Over the next several weeks we’ll be taking a virtual tour of Italy! We’re starting our adventure (advventura in Italian) in the ethereal city of Venice.
Founded in the late 600s after the rise of Barbarian invasions after the fall of Rome…Venice is an anomaly. The city was founded in previously uninhabitable marshlands and sandbars right on the Adriatic, at the mouth of the River Po. Yet, in spite of he impossible odds Venice has flourished and at one time was the largest trading center in Europe.
I thought we’d kickstart our Venetian tour with a bit of historical background as well as QUICK Tips on planning your own Venetian adventure.
In upcoming posts we’ll dive deeper into the history, sights and culture that make this ‘Most Serene City’ (Serenissima in Italian) so unique.
Planning your trip:
I was fortunate to have a tour guide in Venice (EF Tours) that coordinated travel and met us at the airport. While this was helpful in navigating the city for the first time, Venice is accommodating to tourists and easy to get around with a bit of planning.
Before your trip I recommend investing in a decent guidebook (I like DK or Rick Steves Venice – both have online audio tours!) that provide detailed neighborhood maps, sight info and other relevant information for a foreign tourist.
While having a map in Venice is helpful, to be honest the winding streets and myriad of bridges and canals doesn’t always follow ‘Google Maps’ or paper maps. The good news that you’ll find your way back eventually to point a or b…if nothing else the diversion always provides a great view.
Pro-tip: when navigating cities like Venice that are not on a strict grid, look for reference points to help guide you. St. Marks Square, The Rialto Bridge, etc…think of spots you see and remember those for getting around. This helped immensely on my Italian adventures.
Download a free map here
- Fun Fact: Venice is shaped like a fish (which seems apropos given it’s watery location)
Best time to visit? Any time of year in Venice is beautiful, but most enjoy April through October as the temperatures range from the 60s to 70s.
- I went in January and loved it because we had Venice to ourselves. It wasn’t super crowded and 40 degrees was managable with a few layers.
Venice is located in Northeastern Italy on the Adriatic Coast of The Mediterranean near The Italian Alps.
By plane: Venice’s Marco Polo Airport
By train: You can take the train from other major Italian cities like Rome.
Renting a car: There are no cars in Venice (main city) – you get around on foot or via gondola or boats like the vaporetto. You can rent a car if you plan to explore areas around the mainland like Verona and Padua. Or take a train/bus/day tour
- from the airport/train you will need to take a boat to reach Venice. You can research ‘ferry’ options from the airport here. The biggest advantage of our tour is we had a private boat pick us up and drop us off at a canal docking area 1 block from our hotel
- Venice is a series of roughly 100 islands interconnected by bridges and canals
Cell phone service: Most US Carriers now have an international plan. Verizon’s was around $10.00 a day unlimited talk and text and worked well. Check with your carrier in advance. Wi-fi is available at many coffee shops, cafes and hotels
Where to stay: Venice has a number of AMAZING hotels. I stayed at The Hotel Giorgione, and highly recommend it. The hotel building dates to the 1400s and has pure Venetian charm and character. The staff was welcoming and provided top service. The breakfast was included and featured Italian pastries, fresh squeezed juice and American style breakfast like eggs and bacon…
Coffee in Italy: We’ll be fueling up on the coffee scene in Italy #destinationcoffee, but fun fact…Italians don’t drink lattes or cappuccino after 11 a.m. It is frowned upon.
Warning: There are a lot of steps and cobblestoned streets in Venice – I am fairly coordinated but had a bad fall (sprained ankle as a result); several other members of the tour tripped as well – just watch your step. It is hard not to get distracted with the immense beauty, but look down before you look up!
Acqua Alta: High Water – when I visited in January the water levels were very high and St. Mark’s Square flooded. This wasn’t a huge deal as they have boardwalks to navigate during ‘Acqua Alta.’ That being said having rainboots doesn’t hurt. Usually the water clears out by lunchtime on the square
Where to Eat: We’ll dive into some tips in a future post, but to be honest everything is AMAZING. I had some of the best food I’ve every eaten in Venice. They are particularly known for their fish (Venice started off as a fishing center in the 600s). And of course pizza, pasta and gelato never fail.
Quick History and Facts about Venice:
- In AD 476, the last Roman emperor left Rome…the empire had been shifting east towards Byzantium and Constantinople for some time. Rome’s aging infrastructure was left vulnerable to attacks from Barbarians (technically means any non-Roman) from Germanic-speaking countries to the north.
- The citizens, scared of attacks by Visigoths, Huns and Lombards fled to The Adriatic coastal marshes, searching for refuge in the watery wasteland.
- Venice was a true water world. The wet and miserable land was prone to disease and had no fresh water, and yet through endurance, innovation and sheer persistence Venice grew. They formed the city by sinking pilings in the mud to build on and channled water into canals. Bridges were build to lace together the collection of more than 100 natural islands that now form Venice
- They used rainwater and imported water as Venice had no freshwater source
A new era:
- In 540 AD, Byzantine Emperor Justinian reconquered Italy from the invders and briefly reunited the Roman Empire. Justinian established a capital at Ravenna (just south of Venice). Venice was once again under direct influence of Byzantium, which greatly influenced the city’s culture and early architecture
- The Venetians established a uniquely ‘democratic’ government for the time by electing ‘Doges.’ Akin to constitutional monarchs, the doges were elected by fellow nobles and expected to govern according the rule of law.
- This system became known as ‘The Most Serene Republic’ and lasted from 697 until 1797 when unfortunately Napoleon took over in his rampage of conquest
- Venice’s ties to the sea and Byzantium led it to become a seafaring power and ruler of trade. For years it was the shipbuilding capital and arguably the economic capital of Europe.
- In addition to shipbuilding and sea trade, Venice became masters of glass-making, which they still cherish today
Fun facts about Venice’s history and culture
- Venetians were keen scientists and developed Europe’s first real pharmaceutical industry
- They made Europe’s first affordable paper out of rags rather than sheepskin (parchement)
- They were pioneers in copyright law
- They were know as traders and thieves – often taken the spoils from places they traded.
- They took the bones of St. Mark from Alexandria to Egypt. St. Mark and St. Theodore are the two patron saints of Venice. You will see St. Mark’s symbol of the lion all over the city.
- Venice’s foundation is built on wood
- Venice’s canals vary in size – The Grand Canal is the deepest – 55 feet deep
- There are over 150 canals in Venice
- Venice has one of the world’s narrowest street
- Venice speaks it’s own unique language called Venexian
- Out of over 400 bridges in Venice, only four cross the Grand Canal
- Vivaldi, composer of The Four Seasons was from Venice
- See a show at renowned opera house – Gran Teatro La Fenice. Many famous operas debuted in Venice
- Shakespeare set several places in the region (even though he never visited in person) – Othello and The Merchant of Venice
- The most popular festival in Venice is Carnival – the time before Lent. Learn more here
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