From Siena my parents and I took a bus through the rainy Tuscan hill country back to Florence and there we boarded a train headed north to Venice. Our train snaked north through Italy at high speed, at one point hitting over 210 kilometers per hour (over 130 miles per hour). Just as the train was hitting 207 Km/h I snapped a photo of the info screen hanging from the train car’s ceiling. I’m not exactly sure how the train’s velocity compared to the other high-speed trains I’ve been on in places like Japan, Spain, Korea, Germany, and France, but our ride certainly was quick and it only took about two hours to deliver us from Florence to Venice.
To reach Venice’s main islands our train crossed the lagoon on a causeway that connects Venice to the mainland. The causeway also carries all of the car traffic onto the islands, though all vehicles have to park in a large parking lot at the western tip of the islands. Venice’s main train station is called Santa Lucia (if you take the train to Venice make sure your ride ends here and not Mestre Station on the mainland) and when you exit the train station the Grand Canal is right there to greet you. It’s a fitting introduction to the city and one of the most dramatic reveals you can experience when traveling around Europe by train.
Just down the steps from the train station are multiple water bus stations from where you can catch a boat ride to various places in Venice. We needed to go down the Grand Canal to reach the area around Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) so we went to the left to go over to the A and B water bus terminals, from which you can board Routes 1 and 2 that run up and down the canal. Route 1 stops at just about every station along the Grand Canal while Route 2 only stops at a few of them and we opted for Route 2 since it would save some time. We were quite fortunate with the water bus we caught since it was mostly empty when it arrived at the train station and we were able to snag seats right at the front with great views. A bunch of other people boarded behind us and once everyone was on board the boat started down the Grand Canal.
It was a cold, gray afternoon in Venice as the water bus steadily cruised down the Grand Canal. I was still very sick that day and having a hard time staying warm in those outdoor seats on the boat but I was glad that my parents would have a great view during our first water bus ride. As we proceeded down the canal I took a few photos and tried to point out some of the sights as we went by them. Just after we passed under the Rialto Bridge I remember noticing a hotel called the Hotel Marconi. I joked with my mom that with a name like Marconi it sounds like a hotel run by the mafia. When the water bus arrived at the bottom of the Grand Canal it pulled in to the San Marco terminal and everyone got off the boat. Had we been in Venice closer to summer the Route 2 water bus could have taken us one stop further east and dropped us closer to our hotel at the San Zaccaria terminal but it’s only about a thousand feet between the two station so it wasn’t a problem to walk a bit farther. The sun was going down as we walked past Piazza San Marco and made our way towards the hotel we’d be staying in.
Our hotel in Venice was a place called Hotel Campiello and it would be the most posh accommodations we stayed in while traveling around Italy. Getting a room on Venice’s main islands is expensive but Venice is one of the few places in Europe where it’s worth it to splurge on accommodations. Most of the tourist horde that mobs Venice each day arrives either by cruise ship or by buses from the mainland, so if you fork over the money to stay on the islands you have the opportunity to experience Venice in the early morning and the evening when most of the crowds are gone. By the time we had settled down in our room it was already dark and the only thing we got done that night was to go to a Coop grocery store a bit north of where we were. Because there are almost no straight lines to anywhere in Venice, it took some time for us to navigate the maze of narrow streets and canals to reach the store but once we were there we stocked up on food. Good grocery stores aren’t as common in Venice as one would like but having been to Venice twice in the past I knew this particular Coop was a reliable choice. We then made our way back to the hotel and had dinner there. Afterwards I decided I’d go out and see about getting gelato but ended up being completely frustrated because all three shops I went to were closed for the night when I got to them. I do love Venice but one of my main complaints about the city is that the gelato shops there close way too early.
The next morning we had breakfast in the hotel lobby and then geared up before starting our first full day of sightseeing in Venice. As we stepped out onto the broad promenade that runs along the islands’ southern shore I was pleased to see that the clouds were in retreat and the sun was shining brightly on the city. The tourist horde hadn’t quite yet shown up in force but there were a lot of people moving around that morning and the crowds got thicker as we neared Piazza San Marco.
