Venice and Its Lagoon

Venice, more than any other European city, has an endlessly seductive charm. For centuries, it was nicknamed La Serenissima, “The Most Serenely Beautiful One” — and for good reason. Along with sampling the sumptuous art treasures of Venice and exploring its back-street wonders, we’ll cruise its lagoon, stopping in fiery Murano for glass, pastel Burano for lace, and murky Torcello for a sense of where Venice was born.

Travel Details

Santa Maria Assunta Church (on Torcello)

The Santa Maria Assunta Church complex consists of four sights: the church itself, the bell tower (behind the church, climb a ramped stairway for great lagoon views), a small museum (with little to see), and the smaller, free church of Santa Fosca (by the Sacrum sign). The main church is the only one of these really worth paying to visit, but various combo-tickets, which include an audioguide, let you get into the other sights as you like. The mosaic on the church’s back wall is justifiably famous and worth examining.

Glass-blowing workshops on Murano

Near the Colonna vaporetto stop is the “Glassmakers’ Embankment”: Fondamenta dei Vetrai; across the canal is the Faro district, packed with glass factories and their furnaces. Window-shopping here can be as much fun as buying — the personality, style, and prices of wares varies wildly from place to place. The storefronts along here display everything from knickknacks (glass menageries) to vases to decorative items to, well, glasses. If a window display grabs your attention, step inside; you might even see a glass maestro working on small-scale works in one corner of a showroom. Near the Murano-Faro vaporetto dock is the Ai Dogi factory showroom, with an open kiln area where you can watch a glassblower at work. While most such demos on Murano come with a pushy sales pitch, Ai Dogi just lets you watch a maestro work his magic (weekdays only).

Water Taxis

Venetian taxis, like speedboat limos, hang out at busy points along the Grand Canal. While official rates are regulated, prices can be soft; negotiate and settle on the price or rate before stepping in. For travelers with lots of luggage or small groups who can split the cost, taxi boat rides can be a worthwhile and time-saving convenience — and skipping across the lagoon in a classic wooden motorboat is a cool indulgence. For a little more than €100 an hour, you can have a private, unguided taxi-boat tour. You may find more competitive rates if you prebook through the Consorzio Motoscafi water-taxi association.

Public ferries

Venice’s public transit system, run by a company called ACTV, is a fleet of motorized bus-boats called vaporetti. They work like city buses except that they never get a flat, the stops are docks, and if you get off between stops, you might drown. Since single vaporetto tickets aren’t cheap, and expire after one hour, getting a vaporetto pass for a lagoon excursion (such as a 14-hour pass) makes more sense.

Lacemaking on Burano

Lace is cheaper in Burano than in Venice, and serious shoppers should comparison-shop in Venice before visiting Burano. Of the many lace shops, I like Merletti d’Arte dalla Lidia for its fine private museum. Paola, who speaks English, gives visitors a warm welcome as she shows off masterpieces of lace from all over Europe. Use a magnifying glass to marvel at the intricate knots, and be sure to go upstairs.

I Figli delle Stelle Ristorante (restaurant on Giudecca)

I Figli delle Stelle offers a delightful dining experience with an excuse to ride the boat from St. Mark’s Square across to the island of Giudecca. Simone and his staff artfully serve Venetian classics with a dash of Rome and Puglia and a passion for fish and lamb. While they have inside seating, the reason to venture here is to sit canalside with fine views of Venice across the broad Giudecca Canal and all the water traffic. Reserve ahead to specify “first line” seating along the water, “second line” seating a few steps away, or a table inside.

San Giorgio Maggiore

San Giorgio Maggiore is the dreamy church-topped island you see across the lagoon from St. Mark’s Square. The striking church, designed by Palladio, features art by Tintoretto, a bell tower, and good views of Venice. And since it’s just a five-minute vaporetto ride away, it’s worth a trip just to escape from tourist-mobbed St. Mark’s Square (church open daily and free to enter, but fee charged to go up bell tower).

Rialto Fish Market

This market is especially vibrant and colorful in the morning. The open-air stalls have the catch of the day — Venice’s culinary specialty. Find eels, scallops, crustaceans with five-inch antennae, and squid destined for tonight’s risotto soaking in their own ink. This is the Venice that has existed for centuries: Workers toss boxes of fish from delivery boats while shoppers step from the traghetto (gondola shuttle) into the action. It’s a good peek at workaday Venice. Shoppers are exacting and expect to know if the fish is fresh or frozen, farmed or wild, Atlantic or Mediterranean. Local fish are small and considered particularly tasty because of the high concentration of salt at this end of the Adriatic (market runs most mornings except Sunday and Monday).

