Venice from the Water


Gondolas in front of Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, VeniceWe’re shuffling slowly along the narrow wooden boardwalk and the water below us is bubbling up through gaps in the thick stone slabs gradually immersing them. The water’s creating small swells and eddies; the gondolas in their blue canvas coverings jostle against the choppy tide as it slaps over the quayside. We’re in Venice, it’s the first Acqua Alta of the season and the water is rising.

Acqua Alta in Venice

Acqua Alta in Venice

What is Acqua Alta?

The phenomenon is caused by a combination of astronomical tides, the scirocco wind and Adriatic tidal seiche and it makes for some very different views of the city turning St Mark’s Square into a massive paddling pool.  Tourists are sloshing about in brightly coloured plastic disposable boots and the passerelle (temporary platforms) are placed in the deepest areas of flooding so that people can get around without getting wet. This was my first visit to Venice and the first Acqua Alta of the year hit within minutes of us stepping off the Alilaguna from the airport forcing us to navigate crowds, water, the passerelle and our luggage.  I hadn’t thought to pack my wellies but we were lucky – this Acqua Alta was only 105cm – in the past it’s risen to over 155cm!

Acqua Alata, Venice

Acqua Alata, Venice

We check-in to our hotel, The Locanda Antica, on a good day just a few minutes walk from St Mark’s Square, and head out again for our meeting place under the column with the winged lion in the Piazzetta San Marco (little Piazza).  The Lion of St Mark is the symbol of Venice and countless images of its form watch over the city.

Winged Lion Venice

Winged Lion Venice

We’re not getting anywhere quickly, the passerelles are narrow and then we find ourselves on the wrong platform heading into The Basilica but eventually make it to the column in time where we meet Katrina, our guide, looking glamorous in her black wellies worn with typical Italian flare.  We’re taking a boat excursion – what better way to see Venice than from the water, close-up and personal and today probably the driest way too!  We head out from the pier near to St Mark’s Square and begin motoring towards the Grand Canal, the main thoroughfare which ribbons through Venice.

Grand Canal, Venice

The Grand Canal, Venice

Top Sights on Venice’s Grand Canal

The first monument we pass is The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute known to locals as ‘Salute’ and built in the 17th century to give thanks for the end of a plague which killed over a third of the city’s population. It’s home to many Titian works and Tintoretto’s ‘Marriage at Cana’ and is one of the city’s most iconic sights – you’ll recognise it even if you’ve not visited Venice.

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, Venice


Statues of Atlas, on the roof of Dogana da Mar – the old customs house, were built to represent the supremacy of Venice.  On the golden ball stands Giuseppe Benoni’s ‘Fortune’ a 17th-century statue which turns in the wind – a spectacular weather vane to guide sailors and remind them also that they’re in the hands of fate.

Domed Basilicas, churches, towers and ornate palazzi line the canal and we’re surrounded by vaporetti and water taxis. Gondolas glide by powered by svelte gondoliers wearing their signature stripes.  It feels as if I’m part of a modern-day Canaletto painting.

Grand Canal Venice

Grand Canal Venice

The Rialto Bridge

There are four bridges crossing the Grand Canal and after passing under The Academia Bridge we see The Rialto Bridge and it’s beautiful.  For almost 300 years Ponte di Rialto was the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot.  The structure standing today replaces a series of wooden bridges that have spanned the canal since 1180 – the last wooden bridge collapsed due the weight of spectators watching a boat parade for the wedding of the Marquis Ferrara and replaced by a wooden drawbridge.   When this came to the end of its life a stone bridge was proposed and in 1591 the bridge as we know it was completed.

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Rialto Bridge, Venice

The Rialto Bridge peaks upwards to allow the galley ships which used to use the river to pass beneath and is made up of one central covered walkway and one more to each side.  We found the bridge packed with tourists pretty much all the time but the best way to appreciate its full beauty is, of course, from the canal and we’re right in the middle of all the action.

Ca d’Oro

The beautiful and ornate Ca d’Oro (House of Gold) is in Venetian floral Gothic style and is one of the prettiest and most photographed palazzos on the Canal.  Palazzo or wedding cake?  Either way today the water was lapping at the front door.

Ca d’Oro, Venice

Ca d’Oro, Venice

The brightly painted wooden paline are to secure boats and mark a safe path through the canal – three poles tied together are called Bricole.  Centuries ago when only a few main families were prominent in Venice each would have their paline painted in the family colours, nowadays there’s not enough colours to go round.

