- Joanne Herd
10 things you (probably) don’t know about Venice
Venice is a beautiful city, with a unique and fascinating history.
The city was founded over 1,200 years ago, and many of the buildings we see today are over 500 years old.
It’s also a city with interesting rules and regulations that can be easy for tourists to break without even knowing it. For example, did you know that it’s illegal to feed the pigeons in Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square) and if you do you could be fined €50-€200?
Read on for 10 other interesting, fun facts about Venice that you (probably) don't know.
There are over 150 canals and 118 separate islands
Most of the islands are small, and you don't realize as you're walking around that you're actually crossing from island to island. In fact, each time you cross a bridge you're crossing from one island to another.
There are also several large islands that make up the city, of which Murano, Burano and Giudecca are the best known. Lido, a larger island farther out in the lagoon, is the only place in the city where you’ll find cars.
Sant Erasmo is an entirely agricultural island. On the island they grow produce like chicory, artichokes, and grapes for prosecco. Much of the produce is used by local restaurants or sold in markets in the city.
One entire island is a cemetery. San Michele Island is an active cemetery to this day, and while tourists can visit, it needs to be done respectfully. The island at one time served as a monastery, and then was converted into a prison before being selected as the site of Venice’s cemetery in 1807. It is still an active cemetery and can be visited.
Torcello is one of Venice’s quietest islands. There you’ll find a church built by the Romans around 500 AD, which means it predates the city of Venice itself. At the end of the island’s main canal you’ll also find the Locanda Cipriani, still owned by the Cipriani family. For a special meal make a reservation at their restaurant and eat in the garden on a summer evening.
Read more about my visit to Torcello and the Locanda Cipriani
Venice is built on wood
Referred to as "the floating city", Venice of course doesn't actually float. Neither is it exactly built on land.
The land of the islands that make up the city wasn't firm enough to build on, so thousands of wooden pilings were pounded into the soil. Over the centuries the sea movement has pushed the silt and sediment into the wood, causing them to petrify. These pilings are still there, providing the foundation for the stone buildings we see today.
There are cars (and buses!) within the city of Venice
While there are no cars within the main islands of Venice, there are cars on the outlying island of Lido. There is also a bus service that runs down the island.
That's why if you are along the Giudecca Canal for a while you'll see a car ferry pass. They need a way to get those cars and buses from Lido to the mainland and back.
There are about 400 gondolas in Venice, and they're required by law to be painted black.
The 400 gondolas today are a far cry from the 10,000 that you would have seen traveling through the city’s waterways 200 years ago. They were the primary mode of transportation for most of the population for centuries, especially after horses were outlawed from the city streets in the 14th century.
As is often the case, gondolas became more and more ostentatious as the citizens of Venice started using them as symbols of their status and wealth. To reign in this tendency, a doge in the 17th century passed a law requiring that all gondolas be painted black.
Each gondola is built the same way, and takes about two months to complete. They are built by hand and are approximately 35 feet long, five feet wide, and weigh in at about 1,100 pounds.
Once they’re built each boat gets six coats of black paint, and at a glance they all look the same. But if you look closer you’ll see that each gondolier has put his unique touch on his gondola. Most have fancy upholstery in different colors, padded seats, and silver or gold ornamentation.
If you’re hoping to become a gondolier you may need to consider a different career. Only 3-4 new gondolier licenses are issued each year. Applicants must undergo a strict training program that includes over 400 hours of training, an apprenticeship with a master gondolier, and an exam.
There are 391 bridges in Venice
That’s 391 in the main part of the city, if you count those on Giudecca as well the number is 403.
Many of these bridges are public, but 72 of them are private, meaning they lead directly to someone’s front door. If you buy the house or business, you buy the bridge as well.
