We are now taking you to Venice virtually to prepare your first day, sharing information and resources for first-time travelers :) First let’s talk about what is so special about Venice. What is this “hype” all about?
We noticed that especially in the last few years, the gap between the old world, and especially a historical city like Venice, and the new digital world, is widening. “In Venice, you are taking a time-out in the old world” is just so true. But then, the difference between Venice and the rest of the world has always been striking. The image above shows you what I mean: Here, we live in a city that almost hasn’t changed since the year 1500. At least, outwardly.
Now, what is so special when someone shows you the city “from the Venetian point of view” like we do it in this blog? How can a Venetian tell you different stories about this special town? In Venice, we grew up in a city without cars, and it does influence our outlook on life. Without so many distractions, sights and sounds of modern and hectic life, we are accustomed to taking in other aspects of life, and in our environment. Priorities may change … this is what I mean by telling the story of Venice in a different way, this archipelago city consisting of 118 islands, 336 canals and 596 public and private bridges.
What can I expect from Venice ? One of your first impressions will be the scintillating lights and colors. After all, you have just arrived in the capital of colors and reflections. That’s especially true when you first come here in spring! Strangely, this is also true for a grey November day when the color of the water turns deep turquoise against the background of darkish clouds.
Venice is a city made for adventurers and those who love to explore unexpected sights and reflections. No cars and not even bikes are allowed in this narrow labyrinth of streets (the only exception I know of is children playing with their tiny bikes on large squares, which we call campi).
So, what is Venice? Barely 55,000 people live here in early 2019, while the latest statistics show that on peak days, more than 150,000 tourists arrive in town. So, is this city fast turning into a theme park, with entry fees being applied from May 2019?
Venice is going through a transition period, that’s for sure. Many historical cities do. They represent countertrends and forgotten values. In our opinion, these historical cities could as well succeed in defining their roles in a digital future, positioning themselves as counter-trends in society and the approach to life and well-being in general.
What we don’t talk about so often is that Venice has drawn crowds throughout her history. Also in the past, before 1575, Venice had around 310,000 inhabitants, and around 10,000 permanent visitors living in town. They were not tourists, though, but merchants and pilgrims who naturally respected Venice, the capital of the richest merchant nation in the world.
So, what was Venice, and what does she represent today? And why would anyone build a grand city in the midst of a 500k²-sized Lagoon in the first place? There is this story about refugees fleeing from the barbarian migrations which followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet, there’s another theory on the origin of Venice, the story told by archeologists of Ca’ Foscari – University of Venice, based on excavation work done in the northern Lagoon, on the island Torcello. Results show that permanent settlements were present in the northern Lagoon long before Roman times: The Lagoon of Venice was the northernmost outpost of merchants from Greece and Byzantium.
Three peoples were living peacefully in the Lagoon, in settlements called Le Venetiae, and the Byzantine merchants were one of them. Legend has it that the three peoples founded the city of Venetia (Venice) together, on 25 March 421 AD, on the Rialto archipelago located in the center of the Lagoon.
Our Byzantine heritage is even reflected in the former national language of Venice: Venessian is a Romance language just like Spanish, Italian or French. It is a mixture of Latin, Ancient Greek, and Arab. Arab makes up around 10 per cent of Venetian terms. For example, “Arsenal” referring to the the Venetian ship yard, the largest in the world for 800 years, derives from the Arab darsena.
Now, what is Venice? She is a crogiolo, a melting pot of cultures coining our Venetian character, at least as much Levantine as it is European. Levantine in the sense of our special love for gardens, blossoms, herbs, and spices. The strength of Venice is her ability of bridging east and west. This accounts for a special atmosphere and why Venice challenges and stimulates joy of life and never ceases to surprise, even those of us who were so lucky to grow up in this town.
Even though I thought I knew Venice well enough, watching the following video did take me by surprise. Expect Venice to have this impression on you but be prepared: Arriving in Venice “live” is VERY captivating. (Thanks to Dream of Venice for sharing the video !!)
What can you as visitor give back to this Venice? You’ve now got a feeling of how unique, fragile and valuable Venice is. Venice asks for nothing else than being treated with love and respect. Being treated even more carefully than other cities, in my opinion. After all, she’s 1,598 years old (officially). As we mentioned, barely 55,000 Venetians are hosts to about 30 million visitors counted in 2017, and the figures for 2018 are most probably similar or even higher. Most tourists stay for just a few hours, or a day at most. With such a crowd, everyone must take to heart a few fundamental rules of how to take care of Venice.
Visiting Venice is a special experience that you should celebrate by taking time to prepare your visit well! We suggest that you choose 1-3 topics you love most when discovering a new place, for “Venice is too old a city to take in one stride” as our friend Giuseppe puts it in this article.
When should I come to Venice? Try to visit on 28 February. That’s the most personal recommendation I can give for your stay if you can plan it well ahead. This year once again I saw the abrupt and incredibly luminous change of light taking place in our city of reflections. When winter gives way to spring all of a sudden.
Take in the colors of Venice on the last day of winter and then again in the very early morning of March 1 during the “golden hour”. True, that’s a photographer’s term describing the moment in which colors turn golden during sunrise. There’s even this app to determine when the golden hour takes place.
Below you can see what it looked like on March 1, 2016. Everything was bathed in rose-golden light while I was waiting for the vaporetto in the early morning, even the concrete floor of the vaporetto stop. It’s a soft spring light that makes the reddish facades in town glow in a unique way. All of a sudden the greyish-pale blue water of winter turned a shimmering spring rose-azure.
So how could you spend your very first day in Venice? Try to explore the various “layers” of Venice: There’s the political center, Piazza San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica di San Marco. There are also the two(!) ancient commercial centers: The first and better known is the Rialto Markets, which was the logistics center of a merchant republic for more than 1,300 years. The other is located east of the Doge’s Palace, it’s the area of San Zaccaria and San Giorgi dei Greci. Here, Byzantine merchants and diplomats were building magical gardens and warehouses when Venice was officially founded in 421 AD.
What you will notice on your first day in Venice is crowds, but you can avoid them if you make sure your visit revolves around a special topic. This also applies for your very first visit to our town. We suggest that you go and see the Piazza San Marco (of course!) on your first day.
Leave the Piazza through one of the various narrow streets leading further into the magical labyrinth. You will lose your way, yes, but you can never get lost:) Remember that Venice is never more than 5 km wide or long. There’s always a vaporetto stop nearby, and Venetians will help you find your way back. We recommend that you meander around Venice and open your eyes to unexpected sights and sounds. This will one of the most impressive experiences of your stay in Venice.
On your second day in Venice, focus on a themed walk, like the one I’m taking you on, in my blog post describing my neighborhood: I’m showing you the ancient Greek Quarter and a Floating Market. Follow me here. Before you go to Venice, read this article: 20 Facts you Didn’t Know About Venice.
Venice offers another special gift to visitors, it’s about honing your five senses. Compared to modern cities enveloped in the digital age, in Venice, you are not distracted by cars and big city rumor, but you aren’t walking on lonely territory either. You can listen to the sounds of a real city made for humans with city structures that don’t overwhelm but make people want to stay because they feel comfortable and protected (read more here in my article on Salvatore Settis’ book). Try it – you’ll remember this effect of your Venetian vacation even months and years afterwards.