At Piazza San Marco the high tide waters were starting to flood the area but they were still very shallow at that moment and covered less than half of the square. In Venice these high tides that flood portions of the city are called “Acqua Alta” and since Piazza San Marco is the lowest part of the city it is normally the first place to flood when the water rise too high. Whenever there’s the danger of Acqua Alta the city sets up elevated platforms across Piazza San Marco so that people can cross it without getting wet. As we looked around the square and took some photos I couldn’t help but notice that the line for the Doge’s Palace was strangely nonexistent. Originally my plan had been for us to come back to Piazza San Marco later in the day to visit the palace since it’s normally crowded in the morning but the tour buses must have been running late that day. I quickly talked with my parents and we all agreed it was best to take the opportunity before it disappeared. With that we walked up to the Doge’s Palace entrance, got our tickets, and started our tour.
The Doge’s Palace, called the “Palazzo Ducale” in Italian, is one of Venice’s main landmarks and for hundreds of years was the seat of power for the Venetian Republic. It was the residence of the Doge, who was the elected leader of Venice, as well as the place where many of the city’s political institutions were housed. When you first enter the palace you start in the inner courtyard. The domes of Basilica San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica) loom over the north side of the courtyard, reminding you that the church and the palace are right next door to each other. Probably the main feature of the courtyard is the Giants’ Staircase that has two large statues of the Roman gods Mars and Neptune at the top. These two statues were meant to symbolize Venice’s power both on land and at sea and any foreign dignitary would go up this staircase as part of their visit and be reminded that Venice was not to be trifled with.
After we took some photos we went up a set of stairs (sadly, not the Giants’ Staircase) to the palace’s second level and entered the Doge’s Apartments. These lavishly decorated rooms are where the Doge and his family lived and where the Doge would receive guests. Oil paintings and gilded decorations cover the walls and ceilings. The city of Venice personified as a blonde woman shows up in a few of these paintings and she is either seated on a throne or chasing away her enemies.
Next on the palace tour we passed through a small armory full of Medieval and Renaissance weapons. This was yet another intimidation tactic for Venice’s leaders as they’d show off their collection of shiny weapons to foreign emissaries just to let them know Venice was heavily armed and ready for a fight. The armory is full of swords, spears, halberds, crossbows, maces, armor, and even some primitive firearms.
Right after the armory there was a room with a small modern art exhibit and a room with an old fresco that had been partially restored, but once we passed through that area we arrived at the highlight of the tour, the Great Council Chamber. This massive room was where the entire Venetian Council would gather and there are large oil paintings all over the walls and ceiling. On the wall above the place where the Doge would sit is Tintoretto’s enormous Paradise painting, which I think holds the record for being the largest oil painting on the planet. Right next to the Council Chamber is the Senate Chamber. The Venetian Senate was a separate governing body from the Great Council, though its members were selected from among the nobles in the Great Council.
Once we were done with the Great Council Chamber, Senate Chamber, and a couple of other Venetian government chambers the tour route took us across the Bridge of Sighs to the prison building behind the palace. The Bridge of Sighs is a corridor that crosses a canal and got its romanticized name because supposedly prisoners would look out its windows as they were marched to their cells and sigh as they took in their last view of Venice. Personally I think it’s kind of weird for a palace to be directly connected to a prison that’s right behind it but I guess it’s convenient to be able to hand out criminal sentences in the palace and then immediately send prisoners to the jail. The prison cells we saw were cold stone rooms but I overheard a nearby tour guide telling her tour group that these were considered pretty nice prison cells back in the 1600s.
When we crossed back to the palace there were just a few rooms left and then we found ourselves back in the courtyard. Before leaving the palace we used the restrooms and checked out a small exhibit showing off the remains of some old columns. Then we exited the palace out the doors that used to be the front entrance. When leaving the Doge’s Palace don’t forget to quickly stop and check out the mahogany-colored statues of four men that are on a corner of the building right outside the exit. Apparently these statues are of four Roman emperors and they were brought (probably stolen) from Constantinople in the 1200s. Thousands of people walk right past these dudes every day not realizing ancient Roman sculptures are just chilling on the outside of the building.
Before continuing on with our sightseeing my mom needed to go back to our hotel room to grab something and I came along with her while my dad stayed at the square. Flood waters had risen while had been inside the palace and we ended up needing to take a longer way around to reach the hotel because the direct path was now blocked. I remember during our walk we came across a quiet little square with a church that had a pink and white facade. Venice is full of hidden spots like that one but most tourists never get beyond a small section of the city. At the hotel we grabbed whatever it was that we needed and then we made our way back to Piazza San Marco.
We rejoined my dad at the square, which was now mostly covered in ankle-deep water. Everyone without proper footwear was either walking on the elevated platforms above the water or along the edges of the square where it was still dry. When Piazza San Marco floods it’s common for many the businesses on the ground level there to shut down until the waters recede. Some of the cafes remain open if the waters don’t reach them and both the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Basilica are usually open since they have flood barriers to keep out the water. My parents and I briefly considered going into the basilica but we decided instead to leave the flooded square behind and start working our way north towards the Rialto Bridge. To exit Piazza San Marco we passed under St Mark’s Clocktower, which has been keeping time on the square ever since the late 1400s. On the roof of the tower are a pair of bronze statues, called “the Moors” because of the dark stain they acquired over time, which strike a large bell at the top of the hour.
The walk to Rialto Bridge took us along a twisting path through some of Venice’s main shopping streets. There’s no straight-line route from Piazza San Marco to Rialto Bridge but there are signs you can follow to make sure you’re heading the right way. When we got to Rialto we took some photos from down on the side of it before going onto the bridge itself. Rialto Bridge is the oldest bridge in Venice that crosses the Grand Canal and there have been several versions of it over the centuries. Originally it was a pontoon bridge that was built in 1181, which was replaced by a wooden bridge in 1255, and then in 1591 the stone bridge we see today was completed. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto Bridge is covered in shops. The neighborhood around the bridge used to be the merchant center of the city, which is why there are a lot of businesses on and around Rialto. The shops on the bridge seem to be mainly selling to the tourist crowds but it can be fun to do some window shopping there while crossing the bridge. We spent a few minutes looking around Rialto and taking photos on the bridge before we crossed to the other side of the Grand Canal to continue our trek around the city.
On the other side of the Grand Canal I thought it might be interesting to quickly detour north to see if the Rialto Fish Market was still operating. As we walked along I noticed that the Grand Canal had overflowed its banks and flooded the walkway along the canal. The flooding had closed a small cafe and its outdoor seats were all empty as shallow water swirled around them. Part of me thought it might be kind of cool to be eating at an outdoor cafe along the Grand Canal that had been flooded (assuming I had the right attire) but I’m sure the novelty would wear off quickly. We soon arrived at the fish market but it was already closed for the day and just about all the vendors were gone. Seagulls and other birds were fighting over scraps left on the ground. We took some photos of the area and then started walked towards the Frari Church. It’s only about 2,000 ft between the Rialto area and Frari Church but it takes a while to walk there because of the lack of straight paths in Venice and all the small canals you have to cross. At Campo San Polo we stopped briefly to eat some snacks and then we continued on our way to the church.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, or the Frari Church as I like to call it, is a large brick church that holds a fair amount of Venetian art. Frequently famous pieces of artwork are moved into museums but at the Frari Church all the paintings and sculptures are still in their original spots so you get to see the artwork in its intended habitat. A visit here, paired with a visit to the Doge’s Palace, can also make a trip to Venice’s Accademia Gallery unnecessary since you’ll have already seen a lot of great Venetian art. While inside the church you can also find the graves of several famous Venetians such as the artists Titian and Canova. I think we spent about a half hour inside the church before heading back outside.
Right around the corner from the Frari Church is the Scuola San Rocco, which is where I took my parents next. The outside of the building is rather unassuming and the interior of the ground level will have you wondering why you paid to get in, but go up the stairs and you’ll see why this place is worth the entry fee. Scuola San Rocco’s upper hall is what is sometimes called Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel because it’s a large room covered in artwork produced by the artist Tintoretto and his assistants. For those looking to spare their necks from pain, large mirrors are available so that you don’t spend so much time looking upwards. A small treasury room can also be found on the building’s top level but there’s not too much to see in it. We spent a while inside the Scuola San Rocco taking in the sight of that upper hall, however the most notable story from our time there was how my dad accidentally got separated from us on the way out. My dad thought we were leaving when actually my mom went off to check out another part of the building and for ten minutes my dad was waiting around outside while my mom and I were searching all over the building for him. Eventually we determined that he must have left and we stepped outside and were reunited. Whoops.
