Venice is one of these cities that feel completely surreal. With its turquoise canals that snake along the city, its tiny streets filled with artsy shops, and its beautiful architecture where Medieval brick meets Renaissance marble, wandering around this city, I felt many a "pinch me" moment.
This was my second visit to this magical city. The first one was over 15 years ago, and although I remembered the lovely canals and the famous Piazza San Marco, I was delighted to rediscover it.
Venice's map has the shape of what looks like a fish. It is made up of six "sestieri" (or neighbourhoods). From the "fish's" head, there is the sestiere of Santa Croce. Here is the main square, Piazzale Roma, where the bus and train stations are, so it gets very busy as this is the main entry and exit point of the city. Further in from Santa Croce is the sestiere of San Polo. This is a very lively neighbourhood where the famous Rialto bridge stands. To San Polo's south is the sestiere of Dorsoduro. This is the "artsy" neighbourhood, home to the Galleria dell'Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. To the north of San Polo is the sestiere of Cannaregio. This neighbourhood has a more local vibe and is the place to enjoy an aperitivo from 5 pm with spritz and cicchieti! To the south of Cannaregio is the sestiere of San Marco where the famous San Marco square can be found. Finally, at the tail end of the fish is the sestiere of Castello. This is the largest and interestingly, least-known sestiere of Venice; a great place to enjoy a leisurely afternoon walk along the Giardini della Biennale.
Navigating the narrow streets and tight canals of Venice can be a little challenging, especially since one cannot fully rely on a GPS. Indeed, many of Venice's streets bear similar names, such as "Calle del Forno". Or one can be led to a dead-end street that does not appear on the GPS but is there in real life! (Talking from experience...) But this all adds to the charm of the city, in my opinion anyway. This means though that Venice certainly cannot be conquered in one day, even if one travels by Vaporetto (the public water).
Another thing to note is that most venues do not open until about 9 am or 10 am. But this did not bother me as I love wandering around a new city and getting a feel for it early in the day, with as few people as possible out and about. The eerie feeling one gets in the early morning hours is simply magical. My top tip would be to travel to Venice on weekdays outside of holidays and wander the streets early. If you are lucky, you could almost get the whole Piazza San Marco to yourself!
There are many interesting things to do in Piazza San Marco including:
Visiting the Basilica San Marco: the church is ornate inside and out! Its blend of architectural styles and materials is a real feast for the eyes.
The Palazzo Ducale: this was the seat of the Venetian Republic, literally where the Doge (highest official of the Venetian Republic) lived, and the heart of the political & administrative offices. The Palazzo is connected to the old prison by the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs).
The Campanile San Marco: the tallest structure in Venice, this offers unparalleled views of the city.
Torre dell'Orologio: the 16th-century clocktower is quite striking. At the time, this was a real masterpiece of technology.
To the north-west of San Marco's square is the Rialto bridge, which connects the sestieri of San Polo and Castello. This is the oldest of the four bridges on the Grand Canal, and it attracts throngs of tourists.
Aside from these beautiful and very interesting monuments, the highlight of my recent trip to Venice was getting to know the more local areas of Venice.
We booked a walking tour through a company run by local guides called "Touring Different", and had the most wonderful experience. We booked their "Northern Venice" tour, which is part of their "free tours" - This means that it is a tip-based tour, and the customer gets to choose how much the experience was worth to them by tipping their guide. Guides live off these tips, so it is really important to be fair in choosing the amount one tips! The tour took us to lesser-known parts of Venice, in the sestieri of Castello and Cannaregio. Our guide had been living in Venice for 11 years, and had many very interesting stories and facts to share with us. We went through little streets, and saw monuments of significance that are often overlooked by tourists - what a treat to have these huge spaces to ourselves! At the end of the tour, our guide gave us some tips about where to go to enjoy the Italian Aperitivo. An experience I highly recommend!
At the end of the day, we continued wandering along Venice's lovely canals and enjoyed the most beautiful evening hues to finish off on a high note! Ciao Venice!