The word unique is painfully overused, but we feel justified in applying it to Venice. Your first sight of 'La Serenissima' as you approach by boat across the Lagoon, the romance of gondola trips down the Grand Canal, the gilded opulence of the Basilica di San Marco ... there simply isn't anywhere else like Venice. Underpinning it all is the realisation that this is a fragile, manmade confection of a city, suspended on wooden piles above the waters of the Lagoon, which every year attempt to encroach a little further.
Venice is a city of artifice and opulence, a theatrical event of a town and there is much to see. We strongly advise visitors to get off the well-trod tourist trails, to head off down the little side streets and 'calle'; Venice is famous too for being unbearably crowded at times, but break away from the pack for a while and you'll find there are delightful unspoiled churches and squares, cafes and bars.
Within this most atmospheric of cities there are a few absolute must-sees though of course. As ever, plan your trips and your times well. And while we admire the enthusiastic amateur, seeing the sights is a serious business. If you really want to make the most of your trip to the Doge's palace, the Gallerie dell'Accademia or the Ca'Rezzonico then join an organised tour. You'll see more, understand more and the price of your ticket will be repaid in spades.
The Palazzo Ducale (or Doge's Palace), Venice was the old seat of government of Venice. This stunning Gothic building was once at the hub of a naval empire whose power and reach for a millennium belied Venice's geographical size. The building took shape between the 9th and 15th century, and the later parts are enormously impressive, with grand walls of white limestone and pink marble. The evolution of the palace over the centuries makes for an architectural tour in itself - here Renaissance classicism, here early Gothic, and everywhere sumptuous works of art. Tintoretto, Veronese, Pietro Lombardo, Titian and a dozen more are exquisitely represented. On and on we go, through magnificent rooms and then, poignantly, we end at the Bridge of Sighs, where prisoners would take their final walk.
Should you want to see more, there is the Itinerari Segreti del Palazzo Ducale (the secret tour of the Doge’s Palace). The tour begins at the offices of the Notaio Ducale (Doge's Secretary) thence to the chambers of the Deputato alla Segreta del Consiglio dei Diceci (‘the Deputy of the secret works of the Council of Ten’) ... the keeper of the secret archives. The Ten was the revolving council that ruled Venice. Now to the chambers of the Cancelleria Segreta (Secret Chancellery), and thence through the salon of the Reggente alla Cancelleria (Regent to the Chancellery) and to the Torture Room, which takes us to the city prison (as was). I Piombi or 'the leads' were so-called as they were beneath the lead roof the palace - prisoners were made to really sweat before sentencing!
One of the world's great museums, the Gallerie dell'Accademia is a must-see (yes, another one!) on your trip to Venice. Pause for a moment at the front door, to glance down the Canal Grande. The Grand Canal is an enormous curve at this point (the Volta del Canal). Suitably inspired you approach the delights within - 24 rooms of them. The Accademia is dedicated to Venetian artists and it's impossible to pick favourites but a selection of the highspots would include Coronation of the Virgin by Paolo Veneziano, The Dream of St Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio, The Tempest by Giorgione, and The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine by Paolo Veronese - a tiny selection from a monumental collection.
The Ca' Rezzonico Gallery is dedicated to 'exploring and explaining 18th century Venice'. Conceived as a family home for the Bons, it was begun in 1649 but not finished for more than a century, as money ran out, and the fortunes of successive owners rose and fell. This is more stately home than museum, with the fabric and furnishings of a Venetian palazzo being displayed in situ - as if the owners just up and left. It's an extraordinarily beautiful building of course - with a baroque facade, sumptuous ballrooms within, and fresoces by no less than Guarana, Diziani and Tiepolo.
The Correr Museum meanwhile charts Venice's history from the 13th to 16th century, through all its works. This is a collection of coins, prints, paintings, weapons, uniforms - if Venice produced it, then it's brought together here. It can be overwhelming, but your tour guide should skip gently through the 15 rooms devoted to the Risorgimento. There are delights beyond, including (just a taster) Antonello da Messina’s Pieta and Vittore Carpaccio’s Two Venetian Ladies and a profusion of works by the Bellinis, father and son.
The Venice Clock Tower (Torre dell'Orologio) is symbolic of the city in so many ways. Now liberated from the scaffolding that concealed it for so long, this is a remarkably elaborate timepiece, showing time of day, phase of the moon, and current sign of the Zodiac. In days past, sailors approaching or leaving the City on the Grand Canal could gaze up on the clock, sure of an accurate reading. In 1858 it was made the official timekeeper of Venice - to this clock are all others set.
Murano glass is one of the famous delights of a visit to Venice of course. Fine glass has been produced on the little island off the north shore of Venice since 1291, when the Venetian glassmakers were ordered to move their foundries from the city. Over the centuries the invention and decoration became ever more elaborate: the processes of manufacture are rather different to conventional glassmaking, and Murano glassmakers work in the traditional way, with tongs, pliers and blowing the glass with canna da soffio (pipes). Fascinating, and with quite stunning results. A huge selection from the past 500 years can be seen at the Venice Glass Museum.
Venice Museum Cards and Passes are also available for visitors wanting to take in a selection of venues and visits.