From the area around the Frari Church and Scuola San Rocco I led my parents on a long walk down to the Accademia Bridge. All the twists and turns on the path and the canal crossings made it a much longer walk than it would have been in most other cities, and in retrospect maybe we just should have gotten on the water bus and rode it a few stops down the Grand Canal. On the plus side we saw a lot of Venice on foot. Even though it was only a bit after 4:00pm the sun was already starting to go down and the lights were coming on as we neared the bridge. Like Rialto Bridge, the Accademia Bridge has had more than one iteration over the years. The original version was made of steel and finished in 1854 but was demolished and replaced by the current wooden version in 1933. We got some photos from up on the bridge but rather than crossing it and heading back to Piazza San Marco we continued along in the direction of the Salute Church, which is near the tip of the southern end of the Grand Canal.
We arrived at Salute just as it was getting dark outside. The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, or just Salute as it is sometimes called, was built after a major outbreak of the plague in Venice in 1630. Some European cities built shrines or small chapels as offerings to have plagues lifted from them; Venice built an entire church. After almost of third of Venice’s population was killed by the plague, construction began on Salute in 1631 and the church was finished 50 years later. My parents and I entered Salute as the staff were beginning to get the church ready for closing and were removing some of the candles and drapery. While Salute isn’t as big as the Frari Church and some other churches in Venice it’s clear from the architecture and decorations that the city funneled a lot of money into Salute. My parents and I did a slow walk around the interior of Salute and then we stepped back outside.
Since we were right by it, we next went down to the tip of the island that Salute is on to look out at the southern part of Venice. The view from there is better during the day than at night but we could still make out all of the buildings on the neighboring islands and the lights from around Piazza San Marco and San Giorgio Island were clearly visible. We didn’t linger too long since it was getting chilly and we turned around and walked all the way back to the Accademia Bridge. There we crossed to the north side and then made our way towards Piazza San Marco. Along the way I remember we passed a church inside of which a group of seven people were practicing playing on stringed instruments. At Piazza San Marco there weren’t a ton of people walking around and none of the cafes had bands playing that night. It would have been nice if my parents could have seen the dueling bands that normally perform during the warmer months but at least they got to see the square at night when it’s not flooded with tourists (or water).
For dinner that night we tracked down a pasta shop called Dal Moro’s that is hidden away in the heart of central Venice. I had read very good things about Dal Moro’s online and though it can be tricky to find in the maze of Venice’s medieval streets it is worth the effort to go there. Dal Moro’s serves pasta to go, so we each ordered a different menu item and then took it back to our hotel. I don’t remember exactly what my pasta was but I remember it had chicken alfredo meat sauce and it was very tasty. Dal Moro’s is also in Barcelona and Toronto, so if you’re in either of those cities you could try them out there.
In the morning I spent a minute out on our hotel room’s balcony before heading down to the lobby for breakfast. The view wasn’t as great as the one I had when I was last in Venice back in 2015 but it was still a peaceful rooftop spot and if we had been in Venice during the warmer months it would have been a nice place to read a book and sip a drink.
On our second day in Venice we’d be spending a lot of time on water buses and ferries. After leaving our hotel we went down to the San Zaccaria terminal and bought 24-hour passes for Venice’s public transit system and then boarded a water bus to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Located less than half a mile south of the main islands, San Giorgio Maggiore is home to possibly the best view in Venice. My parents and I landed on San Giorgio Maggiore and got a photo or two before heading inside the island’s church. Completed in 1610, the church on San Giorgio Maggiore and is a quiet refuge from the noise and bustling crowds just across the lagoon at Piazza San Marco. We spent a few minutes looking around the church and then went to the back to ride a lift up the church’s bell tower. From atop the bell tower you have a sweeping panoramic view of Venice. You can see all the way from the west end of the city to the east and on clear days you can even see the distant Dolomite Mountains back on the mainland. Going up the San Giorgio Maggiore bell tower is something that I’d recommend to anyone visiting Venice, though you should be aware that the bells ring at the top of the hour, so be ready for an ear-shattering clang if you’re up the tower at the wrong time.
