Improbable, magical, peerless, unique: Venice is all of these things and more. From the splendour of a trip down its ‘high street’ – the Grand Canal – to the romance of slipping along quiet canals in a gondola, and the sheer wonder as you first glimpse magnificent St Mark’s Square, it’s a city like no other.
Looked at objectively, this was a ridiculous spot to build a city. But the geographical advantages of this self-contained Adriatic outpost, combined with the wily go-getting character of the earliest settlers, transformed a huddle of huts on stilts into the marvel we see today: a unique gem set in a wild island-dotted lagoon.
Some 1,000 years as an independent republic, dominating eastern Mediterranean trade routes, gave La Serenissima the wherewithal to deck herself out in the finest of artistic riches. No other two square miles on the planet boasts such a wondrous concentration of great art and exquisite architecture.
You could not set foot in a single gallery or church during your visit and you’d still get a taste of the artistic essence of Venice. It’s in the chunks of carved marble embedded in walls, the intricate well-heads and the elaborate door and window frames; it’s in the ornate archways leading into forlornly atmospheric courtyards, the glimpses through high gates of formal gardens reverting to jungle, and the glorious colours of the peeling buildings which reflect so perfectly in the waters of narrow canals.
Delight of discovery
But there’s as much and more hidden away indoors. Even minor churches in Venice hold artworks which elsewhere would be the star attraction in a major gallery; the galleries, on the other hand, are quite breathtaking. To get to the heart of this maze of a city, you’ll need a helping hand though (see my Venice insider tips page for some insider advice).
The great outdoors
With its extraordinary, tightly packed architecture, Venice can seem very urban. But a vaporetto ride across the lagoon, with stop-offs on atmospheric smaller islands such as Torcello or Sant’Erasmo, reveals the city’s wilder and more rural sides. The Lido’s eastern coast, on the other hand, is one long beach.
Head above water
If what you’re expecting to find is a museum-city – and one that’s sinking fast – think again. Venice is not only holding its head well above water: concealed among the artistic treasures is a vibrant town, with a surfeit of performing arts action (see my Venice nightlife page for more information).
Eat, drink, dance
Venice’s centuries-old tradition of seafood cooking, and its attachment to the local tapas-like cicheto culture, are still alive and kicking – though it’s not always easy to pick the genuine article out from among the tourist traps. Even more difficult to locate than excellent eateries and great bars (see my Venice Cafés and Restaurants page for advice) are nightlife spots, but if you know where to go (take a look at my suggestions: Venice nightlife), there’s plenty of after-dark entertainment too.
Observing Venice’s unique way of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century is another reason to visit. There are big-name contemporary architects at work here – from Spain’s Santiago Calatrava and his new Ponte della Costituzione bridge, to Britain’s David Chipperfield and his extension to the cemetery island of San Michele.
But there are also Venetians going about their business, living their very modern lives in this time-warp of a city. Join the young professionals for aperitivi of an evening in the bars at the north-western foot of the Rialto. Experience Venice student-style in the university district towards Santa Marta in the far west of the island. Or simply join the city’s voluble housewives stocking up of a morning in the explosion of noise, action and colour that is the Rialto market.
Today’s Venetians are inordinately proud of their craft tradition: hand-printing, weaving, glass-blowing (consult my Shopping in Venice: Venetian glass page to tell the real stuff from the fake imports) and even gondola-making is still going strong, making shopping here a fascinatingly timeless joy – if you’re prepared to venture beyond the clichés.