The Floating City: Three Dreamy Days in Venice, Italy, By Foot, Gondola & Boat by Elisa Schmitz
Venice, Italy, is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. It is called the “floating city” because it is literally built on water. There may be nothing else quite like it on earth. The streets are water. The cars are boats. The buses are ferries. The taxis are gondolas. Walking hand in hand through the ancient stone streets, with not a single car in sight, I kept having to remind myself that we were not on a Hollywood movie set. This romantic place is a living museum, with more beauty than you can imagine around every corner. I felt like I was in a dream, exploring a painting created by the greatest artist of all time. You truly need to see it to believe it.
We had only three days to explore Venice, so we made the most of them. As far as I can tell, there are three key ways to truly see Venice: by foot, by gondola and by boat. We talked to our hotel concierge and planned out each day carefully. Here’s how we did it.
A walking tour is a wonderful way to see the monuments as well as the nooks and crannies of Venice. While you can grab a map and head out on your own, we wanted to be sure we got to see the “real” Venice, and not just the tourist hot spots, and learn as much as we could about its history. So, we hired a guide to take us on a walking tour of the city for three hours. Seeing this city through the eyes of a local was well worth it. A Venetian by birth as well as a college history major, Ivano was very knowledgeable and made the tour interesting and fun.
We started at San Marco Square (la Piazza), the center of Venice. This famous square has been seen in many movies, and it did not disappoint. With pigeons underfoot and seagulls overhead, we walked through la Piazza past Café Florian (considered the second-oldest coffee house in the world, the first being in Paris), past the famous clock tower to the Basilica, next door to the Doges Palace. St. Mark’s Basilica is the most famous of the city's churches and one of the best-known examples of Italian-Byzantine architecture. The Doges Palace, built in Venetian Gothic style, was the residence of the Doge of Venice, head of the former Venetian Republic.
As we meandered through this magical city, once a thriving hub of international trade and entrepreneurship, Ivano pointed out museums, statues and historic landmarks (for example, noting where Mozart lived when he spent time in Venice). He also showed us his favorite local restaurants and cafes, so we could circle back for a cappuccino or aperitivo with authentic Venetians. We ended our tour at the Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, connecting the San Marco and San Polo districts. By the end of the tour, we had racked up an incredible array of photos, memories and recommendations (not to mention 15K steps on out Fitbits)!
That night, we had a romantic dinner at the Club del Doge restaurant inside the Gritti Palace Hotel. Executive Chef Daniele Turco stopped by our table to make sure we were thoroughly enjoying the delicious meal and excellent service, along with the breathtaking views of the canal and city. Over the weekend, we also enjoyed cappuccino and cocktails at the Gritti Terrace, a truly unique spot overlooking the Grand Canal to begin or end a lovely day in Venice.
Now that we had seen Venice by land, it was time to see it by boat. Ferries and boat taxis are easily accessible, but we decided to hire a boat for an afternoon on the water. Again, we wanted that local touch to connect with the Venetians, learn their culture and see their world through their eyes.
Our captain took pride in showing us his homeland, describing its incredible history and pointing out local landmarks. Fun fact he shared: the Venetians built this one-of-a-kind place on wooden columns petrified in mud! He played Italian music as we glided along the canals, pointed out fascinating buildings, including the university and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum on the Grand Canal, one of the most visited attractions in Venice.
On our way to Murano, one of the Venetian islands famous for its glass artistry, he took this photo of us in front of Piazza San Marco, home to the Basilica and Doges Palace (on right). Nearly impossible to capture the beauty of Venice, but he tried. An added bonus of having a tour guide is someone to take pictures!
After cruising through Murano, it was back to the canals of Venice. Because speed is closely monitored on the canals in order to protect this city built on water, boats and gondolas coexist peacefully as they glide by the ancient buildings. By the time we said goodbye to our captain, it was like saying goodbye to an old friend.
That night, we had a wonderful dinner at Antico Martini, a historic restaurant that’s been around since 1720. Dining by candlelight in the enclosed terrace facing the theater was unforgettable.
I couldn’t believe we had waited until our third day to finally get in a gondola, but having seen them cruise by so many times had me even more excited to ride in one. And, it was worth the wait.
You simply can’t go to Venice and not take a ride on a gondola, a Venetian row boat created specifically to traverse the Venetian canals. A gondola is propelled by a gondolier, who uses a long oar to navigate the waterways with amazing precision. Centuries ago, thousands of these elegant boats traveled these calm waterways (they were similar to limousines). Today, there are only about 400 licensed gondoliers in Venice (just two are women). Many whistle while they work, and some will even sing to you (watch my video to see them at work)!
Here’s the view from our gondola as we traversed the narrow, peaceful canals of Venice. I kept having to remind myself that this breathtaking place is real, not a painting. The view around each corner is lovelier than the last. The gondoliers also are knowledgeable about their city and will share points of interest along your journey. You can choose the length of time you want and they will bring you back to where you started. It is an experience of a lifetime.
That night, we had a lovely dinner at La Caravella, a charming restaurant that’s designed as the interior of an ancient ship. The food and service were equally wonderful, and it was just the right ambiance to wind down our time in this boat-based place.
A Few Additional Notes
Never, in the history of my life, have I ever had a more delicious cappuccino than in Venice. The luscious foam topper is dessert in a cup. The Gritti Terrace (at the Gritti Palace Hotel) is where I want to start every day, sipping the perfect cappuccino from the perfect cup with the perfect view.
Aperitivo, similar to “happy hour” in Venice, typically involves a spritz, also known as a Veneziano. This refreshing cocktail is made with prosecco, bitter liqueur such as Aperol or Campari, with a sparkling mineral water topper. We also really enjoyed the Valdobbiadene Bisol 1542 prosecco, a festive way to toast a perfect day in Venice while watching the gondolas go by. You can find many idyllic spots around the city to enjoy this tradition.
Fresh seafood is abundant and delicious. I usually chose the “catch of the day” baked in sea salt. Without fail, it turns out tender and absolutely delicious. Add in risotto and fresh asparagus and you’ll be speechless at the utter perfection of your meal. If you have food sensitivities, no worries. The Venetians offer plenty of dairy- and gluten-free options, including pasta!
Enjoy the trip of a lifetime in Venice; I can’t wait to go back!
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