you’re coming to Venice on your honeymoon, this is one of the best things you can do with your love while you hold hands and steal smooches in a secret alley.
(View at the end of one of the many alleys in Venice)
(On the Grand Canal near the Ponte Rialto)
Venice’s cuisine is highly influenced by its geography. With the Adriatic sea just beyond the lagoon, seafood such as mussels, clams and sardines are very popular. Nearby Slovenia and Hungary have brought exotic spices from Turkey and rice from the orient, both of which you’ll find in many dishes served throughout this region. Risotto and polenta are mainly served here (in lieu of Italy’s famous pasta) along with seafood and fresh vegetables. You’ll find many of these local and fresh ingredients at the Rialto Markets which line the Grand Canal near the Ponte Rialto.
(Local seafood and fish such as these mussels are very popular in Venice)
Osteria la Zucca – This restaurant is way off the beaten path, but getting lost is the best part about finding this tiny restaurant in Santa Croce. Known for it’s vegetable dishes, La Zucca has an open kitchen where you can watch the chef prepare food made from completely local ingredients. In-season, try the pumpkin ravioli!
Trattoria al Ponte – Located just across the canal from La Zucca is Trattoria al Ponte. Both of my trips to this spot included the overflowing dish of mussels you see above. Their food is fresh and beautiful, and I love dining outside on the quiet street along the canal. There typically aren’t many tourists in this area and it’s more peaceful and definitely more authentic than some of the restaurants along the Grand Canal or in San Marco. The only thing better than the tiramisu is slowly finding your way back to your hotel and getting lost in this dark and magical city.
Harry’s Bar – Known for it’s dry martini, the famous Harry’s Bar is a must-see. It’s located adjacent to Piazza San Marco and sits right on the Grand Canal. All of Venice’s high-society has been noted to frequent this bar. It is said that the Bellini (prosecco with peach nectar) was invented here along with Beef Carpaccio (thin slices of raw beef).
The Skyline Bar – Head here for great rooftop cocktails and a stunning panoramic view of the city.
(Tiramisu is said to have originated here in Venice and is made from mascarpone cheese, sponge cookies and coffee.)
WHERE TO STAY
Belmond Hotel Cipriani – This 5-star hotel on Giudecca features palatial suites, a spa and facilities for special events.
Hotel Gritti Palace – Ultimate luxury awaits you at the Gritti Palace, which also features a spa.
Hotel Danieli – Steps from Piazza San Marco on the Grand Canal is the luxurious Hotel Danieli.
Hotel Oltre il Giardino – A unique, 6-room boutique hotel located in San Polo with a beautiful, private garden.
Hotel Antico Doge – A charming little hotel located in an old palace between the Ponte Rialto and Cannaregio.
(Northern Lagoon looking north towards the Dolomite Mountains)
(A gorgeous lantern made with Murano Glass)
Murano & Burano
Two great day trips from Venice are the islands of Murano and Burano situated in the Venetian Lagoon. Murano is known for it’s glass and has been the center of glassmaking since the 11th century. Here, you’ll find many artisans and studios crafting glass as well as the Museo Vetrario, a museum housing collections of antique glass. Burano is a more densely populated island recognizable by it’s brightly colored homes. In it’s earlier days, it was known for fishing and lace-making. Here, you can visit the Scuola dei Merletti where you can see lace being made as well as a collection of antique lace.
(Torre dei Lamberti in the city center of Verona)
Verona – Romeo, Romeo… The Casa di Giulietta is known throughout popular culture as one of the main attractions in the city of Verona, as told in the movie Letters to Juliet. Verona, however, is also home to Roman ruins, numerous palazzi (palaces), a first century Arena and plenty of piazzas, churches and gardens. You can still see concerts and the popular opera festival inside the Roman Arena. The Adige River winds down from the Dolomite Mountains and through the city, with bridges such as the historic Ponte Scaligero spanning its shores. Visit the Giardino Giusti, one of the most beautiful Renaissance Gardens in Italy as well as the unique Tombs of the Scaligeri at the church of Santa Maria Antica.
(The Rialto Markets at night – taken from the Ponte Rialto)
The best way to end your days in Venice is by strolling aimlessly through the dark streets and along its mystical canals. Weave your way to the Rialto bridge and take in the lights on the Grand Canal as the sun sets over the lagoon. Before you know, Venice will cast its spell on you and you won’t want to leave!
(A lone gondolier on the Grand Canal at sunset with Cannaregio in the background)
All words and images by Melissa Schollaert.
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