Improbably crafted from a swampy archipelago, Venice is a spectacularly beautiful accident created by Romans fleeing invaders of Lombardy. Today, the city is in peril, threatened by recurring floods and acid rain. It’s also sinking under the weight of an economy almost exclusively based on tourism.
Pre- or post-cruise, clients can roam Venice’s
side canals and discover plenty of galleries and
shops. // (c) David Swanson
See Venice before it dies, one might say.
Many clients spend a night or two here before embarking on a Mediterranean cruise. Yet despite the city’s compact size, visitors are overwhelmed with options. What follows is a checklist of the city’s greatest spots for art, architecture, history and culture.
The Gallerie dell’Accademia (39-041-520-0345; www.gallerieaccademia.org) is one of Italy’s great art collections, and since it opens earlier (and closes later) than most other attractions, it’s a good place to get a jump on midday crowds. Covering the city’s art history from the 14th to 18th centuries, the Accademia’s high points grace Room 10 (Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese) and Room 21, where you’ll find Carpaccio’s nine-panel epic on St. Ursula.
Nearby, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (39-041-240-5411; www.guggenheim-venice.it) occupies the art-lover’s former home (she’s buried in the sculpture garden) and features a top-flight gathering of early and mid-20th-century works by Picasso, Pollack, Kandinsky and others.
Alternatively, clients can immerse themselves in truly modern art at the new Palazzo Grassi museum (39-041-523-1680; www.palazzograssi.it), an 18th-century palace with a feast of pop and post-pop by the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
The square Napoleon called “the finest drawing room in Europe” is trimmed with dramatic history and lush art — you could spend a day or two here alone. The five-domed Basilica di San Marco (39-041-522-5205) is an amalgam of Byzantine, Western European and Islamic styles — the lavish interior appears bathed in gold, with glittering mosaics splayed across the ceilings and a golden alter screen resplendent with jewels.
Next door, the Doge’s Palace (39-041-522-4951; www.museiciviciveneziani.it) was the official residence for the magistrates of Venice for 1,100 years. Although a fire destroyed much of the palace in 1577, it was sensibly rebuilt and then stocked with art by 16th-century masters Veronese and Tintoretto.
Clients should invest in an audio-guided tour or check out the Secret Itineraries tour (advance reservation required), which visits the doge’s private quarters and torture chambers. Recently reopened, the sophisticated 15th-century Moors’ Clock Tower (39-041-520-9070; www.museiciviciveneziani.it) is accessible by a steep, narrow staircase that exposes the clock’s complex mechanism and leads to the fifth floor for choice views of Venice. There are three English-speaking tours daily, but reservations are required.
While exploring San Marco’s major sights, take a prosecco break in the square itself; at 300-year-old Caffe Florian (39-041-520-5641) you’ll pay about an $8 per person entertainment charge, but the orchestra here has played for everyone from Casanova to Lord Byron — a worthy indulgence.
Venice is infamous for its overpriced restaurants featuring indifferent service. Instead, dine as the Venetians do and venture into the Dorsoduro neighborhood. Just across the canal from Campo San Trovaso is the 100-year-old enoteca (stand-up wine bar), Cantinone Gia Schiavi (39-041-523-0034), where three-bite canapes of octopus and zucchini, artichoke and bacon and more are priced one euro each, and small glasses of wine just slightly more.
Venice is famed for its gelato and, at bustling Campo Santa Margherita, two shops vie to be the city’s best. In the northwest corner, the specialty at Gelateria Causin (39-041-523-6091) is zuppa Inglese, a rich rum-based gelato with swirls of cherry-flavored biscuits. At the other end of the square, Il Doge (39-041-523-4607) serves trays of crema del doge, a silky gelato with nuggets of chocolate and orange.
The Key to the Canals
The Grand Canal is itself an art gallery as the works of Venice’s major architects line the banks. Clients can tour informally via vaporetto, the city’s unassuming water bus service. Note that crowds ease later in the day and, in the hours before sundown, a honeyed glow blankets the weathered facades of the palazzi. Board line 1 (the slow route) or line 82 (a longer loop route) at San Marco Calle Vallaresso, and angle for a seat up front for optimal views.
Gondola rides are an expensive, admittedly touristy cliche, and yet they remain a quintessential experience, giving clients an eye-level view of wet, softly crumbling bricks, and bringing them ear-level with the plonk and rustle of a gondolier’s oar. To avoid crowds, head well away from the San Marco area queues; one less crowded dock is Stazio Gondole di San Toma, next to the San Toma vaporetto stop. Expect to pay about $155 (or more after 7 p.m.) for 40 minutes, but the cost can be divided among six passengers (though only two can snuggle into the love seat).
Avoid traveling the Grand Canal by gondola in favor of languid side canals. Here you’ll encounter the seductive aura of a city perched at the fragile intersection of deliriously romantic and utterly impractical. We wouldn’t want it any other way.