On a recent side trip from Spain, we spent a long weekend in Venice.
Venice is beautiful, old, truly unique and yes, is sinking into the sea. There are no cars in Venice-- if you are not on foot, you are on a boat. The Vaporetto is Venice's main public transportation, water "buses" that travel along major routes covering anywhere you want to go. A 24 hour unlimited pass is around 10 euro and well worth it. A great way to see the city is to board at Plaza Roma and ride the number 1 boat all the way down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's Square. I recommend doing this twice, once during the day and then at night to see Venice lit-up in all its splendor.
We were there during Carnival, which made it more festive than it would typically be in the "off-season". However, Venice doesn't really have an off-season as compared to other places. During the winter it's just not completely busting at the seams with people. The manager of our hotel told us that in the summer it can take 15 minutes to cross the small pedestrian bridge out front.
You will get lost in Venice. The windy, tight streets and bridges connecting different areas over waterways create a maze which is not easily navigated. It is hard to get your bearings in the tight spaces with no views of the horizon, but getting lost is half the charm. There are signs everywhere directing you to major areas, so just keep wandering and you will eventually find your way. Remember, you're on an island and you usually circle back to where you need to go whether you intend to or not.
We stayed in a nice apartment that was run by the hotel. We usually opt for these type of places when we can find them. It makes us feel a bit less like tourists. Hotel apartments typically have a private entrance well removed from the hotel and give you a lot more space than a cookie-cutter room. They have separate living rooms and often come with a full kitchen or kitchenette, so you can save some money and do some cooking if you wish. Not that we used ours - we were in Italy after all, but it's nice to be able to store some cold drinks in the refrigerator if nothing else.
Speaking of food, there is no shortage of fantastic places to eat from old restaurants off-the-beaten-path to specialty shops selling sweets, gelato, pizza and hot sangria. I consider pizza a major food group of its own, and Venice did not disappoint in that department. On our second day, we ate lunch at Ristorante La Piramide and this was by far the best pizza I've ever had. Like Spain, Italy has it's tapas, specifically called Cichetti in Venice, and on our second night we wandered the streets ducking in and out of Cichetti bars sampling a few things at each place.
There were many events going on throughout the city to celebrate Carnival. Two that stand out are the boat parade and the wine fountain in St. Mark's square. The boat parade was a little like Gasparilla in Tampa minus the beads, pirates and drunks... ok, it was nothing like Gasparilla. Each boat had a theme and sailed down the canal with it's dressed up, singing or dancing. I think my favorite was the soccer themed boat equipped with ball, goal and crew of "players". The only thing that would have made it more complete is its Captain head-butting someone from another boat.
The wine fountain in St. Mark's Square was pumping wine instead of water and the servers would fill pitchers directly from it to serve to the crowd.
While at St. Mark's Square, named for St. Mark's Basilica, we rode the elevator up 50m to the top of the Campanile tower and took in some fantastic views of Venice. We had downloaded a few free Rick Steves' audio tours before our visit, and he gave a great overview of St. Mark's Square that helped us understand the sights and history (and expensive cafe scene) better.
St. Mark's Basilica is a must-see sight, and apparently waits can be up to 5 hours. We were fortunate during this off-season to get right in, shuffle and marvel along with the crowd. The Doge's Palace next door is also a must-see, but we visited the Museo Correr first to get a combined ticket and see some of the many archeological treasures and art work before visiting the personal and official chambers of the city's Doges. The prison is also attached to the palace and you walk over the "Bridge of Sighs" from inside, peeking out at all the tourists taking pictures of this famous site where prisoners walked from their sentencing at the palace to the gloomy prison.
To really understand the sights, listen to a good guide, read a book or watch a show about the city's history to get some context about Venice. This is a city built upon the water, an early example of modern democracy, once the trade and wealth capital of the world with a vast reach bridging the East and West, which developed in to a city of pleasure and excess, and now a city steadily losing its residents as it decays in to the sea. Besides holding some of the great treasure of architecture and art, Venice is to thank for many of our modern institutions such as banking and the stock market.
Although Vince is sinking into the sea, it does so extremely slow and should be around for many more generations. However, the rising sea level doesn't help and as one walks through Venice they see constant reminders of this. There are raised platforms sitting around through out the city and at first, we thought this was connected to Carnival and the making of stages. In fact, these are always here in preparation for very high tides that flood the city. When flood waters descend upon Venice, these "stages" become raised walkways and allow pedestrian traffic to flow in flooded areas.
Bring your walking shoes and your sense of adventure. Don't be in hurry to get where you're going in Venice, get lost on purpose and enjoy slowly finding your way there.