THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY RARELY DISAPPOINTS. “I’D RATHER BE in Venice on a rainy day than in any other capital on a fine one,” was how the author Herman Melville put it in 1857, capturing the allure of a city whose magic casts its spell year-round—whether you visit in the depths of winter, an icy mist spreading chill over the encircling lagoon, or in the shimmering, enervating heat of summer, when the canals, ancient churches, and endless palaces are dappled with the shifting light of the sun. Although threatened on many fronts—pollution and depopulation are real problems— the city remains as close as the real world gets to a fairy tale.
Venice (Venezia) is a relatively recent city— compared to Rome, London, or Paris—yet few places have remained as unsullied by the passing of time. Its lagoon on the Adriatic coast was probably inhabited during the time of Christ, albeit sparsely, and small groups of refugees may have settled its islands following barbarian raids in the fifth century (myth dates the city’s foundation to March 25,421). The first doge, or ruler, was elected in 726, but presided over a loose confederation of settlements rather than a single city. Later, the Frankish invasions of the eighth century forced some of the lagoon’s inhabitants to the Rivus Altus, or high bank, a group of more easily defended islets that in time would become the Rialto, the cornerstone of present-day Venice.
By the tenth century, the nascent city had established trading links with the East and elsewhere. Prosperity increased during the Crusades and in the wake of the city’s growing maritime prowess. Firm government provided political and social cohesion at home, and by the 13th century the city was mistress, in an oft-quoted phrase, of “one quarter and one half-quarter” of the old Roman empire. On the mainland the city subdued its main maritime rivals, notably Genoa, and extended its reach across much of northeast Italy, an empire that remained intact until the arrival of Napoleon. Decline was due largely to the rise of the Turks from about the 14th century, who gradually absorbed Venice’s maritime empire, and to the long-standing enmity of other Italian and European powers. The city state’s final dissolution came in 1797, courtesy of Napoleon, after which the city passed under Austrian control before joining a united Italy in 1866.
WHAT TO SEE
Venice is divided into six sestieri, or districts, with three on either side of the Grand Canal, the city’s watery main thoroughfare. (Rather than base your sight-seeing around the sestieri, however, concentrate instead on small clusters of adjoining sights.) Before embarking on the sights, take a ride along the Grand Canal, by far the best introduction to the city. Above all, don’t plunge straight into St. Mark’s, where the crowds could put you off the city before you even start. Instead, make for one of the city’s smaller squares—Campo Santo Stefano or Campo Santa Margherita are the best—to sample areas of the city not entirely given over to tourism. Only then, acquainted with the more intimate side of Venice, should you surrender to the demands of sight-seeing.
The city’s two key churches are Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and Santi Giovanni e Paolo (known as San Zanipolo), its principal art galleries the Accademia and Collezione Peggy Guggenheim. The major scuole, ancient art-filled buildings, are the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the smaller Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. Second-ranked galleries include the Museo Civico Correr, Ca’ d’Oro, and Ca’ Rezzonico, while lesser churches—a relative term in Venice, given that even the smallest Venetian churches have charm and treasures beyond compare—include Santa Maria della Salute and San Zaccaria. Finally, steel yourself for the “big two”—the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica.
Venice’s greatest attraction is Venice itself and you should allow plenty of time simply to wander its magical labyrinth. Nighttime exploration, when the streets are virtually deserted, is particularly rewarding (and safe). Don’t ignore the city’s fringes, notably the quiet area to the west around San Nicolo dei Mendicoli and the residential district around the Biennale gardens to the east. Also try to see the Giudecca, an undervisited island south of the city, but don’t waste time on another outlying sight, the famous but disappointing Lido. Head instead for the island of San Giorgio Maggiore—the view from its church is one of Venice’s most memorable—and on no account miss the island of Torcello, one of Venice’s most enchanting spots.
But if Torcello shows the city at close to its best, it’s worth remembering that Venice is also a city with problems. It may no longer, strictly speaking, be sinking, but its position still makes it a constant prey to floods, while the combination of sea, salt water, and the corrosive effects of airborne pollution from factories on the mainland greatly affect the city’s fabric. Depopulation is also a problem, as is the sense that the numbers of visitors are more than the city can sustain. Venice may be a fairy tale, but it may not necessarily be a fairy tale with a happy ending.