Famous for its architecture, art and irresistible cuisine, the Floating City is incredibly easy to navigate and makes a truly unforgettable pre- or post- cruise stay, says Liz Jarvis
Situated in the Venetian Lagoon, which along with part of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site, Venice is actually 118 small islands, separated by canals and linked by more than 400 bridges. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was a major maritime and financial power.
The city was conquered by Napoleon’s forces, endured a cholera outbreak in 1850, and in 1966 a terrible flood destroyed many of its most historic buildings and treasures. But despite the challenges of rising sea levels, Venice is still standing, and remains one of the most unique and enticing cities in the world.
Whether you choose to indulge your inner James Bond on a high-speed vaporetto to or from the airport, or the slower, cheaper but also very enjoyable Alilaguna (water bus), the magnificent Grand Canal, with its glorious Renaissance architecture, is probably going to offer you your first glimpse of the city.
Strolling around the Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square – particularly if you visit early in the morning, when there won’t be many people around – will give you a fantastic feel for the city. You can admire the opulent St Mark’s basilica and visit the Gothic Doge’s Palace, before taking a walk along the edge of the sparkling lagoon.
Venice is a fantastic city to get lost in for a few hours; wander along the back streets and you’ll find little squares and intriguing bridges over the canals, and get a real sense of Venetian life. This is where you’ll find cheaper trattorias for dinner, too. Venice is known for its cuisine including risi e bisi and sarde in saor (fried sardines), but a Bellini at Harry’s Bar, at least once, is an absolute must as well.
It’s easy to walk from St Mark’s Square to the Rialto bridge (like many Italian cities everything is clearly signposted); along the way you’ll spot gondolas festooned with flowers and more alluring bridges and waterways.
There’s never a bad time of year to visit Venice, although the crowds (and prices) can get out of hand in the summer. In February, in the run up to carnival, where it seems almost everyone you meet is wearing spectacular costumes and a mask, the city has a magical, ethereal quality that makes it particularly special. In spring and autumn, the light will bring out your inner Canaletto, even if you’re using a smartphone instead of a paintbrush to capture it.
There are so many shops between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge you can easily lose all track of time, but must-buys include handmade Venetian masks, exquisite marbled paper and stationery, and jewellery. You’ll also find a lot of designer boutiques (though not necessarily bargains). If you’re spending a few days here – and why wouldn’t you – then it’s worth taking a trip to the islands of Murano, famed for its glass, and Burano, known for its vibrantly painted fisherman’s houses and seafood restaurants, but also artisan lace.
Where to stay
The iconic and majestic Baglioni Hotel Luna has one of the best locations in Venice, within minutes of St Mark’s Square, and its own private landing stage. The building actually dates back to the 12th century and is recorded to have given shelter to the Knights Templar; it even has its own art collection. It’s palatial and grand (there are astounding original frescoes in the Marco Polo room, where the excellent breakfast buffet is served) without being at all stuffy; staff are friendly and welcoming, and the service is anticipatory and flawless. Bedroom décor is sumptuous – think silver and gold silk brocade and Murano glass chandeliers with amazingly comfortable beds – but with a contemporary twist, and have gloriously spacious Italian marble bathrooms with covetable Ortigia luxury toiletries (rooms from €260 per night on a B&B basis, including taxes; +39 041 8520701 or visit baglionihotels.com).