Scuola Dalmata di San Giorgio

This little-visited scuola (which can mean either “school,” or as in this case, “meeting place”) features an exquisite wood-paneled chapel decorated with the world’s best collection of paintings by Vittorio Carpaccio. The Scuola, a reminder that cosmopolitan Venice was once Europe’s trade hub, was one of a hundred such community centers for various ethnic, religious, and economic groups, supported by the government partly to keep an eye on foreigners. It was here that the Dalmatians (from a region of Croatia) worshipped in their own way, held neighborhood meetings, and preserved their culture (open daily, tel. +39-041-522-8828).

Accademia

Venice’s top art museum, packed with highlights of the Venetian Renaissance, features paintings by the Bellini family, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo, Giorgione, Canaletto, and Testosterone. It’s the greatest museum anywhere for Venetian Renaissance art and a good overview of painters whose works you’ll see all over town. Venetian art is underrated and, I think, misunderstood. It’s nowhere near as famous today as the work of the florescent Florentines, but — with historical slices of Venice, ravishing nudes, and very human Madonnas — it’s livelier, more colorful, and simply more fun (and just over the wooden Accademia Bridge from the San Marco action).

Caffè Florian

Florian (on the right as you face St. Mark’s Basilica) is the most famous Venetian café. If you sit outside while the orchestra’s playing and get just an espresso — your cheapest option — expect to pay nearly $20.

Ca’ Rezzonico (Museum of 18th-Century Venice)

This grand Grand Canal palazzo offers the most insightful look at the life of Venice’s rich and famous in the 1700s. Wander under ceilings by Tiepolo, among furnishings from that most decadent century, enjoying views of the canal and paintings by Guardi, Canaletto, and Longhi.

Musica a Palazzo

Musica a Palazzo is a unique evening of opera at a Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. You’ll spend about 45 delightful minutes in each of three sumptuous rooms (about 2.25 hours total) as eight musicians (generally four instruments and four singers) perform. They generally present three different operas on successive nights — enthusiasts can experience more than one. With these kinds of surroundings, under Tiepolo frescoes, you’ll be glad you dressed up. As there are only 70 seats, you must book by phone or online in advance.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.


Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re exploring my favorite lagoon anywhere! It’s Venice. Thanks for joining us. And hold on tight! Yeah!

In its day, Venice ruled an empire with trading posts stretching all the way to Greece and Turkey. But today, it’s just a small town of 60,000, with endless intrigue offering rich rewards for the thoughtful traveler.

Venice offers one of Europe’s truly great sightseeing experiences. Its main square, Piazza San Marco, with its grand Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark, marked by its towering campanile, was the most powerful couple of acres in all of Europe for centuries. Like a grand boulevard, its Grand Canal winds through a city lined with once-mighty palazzos. And Venice is remarkably well-preserved, with an intoxicating mix of sights and experiences you’ll never forget.

In this second of two episodes, we venture beyond the blockbuster main sights. We’ll join a friend with a fast boat to explore the lagoon — and discover village Venice, see traditional artisans blow it big time, join locals in the market, get to know the leading Venetian painters, and follow the superpower’s decline into the decadence of its hedonistic 18th century.

In the north of Italy, at the head of the Adriatic Sea, Venice sits in a vast lagoon, connected to the mainland by a causeway. Along with the main island, we’ll visit three other islands — Torcello, Murano, and Burano.

Venice was born in mud like this. After the fall of Rome, farmers on the mainland — sick and tired of being overrun by barbarians — moved out into this lagoon, hoping the barbarians didn’t like water. From that humble beginning was born one of Europe’s great cities. And by the 13th century, Venice had become the economic and military superpower of Europe.

Today’s lagoon is filled with reminders of its first inhabitants, those farmers who became seafaring merchants, dredging canals, pounding in millions of timbers for foundations, and building communities that ultimately coalesced to become Venice.

But those first settlements were humble. Torcello — about a half hour by boat from the main island — was one of the first places where mainlanders settled. Once a thriving community, Torcello was decimated by malaria, and today, only its fine church remains. Dating from the 7th century, this is the oldest church in the lagoon.

The church feels ancient. Its wood frame and beam ceiling was flexible to accommodate the ever-shifting foundation underneath. Its mosaics illustrate the importance of the church to those first Venetians.

