Venice: Serene, Decadent and Still Kicking
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. Get ready to be immersed in the magic of this continent's most romantic city...Venice.
Venice, more than any other European city, has an endlessly seductive charm. It was nicknamed for centuries La Serenissima, the most serenely beautiful one — and you're about to see why.
After sorting through the monuments of its powerful past, we'll trace its decline from Europe's most powerful city to its most hedonistic one. We'll cruise the Grand Canal, luxuriate in a venerable café, and slurp the fishy local cuisine with local friends. We'll become as anonymous as possible in this city of masks, be dazzled by masterpieces of the Venetian Renaissance, and get intimate with the city of Casanova...on a gondola.
At the north end of the Italian Adriatic Sea is Venice It is a fish-shaped island connected to the mainland by a long causeway. Its main drag — the Grand Canal — starts at the fish's mouth and winds through the center. For this visit, we're staying near the Rialto Bridge — a short walk from St. Mark's Square and everything else we'll see.
Venice, more than any other city, is the place to get out early or stay out late — to be swept away. On every square is a surprise and around each corner is an excuse to savor the magic of the city. We'll enjoy the honeymoon qualities of this city later. But all this romance sits on a practical foundation of political and economic might.
With mountains of capital, plenty of traders with ready ships, an awesome military, and a sophisticated system of finance, Venice was a commercial powerhouse — among the six biggest cities in Europe. In the early 15th century, of its estimated 180,000 citizens, nearly 1,000 were of Rockefeller wealth and power.
And this was the Venetian Republic's political and religious center — St. Mark's Square, or Piazza San Marco, with the Basilica of St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace.
The Doge's Palace was built to show off the power and wealth of the republic and to remind visitors that Venice was number one.
This stairway from the palace courtyard — with Mars and Neptune symbolizing power on land and sea and the winged lion representing the city itself — was a suitably intimidating entry.
The Doge with his cabinet ruled here in the Collegio. For four centuries — from about 1150 to 1550 — this palace was the most powerful piece of real estate in Europe.
The sprawling palace is a maze of richly decorated rooms. Here in the Senate Hall, nobles met, debated, and passed laws. They were inspired by Tintoretto's Triumph of Venice, which shows the city — always represented blond, blue-eyed and virtuous — in heaven among the Greek Gods, receiving the wealth of the sea.
The Doge was something of an elected king — which only makes sense in an aristocratic republic like Venice. Technically, he was a noble selected by other nobles to oversee the carrying out of their laws and decisions.
The Hall of the Great Council is a vast wooden structure — made possible by Venice's shipbuilding expertise. Tintoretto's monsterpiece, Paradise — the largest oil painting anywhere — reminded lawmakers that making wise decisions would ultimately put you in the company of 500 saints.
The famous Bridge of Sighs connects the palace with its infamous prison. This is the last view of Venician beauty many prisoners saw on their way to jail.
It took more than great art to keep the most serene republic serene. Opponents of the government were dealt with swiftly and decisively. This prison held nobles and commoners alike. The great Venetian rogue Casanova did time in a cell like this.
While this prison was considered relatively comfortable for its day, I think whiling away in here, with so much beauty so close, must have been a particularly gruesome punishment.
The Doge's Palace kept an armory on display — an intimidating array of weaponry designed to dishearten potential adversaries. It comes with some fun curiosities: tiny crossbows, thumbscrews, and a particularly disheartening chastity belt.
The splendor of Venice was built upon a foundation of economic and military might. This is the Arsenal — Europe's first great military industrial complex. Behind these gates, with as many as 3,000 workers using an early form of assembly line production, Venice could produce one warship a day.
The Arsenal put the "fear of Venice" into visiting rulers. When the king of France came to town, he was taken here for a humbling shipbuilding spectacle: the creation of a warship before his very eyes.
Then, after a quick glide down this canal, the vessel was completely outfitted and ready to help bolster Venetian dominance of the Mediterranean.
Power in Venice came from more than aggressive merchants and ruthless leaders. It came from some ancient bones. To gain religious importance and a kind of legitimacy, the Venetians needed just the right relics. St. Mark actually traveled in this area and he's credited with bringing Christianity to this region. His bones would work perfectly.
So — as we can see in this mosaic, in 828, Venetian merchants smuggled Mark's remains out of Egypt and into the church — shown here as it looked in the 13th century. Mark — looking pretty grumpy after the long voyage — became the city's patron saint and his symbol — the winged lion — became the symbol of Venice.
