Venice and its Extraordinary Canals are a Must on an Italy Vacation

Landmarks & Icons

Traditional Gondola on famous Canal Grande with Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute at sunset in Venice, Italy

Venice is not only about canals, but also a destination that will enrich your Italy vacation. Here you will come face to face with fascinating history, an abundance of culture, impressive architecture, fine cuisine and wine, and so much more.

The first time I travelled to Venice on a trip to Italy, I realized that I had not experienced any other city quite like it. I know there are other major destinations where canals are a major attraction, such as Amsterdam or Bruges, but in Venice, they are the skeleton around which the flesh has been built. In other words, Venice would not be the same without them. Apart from the network which carves up the central part of the city, the canals are an integral part of the transit system in the form of vaporettos or, as we know them, water buses. Not only do they transport passengers around the main island of Venice but they also take them to the other islands that make up this beautiful city. My research tells me that within Venice and to the outer islands, such as Murano, Burano, and Venice Lido, there are over 30 connecting lines with 120 floating stations. Then, on top of that, there are water taxis and the iconic gondolas. I must add also that it is essential to explore the backstreets and alleyways on foot. Add the canals to this and you have a perfect combination for an Italy vacation.

Canals and Bridges

You might be excused if you get the impression that there isn’t too much else to see besides the canals. Well, the canals are just the starting point of an intriguing visit to this wonderful destination on a tour of Italy. Let’s stay with the canals a little longer before examining a number of other attractive offerings in this charming, romantic, and historic city. The Grand Canal is definitely the “principal player” in a cast of thousands. You can’t get away from it. It is the main corridor which runs right through the heart of Venice. One end of the canal leads into the lagoon near the Santa Lucia Railway Station and the other end leads into the basin at San Marco. It is shaped like a reverse S. and is 3.8 kilometres/2.4 miles long. The banks of the Grand Canal are lined with more than 170 buildings, most of which date from the 13th to the 18th century. Surprisingly enough, there are only 4 bridges that actually cross the canal. Would I recommend a gondola ride? Although, a somewhat touristy thing to do, I would suggest you try it once for a totally different experience. The views of historic buildings with their intricate designs, especially along the back canals, are what make the gondola trip so remarkable.

Gondola near Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy
Gondola near Rialto Bridge

You may well travel under the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, probably the most photographed bridge in Venice which first opened in 1591. For nearly 300 years, it was the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot. On the back canals, you may come across the Bridge of Sighs. This bridge was built at the beginning of the 17th century and was designed to connect a prison with interrogation rooms on the other side of the canal. Legend has it that the name comes from the fact that prisoners would “sigh” as they crossed the bridge, catching their last glimpse of the outside world. Another legend is that if a couple kissed under the bridge, they would enjoy eternal love, thus “sighing” accordingly. This bridge is generally considered one of the finest examples of bridge architecture in the world.

High dynamic range (HDR) Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) in Venice, Italy
Bridge of Sighs

Saint Mark’s Square

Saint Mark’s Square, also known as Piazza San Marco, this large public square is the centrepiece of Venice. You will experience a sea of pigeons mixing in with outdoor cafes exuding an aroma of espresso hovering in the air. Then, of course, your eyes are drawn to the imposing building on one side of the square, Saint Mark’s Cathedral. It is an unforgettable, ornate edifice which was originally founded in the 9th century to house the corpse of St. Mark, brought from Egypt. It was the Doge’s private chapel until it officially became Venice’s cathedral in 1807.  As you enter the interior of the church, you will be amazed at the glittering mosaics on the ceiling made with 24-carat gold leaf. The Madonna statue in the doorway is around 1000 years old. The Pala d’Oro (the Golden Pall), a gold canopy over the high altar, contains a breathtaking 2000 emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies, pearls, and other gemstones. The bell tower of the church over 1000 years old collapsed in 1902 and had to be replaced with an exact replica. There is an elevator which will take you to the top of the tower, where you will be rewarded with a 360-degree panoramic view of Venice and beyond.

St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marko) in Venice, Italy
Aerial view of St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)

Doge’s Palace

Doge’s Palace was the Doge‘s official residence and is situated on the waterfront close to St. Mark’ Square, completed in 1450. The architectural style is generally referred to as Venetian Gothic, a mixture of gothic and Byzantine influences. It is also known as the Palazzo Ducale and is a wonderful piece of architecture. On the exterior of the building, the lower colonnade is decorated with historic and biblical scenes. Two columns on the facade are painted red, signifying where public executions once took place. The main entrance gate leads directly into a courtyard which, in turn, leads to the Doge’s private quarters where you will find portraits of all of Venice’s Doges, except the one who disgraced himself by attempting a coup d’état. The Doge’s apartments are now used for temporary art exhibitions. You can also visit the Grand Chamber Council, which looks out onto the waterfront. It also houses Tintoretto’s painting, Paradise, which takes up a whole wall and is the world’s largest oil painting. It is a work that is filled with 500 prominent Venetians, including several of Tintoretto patrons. Other parts of the palace available to explore on your Italy vacation are the dungeon with its prison cells, the map room, and the armoury.

Campanile and Doge's Palace in Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy
Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco

Venice’s Outstanding Churches

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is a 17th Century domed church on the Grand Canal that has been called an “engineering feat that defies logic.” Before the church could start to be built, at least 100,000 pylons had to be driven deep into the mud banks of the ground. It is built on a platform made of 1,000,000 wooden piles. It is a huge octagonal building with two domes and a pair of picturesque bell towers at the back. Inside is an outstanding collection of Titian masterpieces, many of them with religious themes.

