Our visit to Venice was a totally impromptu addition to our Italy holiday in July, when our original return flight back to the UK was cancelled just two days before departure (thanks EasyJet). Luckily we managed to book a pretty decent hotel near the airport, and a stressful situation turned into an unexpected treat of 3 magical hours in one of the most beautiful cities we’ve visited.
14:44 Venice Watertaxi
Being right on the water, Marco Pollo Airport has the unique advantage of its own port. Here you can hire a private speed boat into Venice itself, or if you’re a normal human who doesn’t want to drop hundreds of euros on one journey, you can spend €15 on a watertaxi ticket to San Marco instead.
The watertaxi is not a quick way to travel, it stops at Murano, Cannaregio, Lido, Sant’Elena… and finally San Marco, taking over an hour in total. Not great if you’re in a hurry, but on a hot day it’s a fabulous opportunity to sit back and relax with the sea breeze in your hair while the gorgeous scenery goes past.
We didn’t have any real firm plan for our time in Venice. The sights we wanted to see where the Palazzo Ducale, Ponte dei Sospiri, Piazza San Marco and Ponte di Rialto. Beyond that, all we needed to do was get to the bus station at Piazzale so we could get the very reasonable €1.50 bus back to our hotel at the end of the day. We barely even looked at our phones while we strolled, instead relying on street signs. Here’s the pretty indirect walking route we ended up taking.
The first impression we got when we landed at the pier just off Giardini Reali was… this isn’t that bad! We’d been so worried about Venice being busy to the point of being unenjoyable. Our visit coincided with a local saint’s day festival and the summer regatta, and I was picturing St Mark’s Square as being basically the fifth circle of hell, not to mention the tiny cramped streets.
I don’t know if it was because it was a Sunday, or because of the crazy hot weather, but the square was practically deserted, and only a few of the main streets ended up being really busy. The weather wasn’t even the hottest we’d experienced on that holiday, with plenty of shade to be found and a consistent breeze coming in off the water.
15:54 Palazzo Ducale
The Gothic-style Doge’s Palace is one of the most iconic landmarks of Venice, and its right there on the corner of the main square (the smudged camera lens is for effect).
The palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the former Republic. First built in 1340, it’s been used for various different things throughout history as Venice was first ruled by the French and then the Austrians, until it finally became part of Italy in 1866. It became a museum in 1923 and is today run by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia – although appropriately the State Office for the protection of historical Monuments is still housed on the palace’s loggia floor.
15:57 Ponte dei Sospiri
The Bridge of Sighs, a limestone bridge over the Rio di Palazzo, connects the New Prison (Prigioni Nuove) to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. It was designed by Antonio Contino, nephew of the architect who designed the Rialto Bridge, and was built in 1600.
The name Bridge of Sighs was bequeathed by Lord Byron in the 19th century as a translation from the Italian Ponte dei sospiri, the suggestion being that convicts would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells for imprisonment.
16:01 Piazza San Marco
St Mark’s Square is such a key landmark in Venice that locals just call it la Piazza. It contains St Mark’s Basilica and St Mark’s Clocktower. The 16th century arcade framing the square has shops on the ground floor and offices above – but make sure you don’t buy anything here unless you want to be thoroughly ripped off.
St Mark’s Basilica is Venice’s cathedral, holding the relic of St Mark, the patron saint of the city. Construction probably began in 1063, modelled after the 6th century Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (which Venice plundered in the Fourth Crusade), with Middle-Byzantine, Romanesque, and Islamic influences, and Gothic elements added later. The incredible façade was embellished with marble and precious stones in the 13th century.
It was a shame we couldn’t go inside the basilica, but the line to enter snaked all the way down past the Doge’s palace in the direct sun with no shade, and I just couldn’t hack it. We decided to admire the front and put it on the list of things we’d do on our return to Venice in the future.
On the north side of the square over one of the exits is the Torre dell’Orologio. This 15th century clocktower was built here to be visible from the waters of the lagoon – both to tell the time and to shout about the wealth and glory of Venice. It sits over the archway into the main street of the city, the Merceria, which links the political and religious centre (the Piazza) with the commercial and financial centre (the Rialto) of Venice.