The grand church of St. Mark's was built in a distinctly Eastern style. Its domes and intricate exterior details remind us of Venice's close ties with the East and Byzantium.
The church is covered with mosaics. And in good medieval style, they all tell Bible stories. The narthex — or vestibule — features Old Testament scenes. Here's the story of Joseph, whose brothers first threw him into a well and then sold him into slavery in Egypt.
And inside, the church is covered with New Testament lessons. The remains of St. Mark lie beneath the high altar under a sumptuous 14th-century altarpiece of gold and precious stones.
With its powerful government, an easily defendable position, and the relics of St. Mark, the scattered communities of the lagoon coalesced around Venice, which became the regional powerhouse.
The basilica is decorated with columns and statues pillaged from its enemies. The style? I'd call it "early ransack." Of all the loot ornamenting the church, perhaps its grandest prize is the set of horses, which for centuries looked out over the square. While these are copies, the originals are inside the church.
These much-coveted bronze horses are a trophy befitting the city's power. According to legend they were cast for Alexander the Great, taken by Nero to Rome, then taken by Constantine to his new capital in the East...Constantinople. Later the Venetians grabbed them, only to have Napoleon swipe them to decorate an arch in Paris. Today, they're back in what Venetians believe is their rightful home.
St. Mark's bell tower — or campanile — towers 300 feet above the square. For nearly a thousand years the original tower stood here like an exclamation point proclaiming power and greatness of the Venetian empire. Then, one morning in 1902 it groaned and crumpled into a heap of bricks.
Today it's rebuilt and an elevator zips you to a commanding view. For an ear-shattering experience, be here on the top of the hour.
Venice lies in the center of a big lagoon. It sits on pilings...millions of tree trunks driven deep into clay. About 25 miles of canals drain the city, dumping like streams into this Grand Canal. It's a car-free maze of 100 islands — laced together by 400 bridges and a vast web of alleys and canalside walkways. With a shrinking population and in a state of elegant decay, it survives on the artificial respirator of tourism.
Survey the city cheap and easy by riding a vaporetto down the Grand Canal. Venice's public transit system is a fleet of motorized bus-boats called vaporetti. These work like city buses except that they never get a flat, the stops are docks, and if you get off between stops, you may drown. Snag a front seat for the best views.
The city's main thoroughfare is busy with traffic. With water taxis, police boats, delivery boats, post boats and over 400 gondoliers joyriding around the churning vaporetti, there's a lot of congestion on the Grand Canal.
Venice is a city of palaces. The most lavish face the Grand Canal. This is the only way to really appreciate the front doors of this historic chorus line of mansions, most from the 14th and 15th centuries — when Venice was Europe's richest trading power.
Strict laws prohibit any changes in these buildings. Many of the grand buildings are now vacant and run-down — simply too expensive to maintain. Others still harbor chandeliered elegance above mossy, empty ground floors.
Palaces like these are reminders that Venetian merchants amassed lots of capital and their trading fleet dominated the Mediterranean. Back then, having a huge merchant fleet made you a naval power. Cleverly, Venice agreed to defend Byzantine and Crusader ports in return for free trade privileges. This made the eastern Mediterranean a virtual free trade zone — and an aggressive Venice very rich.
As Venetian nobles grew wealthy, they built lavish palaces like this one — owned by the Pisani family for nearly 400 years. Their counterparts on the mainland fortified their places with heavy stone and tall towers, but with their natural lagoon defenses, Venetian palazzos could be luxurious rather than fortified.
Each palace served all the family's needs — luxurious mansion, business offices, and import/export warehouse — all under one roof.
The goods — in the case of the Pisani family furs, salt, cotton and coffee — came off ships through this loading dock.
The Grand Canal cuts Venice in half and has only three bridges. To cross, you can save time and energy by hopping a traghetto — one of the ferry gondolas, which shuttle pedestrians back and forth at strategic locations. They're marked on maps. What to pay? I observe and copy. It's customary to stand. Can't afford a private gondola? You could take two round-trips on this for the cost of an ice cream cone.
The grandest bridge over the Grand Canal is the Rialto. With a span of nearly 50 yards and foundations stretching about 200 yards on either side, it was an impressive engineering feat back in the 1500s.
