City breaks are great fun, but last minute city breaks are even better…
I’d always wanted to visit Venice, even more so after spending some time in Rome last year, i fell in love with the architecture, the history and the food. Recently i had a couple days booked off and wanted to get away, somewhere i hadn’t been and somewhere that wasn’t too far. It wasn’t long before we’d booked 3 nights in Venice, i was really excited to explore and see what it had to offer, i’d heard a lot about it and seen plenty of photos but even that didn’t prepare me for how amazing it was going to be.
Venice can be found in a picturesque lagoon in north-east Italy, in total there are about 120 different islands in the region, this was news to me, i thought there were about 10! I knew there would be plenty of bridges and canals but my mind was truly blown when we got there, it was like nothing i’d ever seen before, if i remember correctly there are over 400 bridges that connect the islands and provide access over the canals, of which, the Grand Canal is the most famous, snaking it’s way through the heart of the city.
The area is split into 6 main boroughs or districts, navigating around on foot is a real challenge but once you’ve found your bearings it becomes a lot easier. I like to think i have a very good sense of direction but trying to find the hotel when we first got there proved to be quite a task, we laughed it off and got lost until we found it.
There are a few different airports you can fly into when visiting the area, it worked out that we flew into Marco Polo which is only a short bus ride from Piazzale Roma, a square at the entrance to the islands and one of the only places that can be accessed by cars or buses, it literally is the end of the road. The flight itself only takes a couple of hours, about enough time to read a paper and have a quick snack, or a nap, if you’d prefer…
When choosing somewhere to stay we wanted to make sure it was pretty central to all of the attractions, in hindsight we could have stayed anywhere because it’s so easy to walk around the relatively small city, but we hadn’t been there before so we played it pretty safe and went for the most well known and ‘touristy’ district, San Marco. The hotel itself, Al Codega, was pretty basic but very well kept and the staff were really friendly. Situated in a quiet but typical courtyard it was really peaceful and offered a great base for the trip.
We didn’t have any real plans for the time we were there apart from to relax and enjoy the city, i’m a huge fan of architecture so i’m usually pretty happy just wandering around and taking it all in. In terms of my camera gear i wanted to travel light and make sure i concentrated on having a good time rather than specifically trying to take photos the entire trip, i’ve also been toying with the idea of upgrading my pocket camera, so for that reason i decided to leave my DSLR at home and take my Nikon Coolpix A, mainly because it’s so light and compact and also because i wanted to prove that i could get perfectly good photos with it and not need to buy a new one! The camera is a good few years old now and does suffer from a couple of drawbacks but i’m really pleased with the photos i got and it just goes to show that even on a cheaper camera you can still get great results.
Our hotel was situated a few minutes away from Piazza San Marco, a thousand year old public square home to Saint Marks Basilica and San Marco Campanile, two of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. The square itself is lined with shops and restaurants and can get very busy during the day and evening but if you catch it first thing in the morning there is a really nice peaceful feel to it before all of the tourists arrive.
San Marco Campanile can be seen from most parts of the city and we often used it as a point of reference when walking around. The tower stands just shy of 100m in height and the views from the top are spectacular, you have to pay to get the lift up the tower but it’s worth it for the panoramic views of the city and lagoon, it’s easy to see why it was used as a watchtower after initial construction, you can see for miles and miles. The tower has been damaged and rebuilt a number of times including a complete collapse in 1902, you can’t miss it if you’re wandering around and i’d recommend taking in the views from the top, i was hoping there would be some stairs for me to climb, but unfortunately there wasn’t.
Just off the main square is the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, the palace has a gothic feel to it and is huge, it used to be home to the military leader of the republic of Venice but has since been made into a museum, featuring plenty of interesting exhibits and military artifacts, you’ll also find plenty of holding cells and prison rooms which can be visited, these were my favourite part of the palace; when inside you can actually walk over the Bridge of Sighs and retrace the steps prisoners would have taken as they were moved under guard from the interrogation rooms and into the cells.
