Italy, Chapter One: Venice

We had a fantastic trip to Italy and took hundreds of photos! In an effort to keep these posts somewhat digestible, I’ll split them up into four separate chapters over the next week: One for each place we visited.

On Easter Sunday Julia and I flew to Italy, arriving in Venice on Monday afternoon by way of Frankfurt, Germany. Flying into Venice is surreal: When you look out the window of the plane you see tiny islands, ancient buildings, and canals rather than meadows, suburbs, or concrete freeways. With no cars permitted in Venice, the closest thing to freeways are designated lanes for boat traffic ferrying tourists and supplies to and from the mainland.

We took a city bus from the airport followed by a vaporetto – a water bus – to the closest stop to our hotel. Here’s the view of Venice’s crowded Grand Canal from the vaporetto driver’s perspective.

Gondoliers take tourists up and down the Grand Canal, the central transportation artery for Venice, and into smaller side canals which might be compared to city streets.

After showers and some coffee, we jumped right into some sightseeing. Even though we didn’t get much rest on our flights, we stayed up as late as we could to try and avoid jetlag. Here’s Julia in a centuries-old alleyway near our hotel.

They say the thing to do in Venice is to wander and get lost in its many alleys, and they’re absolutely right. The city is small and very walkable, with no cars or motorized traffic on land, so you’re never too far away from your hotel and everything feels calm and safe. We spent Monday afternoon exploring Venice. Here’s a view of the Grand Canal from one of the bridges that span it.

A gondolier takes tourists through a narrow canal near our hotel. These routes aren’t used only by gondolas; residents tie their boats up to their homes along the waterway.

Walking the narrow alleys in Venice is awesome. 60,000 Venetians live in the main area where tourists visit, and the principle of “elegant decay” is apparent everywhere you look.

Looking across the canal to Lido, another of Venice’s islands. The city of Venice is not a single landmass, but is actually a group of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon that are separated by canals and linked together with bridges. Historians believe the city was created after the fall of the Roman empire, when fishermen and others living on the edges of the lagoon fled to its marshy islands to avoid barbarian attacks. Eventually they built permanent residences, supported by driving wooden pillars into the mud to create a solid foundation, and developed a city that dominated maritime trade and shipbuilding for centuries. Venice’s navy was unrivaled, but eventually the city began its slow decline in the 15th century. You can learn more about Venice at its Wikipedia page.

This is the “Bridge of Sighs,” which connected the Doge’s Palace with a prison. The Doge was the Duke of Venice, its elected leader, and the Doge’s Palace on the left in the photo below is where administrative duties like judicial proceedings took place. They say Casanova himself once crossed this bridge before his incarceration. It’s named the “Bridge of Sighs” because it afforded prisoners one final look at Venice before getting thrown in the slammer.

An image similar to the one below was on the cover of our guide book. I like mine better, though: I was there at sunset when a gondolier came by.

Venice at dusk.

Jetlagged Julia endured me repeatedly trying to capture canals at night by taking timed exposures from various bridges. She was a good sport about it. This one turned out particularly well, thanks to a person walking across (blurred, to the right of the photo) while I captured the image.

After a solid night of sleep, we woke up on Tuesday, our only full day in Venice, to good weather. We headed to St. Mark’s square, the historical center of the city. The aforementioned Doge’s Palace is the large white building in the foreground.

Consulting the guide book for what to do next. We checked out a series of Rick Steves books on Venice, Tuscany, and Rome from our local library. They were very helpful, though we sometimes got the sense that he writes for an audience of clueless midwesterners. However, despite the cheesy “Don’t give your wallet to strangers” advice he provided invaluable nuggets of information and great tips to avoid crowds and lines.

This photo of the St. Mark’s Clocktower – a 500 year old structure – illustrates some of the crowds we encountered in Venice. And just think, we were there in a relatively low traffic season! Fortunately, it was super easy to avoid the crowds by sticking to alleys rather than taking major passageways to get places.

There’s a popular fish and vegetable market near the Rialto bridge, where I snapped this photo of the day’s offerings.

People walking along the Grand Canal, with the Rialto bridge peeking out around the corner.