Originally, Venice had two major centers of power — one at San Marco and one here at Rialto. Rialto, which left the politics to San Marco, has long been the commercial district of Venice.
Locals call the summit of this bridge the "icebox of Venice" for its cool breeze. Tourists call it a great place to kiss. Venice is a great place to fall in love, enjoy a honeymoon...or a special anniversary.
For a relaxing bit of that uniquely Venetian dolce vita, visit the venerable Café Florian. This most famous of Venetian cafés — and one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee — has been the place for a discreet rendezvous since 1720. Today, whenever locals want to impress visitors, they take them here for a drink. In these richly decorated 18th-century rooms Casanova, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens have all happily paid too much for their prosecco.
While locals huddle inside, tourists enjoy sitting under the stars with the music. While standing room is free, a drink is expensive, and then the price about doubles if the orchestra's playing. But you're welcome to take all the time you want...and how do you put a price on this atmosphere? To me, this scene evokes the last chapter of the Venetian Republic when it began its elegant decline.
With the discovery of America and new trade routes to the East, Venice's power plummeted. As Venice fell, its appetite for decadence grew. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Venetians partied on the wealth accumulated through earlier centuries as a trading power.
Remnants of this decadent past are everywhere in the city, like its many colorful mask shops. These icons of Venice are enticing and they come with some history.
While Venetian nobles were plenty rich, life in the Middle Ages was generally tough. And it got tougher each Lent — a time of austerity leading up to Easter. Throughout Europe, rich and poor alike enjoyed a burst of pre-Lenten fun during the annual anything-goes festival called Carnavale. It's like Mardi Gras.
Celebrated with particular gusto in Venice, these masks were a key part — giving everyone anonymity to really cut loose. And today, local artisans keep shoppers well supplied with these icons of Venice.
Along with masks, shoppers target Venetian glass. The glass industry has long been important in Venice — and it still is for tourists. You can adorn your palazzo with a brilliant chandelier of Venetian glass...or pick up a vase, or some beads.
As life got frilly, so did the music. Many enjoy a baroque concert in this most baroque city. Vivaldi is as trendy here as Strauss is in Vienna and Mozart in Salzburg. The general rule of thumb — musicians in suits and ties offer more serious performances, those in tights and powdered wigs offer better spectacle.
Piero: This is La Serenissima Republic, the very very beautiful republic.
My Venetian friend Piero lives for his boat and he's taking me for a cruise.
Rick: This is a small town.
Piero: Yes, this is a small town, and the people, water people, everyone knows everyone.
Today Venice is a small town — home to about 65,000 people, down from a peak of around 200,000 in its glory days. Most visitors are day-trippers swooping in from cruise ships or staying at hotels in nearby beach resorts.
Rick: So in the morning everybody comes in.
Piero: Exactly, and now everybody goes out
Rick: Venice has a different personality in the evening.
Piero: Yes, there are two kinds of Venice, the locals at night and in the daytime, the invasion.
Rick: The invasion of tourists. I think that the Venetians like boats.
Piero: Yes, it's the life.
Rick: Can you imagine a life with out boats?
Piero: No! What is this?
Ristorante da Raffaele is a good place for Venetian cuisine on a quiet canal. It was a haunt of the avant garde a few generations ago. Today it's on a main gondolier route. While their multi-lingual menu is designed for the tourists, locals stick with the daily specials.
Piero: These are the chef's suggestions, and they are fresh day by day.
In Venice, I sleep in the old center — ideally in a 400-year-old hotel, waking to the clang of church bells. Family-run, centuries old, friendly, characteristic and well-located, Pensione Gueratto is the kind of place I recommend in my guidebooks and it's my home in Venice — just around the corner from the Rialto Bridge.
From the Rialto, a street called the Mercerie leads to St. Mark's. This is the tourists' main drag — with human traffic jams and a gauntlet of shopping temptations. Many tourists — as if in a knick-knack-induced trance — never get beyond this one glitzy street.
But savvy travelers explore Venice through the back door. Walk and walk to the far reaches of town. Don't worry about getting lost. Keep reminding yourself, "I'm on an island, and I can't get off."
The worst-case scenario — your island ends and you have to enjoy a drink on the edge of town while studying your map.
Invest in a good map. If you do lose your way, pop into any business and ask for their card — it comes with a map and a prominent "you are here."
