It's easy to forgive Venice for its eternal preoccupation with its own beauty. All the picture books in the world won't prepare you for the city's exotic landmarks, among them the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, rising like mirages from the lagoon. With sumptuous palaces and romantic waterways, Venice is straight out of an 18th-century Canaletto masterpiece.
Venice is called La Serenissima (the "most serene" one), a reference to the monstrous power, majesty, and wisdom of this city that was for centuries the unrivaled mistress of trade between Europe and the Orient and the bulwark of Christendom against the tides of Turkish expansion. The most serene also refers to the way in which those visiting have looked upon Venice, a miraculous city imperturbably floating on its calm, blue lagoon.
Entirely built on water by men who dared defy the sea, Venice is unlike any other town. No matter how many times you have seen it in movies or TV commercials, the real thing is more surreal and dreamlike than you ever imagined. Its landmarks, the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, seem hardly Italian: delightfully idiosyncratic, they are exotic mélanges of Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance styles. Sunlight shimmers and silvery mist softens every perspective here, a city renowned in the Renaissance for its artists' rendering of color. It is full of secrets, ineffably romantic, and -- at times -- given over entirely to pleasure.
Founded in the 5th century, Venice attained a peak of power and prosperity in the 15th and 16th centuries. For 400 years the powerful maritime city-republic had held sway, but after the 16th century the tide changed. The Ottoman Empire blocked Venice's Mediterranean trade routes, and newly emerging sea powers such as Britain and the Netherlands broke Venice's monopoly by opening oceanic trading routes. Like its steadily dwindling fortunes, Venice's art and culture began a prolonged decline, leaving only the splendid monuments to recall a fabled past, with the luminous paintings of Canaletto (1697-1768) and the beautiful frescoes of Giambattista Tiepolo striking a glorious swan song.
You must walk everywhere in Venice (Venezia, in Italian) and where you cannot walk, you go by water. Occasionally, from fall to spring, you have to walk in water, when extraordinarily high tides known as acqua alta invade the lower parts of the city, flooding Piazza San Marco for a few hours. The difficulty of protecting Venice and its lagoon from dangerously high tides has generated extravagant plans and so many committee reports that the city may sink as much under the weight of paper as under water.
In spite of these problems, Venetians have mastered the art of living well in their singular city. You'll see them going about their daily affairs in vaporetti (water buses), aboard the traghetti (traditional gondola ferries) that ply between the banks of the Grand Canal, in the campi (squares), and along the calli (narrow Venetian streets). And they are nothing if not skilled in dealing with the armies of tourists that inundate their city in summer.
Things to do and See
Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
The most impressive secular building in Venice served as a senate and adminstrative building until the fall of the Republic in 1797.
Enjoy Venice's main throughway and its Renaissance atmosphere. Embrace the atmosphere including chic shops and gondolas.
Teatro La Fenice
Embrace the world-famous opera house that burned down in 1996 and has been reconstructed amid much tension and scandal.
Weather & When to Go
The main tourist season in Venice runs from April to October and during Carnevale. For serious sightseers the best months are from fall to early spring. The so-called low season is cooler and inevitably rainier, but it has its rewards: less time waiting on lines; and close, unhurried views of what you want to see; and substantial hotel discounts.
Weather-wise, the best months for sightseeing are March, April, May, June, September, and October -- generally pleasant and not too hot. The hottest months are July and August, when the south wind called scirocco brings about sticky days in Venice. Brief afternoon thunderstorms are common (and welcome) in the whole Veneto region. Venetian winters are relatively mild but always include foggy days, some rainy spells, and the risk of acqua alta (high water, when portions of the city are flooded). Inland towns are generally colder in winter and hotter in summer than Venice, but they are less humid.
An intimate boutique hotel in the heart of Venice. Venetian-style palazzo overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal, just steps from St. Mark’s Square, this hotel is more like a sophisticated home than a hotel.The 36 guestrooms and 40 suites are appointed with the finest furniture, fabrics, Murano glass chandeliers, and an array of modern amenities.
With its own private boat dock on the Grand Canal, guests are greeted by the hotel’s sumptuous lobby, decorated in wood paneling and antique-veneered Venetian panels.
The Westin Europa and Regina
Architectural landmark hotel on Venice’s Grand Canal. Fully refurbished, the hotel is across from the Church of Santa Maria della Salute and a few steps from St. Mark’s Square. All 185 rooms have a desk and dial-up Internet access. Some have canal views.
This six-story hotel has an ornate marble lobby, restaurant and piano bar, and a terrace overlooking the water.
Splendid 14th-century palace overlooking the lagoon. The hotel lies right next to St. Mark’s Square and is only a few steps from legendary sites such as the Basilica and the Doges’ Palace. All 233 rooms offer rich Venetian decor, minibar, safe, and marble bathroom. The five-story hotel has a rooftop restaurant, 24-hour room service, and complimentary boat service to Venice-Lido sister hotels.