Venice was not born in a day. The history of the city develops over centuries. There is no better way to get acquainted with the families that ruled this city for centuries than taking a ferry boat traveling along the Grand Canal, the main road in the town, with the history of Venice unraveling under our eye.
The first touch of Venice for most of the visitors is, of course, the train station. This is where the buses from the mainland arrive, stopping at the doors of the city without touching it. The train station is on the other end of the Calatrava Bridge, the newest (and most controversial) bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava in 2007. The bridge sparked several complaints over the years, mainly due to its modernist-minimalist style that is so much different from the Venetian Gothic architecture we can find everywhere in the city. We think it’s a personal choice. Somebody like the bridge precisely because of its idea of separation, a complete rescission from the atmosphere of the city and a point of reconnection with reality. Other people, instead, are more focused on preserving the general style of the town and can’t suffer the lack of connection with the past.
Past the bridge, the ferry stops are on the right. Luckily, this is one of the few spots in town with both automatic machines (to withdraw pre-booked tickets) and tickets office with personnel speaking four languages assisting passengers.
Here is the starting point of our journey. From “Stazione Santa Lucia” (the train station) to San Marco, our tour will slowly run along the Grand Canal, with the ferry stops acting as a city guide. Casinò, Rialto, San Marco. All names we read and heard associated with Venice become reality one after the other. Locals take the ferry for their daily commute, but this is much more than a way of transportation. It’s a journey through time, moving from our modern days to the Middle Ages, a time when the Lion of San Marco was roaring all around the Mediterranean, and the destinies of entire populations were decided in the offices of the Doge’s Palace.
Delicious tip: a ferry ticket is costly. We are speaking about 7.50 € per travel. If you are planning to visit the islands, or if you are less than 29 years old, we recommend buying a multi-day ticket. Also, note that few stops in Venice are provided with machines to sell tickets. In most cases, you will need to buy them beforehand at Santa Lucia, Fondamenta Nove, or San Marco.
The Ponte degli Scalzi (literally bridge of the barefoot [monks]) is the real gateway to the city. The name comes from the nearby Church of the Scalzi, the seat in the town of the Discalced Carmelites religious order. From that point on, it’s a parade of wonders, a continuous succession of beautifully decorated buildings.
As evident for whoever has been there, but difficult to understand for first-time visitors, there are only two way of transportation in Venice: boats and feet. Since ancient times, the noble families could not show their wealth with extensive gardens and enormous palaces. Instead, the facade toward Canal Grande (the Grand Canal) was the best way to show its own status. Every important family in the City had their own palace built on this canal. Cutting the city in half, the canal works as a modern highway. In the XVIth century, as in the XXIst, hundreds of boats per day travel on this road to carry goods, passengers, services to their own destination. The traffic at that time could have been similar to the one we can experience today. The first “public” ferry boat service was already in place in the IXth century, a time when no bridges crossing the Grand Canal were built yet. Barges were carrying goods and livestock between the mainland, the markets, and the docks. Gondolas and private boats were used by the aristocracy to travel around. Everything in Venice moves by water. And everybody was passing by the finely decorated buildings of the Grand Canal.
The first part of the travel separates the Sestriere of Santa Croce from Sestriere di Cannaregio. A “Sestriere” is the Venetian version of a neighborhood. There are six of them in total: Santa Croce, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Polo, San Marco, and Castello. The bow of gondolas, the world-famous boat typical of the city, has six metal dents representing these six neighborhoods (the one on the opposite side is the symbol of Rialto Bridge, and the top volute the San Marco Basin).
Delicious tip: if you need to find an address in Venice, you will quickly get lost. That’s because the enumeration is internal to each Sestriere and dates back to a period where there were only wooden, mobile bridges over smaller canals. This is a source of considerable confusion as it often happens that, nowadays, two consecutive civic numbers are far away one from each other!
Cannaregio, the first Sestriere on the left side, is home to the “ghetto.” The origin of the word is uncertain, probably deriving from the Venetian word for “foundry” (get). The Venetian Ghetto was one of the first Jewish ghetto in the world, instituted in 1516 and dismantled by Napoleon in 1797. The buildings facing the Grand Canal have a more modern looking, as few families were able to keep the same house for many years. The most famous building is Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, the current host of the Casinò di Venice, the oldest “official” casino in the world.
Facing Cannaregio, another building has been used as a ghetto for the Turkish population. Fondaco dei Turchi (or Fontego dei Turchi) takes its name from the community who was forced to live and trade here. The building dates back to the first half of the XIIIth century when Giovanni Palmieri (the founder of the powerful Pesaro family) built this building as his new residence. The palace was sold, confiscated, gifted, and exchanged multiple times during its life. In 1621 the Venetian government decided to assign it as the primary center for Turkish trades. It now hosts the Natural Art Museum.
