Never was a thoroughfare so aptly named as the Grand Canal, the glories of Venetian architecture lining its banks. Then, hiding in narrow backstreets, you'll find neighbourhood churches lined with Veroneses and priceless marbles and Tiepolo's glimpses of heaven on homeless-shelter ceilings.
For a thousand years the city was one of the most enduring mercantile sea powers on the face of the earth. Today the brilliance and influence have long since faded, leaving a town of tarnished glories, out of time and out of place, so achingly beautiful it's hard not to look for the back of the set.
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What To See
Take time to meander - losing yourself among the canals and lanes is one of Venice's principal pleasures. The cluster of sights around the Piazza San Marco are heart-clutchingly beautiful, but the more secret pleasures of the hushed backstreets are just as entrancing.
Don’t be fooled by its genteel Gothic elegance: behind that lacy, pink-chequered facade, the doge’s palace shows serious muscle and a steely will to survive. The seat of Venice’s government for nearly seven centuries, this powerhouse stood the test of storms, crashes and conspiracies – only to be outwitted by Casanova, the notorious seducer who escaped from the attic prison.
Hardly academic, these galleries contain more murderous intrigue, forbidden romance and shameless politicking than the most outrageous Venetian parties. The former Santa Maria della Carità convent complex maintained its serene composure for centuries, but ever since Napoleon installed his haul of Venetian art trophies in 1807, there’s been nonstop visual drama inside these walls.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
After tragically losing her father on the Titanic, heiress Peggy Guggenheim befriended Dadaists, dodged Nazis and changed art history at her palatial home on the Grand Canal. Peggy's Palazzo Venier dei Leoni is a showcase for surrealism, futurism and abstract expressionism by some 200 breakthrough modern artists, including Peggy’s ex-husband Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock (among her many rumoured lovers).
Teatro La Fenice
Once its dominion over the high seas ended, Venice discovered the power of high Cs, hiring as San Marco choirmaster Claudio Monteverdi, the father of modern opera, and opening La Fenice ('The Phoenix') in 1792. Rossini and Bellini staged operas here, making La Fenice the envy of Europe – until it went up in flames in 1836.
Venice without opera was unthinkable, and within a year the opera house was rebuilt. Verdi premiered Rigoletto and La Traviata at La Fenice, and international greats Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten composed for the house. But La Fenice was again reduced to ashes in 1996; two electricians found guilty of arson were apparently behind on repairs. A €90-million replica of the 19th-century opera house reopened in late 2003, and though some critics had lobbied for Gae Aulenti's avant-garde design, the reprise performance of La Traviata was a sensation.
Napoleon filled his royal digs over Piazza San Marco with the riches of the doges, and took some of Venice's finest heirlooms to France as trophies. But the biggest treasure here couldn't be lifted: Jacopo Sansovino's 16th-century Libreria Nazionale Marciana, covered with larger-than-life philosophers by Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto and miniature back-flipping sea creatures.
Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni
Bartolomeo Colleoni's galloping bronze equestrian statue is one of only two such public monuments in Venice – and an extraordinary example of early-Renaissance sculpture. It commemorates one of Venice’s most loyal mercenary commanders. From 1448, Colleoni commanded armies for the Republic, though in true mercenary form he switched sides a couple of times when he felt he’d been stiffed on pay or promotions.
The two hardest-working men in Venice stand duty on a rooftop around the clock, and wear no pants. No need to file workers' complaints: the 'Do Mori' (Two Moors) exposed to the elements atop the Torre dell'Orologio are made of bronze, and their bell-hammering mechanism runs like, well, clockwork. Below the Moors, Venice's gold-leafed 15th-century timepiece tracks lunar phases.
This soaring Italian-brick Gothic church features marquetry choir stalls, Canova's pyramid mausoleum, Bellini's achingly sweet Madonna with Child triptych in the sacristy, and Longhena's creepy Doge Pesaro funereal monument hoisted by burly slaves bursting from ragged clothes like Incredible Hulks – yet visitors are inevitably drawn to the small altarpiece.
This is Titian's 1518 Assumption, in which a radiant Madonna in a Titian-red cloak reaches heavenward, steps onto a cloud and escapes this mortal coil. Both inside and outside the painting, onlookers gasp and point out at the sight; Titian outdid himself here, upstaging his own 1526 Pesaro Altarpiece near the entry. Titian was lost to the plague in 1576, but legend has it that strict rules of quarantine were bent to allow his burial near his masterpiece.
Yes, you actually can take a gondola home in your pocket. Anyone fascinated by the models at Museo Storico Navale will go wild here, amid handmade wooden models of all kinds of Venetian boats, including some that are seaworthy (or at least bathtub worthy). Signor Penzo also creates kits so crafty types and kids can have a crack at it themselves.
Lagoon ripples swirl across marbled-paper statement necklaces and artist's portfolios, thanks to the steady hands and restless imagination of carta marmorizzata (marbled-paper) maestra Rosanna Corrò. After years restoring ancient Venetian books, Rosanna began creating her original, bookish beauties: aquatic marbled-paper cocktail rings, op-art jewellery boxes and hypnotically swirled handbags. Wall panels, wedding albums and even chairs can be custom ordered.
