The Four Faces of Venice
If Hollywood is the land of dreams, then Venice is the land of love. With its unique landscape of buildings submerged in the salty waters that brought its wealth and its network of canals, Venice will have you falling head over heels. Each visit leaves me breathless and after trip three in twelve years, a new face was revealed to me that resurged my passion for this aqueous city.
As the dawn broke, I could hear the faint rumble of life as it stirred with the morning sun. Ships starting their engines. Ferries gearing up for the passengers they would carry. And the general hum of life that breaks the nighttime silence. With them all, my anticipation started to awaken as my awareness tuned into the reality of the day ahead. A visit to my favourite city, a new exploration and a rekindled travel romance. Venice! Ah the city of love!
We first visited Venice in 2011 to honour my Dad’s first anniversary of passing. All three of us decided to celebrate his life doing something he loved – exploring new places. And from that point, my love for Venice has grown as fast as a fledging tadpole. Our second visit was a nighttime excursion as this was a city perspective we had missed on our Venice initiation. And boy that was something else. So surely a third trip could not give me anything more! Well we had only ever seen Murano – the island of glass and I had heard so much about Burano, the island of colour. And so our promise was to rectify this missing piece of our Venezia jigsaw.
As I reflect, the three visits were all so different. Each one offering a different face and a new personality that just adds to my love for this iconic archipelago. And hence this post that aims to offer a glimpse into a famous city from four aspects. So many people have written about Venice, there seems no space for any more adjectives or creativity. Yet I hope our Four Faces of Venice might just give you a completely different feel for this quintessential travel destination. For our latest video, check this out!
Face 1 – Venice by Day
The most obvious choice for visiting Venice has to be during the day. This is how a large majority of people will experience their trip to the city. Any why not? With its maze of intricate and narrow alleyways, canals, bridges of all shapes and sizes you would be hard pressed to cover the same ground twice given its 257 miles² (414 km²).
Venice, with its history dating back to 7th century, built its wealth on salt, silk, grains and spice. And with its coastal position it became a commercial powerhouse in medieval times. Whilst its relationship with water is at times precarious, Venice has managed to somehow create a balance between the forces of man and nature. Although it is a delicate interaction!
Buildings anchored to the lagoon below have been masterfully crafted in Gothic and Renaissance architecture which gives Venice a living art museum stature. Venice with its interlacing canals, the building facades and their towering beauty reaching to the skies, give this city a real 3D affect. These magnificent structures really do seem to reach out and touch you as you walk or sail by.
With the morning’s waking light, the 50,000 inhabitants of old town Venice come to life. Washing gets hung from the balconies with a disregard for the crowds below. Boats fill up with their their daily loads of everything you can imagine. And the streets ready themselves for the tourist footsteps about to tread their paths.
The iconic St Mark’s Square eases your soul as its subtle violin serenades float into the air. Doge’s Palace fills any empty space with its impressive architecture, and the Grand Canal’s serpentine navigation takes you to the edge of wonder. And yet Venice by day is as much about the hidden streets that are so easy to bypass. The tiny canals that throb with gondolas and resident’s boats that bob gently against their fragile pontoons. Secret hotels reachable only by water craft and ancient iron bridges that carry your curiosity into the intricate map of Venice’s beating heart. This is its magic. The obvious and the hidden working in unison – it demands your respect and your adventurous spirit, calling you to explore the maze of streets with child-like enthusiasm.
Intimate tree-lined squares tempt you with cafés and cakes as you rest your weary feet and escape the crowds. Alleyways that lead you to yet another canal, all with the sound of water lapping against the walls. Shops selling Venetian masks remind you of the city’s elegance in days gone by and restaurants offering you the ultimate mastery of their pasta creation.
Venice by day will have you in awe and fill your wanderlust desires within an instant. The colours, sounds and sensations of this vibrant citadel will appease you and from this point – the love affair will begin.
Top Tips for visiting Venice by day
- Arrive early before many of the coaches arrive
- Take time to wander, stop for coffee and wander some more
- Make lunch an experience and not just an event
- Pace yourself as you will walk miles
- Take extra batteries for your camera as they will be as worn out as the soles of your feet.
Check out our Venice by Day Gallery by clicking below.