Since there are no real street names, you navigate by landmarks. Follow the directional arrows or simply ask a local, "Dov'è" — that's where is — "San Marco?" "Dov'e Rialto?" They'll point you in the right direction...we're heading for the Venice's fish market behind the Rialto.
Each morning the fish market is busy with locals stocking up. The first Venetians were farmers from the mainland. After the fall of Rome they became fishermen to avoid being trampled by rampaging barbarians. They took refuge here in the lagoon where they caught and sold the fish. And fish still plays a big role in Venetian cuisine.
Wandering away from the bustle, you stumble upon some shy grandeur, like this picturesque gondola workshop. The workmen, traditionally from Italy's mountains — they need to be good with wood — maintain a refreshingly alpine-feel in this delightful little corner of Venice.
Because nobles originally settled on their own little islets, the "old center" is everywhere and you'll find palaces scattered all over. Eventually, island communities decided to join, or literally "bridge," with others. Building bridges required shoring up the canals. Soon paved canal sidewalks appeared.
While surrounded by canals, Venice had no natural source of drinking water. But a thousand years ago, residents devised a way of using town squares as rainwater collection systems. The rain would drain through these marble grills, through a sand filtering system, and channels would direct the water to central well. Only after it devised this safe local source of drinking water was Venice's population able to grow.
Hundreds of these rain collection systems provided drinking water right up until 1886 when an aqueduct was opened, bringing water in from nearby mountains.
For an appropriate meal during your back lane adventure, pop into a bar serving cicchetti or Venetian hors d'oeuvres. This is a great way to nibble a variety of dishes. With a good regional wine in a rustic setting you can eat cheaply and make new friends.
Alessandro: You have all these kinds of cicchetti, which are to help the wine. You have your wine and you are welcome to look at the displays and even if you don't know what they are you can point to the ones you would like to try.
Rick: What do you say for just a little bit?
Alessandro: You would say ciccetto, this means just one. A nice thing here is that we don't have so many cars so we enjoy the wine and then walk home.
Art lovers can spend their days touring Venice's top-notch art galleries. The Peggy Guggenheim collection is a wonderland of early 20th-century art. And the Accademia, with its low-key facade, is packed with old Venetian masterpieces.
But my favorite art experience in Venice is seeing art in the setting for which it was designed...that's in situ — at the Chiesa dei Frari.
The Franciscan "Church of the Friars" and the art that decorates it is warmed by the spirit of St. Francis. It features the work of three great Renaissance masters: Donatello, Bellini, and Titian — each showing worshippers the glory of God in human terms.
In Donatello's wood carving of St. John the Baptist, the prophet of the desert — dressed in animal skins and almost anorexic from his diet of bugs 'n honey — announces the coming of the Messiah. Donatello was a Florentine working at the dawn of the Renaissance.
Nearby, Bellini's Madonna and Saints was painted later by the father of the Venetian Renaissance in a softer, more Venetian style. Renaissance humanism demanded Madonnas and saints that were accessible and human, and Bellini places them in a physical setting so beautiful it creates its own mood of serene holiness.
Finally, glowing red and gold like a stained glass window over the high altar, Titian's Assumption sets the tone of exuberant beauty found in this otherwise sparse church. Titian's complex composition draws you right to the triumphant Mary as she joins God in heaven.
And for open-air art, you need only to look at the canals. Venice's sleek and graceful gondolas are a symbol of the city. From the start, boats were the way to get around among the island communities of the lagoon. To navigate over the shifting sand bars, the boats were flat and the captains stood up to see. Today's gondolas still come with a captain standing up and a flat bottom with no rudder, or keel. They're built with a slight curve so that a single oar on the side propels them in a straight line.
A gondola ride is a traditional must for romantics. Gondolas are moored everywhere. Just settle on a price and hop in. The 40-minute rides are expensive but you can divide the cost by up to six people. Since you might get a fun tour or impromptu conversation with your gondolier, talk with several and choose the one you enjoy the most.
Rick: Tell me about Marco Polo.
Gondolier: Marco Polo was an explorer born in Venice in 1261.
On a gondola you glide through your own parallel Venice — far from the hub-bub of modern tourism. Lonely bridges, canals without sidewalks, echoes of the past and reflections of once-upon-a-time grandeur. This is just one more way to yield to the seductive charm of this most serene city.
Timeless, enchanting, captivating — I hope you've enjoyed the magic of Venice. I'm Rick Steves — missing my wife more than ever. Keep on travelin'. Ciao.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.