We took a ton of photos up in the bell tower and then came down to walk around the island before returning to the main part of Venice. Most of San Giorgio Maggiore is closed to the public but you can walk along the northern harbor and there was one path into the middle of the island that was open to us. There wasn’t too much for us to see so after a little while we returned to the water bus station and caught the next ride back to the San Zaccaria terminal.
Back on the main islands, we next went over to Piazza San Marco to visit Basilica di San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica). Bags are not allowed inside the church so we had to store them at the basilica’s luggage office just a short distance away but once we had done that we could go inside. The basilica was first built in the 800s as the Doge’s personal chapel but it was burned down in the 900s during an insurrection. Over the next 200 or so years the basilica was rebuilt and expanded into the structure we see today. St Mark’s got it’s name because it supposedly holds the remains of the New Testament author Mark and it has a distinctly Eastern appearance with the onion domes that grace its roof. Inside the thing that stands out the most are the massive gold mosaics that cover the ceiling and walls. Photography is not allowed inside St Mark’s and I abided by the rules but what I can show you are a pair of photos I snuck back during my 2012 visit to Venice (when I was younger and more prone to disregarding no-photo policies). My parents and I followed the tour route through the basilica and then went up the stairs to check out the museum. Going up there allows you to step out onto a balcony that overlooks Piazza San Marco. Floodwaters were again coming in but it wasn’t as bad as the previous day and less than half of the square was covered in very shallow water. While up on the balcony we also got an up-close look at the four bronze horses that stand over the basilica’s front entrance. These horses are replicas of the original bronze sculptures that are now inside the church’s museum (I’ve included a 2012 photo of the original horses below). The original horses used to be on display in Constantinople but were brought to Venice in 1204 following the sacking of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. They are just one of many items around the basilica’s exterior that were taken from other parts of the Mediterranean world and brought to Venice.
Once we were done at St Mark’s Basilica we grabbed our bags from the basilica’s luggage office and then briefly returned to our hotel room for a quick snack and rest before heading out again. We then boarded a water bus and began the long but scenic ride around Venice’s east end to reach a ferry terminal on the north side. As the water bus moved further east the look of Venice steadily changed with the buildings looking a little newer and with a large green space that’s at the tip of the main islands. Our water bus rounded the corner of the “tail” of Venice (the main islands sort of look like a large fish) and passed by the entrance to Venice’s old naval yards. Then we came around a corner and started going west along the north short of Venice. I remember seeing a group of small houses along the water and wondering who lived in this forgotten corner of the city. Further along the north shore we got off at the Fondamente Nove terminal and from there we got on a ferry bound for the island of Murano, farther out north into the Venice Lagoon.
Murano Island it about 3/4 of a mile from the Fondamente Nove terminal and along the way the ferry made a stop at the cemetery island of San Michele. In 2015 I got off the ferry here and spent an hour looking around before boarding the next ferry to Murano but on this trip we didn’t have time to pay a visit. If you’re in Venice yourself and you’re curious I can say that’s it’s a very pretty cemetery and it’s where a lot of Venetians have been buried. As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of spare room on Venice’s main islands so they’ve had to bury a lot of their dead on this island. I’ve included a photo from 2015 below so you can see what the cemetery looks like.
When the ferry arrived at Murano we got off and did a short tour through the island, following one of its main canals. Murano is sort of like a suburb of Venice and the island is best known for its glassmaking industry. The island gets a lot of visitors, though it’s nowhere near as crowded as the touristy parts of Venice. At one of the island’s bridges we briefly stopped to eat some snacks and then continued along until we got to the end of the canal. From there we made our way over to another ferry terminal to catch a ride deeper into the lagoon.