My friend Piero is picking me up for a tour of the lagoon. Venetians love their boats. For Piero, it’s his escape. He spends his favorite hours away from the crush of tourists, in what he calls his “parallel Venice.”

Rick: When did you have a boat, from the beginning?
Piero: My first boat? My first boat…uh, 6 years old.
Rick: Seriously?
Piero: Seriously. This boat mean the freedom, the freedom to escape from the stress life when the town is so crowded, there is a lot of people, when there is a lot of tourism, is a perfect thing to escape from.
Rick: You step in this boat, you have your parallel Venice.
Piero: Exactly.

The lagoon is protected from the open sea by a string of low-lying islands. Until modern times, the city was accessible only by boat. Then, in 1846, this causeway — with train tracks, and a highway added later by Mussolini — connected the city to the rest of Italy. Well-marked channels are dredged through the shallow lagoon. Boats of all kinds shuttle back and forth.

Our next stop is Murano.

Venice is famous for its glass, for centuries blown here on the island of Murano. A 13th-century law restricted the dangerous glass furnaces to Murano to prevent fires on the main island, and also to protect the secrets of Venetian glassmaking — historically vital to the local economy.

Today, glass is still big business, as tourists come here in droves. While savvy shoppers know the cheap knickknacks are most likely from China, the venerable art form is alive and well, as you’ll see in some of the elaborate showrooms. You can witness the traditional mastery of this craft in adjoining workshops, which welcome the public. These artisans are from families of glassblowers that go back many generations.

If you don’t have a Venetian friend with a boat, water taxis zip quickly from island to island, while regular ferryboats connect Venice with neighboring lagoon communities in a more relaxed and less-expensive way. Our next lagoon stop is Burano.

Burano, with its pastel facades gracing the lagoon, was first a fishing town. Later, it thrived as a lace-making center. Today, it’s popular with visitors for its gentle ambience…and lace shops. Once sleepy, its main center is now crowded with tourists. Locals say, “anything with a door is a shop.”

Burano’s lace-making heritage goes back 500 years. Shops proudly display these painstakingly produced works of art. Rather than using bobbins, women make Burano’s beautiful lace with only needles and thread. Meticulously following time-honored patterns, these traditions continue to be passed from older generations to the next.

As the day winds down, shops close and the crowds return to Venice. Stay, and wander Burano’s back lanes for a peaceful slice of the Venetian lagoon most visitors miss.

Earlier today, this place was packed with tourists. I’m here in the early evening and I’ve got it all to myself. All over Italy, escape the heat and the crowds by sightseeing late in the day.

As the sun sets, Piero picks us up and we head back to Venice. In this light, the timeless beauty of the lagoon is particularly striking. Piero is taking us to his favorite restaurant, on another island, Giudecca — just across from town. From this peaceful canalside perch, the hub-bub of downtown Venice becomes a romantically floodlit cityscape.

Piero’s brother-in-law Roberto has joined us, and after a day on the lagoon it only makes sense to opt for seafood — the obvious forte and passion of Venetian chefs.

For antipasti, we have a tray of riches from the lagoon: sardines, calamari, octopus, and baccalà.

Piero: This is like a cream; it’s baccalà mantecato. Like a cream…
Rick: So this would be a cod?

And along with it, a bowl of fresh mussels and clams. Spaghetti alla Busara comes next. This dish is common in the north Adriatic.

Piero: Veneto? You know Veneto? And the first part of the Croatia, that is Istria.

It has a fresh tomato sauce, spaghetti made from farro, and it’s topped with langostino. The food is fantastic, and this romantic setting makes it even better.

The touristy heart of Venice can be absolutely mobbed all year long. The main square, Piazza San Marco — with the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace — understandably attracts big crowds. Midday, the bus tour groups day-tripping in from their mainland hotels and cruise-ship passengers converge, all dutifully following their guides. The waterfront becomes a human traffic jam. And tour groups in gondola convoys clog the canals.

But it’s easy to organize your sightseeing to escape those crowds. Five minutes on a vaporetto takes me across the basin to Palladio’s dreamy church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Its 16th-century facade features the style made famous by Andrea Palladio, who inspired generations of architects in England and America. Inside, his textbook Renaissance architectural values are evident: clarity, orderliness, mathematical perfection. In the choir area, with its fine acoustics, monks gathered to sing and worship. The altar is topped with a bronze globe — acknowledging discoveries of the New World, and the universality of the Christian message. The statue is of God the Father, whose triangular halo is a reminder that he’s part of the Holy Trinity.