Basilica Santa Maria della Salute on Grand Canal in Venice, Italy
Basilica Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal

The San Giorgio Maggiore Church is something to behold as it sits on a small island between Venice and Venice Lido, and dominates the skyline. This 16th Century Benedictine church is a photographer’s dream, while on an Italy vacation. Apart from its location, it is made of brilliant white marble which seems to gleam above the water of the Venice Lagoon.  Inside there are two of Tintoretto’s masterpieces which flank the altar. And once again, there is a bell tower with an elevator taking you to the top for exciting views. If you find the line ups to be too long at the bell tower at St. Mark’s, here is the alternative.

View of San Giorgio island, Venice, Italy
View of San Giorgio Island

San Rocco (Scuola of St. Rocco)

If you enjoy art, make the time to visit the Scuola Grande Di San Rocco, which has an exceptional collection of paintings by Venice’s favourite painter Tintoretto. The carved wood walls, the painted ceiling, the stunning works of art, and the mirrors that are provided are all part of this gallery. From spring to late fall, the art provides a backdrop for concerts of baroque music. When Tintoretto painted these works, Venice was going through turbulent times due to the plague that killed 50,000 Venetians, including the great artist, Titian.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco and church, Venice, Italy
Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Galleria dell’Accademia

Galleria dell’Accademia is the quintessential Venetian art gallery which covers the development of Venetian art from the 14th to the 18th century. It is housed in the Scuola della Carita, on the south bank of the Grand Canal, and offers works by Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Canaletto, among others. One painting with a story is Veronese’s enormous “Feast in the House of Levi,” originally called “The Last Supper” until, and I quote, “Inquisition leaders condemned him for showing dogs, drunkards, dwarves, Muslims and Reformation-minded Germans cavorting with Apostles.”

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Peggy Guggenheim was one of the great collectors of the 20th Century. Her canal home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, has a collection of surrealist, futurist and abstract expressionist art with works by up to 200 artists, including her ex-husband Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Picasso, and Salvador Dali. In parts of the main galleries, you can see photographs of the rooms as they appeared when she lived here in her eccentric style. There is a sculpture garden which features works by Henry Moore, Giacometti, and other famous sculptors, plus it has temporary exhibits “highlighting underappreciated modernist rebels.”

Venice’s Neighbourhood

One of my favourite neighbourhoods to visit on an Italy vacation is Dorsoduro, where you will find some of the most picturesque canals and squares. It is home to a university and has more late night bars than anywhere else in the city. It is less touristy, even though it is very central. The main hub is the Campo Santa Margherita which, during the daytime, has a market, antique stalls, and cafes. At night, this is the place to sit, outside in good weather, at one of the many bars. There are also restaurants. I can’t vouch for La Piscina as a good choice of restaurant, as I haven’t eaten, there but it is different. It is an attractive open-air barge moored in a side canal, offering fine dining under a canopy of umbrellas. Dorsoduro is also a good place for boutique-style shopping.

Aerial view of the Dorsoduro district in Venice, Italy
Aerial view of the Dorsoduro district

The Riva degli Schiavoni is not exactly a neighbourhood but it is a lively area on Venice’s lagoon waterfront promenade. Somewhat crowded with visitors to the city, it has hotels, restaurants, bars, and market stalls offering fresh produce. There is a church, Santa Maria della Visitazione, which, at one time, was where Vivaldi’s works were first performed. It is on the Riva degli Schiavone that you can have a birds-eye view of the church mentioned previously, San Giorgio Maggiore.

Gondolas at Riva degli Schiavoni at Venice, Italy
Gondolas at Riva degli Schiavoni

Venturing off the Main Island of Venice

It is just a short ferry ride to either of two other islands that are worth a visit when in Venice on your Italy vacation, but for different reasons. Burano is around 45 minutes away by vaporetto. It is known for its colourful fishermen’s cottages. Local fishermen provide fresh seafood to the local restaurants, so do try having a meal here. A stroll through the island’s narrow streets will show you local women sitting and chatting while making the delicate Burano lace, a tradition of the island which can be purchased locally. There is, if of interest, a Museum of Lace Making.

Murano is only 17 minutes away by ferry and is famous for its glassware, which has been produced here for centuries. It is highly recommended you visit a glass blowing demonstration, on your Italy vacation, showing how the finished product of Venetian glass is made. The Museo del Vitro (museum of glass) showcases Venetian glass-making techniques as well as a display of different types of glass dating back to Egyptian times. Murano has its own Grand Canal which divides the island. The Palazzo da Mula is one of the few remaining examples of Venetian gothic architecture. This palace dates back to the Renaissance period.

Colourful houses along a canal in the island of Burano in Venice, Italy
Colourful houses along a canal in the island of Burano

Venice Lido

I always remember Venice Lido being featured in the movie, Death in Venice, which is about the German composer, Gustav Mahler, based on the novel by Thomas Mann. The style of this island, reached by ferry once again, is totally different from all the other islands. It offers luxury hotels and a beach, which is amazingly 12 kilometres/7.5 miles long. It is the only island in Venice where motorized traffic is allowed. It was one of the first and most exclusive resorts in Europe, attracting famous writers, movie stars, and royalty. It is also the home of the annual renowned Venice Film Festival. Venice’s only golf course is located here, in case you feeling like playing a round or two, on your Italy vacation.

Luxury seaside resort hotel from the art deco era, Lido, Venice, Italy
Luxury seaside resort hotel from the Art Deco era, Lido

So there you have Venice, but I feel I have only scratched the surface. You will need to do some further exploring as it is the kind of destination which needs to be discovered on an Italy vacation.

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