Venice: A City Of Love, Grand Adventure

Posted July 16, 2007 4:02 p.m. EDT
Updated July 16, 2007 4:09 p.m. EDT

Venice is the starting or ending point for nearly all cruises along the jeweled Adriatic Sea, providing an ideal opportunity to add a few days before or after your cruise to see Venice.

Be prepared to wear down the soles of your shoes as you stroll Venice’s labyrinth of sidewalks and seaside esplanades. If you see all of Venice, you will cross more than 450 ponti, or bridges, and more than 150 canals.

Finding your way around Venice often ends up in a serendipitous sojourn. Narrow alleys lead to wide piazzas or dead-ends. You never know where a path might take you, even if you have a good map. It takes time to get oriented, but it helps to know Venice is comprised of six districts and is divided by the Grand Canal, an S-shaped waterway that is the main artery of the city. Only three bridges cross the Grand Canal, the most famous of which is the Rialto Bridge.

A good way to get an overview of Venice is to board a vaporetto, or water bus. Board No. 1 to travel the length of the Grand Canal at a pace that is slow enough for you to admire the Gothic-Venetian palaces on either side. You’ll be seeing the best face of Venice from the water, as the palace facades that face the canal were often given lavish architectural treatment. The trip takes about 40 minutes, and if you’re enjoying the ride, stay on board for the return trip.

Lost in Venice

On your own in Venice, you will get lost -- no matter how finely attuned your sense of direction. But go ahead and lose yourself. That is part of the joy of being in Venice. Just make sure to carry a few euros or a credit card. No doubt, you will want to refresh yourself with a snack or a glass of wine, and you may just find that you are content to do nothing more than sit outside at one of the ubiquitous cafes and watch the world pass.

You could hardly do better than to take a seat at Cafe Florian -- the French novelist Balzac used to watch the world pass from a table here -- or Cafe Quadri. These are among Venice’s most renowned cafes and are situated in Piazza San Marco. Take a seat outside, and be prepared to pay a little extra for a glass of wine or coffee here for the privilege of admiring Venice from a locale described by Napoleon Bonaparte as “the most elegant drawing room in Europe.”

You are in the heart of Venice in San Marco, one of six districts that make up the historic center. For a bird’s-eye view, visit Campanile della Piazza San Marco, a 320-foot-high tower that offers views of the San Marco basin.

Before or after refreshing yourself at one of the cafes in Piazza San Marco, visit the Byzantine Basilica San Marco. Crowned with five huge domes, it is the third church to stand on this site. The first, built in the ninth century, was built to enshrine the body of Saint Mark. Best to visit in the afternoon. You won’t avoid the crowds, but the wait will be shorter than in the morning.

Adjacent to the basilica is the colonnaded Doge’s Palace, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Just west of Piazza San Marco is a labyrinth of alleys that pass shops and such famous locales as Harry’s Bar, a favorite watering hole of the late American writer Ernest Hemingway. Try the house cocktail: Bellini, made from prosecco and peach liquor.

Crossing the Bridge

It’s an easy walk from San Marco across the Grand Canal via the Accademia Bridge Dorsuduro. Coming off the bridge, directly in front, is the Gallerie dell ‘Accademia, featuring the largest collection of Venetian art. Heading left takes you to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Baroque church Santa Maria della Salute, marking the southern end of the Grand Canal. From here, board a northbound vaporetto to travel the Grand Canal to Cannaregio, a district at the northern end of the Grand Canal.

Historically, the most fascinating part of this quarter is the Ghetto of Venice, the world’s oldest ghetto, with its museum and two synagogues, still open to service. Around 1254, Marco Polo was born in Cannaregio, near the Rialto Bridge. The most famous bridge in Venice, the Rialto Bridge crosses between San Marco and the San Polo and Santa Croce districts. At the foot of the bridge, coming from the direction of San Marco, begins the Rialto Market, a fascinating maze of shops and stalls where Venice has congregated for centuries. You’ll want to allow at least an hour here, before crossing the Rialto Bridge back to San Marco.

Make your way across San Marco to the largest district in the city, Castello. Here, a wide promenade, Riva degli Schiavoni, spans the length of Castello. The busy promenade is lined with outdoor cafes, vendors and views of the water. At the bridge called Ponte della Paglia, look along the canal for a view of the Bridge of Sighs. The covered bridge links Doge’s Palace with the old prisons.

Don’t even think about leaving Venice without a gondola ride. The time you spend in the gondola will go down as one of your most memorable travel experiences. After you have cozied in the back of the gondola and listened to the quiet paddling and melodic voices of gondoliers, you’ll certainly think that Venice is one of the world’s most romantic cities. And you won’t be alone in thinking so.