16:09 Venice Streets
We actually decided to avoid the Merceria as it was completely packed with people, instead choosing one of the streets running parallel. Like I mentioned before, we didn’t really look at our phones at all, and found a nice balance of getting lost while also heading in vaguely the right direction.
We’d heard that Venice is picturesque but we were not ready for this level of idyllic vistas. Every corner we turned presented us with a new postcard-perfect scene. The colour palate of the houses with their warm pastel and terracotta hues, the greenery spilling out from balconies, the arching bridges reflected by the water, and of course the little gondolas floating about (their drivers wearing coordinated outfits).
As we walked we kept an eye out for ice cream, which there was plenty of, and chose Gelateria Gallonetto for our afternoon pick-me-up. Their pistachio flavour used real Sicilian pistachios (which we know and love) and we even met a fellow couple who had been booked on the same cancelled flight as us.
16:32 Ponte di Rialto
The Rialto Bridge, originally built in 1173 (only a pontoon bridge back then), is the oldest in Venice and connects the San Marco district with the San Polo district. The shops appeared on it in the 15th century, and then it collapsed a few times before being rebuilt in stone instead of wood in 1588. It’s like the Eiffel Tower in that it was originally thought of as ugly but ended up being an architectural icon and top tourist attraction.
Being a bridge with shops on, it reminded me a lot of Ponte Vecchio in Florence, but a lot smaller and benefitting from a walkway either side so you can properly enjoy the view of the river.
The Grand Canal is one of the major water-traffic corridors in Venice, making a large reverse S shape through the central districts of the city. Until as recently as the 19th century, the Rialto was the only bridge across the canal, as of course most traffic went along it rather than across it.
We left the bridge and went up the pavement at the edge of the canal – although this doesn’t go very far as most of the buildings at its edge just go straight into the water. We veered into the streets of the San Polo district and set about getting lost again, following any signs we saw for Piazzale Roma.
17:00 Basilica S.Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
We arrived at St Mary of the Friars just as we started to get a bit peckish. We did poke our heads into the church but it was €5 to enter so we decided against it.
This church is in the middle of a lovely square with lots of bars, so we decided to do a bit of a crawl. We started at Snack Bar All’angolo which had delicious hugo cocktails (prosecco, elderflower, sparkling water and mint) and thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the shade of the square watching people and gondolas go by.
17:38 Adagio Cafe
Next we stopped at Adagio Cafe which had a great rating on google and looked more like a local hang out, which boded well. Matt installed himself on a stool and I ordered one of every cicchetti on the menu.
Cicchetti are Venetian bar snacks, traditionally eaten for lunch or as an afternoon snack with a white wine. They’re like little open sandwiches, usually featuring fish, seafood or ham of some kind and cheese, tomatoes and olives. They’re similar to Spanish tapas or Italian aperitivo.
Afterwards we plunged back into the streets, stopping to admire the Scuola Grande di San Rocco which is an art museum, not a school, as I found out literally now when I looked it up.
We headed onwards with me vaguely directing us to a big open area I could see on google maps called Campo Santa Margherita.
18:00 Campo Santa Margherita
Campo Santa Margherita is a big square in the district of Dorsoduro. As it’s right by the University of Venice, it’s a popular hang out spot for the city’s students, and the square was full of relaxed bars and cafes. The vibe here was totally different from the touristy spots we started out at, and we wished we could stay longer to try some of these places.
Totally in love with this city, we followed the rivers up to the bus station at Piazzale Roma, particularly admiring all the restaurants on the banks of the Rio Novo.
I won’t lie, I was properly apprehensive about our last minute jaunt into Venice on what was due to be one of the hottest and busiest days. Boy was I proven wrong! Apart from the Merceria and the Rialto bridge, there were almost no crowds at all, so we were free to enjoy this totally jaw-dropping beautiful place. I cannot wait to come back here again so we can see everything we missed – perhaps in off season.