Grand Canal Venice

Grand Canal Venice

We turn off the Grand Canal into The Cannaregio district, the world’s first ever Ghetto and home to the Venetian Jewish community who were forced to live there from 1516 until the 1800s.  The canals are much narrower here and the place has a more intimate feel to it.  The gates of the ghetto were locked each night, guarded by Christians paid for by the Jewish community for their own protection, and opened again in the morning.

Madonna dell’Orto

Tintoretto created many paintings for Madonna dell’Orto (Our Lady of the Orchard) church as he lived close by.  This was his local place of worship and he, his wife and their two children are all buried there.

Madonna dell’Orto, Venice

Madonna dell’Orto, Venice

We pass by the church and head into wider water, the Venetian Lagoon and the cemetery island of San Michele appears in the distance as we make our way back towards St Mark’s Square.  But we’re not finished yet.  Next stop is the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, over the water from St. Mark’s Square and the beautiful backdrop to the gondolas at St Marks Pier.

Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore

We take a look inside the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, an island church and home to paintings by Tintoretto (The Last Supper), exquisitely carved choir stalls  and  the worlds largest Swarovski lens.  The lens sits beneath the central cupola and is to encourage visitors to appreciate the church’s architecture from a different perspective.

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute Interior

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute Interior

We head to the lift for a ride to the top of the bell tower, although there are stairs if you’re keen to burn off some of that pasta.  The views over the island of Venice, the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Square from the campanile are outstanding.  If you’re after a top Venice-vista then this is a must-do – it’s not busy and it’s only a short vaporetto ride away.

View of Venice from Basiliica of San Giorgio Maggiore

View of Venice from Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore

It’s always good to end on a high and this was the last stop on our boat tour and a high in more ways than one with both the height of the tower itself and the stunning birds-eye views. We’d seen Venice from the water and from high up in a tour that took two hours, Katrina had pointed out all the best sights and shared fascinating facts – there were only six of us on the tour so plenty of opportunities to ask questions.  We also had a personal headset so were able to hear every word loud and clear.

 Thanks to  Walks of Italy  who kindly provided our VIP Boat excursion ‘Venice from the Water’.  As always views and opinions – good, bad or otherwise – are entirely my own.

Grand Canal Venice

Grand Canal Venice

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  9. Love, love (!) Venice. I am always amazed, considering the damage a small amount of water can do to a normal house/structue, how they take the volume of water in stride. The photos are lovely – brought back lots of memories. I’ll have to go and look at my album again!

  10. My husband and I took this Walks of Italy tour in May. It was great to see your photos of all of the same places we saw while in Venice. Our guide didn’t mention the Swarovski lens. Wish we had known about it then. I guess we’ll have to go back so we can see it. :o) Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos.

    • The lens installation was 1 June to 24th November – however, there are so many other reasons to visit Venice! The Walks of Italy boat trip was fabulous!

  11. Looks lovely, despite the water – or maybe that helps! My only trip to Venice was mid January so no high water but very misty and atmospheric. Will have to go back and see it in the sunshine sometime.

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  13. Your wonderful images and narrative, hit home how long it has been since we went. Exactly 28 years ago!! Makes me feel ancient :-)

    • The ‘Moses’ Flood Protection System was tested for the first time in late October and passed – let’s hope it will protect and preserve the city for future generations.

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  15. Your images are great. I knew about flooding in Venice but seeing the picture of people shuffling across a temporary boadwalk really brought home to me the threat the city is under. So sad.

    • There’s a flood prevention system called ‘Moses’ under way due to be completed in 2016 – the first phase was tested late October and it worked so hopefully the city can survive the tides.

  16. That was a great tour you did -
    I was a bit perturbed seeing you have to deal with the Acqua Alta but Venice is such a uniquely beautiful city it would be hard for anything to detract from all it has to offer :)

  17. Thanks for posting the pictures of the Acqua Alta! I have heard of this over and over, but have never experienced it first hand! Glad to see it didn’t impact your visit too much – and it’s an experience that was definitely worth having. Your boat trip sounded like lots of fun – thanks for posting all those gorgeous photos. Venice is by far the most picturesque city in the world – I think it’s impossible to take a bad shot :)

  18. Wow! I’ve heard of the “flooding” in Venice, but to be honest, I’ve haven’t seen pictures of it yet. I went during the dry season, so we were pretty lucky. Aside from the hassle, it must have been an interesting experience! I love Venice. As as travel planner, sometimes I like to give my husband free reign to plan out a visit and he did with Venice. He did a pretty good job, too! :)

    Your pictures are beautiful!

  19. Thanks for the tour – it took me a week to see the sights you saw in two hours. Cracking city, I hope the acqua alta didn’t put you off…