Venice was nothing like I expected. One of the most famous cities in the world, I had imagined a thriving metropolis with all of the usual characters – traffic, brand names, and bumbling crowds. Instead, I was met with what become one of my favorite cities in the world.
With a population of about 60,000 living in the city (260,000 in the surrounding metropolis), it’s fairly small which gives it the ability to retain its charm, which it does very will by winding you through alleyways and side streets, over bridges, letting you duck into cafés and pizzerias along your path to nowhere – a labyrinth with no end, just more. There are no cars in the city, so all of the traffic is made up of pedestrians, and thankfully, they stick to St. Mark’s Square and the surrounding area.
While busy, the Piazza San Marco is a fantastic place to sight-see. Dominating the east side of the square is St. Mark’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic church that showcases Byzantine architecture. The church is flanked to the north by St. Mark’s Clocktower, which hangs above a busy throughfare. Freestanding in the square is St. Mark’s Campanile, a bell tower that began as a needed watchtower in the 10th century, before reaching its current height in the 1500’s. Due to a poor foundation, the tower fell in 1902 after some repairmen noticed the shifting of bricks while they worked. Closest to the docks is Doge’s Palace, a gothic palace that used to be the political center of the Venetian Republic. (Despite the efforts of Elon Musk, this Doge will not be going to the moon.)
The square was a nice place to relax with a group of friends and drink a couple bottles of wine and people watch. We had arrived in the late morning after waking up early to visit a glassblowing workshop in Murano, a set of islands that are about a 20 minute ferry ride north of Venice.
As we lost ourselves in the back alleys of the city, we stopped for lunch and I ordered a Margherita pizza, perplexed to see that I had to cut it with a fork and knife instead of the rolling cutter I’m accustomed to in the U.S.
After refueling, we made our way across some more bridges until we found a gentleman waiting at the base of one of the bridges, offering gondola rides. The going rate starts at €80, getting you a 40+ minute ride around the side canals. While the price tag is hefty, this is the picture of Venice that you think of. This is what it is famous for. My friends and I took turns playing musical chairs around the boat, each getting an opportunity to see the city from the front and rear (snapping posed shots for Instagram, of course.) The water is surprisingly dirty. I couldn’t see more than a few inches below the top of the green-blue waterway. The tide was fairly low when I had gone; you could see indicators on the sides of buildings where water had risen before, some several feet higher than where the water was currently.
The city has a new Mose system, a series of 78 floodgates that block water from coming in from the Adriatic Sea. This is especially important after the November, 2019 floods that destroyed hundreds of millions of euros worth of houses, businesses, and monuments.
As we floated on, we passed many other gondolas which had an impressive way of acknowledging right-of-way with calling out, singing, and simple gestures. The gondoliers were all very positive, friendly, and seemed to enjoy their days of transporting countless tourists around the waterways of the city. I was keeping my eye out for Marco Polo’s house and the building that Daniel Craig chased Eva Green to in Casino Royale.
Venice is an incredible city. It has a perfect blend of sight-seeing, a laid-back atmosphere, and hidden gems to enjoy. Have you been to Venice? What did you think?