Julia the world traveler. It’s cool to reflect on how many photos I’ve taken of her in awesome settings, and how many more will I take over the coming years.

The Rialto Bridge, one of the most popular sights in Venice, demonstrated by the gondoliers and the waterfront restaurant seating. This is the oldest bridge to span the Grand Canal, with past bridges here dating back to the 1100s and the current structure standing since 1591.

This is where gondolas are serviced and repaired. The buildings here look out-of-place and are reminiscent of alpine structures. Rick Steves says this is because the original gondola repairmen were expert woodworkers from villages in the Italian alps.

A gondola ride? No, this is us crossing the Grand Canal on one of the many traghetti in the city that are used to transport small groups from one side of the canal to the other. The difference between a gondola ride and a traghetti ride is sharing the boat with strangers, a 2min ride instead of a 45min ride, and about 100 Euros.

Back at St. Mark’s Square, we took an elevator to the top of the campanile pictured here for incredible views of Venice.

It was from the opposite end of the square below that I took the first photo in this series.

There are two super touristy things everyone says you have to do in Venice. One is to have a Bellini (prosecco and peach juice cocktail) at Harry’s Bar, where the drink was invented. The other is taking a gondola ride. We did both knowing it’s pretty unlikely we’ll return to Venice. And even though they were both touristy and kind of cheesy and expensive, we agree they are both worth doing.

We saved our gondola ride for our last night in Venice. Our gondolier was friendly and told us a lot about the history of the canals we were passing through. He’s a 3rd-generation gondolier (both his father and his grandfather did the same job), and although his piercings and frequently buzzing cell phone weren’t what one might expect from a “traditional gondola ride in Venice,” I thought they conveyed a sense of authenticity in 21st century Italy where ancient history and modern times collide.

Gondola perspective of buildings sitting at water level.

We finished our ride near the Rialto bridge, where our gondolier took a couple really great photos of us with our camera.

“Ok, now you kiss her, ok? 1, 2, 3…”

In alignment with the romantic feel of the gondola ride, we brought a small bottle of wine on board. After the ride was over we sat at the end of a dock on the Grand Canal, watched boat traffic, polished off the wine, and talked about how awesome it was that we were in Venice.

Later that night we wandered into various cafes and bars eating different kinds of cicchetti (local word for appetizers) for dinner. At one point we walked into Osteria Alla Ciurma, selecting it not because we had heard of it but because only Italian was being spoken inside and it looked like a local spot. We had a glass of wine and ate delicious cicchetti while speaking with the owner, a native Venetian, who expressed his conflicted opinions on the importance of Venice maintaining authenticity and being a welcoming environment for locals as it continues to grow as a major tourist destination – “Veniceland”, like Disneyland. It was a great conversation and we were grateful to get his perspective on things.

At the end of the night we returned to St. Mark’s Square one last time, where we danced in the square to a small orchestra playing in front of one of the restaurants and where I took this final photo.

Julia and I both really liked Venice. We were expecting it to feel overrun and touristy, but we were able to avoid the worst of the crowds and had a wonderful time exploring the city. On Wednesday we boarded a train for Florence – read more at Italy, Chapter Two: Florence!


  1. Thanks so much Matt. What a gift to see all the pictures, and read your always interesting writings. Of course I liked this line the best
    “Julia the world traveler. It’s cool to reflect on how many photos I’ve taken of her in awesome settings, and how many more will I take over the coming years.”
    But that’s just me 🙂
    Looking forward to Florence – and my next history lesson. Love it!

  2. Matt and Julia-this post is spectacular, and I can’t wait for the rest of the chapters. Fabulous photos. I can reflect on all the places you two have been throughout the world and the best part is I can go back and look at your posts.

    I totally agree with Jeanne about the line she liked the best–and I love the kiss her now picture!

    Waiting patiently for more!

  3. Seems pretty cool, but, I mean, our time spent at the Venice Beach canals was better, right? brother?

  4. Your last line about the Bridge of Sighs was my favorite and your night shot of the guy blurred on the bridge is exceptional.

    Glad you both escaped Venice without a stint in the slammer!

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