Booty worthy of pirates is displayed in this fishbowl-size window display: a constellation of diamonds in star settings on a ring, a tiny enamelled green snake sinking its fangs into a pearl, and diamond drop earrings that end in enamelled gold skulls. Though they look like heirlooms, these small wonders were worked on the premises by master jeweller Sigfrido.
Teatro Fondamenta Nuove
Expect the unexpected in Cannaregio’s experimental corner: dances inspired by water and arithmetic, new American cellists and long-lost Kyrgyz composers, Egyptian performance-art premieres in collaboration with Palazzo Grassi, and a steady stream of acclaimed artists from Brazil to Finland playing to a full house of 200.
Venice Jazz Club
Jazz is alive and swinging in Dorsoduro, where the resident Venice Jazz Club Quartet pays regular respects to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, heats up on Latin Friday, and grooves to bossa nova and chanteuse standards. Drinks are steep, so starving artists booze beforehand and arrive by 8pm to pounce on complimentary cold-cut platters.
Venice's public holidays include Liberation Day (25 April), Labour Day (1 May), the Feast of the Assumption (15 August), All Saints' Day (1 November), the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (8 December) and the Feast of Santo Stefano (26 December).
The year kicks off with the Regata delle Befana, the first of the lagoon city's 100-plus regattas, held on 6 January (Epiphany). The major event of the Venetian calendar is February's bewigged, bemasked and berobed Carnevale, the event that's spawned a million pastel postcards of pierrots and columbines looking unduly pensive. In May there's the Festa della Sensa (Feast of the Ascension), when Venice celebrates the Sposalizio del Mar (Wedding with the Sea). The Biennale arts fest is held every odd-numbered year in June in the pavilions of the Giardini Pubblici. July's Festa del Redentore is the festival most celebrated by Venetians themselves, with a regatta and fireworks festival. The Venice International Film Festival, Italy's version of Cannes, is held annually from late August into September at the Palazzo della Mostra del Cinema on the Lido. The Regatta Storica in September is a historic gondola race along the Grand Canal that's well worth catching. November's Festa della Madonna della Salute procession crosses the Grand Canal via a pontoon bridge.
Food and Drink
Enoteca al Volto
Join the bar crowd working its way through the vast selection of wine and cicheti, or come early for a table outdoors (in summer). Inside the snug backroom that looks like a ship’s hold, tuck into seaworthy bowls of pasta with bottarga (dried fish roe), steak drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar, and housemade ravioli. Cash only.
Watch the world drift down the Grand Canal outside or canoodle indoors, but prepare to sit up and pay attention once the food arrives. Pesador reinvents Venetian cuisine with culinary finesse: cicheti feature mackerel with balsamic-vinegar saor marinade and paper-thin lardo crostini with mint oil, while primi (mains) include red-footed scallops kicking wild herbs across squid-ink gnocchi.
Michelin stars don’t mean much in Venice. In fact, the last French critic Venetians took seriously was Napoleon himself, and he had an army backing him up. Still, locals who would not normally patronise a hotel restaurant concede that Met chef Corrado Fasolato certainly earns his starry reputation. Moonlit lagoon panoramas and mesmerising blown-glass constellations recede once the food starts to arrive. Confident and playful takes on local game and seafood dishes might include savoury pheasant cannelloni or decadent eel-stuffed pasta that makes foie gras seem trifling. One main arrives with red wine and horseradish transformed into sorbet and gelato. Bring a hot date, a sense of adventure and a fat wallet.
Taverna San Lio
Modern without losing Venice’s essential quirkiness, the seafood dishes here are delicately handled: think scallops infused with thyme or a tuna steak in a clam and lobster sauce. The veal with ricotta is also tempting. Low tables encourage diners to lean towards one another conspiratorially, amoeba-shaped lamps set the mood for free-form conversation, and huge windows let you in on the catwalk action outdoors.
For long, lazy lunches, bottles of fine wine and impeccable service, look no further than La Favorita. The menu is as elegant as the surroundings, giant rhombo (turbot) simmered with capers and olives, spider-crab gnochetti (mini-gnocchi) and classic fish risotto. Book ahead for the wisteria-filled garden and well ahead during the film festival, when songbirds are practically out-sung by the ringtones of movie moguls.
Discerning drinkers throng this cupboard-sized bar crammed with cicheti and 60 different wines, including top-notch prosecco and DOC wines by the glass. Arrive by 6.30pm for meatballs and mini-panini and easy bar access, or mingle with crowds stretching to the Grand Canal docks – there’s no seating, and it’s elbow room only at Venice's friendliest bar counter.
Pose as glitterati for the night at the gold-mosaic B-Bar, where top-shelf cocktails are thoughtfully served with bar nibbles and a piano player plays softly so as not to upstage VIP guests like you. There’s an entire menu of creative twists on the classic Venetian spritz, such as the bittersweet Rialto (prosecco, gin and a splash of grenadine).
Tea Room Beatrice
After long museum days, Beatrice offers a relaxing alternative to espresso bolted at a bar. Rainy days call for iron pots of green tea and almond cake, and sunshine brings iced drinks and salty pistachios to the garden patio. Gossip is a given in this discreet spot with Venice's best eavesdropping.