Venice is often pegged as the most beautiful city in the world
But this is Venice, arguably the most beautiful city in the world, and the Line 1 waterbus takes new arrivals on a truly intoxicating journey.
With sunshine bouncing off the water, and a gentle breeze ruffling the feathers of a stowaway pigeon, we zigzagged along the city’s main artery, the Grand Canal, towards the iconic Rialto Bridge.
This single-span architectural marvel, with its central portico and shops, seems to defy gravity, and looks as though it might collapse under its own weight at any moment.
Indeed, when the bridge was built in the 16th Century, eminent Venetian architect Vincenzo Scamozzi predicted it would do just that, following its wooden predecessor to a watery grave.
With a little imagination, it’s easy to visualise the Grand Canal as it was back then – teeming with gondolas and heavily laden cargo boats ferrying merchandise to the palatial buildings on its banks.
Travelling around Venice in a Gondola makes for an intoxicating experience
Venice was a trading superpower, and the architecture was designed to impress.
The two-mile waterbus trip from Santa-Lucia station to San Marco really is the perfect introduction to the city, telling you more about its layout than a guidebook ever could.
It also gives you tantalising glimpses of most of Venice’s major landmarks, culminating in Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), which so impressed Napoleon he christened it “the drawing room of Europe”.
This piazza is certainly a very crowded “drawing room”, packed with tourists anxious to see Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Torre dell’Orologio clock tower and the majestic Doge’s Palace.
The latter was once Venice’s political and judicial hub, and is now one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.
Its ominously named interrogation rooms are linked to the New Prison (new in the 16th Century) by another famous landmark, the white limestone Bridge of Sighs – so called because its tiny windows gave convicts their last view of Venice before incarceration.
There’s a lot to take in. Truman Capote described the city as “like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go”, and while it’s tempting to gorge on the sights, it’s prudent not to bite off more than you can chew.
Not wishing to push our luck on the first day, my wife and I took a brisk walk around the square, and then boarded the complimentary shuttle boat to our hotel, the Hilton Molino Stucky.
This luxurious hotel, on the laidback island of Giudecca, was once a huge redbrick flour mill producing pasta for the masses.
It’s been beautifully restored and converted, with 379 rooms and suites, seven bars and restaurants and the second largest spa in Venice.
The Hilton Molino was once a flour mill
Best of all, it has a stunning rooftop pool with panoramic views of the city. We found the hotel’s Rialto lobby bar with its friendly staff to be the perfect place to unwind with a bottle of Valpolicella while planning our itinerary for the next day.
At a glance, the map looks relatively straightforward; there are 118 islands in the Venice lagoon, with just a few large islands enveloping the S-shaped Grand Canal.
But closer inspection reveals a maze of alleyways and almost 180 smaller canals dissecting the islands.
Sometimes the alleys leap over bridges; sometimes they just come to a dead end. It would be ridiculously easy to get lost. With limited time, we thought we’d keep things simple and explore Dorsoduro, a short stroll from San Marco over the Grand Canal via the Accademia Bridge.
This district has many of the city’s best galleries, museums and churches, but fewer crowds than its noisier neighbour.
We visited two galleries: the Accademia, with its vast collection of work by the Venetian greats – Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto – and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of 20th Century art.
Both should be near the top of any tourist’s to-do list. We also had a quick look inside the beautiful Santa Maria della Salute church at Punta della Dogana, where the Grand Canal and Giudecca Canal meet.
After that, we joined the locals at sundown to relax with a Spritz – a Prosecco and Aperol-based drink that somehow manages to glow like a setting sun.
There was so much more to see in Venice; I’d have loved to have visited the outlying islands of Murano, famed for its glassblowing factories, and Burano, with its brightly painted façades.
The Santa Maria della Salute is one of Venice’s most famous landmarks, and is a beautiful experience
But we’d run out of time, and reluctantly conceded that we should book a watertaxi to the airport.
I hated to leave, but that night-time speedboat ride across the lagoon was a fantastic way to say goodbye.
If you’d like to visit Venice, now’s the perfect time to go. Carnevale, the world’s largest and most famous masked party, is in full swing.
Grab a mask and join in.
Top 10 things to do in Venice
1 Climb aboard a vaporetto, the city’s ubiquitous waterbus, and head for Saint Mark’s Square.
2 Explore the Doge’s Palace, once home to the city’s rulers until it became a museum in 1923.
3 Admire the Bridge of Sighs, which gave convicts their final glimpse of Venice.
4 Take a ride on a gondola. At around €80 for 40 minutes, it’s expensive but undeniably romantic.
5 Cool down with a gelato.
Making use of the Venice Waterbus system is a must while visiting
6 Check out Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of modern art. Duchamp, Dali, Giacometti, Picasso, Pollock – they’re all here.
7 Visit Santa Maria della Salute, a beautiful church with a dome that’s inspired artists from Canaletto to Turner.
8 Buy a Venetian mask from Ca’ Macana. This fascinating shop created masks for Tom Cruise movie Eyes Wide Shut (camacana.com).
9 Sip a Spritz at sundown.
10 Book a water taxi back to the airport. You’ll never forget that speedboat ride across the lagoon.