Saint Mark’s Basilica is also well worth a visit, we only spent about 15 minutes inside as it’s pretty crowded and actually quite small, despite being physically imposing from the outside. The cathedral is probably best known for its lavish design and gold mosaics which cover both the interior and exterior. If i’m being completely honest, i was pretty disappointed with the cathedral, it wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as i hoped and didn’t have quite the same impact as other major European ones i’ve visited. Having said that, they are pretty tight on space around here so i’ll let them off!
Once you’ve ticked off some of the main sites in and around the square you can head further afield, one of our favourite areas was down by the lagoon and the parks in Castello, a district built around the famous naval dockyard. It’s a lot quieter in this area and the streets have a much more local feel to them, the perfect escape from the crowded streets of San Marco.
If exploring on foot is a little taxing for you then you should consider using the water buses or Vaporetta as they’re known locally, they’re operated by a local transport authority and run very frequently around most of the city, there’s probably a dozen or more routes and plenty of stops all over the place, just as you’d expect from a bus or metro system in any other city. We used them a couple of times to get to some of the further afield places and to some of the islands that were only accessible by boat. You can purchase a number of different ticket types depending on your intended duration and distance of travel. We usually picked up the 75 minute travel cards which were pretty cheap. The bus service gives you a different perspective of the city and it’s great if you’re in a hurry.
The gondolas in Venice are very popular with tourists, these aren’t so much used as a means of transport but an attraction themselves. You’ll usually depart and return to the same stop and each ride will last around half an hour unless you pay for longer. The typical rate for half an hour is around 80 euros and you can expect to pay 100 euros if it’s a sunset ride. The gondolas can get quite busy and at peak times you’ll be encouraged to share, we wanted to relax and enjoy the experience together so our hotel advised us to take a gondola from one of the quieter areas and at an off peak time, we ended up getting one from San Polo near the markets, we didn’t even discuss pricing and were offered a discounted rate of 60 euros which was pretty good. The gondolier was very knowledgeable and gave us plenty of information about the city and various landmarks as we made our way around.
The food in Venice was amazing, there are literally hundreds of restaurants to choose from, we had a great meal everywhere we ate and a couple places i’d recommend are Al Chianti and Ostaria a La Campana, both are a short walk from Piazza San Marco and offer great food at a reasonable price, i loved the authentic family feel to the restaurants we visited, it also helps that Italian is probably my favourite cuisine! Aside from main meals there are plenty of places to pick up snacks and sweet treats, we found ourselves indulging in plenty of gelato at all times of the day, just as well we were doing plenty of walking. If a nice rooftop bar is your thing then i can recommend Hotel A la Commedia which offers a really relaxing and romantic rooftop bar, you don’t have to be a guest to visit the bar, just let reception know you want to have a drink and they’ll point you in the right direction. the views out over the city from here are amazing, the perfect place to enjoy a local beer after a long day.
Aside from the main tourist attractions we did plenty of exploring and found ourselves stumbling across plenty of amazing churches, hidden courtyards, alleyways and bridges, that’s one of the best thing about Venice, it’s like a maze and you can get lost for hours exploring every corner of it. One of our favourite finds was Scala Contarini del Bovolo which is a stunnig staircase in a small courtyard, you can pay to climb the steps and once at the top you’re treated to stunning views of the city.
The islands of San Giorgio Maggiore and Giudecca are great places to visit if you want a break from the main city, they offer great views back across the water of Venice and have some pleasing architecture and churches. We sat on the sea wall at Giudeca for an hour or so and just watched the world go by, it was so nice there, given more time i think we’d have spent a full day exploring some of these islands, i bet there are some great hidden restaurants and bars here too. The tower in the church on San Giorgio Maggiore is a great place to get a view back of the city and a good contrast to the view of the tower in Piazza San Marco, a lot less busy too, well worth checking out if you get a chance.
Is Venice on your list of places to visit this year? It certainly surprised me and i’d happily go back. If it’s not somewhere you’ve already been then i’d recommend visiting, it’s an amazing place and offers a really unique feel, unlike any other city i’ve been to…