Key AttractionsWith 400 bridges connecting its 160 canals, Venice actually comprises 118 small islands. The only way to travel in the city is by boat or by foot; there are no cars, no buses. These factors, plus a totally illogical street plan and house-numbering system, make a good map and sturdy shoes essential for sightseers.
The city is divided into six sestieri (sections), accessible by public motorboats (varporetti) or by gondola. The Grand Canal is Venice's main waterway, and can be crossed on foot at its ponti (bridges) or by boats, which run 24 hours a day. A leisurely cruise along the Grand Canal is the perfect way to acquaint yourself with this magical place. Your boat ride will take you on a two-mile, S-shaped loop through the heart of Venice, past hundreds of pastel-colored palaces dating back to the city's "Golden Age" and earlier. A daytime ride in a vaporetto will give you the best view of the sights; for those in the mood to splurge, an old-fashioned gondola ride--complete with accordion player and opera singer in blue-and-white shirt--is the ultimate romantic experience.
Lively Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's) is the heart of Venice, filled with people and crowds of fluttering pigeons. Many outdoor cafés line the square, some with their own small orchestras. Look for the venerable Café Florian, a favorite haunt of Casanova, Proust and Wagner. The real attraction, of course, is the Basilica of San Marco, one of Europe's most beautiful churches. A synthesis of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, the basilica is laid out in the shape of a Greek cross, capped by five onion domes. Among the precious relics housed inside are the remains of St. Mark, as well as a dazzling altarpiece encrusted with jewels known as the Pala D'Oro.
The nearby Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) is a Gothic-Renaissance fantasy of white-and-pink marble. Once the official residence of rulers and chief magistrates, today the palace serves as an elegant testimony to the incredible pomp and power of the Doge's city at its height. The sumptuous interior-- nearly every wall covered with paintings by Venice's greatest artists--is particularly memorable; look for Veronese's masterpiece, The Rape of Europa, and Tintoretto's The Paradise, claimed to be the largest oil painting in the world. Walking the streets of Venice is an experience laden with sensory delights. For a taste of the "real" Venice, head for the neighborhood of Dorsoduro, where children play and water laps the shores. Here you'll encounter the great Palazzo Rezzonico and its museum of the 18th century. Perhaps the most compelling lure for sightseers is the Accademia Gallery, the most important picture gallery in all of Venice. Highlights include an altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini and his moving Madonna with St. Catherine and the Magdalen.
A boat ride across the shallow waters of the Venetian lagoon will bring you to several islands, memorable for their churches and handicrafts. Here you can see the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, home of Titian's renowned Last Supper. Occupying its own island is the Church of San Michele, built during the Renaissance. Nearby is the island of Murano, the center of Venice's renowned glassware industry. The lace industry of Venice is headquartered at Burano, and at the farther end lie the beaches of Lido and Harry's Bar, Hemingway's hangout.
Great BuysThe absence of cars in Venice allows for leisurely browsing of the boutiques, squares and palaces. You'll find many stores on the Merceria, the main shopping street, and in the fancy district near St. Mark's Square, under the arcades. Designer clothing and fine accessories are available at stores in the S. Moisé area. Venice is particularly known for its fanciful glass, swirled from clear, white or multicolored threads. Look for necklaces, vases, dishes and other decorative objects. The island of Murano houses many of the traditional glass furnaces; here you can view glassmakers at work and buy their wares.
Lace is another handicraft that makes a fine gift. Masks, a carnival tradition, are sold in shops throughout the city. Old prints of Venice are also distinctive souvenirs.
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