Only four of the city’s bridges cross the 2.5 mile long Canal Grande (Grand Canal). The most famous of the Grand Canal’s bridges is the Rialto. The Rialto is one of Venice’s oldest bridges, and is one of only four bridges in Europe with shops on both sides (the others are Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, Bath’s Pulteney Bridge in the UK, and Erfurt’s Krämerbrücke in Germany).
The other bridges across the Grand Canal are the wooden Ponte dell’Accademia, the Ponte degli Scalzi and Ponte della Costituzione, both near the train station.
If you want to cross the Grand Canal and you aren’t near one of the bridges, look for a sign that says “Traghetto”. A traghetto is a gondola that ferries passengers across the canal. It costs about a euro per person to cross, and it’s an experience worth having at least once.
Instead of sitting inside the gondola, you sit along the edge. The boat has two gondoliers, one in the front and one in the back. I’ve seen them fit about 15 people on one, which is quite impressive!
If you take a traghetto and are traveling with someone else, please do everyone on board a public service and sit across from each other. They need to stay balanced, and when people try to sit together it makes the boat tip quite far and can be nerve wracking for those on board.
The bell tower in San Marco is a replica
The original tower, or campanile, was built in the 16th century. It collapsed in 1902, and the current tower was built in its place as an exact replica. One of the bells in the tower is original, the others are also replicas as the originals were destroyed when the tower collapsed.
The bell tower is one of the main sites in Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square). At 323 feet, it is the tallest of Venice’s 170 bell towers and the fifth tallest in Italy. You can climb it to get some of the best views over the city.
From the top of the San Marco bell tower you can appreciate the size of the Piazza San Marco, the largest piazza in Venice. You can also see the Doge's Palace, the Rialto Bridge, Basilica San Marco (St. Mark's Basilica, the church dedicated to Saint Mark, the patron saint of the city), and the rest of the Venetian lagoon.
Venice was once an independent republic
In fact, the Venetian Republic, also known as La Serenissima or The Serene Republic of Venice, lasted for over 1,100 years. It was founded in 697 AD and was conquered by Napoleon in 1797. It became a part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
At the height of the Republic in the 14th century Venice ruled an area covering modern day Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Greece, and Albania, as well as the island of Cyprus.
Due to its location, Venice became a center of trade between the Middle East and Asia with both Italy and the rest of Europe.
The famous merchant, explorer and writer Marco Polo was Venetian, born in 1254 to a wealthy merchant family. He is best known for his travels through Asia and along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295.
In his book “The Travels of Marco Polo” he gave Europeans an insight into the eastern world that they didn’t have previously. He described the wealth and size of the Mongol Empire and China, and gave many their first look into the cultures of China, Persia, India and Japan.
The most ornate side of Venetian palazzos faces the canals
The streets we walk on today were mainly used by commoners and the staff of noble households. The nobility traveled through the city in private gondolas, entering and exiting their homes through the water doors that open directly onto the canal.
That means that the canal side of the house is actually the front, and where the most money would have been spent on beautiful ornamentation and windows.
Venice invented quarantine
The Venetian Republic was built on trade, meaning there were boats and ships from all over the known world entering the city. While that brought great wealth to the city, it also brought the risk of deadly plagues and diseases.
To help prevent outbreaks the Republic created the quarantine in 1248, requiring people and goods to stay on an isolated island for 40 days to see if diseases broke out. The word quarantine comes from the Italian word quaranta, or 40.
If after 40 days no diseases had broken out the people and goods were free to enter the city.
Venice has its own language
There is Italian, and then there is Venetian. Linguists are still unsure if Venetian is a dialect of Italian or if it is actually a separate language.
The language has a lot of Latin influences, but it also incorporates Greek and Arabic roots as a result of the international influence in the city through the centuries. You’ll still hear Venetian spoken among the local population, and the ability to speak and understand it is part of what sets someone born and raised in Venice apart from the rest of the population.
The Bottom Line
Whether you're considering visiting Venice for a day, a weekend or a week there's plenty to see, do and learn about. You'll discover a hidden side of Venice down every street and tiny canal.