Ascending the church’s bell-tower rewards visitors with stunning vistas of Venice and the lagoon. The view from here is my favorite in town.

Venice is an almost perfectly preserved car-free city. It’s built upon countless islands all laced together with bridges, alleys, and canalside walks. Smaller canals flow like streams into its main thoroughfare: the Grand Canal. Once a glittering center of power with luxurious palaces showing off the wealth of its merchant class, the now sinking, shrinking city is in a state of elegant decay. Venice survives thanks to government help and tourism.

One place that has always survived without the help of tourism is Venice’s fish market. In the morning, in the shade of the famous Rialto Bridge, the fish market is busy with locals stocking up. Observing the timeless everyday rituals of the market, it’s clear — amid all this tourism — Venetian culture survives. Seafood still plays a big role in its cuisine. Small fish — anchovies and sardines — are local. Shrimp, octopi, and squid, fresh from the lagoon, distinguish many Venetian dishes.

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. If this is all you experience — as it is for so many — Venice can be more exhausting than enjoyable.

But savvy travelers leave the center and explore. 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.”

Worst-case scenario? You run out of island, and you get to enjoy a drink while studying your map. By the way: You can pop into a business anywhere, pick up a card — they always come 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…

Rick: Scusi, signora? Dov’è Campo San Giovanni e Paolo?
Woman on left: Eh…de, là.
Woman on right: A sinistra.
Rick: Grazie. Ciao.

Wandering, you discover a different Venice. You may stumble upon some shy grandeur. Five hundred years ago, a big shot with some extra cash decided to update his Gothic mansion with a Renaissance spiral staircase.

Over the centuries, the haphazard community coalesced. Because nobles originally settled on their own little islands, you’ll find palaces (and delightful squares) scattered all over. Eventually, island communities decided to join, or literally “bridge,” with others. Building bridges required shoring up the canals. Later, paved canalside walks appeared.

While plenty wet, Venice had no natural source of drinking water. But a thousand years ago, residents devised a clever way of using town squares as cisterns.

Rainwater would flow into these stone grills, and then through a sand filtering system, and on to the main 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 1884, when an aqueduct was opened, bringing water in from nearby mountains.

The city, with its pilings-in-mud foundation, is slowly sinking. Many ground floors have been vacated. Pondering this church’s flooded crypt, you’ll appreciate the ongoing struggle. While accelerated by a rising sea level due to global climate change, this has been a challenge for centuries.

With the right combination of high tide, wind, and barometric pressure, the city floods. Locals are used to it. They put up elevated walkways, pull on their rubber boots, and life goes on.

And the population of Venice is sinking, too. With the high cost of living in the lagoon, and the allure of a faster-paced world on the mainland with better employment opportunities, young people are leaving. More and more businesses are now run by immigrants, who commute in from the mainland.

But, in its prime, people clamored to live in Venice. In the Middle Ages, merchant communities from all over the Mediterranean world established a presence here, in what was the trading capital of Europe.

This [the Scuola Dalmata di San Giorgio] was where the Dalmatian community from Croatia met to worship and preserve their culture. It was one of a several such community centers for various ethnic groups — all part of the cosmopolitan mix of Venice.

The exquisite wood-paneled meeting room, decorated with paintings by Carpaccio from about the year 1500, is one of the finest Renaissance interiors in Venice.

Scenes throughout tell story of St. George, the Dalmatians’ patron saint. Here, he slays a dragon and metaphorically conquers paganism. George charges forward and spears the dragon in the head, to the relief of the damsel. St. George then leads the bedraggled dragon, spear still in his head, to the pagan king and queen. Finally, the Royal couple kneels before George as he baptizes them.

The Greeks lived and worked nearby, in the shadow of their church’s leaning bell tower. Stepping inside, you step into yet another culture. To this day this church [San Geiorgio dei Greci] serves that community.

Another part of Venice’s diverse population was the Jewish community. And the original ghetto was here in Venice.

In medieval times, Jews — who were the moneylenders of the day — were allowed to do their business in Venice. But they were segregated here on this easy-to-isolate island, which was a former copper foundry. In fact, the term “ghetto” comes from the Venetian word for “foundry.”

The island’s bridges were locked up at night. As the population swelled in the 1600s, the ghetto had to expand…but it could only go up. The resulting eight-story buildings — skyscrapers in their day — survive.

