An island? Try 118 separate islands, dredged out of a marshy lagoon, shored up on wooden pylons, and linked by a devilishly intricate tapestry of bridges and boats. Other cities may have canals, but Venice makes an even bolder statement: It has no streets at all, only canals, more than 150 of them. Every time I visit Venice, I’m struck by the constant murmur of water lapping against stone; the very air feels magically moist against your skin. Then there’s that faint scent of decay, a blend of rotting foundations, crumbling plaster, and sediment slushing around the canal floors. The sensory impact is unforgettable, and magical; it perfectly evokes the watery essence of the city.
Given its strategic position at the head of the Adriatic Sea, medieval Venice was a natural candidate to become a maritime power, Europe’s gateway to the riches of Asia (it was no accident that Marco Polo came from a family of Venetian traders). In what is essentially still a Renaissance cityscape, you’ll note exotic accents every-where, from the glittering gold mosaics of the Byzantine-style St. Mark’s Basilica, to the Moorish facade of the Doge’s Palace next door, to the fantastical decorations of the Venetian Gothic palazzi you glide past on a boat ride down the Grand Canal. Add to that a host of distinctly Venetian details—the dragon-prowed black gondolas navigating its canals, the candy-striped poles for docking them, the winged lion symbol that materializes everywhere—and it’s like an art director’s fever dream.
Its centerpiece, Piazza San Marco, is arguably the loveliest public space in the world, with subtly tapering loggias on either side framing the gold dome of St. Mark’s at the upper end. Symmetry is beside the point—just off to the side, like an after-thought, is a perfect russet-brick bell tower; to the other side is a baroque clock tower where two mechanical Moors chime the hour. Most tourists are so dazzled by the place, they don’t get much farther. But getting beyond San Marco is essential to understand Venice, even if that means get-ting lost in a maze of narrow stone passage-ways and high-arched bridges. Venice’s art isn’t just in the art museum—the Galleria dell’Accademia for the old Venetian masters, the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim for modern art—it’s all over the place, in historic houses and especially in the city’s churches, even the most obscure ones where you may be the only visitors. At the seaward tip of Castello you’ll find the Arsenale , the old naval arsenal, now a fascinating naval history museum; turn a corner in the middle of the San Marco district and you’ll stumble upon the cramped white portico of La Fenice, the world-class opera house. Browse through street markets; encounter stray cats; buy a cone of gelato and stroll along the broad Giudecca Canal; peer through iron gates into back gardens; take a boat out to the Islands of the Venetian Lagoon. In the end, it’s the sheer Veniceness of Venice you’ll find—and remember forever.