Whether it’s watching the world go by in a Venetian coffee shop, a leisurely gondola ride or exploring the history of both Venice & Verona, this little slice of Italy has something for everyone.
When you first arrive into Venice’s ‘Marco Polo’ airport as we did back in 2013, we found it was best to buy the Vaporetti (water bus) tickets in advance and there are numerous stands selling passes valid for various durations. The vaporetti are the easiest way to get around Venice and there are so many stops on either side of the Grand Canal that it’s a bit like using a Hop On/Hop Off service.
We stayed at the Hotel Gorizia ‘A la Valigia’, in the heart of Venice and not far from St Marks Square. A lot of hotels in the city will advise on their website or in their brochures which water bus stop is closest to them and in this case, it was the Rialto.
At the time we didn’t have the brochure and so didn’t realise that the Rialto was the most practical bus stop to use. We did pick up a city map at the airport so got off at St Marks Square and trundled our suitcases through various streets to get to the hotel.
We found Caffe Florian in St Marks Square which is considered to be the oldest cafe in world, not just in Venice, dating back to 1720. At the time, it was the only coffeehouse which permitted women and so was apparently where Casanova spent a lot of his time!
Now it’s an incredible high-end coffeehouse, featuring a permanent orchestra and where coffee & croissants will set you back the best part of €30.
St Marks Square itself has a lot of history and is probably one of the best known parts of Venice. It’s most famous buildings being the Basilica di San Marco (St Marks Basilica), the Campanile and the Piazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace).
The Basilica di San Marco is an iconic religious landmark within the Square and dates back to 978AD when construction first started and it’s now the most famous of Venice’s churches. Originally it was the chapel of the Doge as it’s connected to the Palace, only becoming the city’s cathedral in 1807. Many of the artefacts and relics displayed inside were plundered during the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul).
St Marks’ Campanile is the bell tower of the Basilica. The Campanile that is currently found in the Square is actually a reconstruction dating back to 1912 after the previous collapsed in 1902. It’s the tallest structure in Venice and one of the city’s most recognisable buildings.
The Doge’s Palace also sits on the Square and was originally the residence of the Doge (the supreme authority in Venice) but has been run as a museum since 1923. Due to numerous fires since its initial construction in 1340, the building has undergone a lot of renovation and reconstruction. At the end of the 1800s, the Italian government invested a significant amount of money to restore the building to how it looks today and moved most of its’ public offices elsewhere.
From the canal to the side of the Doge’s Palace you can see the ‘Bridge of Sighs’.
The enclosed limestone bridge connects the New Prison to the interrogations rooms in the Palace and so the view of Venice from the bridge was the last thing a convict would see before being led to his cell. It was suggested that a prisoner would sighs at the final sight and so the bridge took on the name ‘Ponte dei Sospiri’, ‘Bridge of Sighs’.
We didn’t have a plan for stay so spent a lot of time just taking in the sights. This meant coffees in little cobbled squares, lots of mask shops, churches and gelato!
We packed in a lot as we always do and did miles worth of walking around the city.
One of the beautiful churches we visited was the Santa Maria della Salute, across the Grand Canal from St Marks Square. You can either cross the Accademia bridge or hop on the water bus from any of the stops next to the Square.
Construction on the church began in 1631 after a particularly bad plague outbreak in the city in 1630 which, up until 1631 had killed a third of Venice’s population. The Republic of Venice built the church as an offering to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Health (or of Deliverance, from the Italian) and is the most recent of the so-called ‘plague churches’. It was designed and built in the Baroque style, fashionable at the time and many of the objects within the church have a reference to the Black Death.
The Dome of the church has become an emblem of Venice and is featured in many photos.
Venice is full of so many incredible sights and round every corner is something else that draws your attention, whether it’s a gondola passing under one of the many bridges, a run-down building or stone arches lining a market area. It’s not hard to understand why there are so many photos of the Rialto Bridge and images taken from the Accademia Bridge up towards the Salute.
There are plenty really nice restaurants and cafes in the little side streets. Stay away from anything on or close to St Marks Square – they’re much more expensive and are full of tourists. Go inland a bit and you’ll find better value where the locals go.
Just off St Marks Square is the luxury 5* Hotel Danieli, the oldest hotel in Venice. Built at the end of the 14th century, it started off as a private residence for one of the noble Venetian families, the Dandolos and was renamed and opened as a hotel in 1824.
Many of the rich and famous have stayed here at one point or another – Steven Spielberg, Charles Dickens, Harrison Ford, Wagner, Byron. The hotel was also used in the 2010 film The Tourist, featuring Johnny Depp & Angelina Jolie.
We did eventually fit in a boat trip to Murano.
The journey from St Marks Square to Murano takes about 20 minutes as you go out into the lagoon, away from the city.
The Murano Glass Factory itself is extensive and focuses on both small and large items – everything from paperweights and ornaments to huge scale chandeliers, mirrors and lamps.
Murano is also particularly famous for their ‘millefiori’ which is featured in a lot of jewellery designs, including Pandora who stock a Murano glass charm range.
As well as the showrooms, visitors are encouraged to watch the demonstrations from the master glassblowers who show how they heat and work the glass to create their incredible end results.
Once we realised that Verona wasn’t actually that far from Venice, we decided to book train tickets. Depending on which option you go for, it’s between 1-2 hours journey.
Leaving the train station in Verona, it wasn’t long until we found ourselves in Piazza Bra. This is probably one of the most recognisable parts of Verona and is home to the -Arena di Verona – the internationally famous Roman amphitheatre/colosseum built in the first century, now used for large-scale opera performances in the city.
In ancient times the capacity of the amphitheatre was 30,000 but due to the stage now in place for performances, the available seating has reduced by half. Though the Colosseum in Rome is more impressive, more of the Verona Arena has been preserved and is original. A major earthquake in 1117 destroyed a lot of the outer ring and rather than rebuilding the damaged structure, much of the stonework was quarried for use on other buildings in the city. It’s still impressive and definitely worth seeing. The views over Verona from the top level of seating were beautiful and gave us a good indication of where we were in the city.
After leaving the Arena, we continued to walk until we got to the Piazza delle Erbe. This is a gorgeous square that used to be the town forum during the Roman Empire. Surrounding the square, amongst other ancient buildings is the Torre dei Lamberti (Lamberti Tower) which stands at 84m tall and can’t be missed.
Next stop, Juliet’s House – this is based on the popular belief that this was where Juliet Capulet grew up, thanks to Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’. Due to the popularity of the original play and subsequent film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliet’s House has risen to its current fame as one of the main tourist attractions of Verona.
This was only a short walk down the street from the Piazza delle Erbe and was really just a case of following the crowd. There were so many people that it was actually difficult to get into the courtyard.
The main attraction here is Juliet’s Balcony. You can go inside and stand on the balcony which plenty people were doing, the wrought-iron door to the courtyard is covered with ‘love locks’ and the interior walls are completely covered with multiple layers of couples’ names.
Again, it’s only a few minutes walk towards the river where we found a lovely little traditional pasta restaurant with cobbled courtyard. We were the only people there for lunch and afterwards just explored a bit more of the city until we had make our way back to the train station.
Being such a short journey from Venice, Verona is a perfect day trip. There are guided tours available or you can do it yourself like we did. Like Venice, Verona has a lot of history and thanks to ‘Romeo & Juliet’, it’s really been put on the map.
Whether you want to just explore the city, visit the attractions or make Shakespeare the focus, there’s no way you won’t enjoy Verona.