Face 2 – Venice by Night
Our second visit some eight years later was born out of a deep desire for me. Our three day visit to honour my dad in 2008 certainly satiated my appetite. Although my greed for this sensory destination had me wanting more. I was disappointed not to experience Venice by night. Everywhere changes its personality as the sun dips below the horizon, the artificial light revealing a new perspective. And I really wanted to complete my Venice education with this view.
We timed our nocturnal exploration with the arrival of late afternoon. This time of the day meant that the crowds had started to thin as coaches returned their loads to their hotels. And as we reconnected with the city, we discovered a whole new side of our watery Utopia. We stumbled upon streets that we had never seen before and squares that were filled with giggling children as they returned from school. This felt like authentic Venice. The quarters where the locals sheltered from the millions of fascinated visitors, searching for their own unique experience of this city landscape masterpiece.
We found a quiet bar and sat watching the afternoon’s exploits as the autumn sun started to fade. With the leaves falling, surrendering to their seasonal fate, a welcomed coolness washed over us after the heat of the day.
We had researched that one of the best places to catch the city’s sunset was at the Academia bridge. So with camera poised and anticipation through the roof, the photographer in me dashed with a purposeful pace towards said vantage point. I was fascinated to notice how the vibe of the city started to change as the sun set. The human profile changed. There were more locals wandering the streets mingling with the discerning tourist intent on capturing that picture perfect sunset shot armed with their tripods. It felt so less frenetic somehow. Calmer, more tranquil and almost as if the real Venice could emerge from the facade that the tourists crave.
The Venice sunset was everything I had imaged and hoped for. And more. The view from Academia down the Grand Canal towards the Basilica of St Maria della Salute was incredible as it donned a pinky hew. The canal looked as if it was on fire, the buildings tinged with a beautiful light that did not come from this world. Dipping deeper, the sun called us photographer hunger shooters towards the southern seaboard Venice. And it was here that the ultimate shot of the autumn setting sun was at its best. Despite the vista being speckled with Venice’s port, the vision of the golden ball sinking below the industrial armour it made it look quite majestic. My Venice sunset was complete.
And yet my Venice by Night experience was not. As we reluctantly left the golden light of the sunset sky, we headed back into the city to search out a restaurant. And the night personality started to become clear. Lovers walked entwined and street corner musicians played for anyone who chose to listen. Natural light was replaced by atmospheric Victorian-style lamps that somehow transported us to a historical haven from another universe – it seemed.
Late autumn warmth was in battle with the cooler night air and yet a meal outside along the canal seemed a fitting. Boats still motored the waterways, yet with a less frantic energy. The night seeming to calm their intentions of getting somewhere. The crowds had reduced by 80% and suddenly Venice became an intimate liaison, shared by just a few.
Our nighttime experience of Venice was so totally different that is swept us away with its nocturnal melody. A unique experience and a privileged perspective of one of the most popular cities on the globe.
Top Tips for Venice by Night
- Either stay inside the Venetian walls so that your night experience becomes a natural extension of your day. Although if you have the luxury of more than a one-day visit, do the night the following day. Otherwise your senses will no longer absorb its special qualities
- If you are with your camper, stay in the city walls at the sosta. It’s neither pretty nor tranquil, although it does have the train that takes you into the city hub which runs late into the night. Ferries stop running around 8.00pm and although there are buses, it may not be easy to navigate back to your ‘home’ (45.44008 12.30486)
- Whilst it is tempting to come in earlier, head into Venice late afternoon so you can enjoy the quieter vibe, whilst not leaving you too exhausted to enjoy the sunset and nocturnal events.
Check out our Gallery By Night below
Face 3 – Venice by Water
It’s not difficult to experience Venice from the perspective of its watery master. It encompasses so much of the city, dangerously so at times. And no visit is complete without some sort of ferry or boat ride.
On our third visit to this beautiful destination, we decided our experience needed to be different. And in truth we had planned on just going to the islands and not revisiting the city itself. Although Venice has such an alluring draw that resisting the temptation was futile. I did however promise to find a new angle to our previous visits. So planting ourselves over on the Jesolo di Lido gave us the perfect opportunity to see Venice from the waterside.
Picking up Ferry 14, with the excitement of a puppy, I hung on the port edge of the ferry looking for my ‘first’ view of the skyline. In the meantime, the vessels buzzing all around us held my attention. Dredgers, ferries, speed boats, cruisers – you name it, it was there. Each one making waves that had everyone bouncing on the choppy waters in the absence of wind. It didn’t take long before the iconic buildings of the Venice cityscape rose from aqua Adriatic Sea. St Mark’s Campanile the first of the most noticeable shapes. As we edged nearer, more and more of Venice’s Gothic buildings came into view and my anticipation was undeniable. Disembarking our ferry, the reconnection with this place from eight years ago soon had my heart beating faster, although we had our sights set firmly on ferry 2.
Our visit three strategy was all about seeing Venice from the water. And so it was a natural progression to gravitate towards the Grand Canal, given our ferry had dropped us off close to St Mark’s Square. So we darted between the already building crowds towards the number 1 Ferry that takes you all the way along the 2.5 mile (4km) waterway.
With water sloshing up against the hull, you could tell the tourists from the locals just going about their business. We were the ones clung to the sides to get the best view. Everyone else merely sat and waited patiently for their ‘stop’. Water taxis sped past us with the same intensity as a road vehicle in any large city. And gondolas gracefully steered their way in between the plethora of vessels. What a buzz this experience was and so different to our day and night time perspectives.
We could really get a bird’s eyes view of the waterside houses that seem to just be floating on top of the surface in suspended animation. How these houses have lasted through the centuries beggars belief. Each visit, we see some sort of restoration work going on that constantly focuses the community on reclamation from the wrath of Mother Nature’s forces. It is a staggering feat of engineering, only appreciated from the water.
As we sailed underneath the iconic bridges of Academia and Rialto a whole new perspective was available as we looked left, right, up and down. So many aspects to capture in such a short time, our eyes trying to soak it all up. We got a sense of the authentic life that makes Venice so unique.
Alas after 30 short minutes we arrived at Ca’ d’Oro, our station stop. It was from here that we peppered our watery perspective by zig-zagging through the streets of Venice. Armed with a map from the campsite, my navigator guided us over bridges, quiet communities I had never seen before and churches that towered above my head. In just ten minutes we had reached the other side of Venice and yet another ferry hub that resembled a bus station for boats. F.te Nove is the main Venezian hub for the ferries that transport you to the myriad of islands that litter this angelic lagoon.
Seeking out Ferry 12 that would be our chariot to Murano, Burano and Torcello, we fulfilled another part of our watery journey. Saying a sad farewell to Venice’s skyline, we headed past the Cemetery and on into the vast lagoon that signals entry into the Venezian suburbs. The ride took on a new persona as we saw first hand Venice’s attempt to keep the silted waters at bay with huge dredging projects. Massive pylons, driven deep into the sea bed offered our course through the deeper channels into a space that felt like no-man’s land.
The islands form a respite from the ferry journey giving you the chance to drop off at any one of the main communities that make up this municipality region of Venice. Which is another story all together.
Top Tips for Water Travel in Venice
- If you intend to catch a number of ferries to get a complete Venezian experience, then we suggest you buy a One Day Ticket. For €20 per person you are entitled to take an unlimited number of ferries, anywhere, all day. If you add up the single fares which can be up to €7 each, your €20 investment soon becomes a worthwhile outlay
- If you are lucky enough to be staying in Venice for a couple of days, then there are two and three day passes that you can buy, that are also worth considering
- Remember before embarking on any ferry, to validate your ticket at the machine at the entrance to each docking area
- Gondala’s are iconic and a major tourist draw. Although if you are on a budget just be cautious of the costs which can be as much as €80 per hour
- Water taxis are a quick and fun way to get around the city and out to the islands. They are great for a more personalised view and perhaps you’ll be lucky to get a James Dean lookalike driver to complete your experience.
Check our Watery Gallery below
Face 4 – Venice’s Municipal Islands
Venice, the city is of course tourist central. Although seeing Venice through the eyes of the islands is such an important part of the Venezian jigsaw. Given that this whole area is a significant archipelago, you could spend a couple of days just exploring these important communities, aside of the city. Each one has a different character, speciality and draw for the tourist. Some are carbon copies of Venice, with their interlacing canals and characterful bridges. Whilst others are flatter landscapes with important churches that have provided historical sanctuary.