Shortly afterward, the houses of the wealthiest families in the city start appearing on both the left and right banks of the canal. Ca’ Pesaro, currently hosting the international museum of Modern Art and the Oriental Museum, is one of the most exquisite examples. The current form of the building is baroque, dating back to a project from Baldassare Longhena, one of the most proficient architects in the XVIII century in Venice.
Ca’ d’Oro sits almost in front of Ca’ Pesaro. The name of the building, one of the most famous landmarks on the canal, can be translated as “the golden house.” The facade of the palace was covered with an elaborate mosaic featuring actual gold foil, causing the walls to shine under the sunlight. Nowadays, we can still admire its refined architecture with the classical elements of Venetian Gothic style, from the water door to the spikes on top of the wall.
Suddenly, the boat takes a sharp turn to the right. It’s the first part of the S that the Grand Canal draws in the city, and the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) appear in front of us. The effect is striking. There is no preparation, the bridge just stands out in front of us, its white stone shining in the sun. Built at the end of XVI century, it quickly became one of the symbols of the city, an immense single arch structure with two rows of shops on it.
Before the first sharp turn of the canal to the right, we can’t miss Ca’ da Mosto. This small, simple building looks anonymous among the decorated facades of the buildings nearby, but it has one unique feature. It’s the oldest living building on the Grand Canal. Built in the 13th century, it is a living testimony of the fragility of the city. Water breached its basement, the wooden poles that are the actual foundation of the building collapsed, leaving the house leaning on its right side. Venice is a delicate gem hidden by a grand appearance, and the partial collapse of its oldest building shows its real nature.
The ferry goes under the bridge and stops on its left side. Many people will descend here, but we have another final destination: San Marco. The Grand Canal is now a showcase of buildings from Venetian Renaissance. One after the other, it’s an uninterrupted sequence of gothic windows, open galleries, porticos, and arcades. There are too many to keep count.
We are crossing the wealthiest side of Venice, every building is named after the most important families who built this city over the century. Corner family, who had at least six doges and one queen among its members, Querini, one of the oldest family in Venice, founders of the Querini Stampalia foundation and protagonists of the failed coup d’etat in 1310, Garzoni, founders of the oldest bank in the city, the list is endless.
While running from side to side to admire these beautiful buildings, we arrive at the second sharp turn of the Grand Canal, to our left. At the corner, tucked between Palazzo Balbi and Palazzo Giustinian, Ca’ Foscari University, where almost 20.000 thousand students attend courses in what can be objectively described as the best-looking classrooms in the world. The palace was built by Francesco Foscari, doge of the city for 34 years. Nobody reigned over the Serenissima longer than him. If available, we recommend booking a visit here, as the building is not freely accessible otherwise. It’s one of the most impressive palaces in the city, featuring the second largest inner courtyard (after the Doge’s Palace), a rare characteristic in Venice, where open spaces are hard to come by.
The final section of Grand Canal offers several others magnificent buildings. Palazzo Grassi, Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, Palazzo da Mula Morosini. Each palace has its own centenary history, and we could spend years describing each facade. But one structure stands out on the right bank: Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, currently hosting the Peggy Guggenheim collection. The building dates to the 18th century, and it’s unfinished. That’s the reason behind the missing first floor (where the apartments of the noble family were usually located) and the ivy cover on the unfinished pillars. After World War II it was bought by Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy heiress of the Guggenheim family, who fell in love with Venice during her first tour and lived in the city for more than thirty years. In 1948 she opened her private art collection to the public, leaving in its will the mandate to keep the building public “as long as Venice will exist.”
The arrival point of our tour is in San Marco Square. But first, the Sestriere of Dorsoduro terminates with two notable buildings. The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, another famous project from Longhena (the architect responsible for the construction of Ca’ Pesaro), and Punta della Dogana, the ancient custom house with its triangular shape where every merchant ship was forced to attract and declare its own cargo (and pay duty stamps) before being able to sell it in the city.
Finally, on the left bank, the opening of San Marco Square. The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana and the Doge’s Palace are the two boundaries for the small axis of this L-shaped square. The direct access to the sea allowed ambassadors and personalities to reach the seats of power from the boat, as the city does not have roads for carriages. Two sentinels, the winged lion and San Teodoro, are put on high pillars at its entrance, eternally defending the square from the outside world.
Here we conclude our boat tour. It’s been an incredible journey, from the train station to San Marco along Venice’s main artery, admiring some of the most beautiful facades in the city. The families responsible for building these palaces were the leading actors of the history of Venice, creating alliances, planning weddings, causing rebellions and wars, shaping the legacy of La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia and the Mediterranean Sea for centuries to come.