From the main gateways of Piazalle Roma and Santa Lucia rail station to Piazza San Marco, Venice’s Grand Canal carves a sweeping S through the heart of the city. A journey along the 2.5-mile canal takes passengers past some of the city’s most iconic palaces and churches, but to me, the canal itself is Venice’s grandest sight.
One of the best ways to see it is via public transportation: Line 1 of the vaporetto – Venice’s water-borne transit system – follows the entire length of the canal. So even though we return to Venice often and know it well, we begin our stay with a vaporetto ride along Canale Grande.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The Grand Canal is Venice’s Main Street, a picture window on the city.
- Many of Venice’s grandest and most beautiful palaces that line each bank are not visible from any place but this canal.
- Even at full fare, a vaporetto ride along the full length of the Grand Canal is a cheap sightseeing cruise.
- Good for travelers who want a good overview and orientation before losing themselves in Venice’s labyrinth of streets and canals.
We embark in the Piazzetta, an extension of Piazza San Marco, nerve center of Venice’s 13th-16th-century glory days as La Serenissima – the Most Serene Republic. The boat heads across the canal at its widest point, to the end of Dorsoduro, dramatically punctuated by the round dome of Santa Maria della Salute.
Palazzi of San Marco and Dorsoduro
We stop beneath its stone stairs and are immediately off again. This floating trolley wastes no time, barely waiting for the last passenger to hop aboard before charging off to the next stop. Palaces whiz past on either side faster than we can identify more than a few: the mock-gothic Genovese, Gritti, Salviati (easy to spot with its mosaic façade), asymmetrical Dario, Ca’ Grande, and Contarini del Zaffo facing Palazzo Barbaro, where Whistler and Monet painted and Henry James wrote.
The vaporetto engines slow as we coast under the wooden arch of Accademia Bridge to stop just on the other side. More palazzi slide past as the canal enters La Volta, its northward curve: Falier and Duca side by side and Scrigni opposite. We make a quick zigzag between two stops that face each other across the water, one beneath Ca’Rezzonico, former home of poet Robert Browning and now a museum of 18th-century Venice. All this talent that found inspiration here makes me feel that I should be taking notes or making sketches instead of just soaking up the view.
On the left is Palazzo Giustinian, where Wagner composed part of Tristan and Isolde, and beyond it the impressive Ca’ Foscari. The bend sharpens at San Toma, where Byron once poetized in Palazzo Mocenigo, and a little traghetto wisely waits for our wake to subside before crossing to Palazzo Garzoni. Palaces are coming so fast that I finally give up trying to identify any but the most important.
Rialto Bridge and the Market
As the canal straightens, Ponte Rialto rises ahead, and at an Silvestro we pass the early-13th-century facade of Palazzo Barzizza and Ca’Corner behind its rare canal-side garden. To our left begins one of the Grand Canal’s few stretches of fondamenta, a wide sidewalk along the bank, crowded with cafes — and gondoliers hoping to lure tourists from their tables.
Rialto Bridge looms overhead, built in 1591 to replace a wooden one that was the first to cross the canal. As always, its stone rail is lined with travelers getting their postcard shots of Venice. This is one of the busiest stretches of the Grand Canal, as gondolas, vaporetti, traghetti, water taxis, barges from the nearby market and a police boat with sirens and flashing lights all vie for a bit of water.
After Rialto, the canal makes another turn, past fish market stalls alongside the canal and under the portico of the market hall. We see several palazzi with good examples of the distinctive Venetian Gothic windows, before passing the magnificent Ca’ d’Oro, now an art museum with priceless frescoes, sculpture and paintings. Opposite, the Baroque Ca’ Pesaro houses the Gallery of Modern Art and the Oriental Museum.
After the San Stae stop is one of the canal’s most impressive, Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, the inspiration for many other Renaissance palaces in Venice, and where Wagner died in 1833. In this stretch, we see more churches than elsewhere along the canal, first the Baroque San Stae, then San Marcuola and the domed San Geremia, which holds the relics of St. Lucy. Facing Santa Lucia railway station is San Simeone Picola.
Santiago Calatrava’s Bridge
Ideally we could have concentrated on one shore only, returning on the same route to focus on the opposite side. But we had other plans, so we disembarked at Piazzale Roma, the end of the line, to cross the newest bridge, Ponte della Costituzione. Raised in 2007, it’s only the fourth to cross the 2.5-mile length of the Grand Canal. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the span reflects the other three in its graceful arch, but adds a definite 21st-century twist with steel-and-concrete construction finished in Istrian marble and glass.
The contemporary cheek of Ponte della Costituzione is a fitting finale for a canal that begins at the basilica housing relics of Venice’s legendary founder, St. Mark. Canale Grande runs not just through the city, but through its history, too.
- The price for a single vaporetto trip is €7 (about $10, more than five times the fare paid by residents), making a Tourist Travel Card, available in various lengths from 12 hours (€18) to 7 days (€50), a good investment if you plan to ride more than twice.
- For reliable up-to-date information, as well as lodging advice and deals, consult Venice for Visitors.
- For the best experience, avoid midsummer crowds and heat, as well as winter during the full moon, when exceptionally high tides may flood the streets and ground floors.