We visited three islands over the course of our visits:
Murano was our island initiation on our first Venice visit. It somehow felt important to ‘do’ an island whilst we were here, given that we are not generally travellers who like to go back to places. So with that at the forefront of our minds, we chose the closest island to Venice, just to get a feel.
Murano is a mini-Venice although it stakes out its own personality very clearly. And a significant part of that personality is its glass. Small factories and workshops speckle the island and you can watch the glass being blown into its multi-coloured forms. Murano’s assertion to be different and separate to Venice seems significant and mastered beautifully.
Mazzorbo is a small parcel of land you can drop off at from the ferry and walk to Burano. There’s only a couple of houses and a walled-garden that houses a very plush restaurant. Breathing the air alone feels like it would cost a fortune, although in fairness we chose not to look at the prices, so I may be judging it inappropriately. Although you know instinctively when there’s a fine dinning experience to be had. The tiny estate was quite eclectic, as aside of the restaurant there was a campanile and a vineyard. Yet most bizarre of all was an outdoor art exhibition with the theme of ‘Suspended Animals’. All very obscure, although a pleasant way to reach the small bridge that joins it to Burano.
Burano is an island that almost defies description. And whilst on a map you can see its relationship with Venice distinctively with its canal sliced formation. Yet this is really the only likeness. Burano is one of the most beautiful villages I have ever had the privilege to visit. It makes a rainbow look pallid such is its vibrance. Every house has a different shade, giving full credence to the spectrum of colour available. It made our eyes pop.
The ‘high street’ buzzes like a bee-hive with its shops of lace and beautiful Italian clothing. Cafés, bars and restaurants compete for your cash and yet you never feel cajoled. Yet surprisingly it’s not difficult to find your own space in Burano as the alleyways happily offer you a retreat from the crowded centre where you will stumble upon yet more colour, shapes and sizes. None more impressive than Bepi’s house. Hidden away in a side street, Bepi’s house is known for its geometric patterns and is by far the most colourful contribution to the island’s fame.
We found a small bar for a beer and Prosecco and whiled away an hour watching the water taxis and boats dock for their next set of passengers. And whilst the visitors gawped in awe at the magnificence of this place, washing lines hung across the streets just reminded you that normal life goes on here in spite of us. It gave the island an endearing feel that melted our hearts in an instant. After a couple of hours wandering, it was time to head off and it was, I must admit with a tinge of sadness. Such is the energy of Burano. Charm personified, colour captured and spelling casting magic.
Top Tips for Island Hopping
- If you don’t want to visit Torcello, then drop off at Mazzorbo, where you can walk through to Burano and shorten your journey time. Otherwise the ferry continues on to Torcello. It’s not a long journey although if time is short for your island visit, this is a way to maximise your time.
- If time really is short, then Murano is a good option as it is the closest island to experience.
- If your visit starts from Lido di Jesolo, as ours did, then you can take Ferry 12 and visit just the islands. Stopping at Burano, Torcello and Murano and then return on the same Ferry to your starting point at Punta Sabionni.
- Or you can take Ferry 14 direct to Venice, St Mark’s Square and explore here first before then catching Ferry 12 over to to the islands from F.te Nove.
- Ideally to get a full ‘Island Experience’ you need a whole day, as trying to fit them all in and fully appreciate Venice is far too overwhelming.
- We stayed at Agricampeggio Scarpa, a lovely farm campsite that for €26 per night gave us the security we needed to visit the city worry-free. It’s only 20 minutes walk to the Punta Sabbioni on the Jesolo di Lido. It’s a perfect place for island exploring. (45.443494 12.439969).
Check out our gallery below.
Venice is an icon, there’s no doubt and for sure there is an increasing tourist volume problem. So visiting this city responsibly feels really important; respecting that this is not a museum, it is a living and breathing home to thousands of people. Its precarious balance with Mother Nature needs to be acknowledged and, therefore, support for its protection seems right in whatever way we can.
Venice may be a Global Tourist Institution yet its history, art and cultural depth needs to be appreciated through its many faces. And with so many different ways to appreciate its beauty, a trip here will only fill your wanderlusting souls with joy and fulfilment. If your visit or visits can capture just a bit of all her personalities, then you will be richer for it.
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