To get a sense of how Venice was in earlier times, head to the Accademia, the best museum for Venetian Renaissance painting. Art is the closest thing to a time-tunnel experience in our travels. It enables you to imagine life here centuries ago.

The Venetian love of the good life shows itself in Venetian painting. And a perfect example: Paolo Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi. It’s a party and you’re invited! Everyone’s lavishly dressed. Conversation rages, and there’s plenty to eat and drink. This is textbook Venetian: big canvas, bright colors, Renaissance architecture…a slice of luxurious Venetian life. The original title was “The Last Supper.” It showed Jesus and his disciples sharing a final meal before his crucifixion.

The church considered this too hedonistic for a Last Supper. Veronese was hauled before the Inquisition, and to save his hide — and the painting, he just renamed it: “Feast of the House of Levi.”

Venetian masters painted more reverent scenes as well. This serene Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints is by Giovanni Bellini. Mary and baby Jesus meet with saints engaging in a “sacred conversation” while musician angels jam at their feet. The painting’s believable depth gives us mortals a chance to feel like we’re part of the scene, welcome to mingle with the saints.

Paintings here show how little Venice has changed over the centuries. This Procession in Piazza San Marco, painted in 1496, helps us imagine the ritual that came with Venetian society. Enjoy an intimate peek into life here 500 years ago. Linger over these timeless images…then get out and experience the real thing.

The venerable Caffè Florian, one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee, has been the place for a discreet rendezvous since 1720. Today, when locals want to impress visitors, they bring 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 coffee.

Venice peaked in the 16th century. But after the discovery of America and new trade routes outside of the Mediterranean, its power plummeted. As Venice fell, its appetite for decadence grew. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Venetians partied, as if drunk on the wealth accumulated through earlier centuries as a trading power.

The palace of the Rezzonico family, overlooking the Grand Canal, is Venice’s Museum of the 18th Century, and an ideal place to ponder the decadence of that age.

The grand ballroom was designed with a ceiling that opens up into the heavens. Imagine the hobnobbing here as Venetian society gathered under candlelit chandeliers.

The 18th century was a time of great change. The new ideas and innovations of the Enlightenment swept more adaptable societies upward into a thriving modern age. Meanwhile, a Venice in denial declined. Insisting it remained exceptional, Venetian society chose to dance rather than to adapt.

Partygoers revel behind masks — scenes Casanova would have enjoyed. Gentlemen dressed to the max, ladies with powdered hair piled high. And everyone used a mask to be devilishly incognito.

Delightful Rococo portraits by the female artist, Rosalba Carriera, stoked aristocratic egos. Longhi painted wealthy family scenes — showing a society bored and, it seems, with no shortage of leisure time. And landscape painters like Canaletto captured the wonder of the city with paintings that became the rage. These served as souvenirs for rich tourists after Venice became an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour.

Remnants of the city’s decadent age of decline survive, like its many colorful mask shops. These papier-mâché Venetian icons — which you can see being made and artfully painted in shops around town — gave well-bred aristocrats anonymity during party seasons like Carnevale.

Throughout Europe, but especially here in Venice, Carnevale provided a safety valve for people to really cut lose before Lent — a time of austerity leading up to Easter. That’s when rich and poor alike enjoyed a burst of Mardi Gras–style fun, when anything goes…and nobody knows.

As life got frilly, so did the music. The Musica a Palazzo recreates a Baroque evening, letting you be a guest at a noble palace. Venice was home to influential composers and for two centuries, a force in the world of opera. Tonight, it’s The Barber of Seville by Rossini.

The performance — three acts in three different rooms — is punctuated by social time with Prosecco.

The tradition of crowd-pleasing music continues every night on St. Mark’s Square, where café orchestras keep that uniquely Venetian dolce vita going well after dark. This scene evokes that last chapter in the Venetian Republic, when it morphed from a powerhouse to a romantic traveler’s dream come true.

If any city in Europe lets us don a mask, escape the modern world, and just enjoy a magic moment, it’s Venice. I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at this great city. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Ciao.

Credits:

Rick: Scusi, dovè Scuolo di San Rocco?
Woman: I don’t know.
Rick: OK.

Piero: Because it was for the [flubbed].
Rick: Safety.
Piero: Aaargh! I’m sorry.

Rick: Can you pour me some wine please, sir?

Rick: Venetian society chose to, uh, dance!

Rick: Yeah, baby! Venice! Yeah!

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