Our next destination was Burano Island, which is about a 40-minute boat ride from Murano and roughly 4.5 miles from Venice. The boat ride gave my parents a chance to rest though I chose to stand in the open-air part of the ferry. There’s not a lot to see on the ride between Murano and Burano other than the lagoon itself, but the ferry did pass by a couple of islands with abandoned buildings on them. I imagine that it was simply too expensive for the owners of these islands to maintain the structures on them and perhaps the islands are sinking anyway so there’s no point in anyone trying to restore any of the properties.
At Burano Island we got off along with all the other passengers but while nearly everyone else turned left to head into Burano I took my parents to the right. There was a little detour I wanted to take them on before we toured Burano. Across a wooden footbridge from Burano is the neighboring island of Mazzorbo and my favorite spot in the Venetian Lagoon. Right after you cross the bridge onto Mazzorbo you can find the entrance to a serene garden and vineyard that feels a world away from the rest of Venice. An old, rustic church tower keeps watch over this little slice of heaven that seems to have been left behind by the modern world. We spent a few minutes enjoying the garden and then crossed the footbridge back to Burano.
Having returned to Burano, we walked around the island, taking in the sights of the pastel-colored homes. The rainbow of houses on Burano reminds me a lot of the Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, South Korea, and it’s almost as if the island was built specifically for social media photos. Burano is also home to an old stone tower that’s not quite standing upright; Pisa isn’t the only town in Italy with a leaning tower. We walked all around Burano for an hour or so but then needed to head back to the ferry terminal because it was starting to get late in the day. As we were waiting for the ferry I could see the nearby island of Torcello not too far to the north. I’ve wanted to get out there for years now since I’ve read that it’s where you can see what the main part of Venice used to look like before it got developed. On this trip, however, we were out of time and we boarded the ferry to start the long trip back to Venice.
The ferry ride back to Venice wasn’t particularly notable but near Burano I couldn’t help but notice a few nice looking houses on islands that were flying the flags of France and some other countries. I’m guessing wealthy expats live on those islands and I’d be curious to know how much it costs to live out in the lagoon. The shipping fees they must be paying to get everything brought to them certainly can’t be cheap.
When we finally got back to the Fondamente Nove terminal on the north side of Venice we then got on a water bus that cut through the middle of the city and then merged onto the Grand Canal to take us to the train station. There we bought train tickets for the next day and then rode another water bus down the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco. From there we returned to the hotel room.
That night for dinner we went out to a restaurant called Rossopomodoro. I had some gnocchi that was tasty, though not quite as good as the pasta we had eaten while we were in Siena, and I was still sick so I couldn’t appreciate it as much as normal. We also got a bit of gelato that evening. I think my parents had been trying to find a good time to get some ever since our first night in the city when I walked around for half an hour only to find every gelato shop in the area was closed.
On our final day in Venice we packed up our bags after breakfast and left them at the hotel’s front desk so that we could do one last bit of sightseeing before leaving Venice. From our hotel we went down to the southern edge of city and followed the promenade east to see some of the things we had passed by in the water bus the previous day. This waterside walkway is one of the very few long roads in the city that you can follow without making any turns. Out in Eastern Venice the streets are wider, the buildings aren’t as old, and there are fewer canals. It almost feels like a different city from the rest of Venice and it’s where a large chunk of the local population lives. At an intersection with a post office on it we turned left onto Via Giuseppe Garibaldi to go deeper into the neighborhood. A few stores were open and locals were walking around but it seemed this part of Venice still hadn’t fully woken up yet even though it was about 10:00am. After a little while we turned right to pass through a park that would take us back down to the waterside. The central part of Venice doesn’t have any trees so that park felt like a forest by comparison. When we got down to the water we unfortunately were out of time and had to start making our way back towards the hotel. I wish we could have had another 10 minutes or so to go a bit further east but we were out of luck.
Back at the hotel we grabbed our bags and then walked over to the San Marco terminal to catch a water bus going up the Grand Canal. We caught the Route 2 water bus and my parents took a seat inside the cabin while I stood in the open-air part of the boat. The water bus took us past a lot of the places we had visited over the preceding days but unlike our first ride down the canal the weather was bright and sunny. At the train station we got off and went inside. Our train arrived on time and we soon found our seats for the long trip south.
As the train pulled out of Santa Lucia Station it really hit me that the journey was almost over. It was now time for us to return to Rome for a final two nights before flying back to America.