History has seen it dominate the maritime world, sit as a staging area for the Crusades and play an important role in the rise of Europe’s cultural movement, but today Venice sits – or rather floats – as a major tourist attraction, drawing families, honeymooners and groups keen to explore its unique network of waterways.
Of course, central to the city’s scene are its boats, but first-time visitors are often wowed by the fact that literally everything is carried by water, from fish, meat and fruit to the local police force and fire men. “It’s certainly unique,” says Group Travel World editor Sue Parslow, who’s sampled the sights and sounds of Italy’s best-known islands. “You can arrive from the airport by bus or train, and then suddenly you’re met by a sea of boats, be it a vaporetti (water bus), water taxi or gondola. It’s great to escape the cars, and as you go everywhere on foot it doesn’t really matter if you get lost.
You can simply weave your way back to where you need to be. “My advice for any groups travelling to Venice would be to take a boat trip to see the other lagoon islands, as they all have their own personality. Murano, for instance – which is close to Venice’s northern shore – is well known for its glass-making factories and gift shops, and Lido is known for its beaches. If you’re staying for longer, Verona (famous for being the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) is less than an hour away by train.”
To help you plan your group’s itinerary, check out our quick guide to the top sights and attractions in Venice city:
• St Mark’s Square (or, to give it its Italian name, Piazza San Marco), is the city’s main public square, which is dominated by the magnificent 900-year-old St Mark’s Basilica – the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. Hugely popular with tourists, Venetian life has revolved around this square for nigh on 1,000 years, when it was originally a centre of civic and religious life, as well as the home of a thriving market.
• St Mark’s Campanile (or Campanile di San Marco) is one of the city’s best-known landmarks, easily spotted as you sip a coffee in St Mark’s Square as it’s the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica. Nearly 100 metres (323 feet) tall, it’s home to five bells and originally dates back to the 9th century. However, history hasn’t been kind to this now-world-famous sight. It was badly damaged in the 1300s, destroyed by fire in the 1400s and damaged by an earthquake in the 1500s. Further dogged by lightening strikes and fires over the following centuries, a collapse in 1902 saw it all but demolished. Luckily (though not for the poor animal) only the caretaker’s cat was killed in the collapse. It was rebuilt in 1912, 1,000 years after its original foundations were laid.
• The Doge’s Palace – one of Europe’s best-known buildings – sits beside St Mark’s Basilica in all its Gothic splendour. Built in the 14th century, it served as the centre of government for the Venetian Republic, as well as being the residence of the Doge (a title given to the most senior elected official of Venice). Its intricate lace-like design, carved from pink Verona marble, is at odds with the building’s often grim past. (Death sentences were once pronounced from between two of the columns on which it sits.)
Guided tours, in English, can be booked in advance, allowing groups the chance to access parts of the palace not usually open to the public, including its maze of courtyards and corridors. Find out more at palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/home/
• The Bridge of Sighs, or Ponte dei Sospiri, is the city’s famous arched bridge, which dates back to the 1600s. Connecting the Doge’s Palace with the first floor of Venice prison, prisoners were marched over the bridge before being sentenced. It’s thought they would sigh at their final view of Venice through the barred window before being taken down to their cells – hence the bridge’s name.
• The National Library of St Mark’s (or Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana) was the masterpiece of architect and sculptor Jacopo Sansovino, and dates back to the 1500s. Keen to move away from the city’s Gothic architecture, his designs leaned towards the more classical art of Rome and Florence. As a result, the library’s in contrast to the Gothic splendour of Doge’s Palace, which sits opposite, and today serves to hold one of the world’s greatest collections of classical texts. Find out more at tinyurl.com/gw55znw
A taste of what to expect
No group will go hungry in Italy’s floating city, with cafes, restaurants and bars catering for every taste and budget. You’ll find fresh lagoon fish, seasonal vegetables and local staples, including polenta and rice, all cooked according to age-old, regional recipes. It’s tradition to eat several courses for lunch or dinner, with sea food a speciality of the Venice region, washed down by a glass of local wine.
As you might expect of an Italian resort, ice cream is a big deal in Venice. This is often home made (look out for the Gelateria Nico at Zattere, which prides itself as being the oldest ice cream shop in the city).
If you’re on a budget…
Hostel Venice, www.hostelvenice.org/groups
One of the few properties in Venice that’s able to accommodate larger groups, it has large rooms that can sleep between five and 16 people. Prices start from around £20 per person, per night. For a group quote, email venice@generatorhostels
If you want romance…
The AD Place, www.adplacevenice.com
Ideal for opera-loving groups (the hotel’s close to the famous Venetian opera house Teatro La Fenice), this stylish, romantic hotel has a rooftop terrace where you can sip a glass of wine and take in the Venetian cityscape. A double room will cost you around £200 per night.
If money’s no object…
The Gritti Palace, www.thegrittipalace.com
Fully restored to its original 15th century glory, The Gritti Palace sits in the heart of Venice on the Grand Canal, across the water from the Santa Maria della Salute – one of the city’s greatest churches. A night there will set you back around £900 for a double room, but at least the WiFi’s free! Time to start saving…
Venice is easily accessible by train, with Rome three-and-a-half hours away by rail, and Milan two-and-a-half hours away. It has two main train stations – St Lucia and Mestre. Once there, waterbuses run a regular service between the islands, and there are also water taxis and, of course, gondolas to hire.
The nearest airport is the Marco Polo International Airport, which is around five miles from Venice city (easyJet flies there from Luton, Gatwick and Manchester airports, see www.easyjet.com). Other operators that fly from the UK to Venice include British Airways (www.britishairways.com), and Monarch Airlines (www.monarch.co.uk).
Did you know?
• The city attracts around 50,000 tourists a day.
• Venice’s buildings are built on wooden piles, most of which are made from the trunks of alder trees – a wood noted for its water resistance.
• The city’s actually sinking at a rate of around 1-2mm a year (so go easy on the ice-cream!).
• It’s home to 177 canals, connected by 409 bridges.
• The marshy Venetian Lagoon, which stretches between the mouths of the Po and Piave rivers, is now listed as a World Heritage Site.
• As everything, unsurprisingly, has to be transported by water, there are boats for every occasion, including police motor boats – complete with their flashing blue light – and specially adapted floating ambulances.
• The city’s best-known boats are, of course, its gondolas, which are all painted black. This tradition dates back to 1562, when any opulent decoration was banned.
• The ancient Veneti people inhabited the region as long ago as the 10th century BC.
• Venice developed into a city state between the 9th and 12th centuries, a title also adopted by Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi.