No city on earth can rival Venice as an architectural and cultural wonderland and a place of romantic beauty that stuns the senses. Venice is made up of over 100 small islands in a shallow lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. These are linked by 400 bridges to create the stunning visual effect of a city floating on water. No cars ply the city's streets -- transport is by boat or on foot. How did such a wondrous creation come into being? It all began back in the 5th century when the Barbarians invaded Italy and the inhabitants of the mainland fled into the marshes and created refuges in the lagoon. A city grew up which over the centuries grew into the world's premier maritime and commercial power. As the republic expanded to encompass the mainland, it was named La Serenissima ("the very serene").
As the state prospered, businessmen and officials commissioned artists and architects to improve the city, making Venice one of the leading cultural centres of the renaissance. Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian and Bellini are just a few of the native sons whose works you can view to this day when you visit the city's churches and galleries.
How to spend a day in Venice? Your options are endless. Marvel at landmarks such as the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs and, of course, St Mark's Square. Then take a coffee or aperitif as the sun dips over the lagoon and head off to an opera or music performance. Albinoni and Vivaldi are two of the city's sons and their music sounds especially rich resonating off the stones of Venice.
While the main island itself is a browser's paradise packed with waterfront palazzos, palaces, churches and squares, a vaporetto to the outer islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello, St Michele or Lido reveal still other facets of La Serenissima.
Venice always radiates an air of the fantastic and the mood is enhanced at festival time. During Carnival, the whole city is transformed into a giant masquerade as cloaked and masked figures flit through the streets and strike poses around the quays and bridges. It's a mark of the enchantment of the city that they don't seem at all out of place.
Things to Do
The treasures of Venice are so abundant it's hard to know where to start. A vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal, viewing iconic sights such as St Mark's Square and the Rialto Bridge, hopping over to Murano Island and simply wandering are all great ways to get to know the city.
The Grand Canal
Every first visit should begin with a waterbus (vaporetto) trip down the Grand Canal. Winding 3.8 kilometres down from Santa Lucia Station, you pass lovely palaces and churches and glide under four of the city's iconic bridges, including the Rialto, before terminating at St Mark's Square.
St Mark's Square/Doge's Palace
Piazza San Marco is the beating heart of the city and one of the wonders of the world. It's flanked by St Mark's basilica, with its domes and arches, and the lofty St. Mark's campanile. Climb to the top for spectacular views but expect long queues.
Adjacent to the Basilica is the Doges' Palace (Palazzo Ducale), where the rulers of the republic once ruled with an iron fist. Be sure to take the secret tour of the Doges Palace and gain a rare glimpse into the sumptuous lifestyles of the all-powerful doges.
San Giorgio Maggiore
To get the big picture, take a short vaporetto ride from St Mark's to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The views of the city and lagoon from its campanile of the 16th-century Benedictine church are stunning. Avoid being there on the hours as the bells are deafening.
Feasting at the Rialto
After admiring the lovely bridge, head off into the surrounding area to snack on cichetti (Venetian tapas). Nibbles such as grilled baby octopus, salami, cheese and marinated fish taste wonderful washed down with a glass of prosecco (sparkling wine).
Pleasures of perambulation
Venice is best explored on foot, offering vistas of lovely churches, calm and picturesque squares and ornate bridges. To avoid the tourist crowds head to some of the quieter quarters. Dorsoduro, the city's vibrant student quarter, and Cannaregio with its tranquil quays are great places for a stroll.
Glide on a gondola
Gondola rides may seem like the ultimate tourist trap. But, then again, you are in the most beautiful place in the world. Should you pass under the Bridge of Sighs with a paramour, be sure to exchange kisses. Locals believe you'll be blessed with eternal love.
Venice's tourist shops are full of lovely glass paperweights, necklaces, brooches and assorted knick-knacks. To see how they're made, take a vaporetto 1.5 kilometres across the lagoon to the island of Murano. It's packed with glass blowing factories, museums, shops, galleries and showrooms.
Calendar of Events
With its rich and glorious history, it's natural that Venice plays hosts to some of the world's most colourful and intriguing festivals.
Carnival. Held for 10 days each February to mark Lent, Carnival (Carnevale di Venezia) is Venice's most famous festival. Centred in St Mark's Square, it offers locals and visitors the chance to let their hair down anonymously by wearing ornate masks and flamboyant costumes. Meanwhile parties and masked balls resound all over the city.
Feast of the Redeemer (Festa del Redentore). Held on the third Sunday in July, this festival commemorates the end of the plague that struck the city in 1577. The event is market by fireworks on the Saturday night followed by various regattas held on the Sunday along with church services.
The Venice Film Festival. Rub shoulders with the world's leading actors and directors each summer as luminaries of the motion picture world flood into the city for the world's oldest film festival. Held around the end of August, the event transforms the usually sedate Lido into Hollywood by the sea as screenings are shown and stars strut their stuff.
Venice Regatta. As befits a floating city, one of the most colourful festivals is the Regatta 'Storica (Historic fleet event) held on the first Sunday of September. A succession of traditional crafts make their way down the Grand Canal manned by Venetians dressed in 16th-century costumes. This is followed by much anticipated boat races.