The Grand Canal’s two-and-a-half-mile S-curve through the heart of Venice takes it from the city’s two most common approaches – Piazzale Roma and Santa Lucia rail station — to Piazza San Marco, the historic and touristic heart. Along its banks, their walls washed by its murky waters, are eight centuries of palaces and churches, and many of the city’s most iconic sights.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The Grand Canal runs through the very heart of Venice, connecting its most interesting sights.
- Getting lost in the maze of narrow streets, bridges and covered passages is part of the fun of exploring Venice independently.
- Most tourists never ride with locals in the stripped-down gondolas called traghetti.
- Good for travelers who have seen the big sights and want to experience the Venice locals know.
The grandest of these is the canal itself, washing through Venice in its many moods, from the pink mists that rise with the summer sun to the lights from its Murano glass chandeliers reflecting in the dark water.
We decided to spend a day experiencing the canal in as many ways as possible – riding its surface, criss-crossing on bridges and traghetti and strolling fondamente as we follow it from end to end and back.
Hopping Aboard the Vaporetto
We began by riding vaporetto #1 the whole length of the canal, embarking at Piazza San Marco. This floating streetcar stops briefly on the opposite bank at Santa Maria della Salute, then scoots quickly past a clutch of palaces that keep our heads swiveling. Pointed windows and lace-like stonework of Venetian Gothic, Baroque swirls and stately Renaissance grandeur mix and meld in the water-washed facades of palaces where Henry James and Robert Browning wrote, Monet and Whistler painted, and Wagner composed.
We coast under the wooden Accademia Bridge and gain speed beneath Ponte Rialto’s echoing stone arches, a new perspective on one of Venice’s most familiar sights. In addition to buildings and bridges, we see life along the canal: deliveries arriving at water-level doors, a police boat speeding past with lights flashing, graceful gondolas moored by their poles or gliding beside us, little traghetti crossing bank-to-bank, barges piled with vegetables, a UPS delivery boat, impatient water taxis.
Bridges and the Poor Man’s Gondola
At the end, we alight beside Canale Grande’s newest addition, Ponte della Costituzione. Completed in 2007, its design by Santiago Calatrava is quite a contrast to the other, older three bridges that span the canal: a sleek steel arch clad in Istrian marble and glass.
After climbing to its summit, we walk along Fondamenta Croce, past Papadopoli Gardens to San Simeón Piccolo, where we board our day’s first traghettto. Known as the “poor man’s gondola” these stripped-down gondolas shuttle back and forth to save Venetian extra steps to a bridge. We stand as two boatmen row us across to the rail station. Bypassing the row of canal-side cafes by the station, we re-cross on Scalzi Bridge to make our way “inland” to Calle Bergami S Croce, crossing a little arched bridge and angling back to the Grand Canal to walk along Fondamenta Riva di Biasio.
It isn’t easy – or even possible – to follow the Grand Canal on foot. Long stretches are lined by buildings that rise straight from the water. Fondamente – streets that border canals — are rare, and their short stretches are connected by a maze of alleys, bridges and passageways that confound even the best sense of direction.
Back Streets and the Fish Market
At the end of the fondamenta we again seek an inland route, at last guided by yellow “traghetto” signs to another gondola crossing. This one takes us to a canal-side campo (only San Marco is called a piazza) in front of San Marcuola. Behind the church we find our way across a canal and onto Rio Maddalena, paralleling the Grand Canal and leading into Strada Nova. Few tourists find this neighborhood, workaday streets with shops, restaurants and a couple of mask makers. Behind Ca D’Oro, another traghetto takes us to the busy fish market.
Here we mingle with chefs and housewives as they provision for today’s dinner. Rialto Bridge, the first to cross the canal (and the only one until 1854), is hard to miss, and we plow through the crowd and past souvenir vendors for a place at its stone rail for a classic Venice shot. Here fondamente line both sides. Riva del Vin, on the right, is filled with café umbrellas and restaurant terraces. We cross to the other side, following Riva Carbon to its end, where a handy traghetto returns us to Riva del Vin and San Polo.
Through San Polo and Dorsoduro
This is our favorite of Venice’s sestiere, and we skip the next traghetto to keep winding our way among the maze of lanes, trying to keep our sense of direction while the Grand Canal remains just out of sight. Among tiny shops and studios of artisans who craft carnival masks, gondola oarlocks and marbled papers, we browse menus for a leisurely lunch before continuing through Campo San Barnabas and back to the Grand Canal.
Following the handily named Calle di Traghetto behind San Barnabas church, we cross to Campo San Samuel and the San Marco sestiere. No handy fondamenta gives us canal views, but we follow signs to Accademia to cross the arched wooden bridge. Built in 1932 as a temporary replacement, it was so well-liked by locals that it has remained ever since.
Finding our way through the back streets of Dorsoduro, we pass more artists’ studios, and the Guggenheim Museum before coming to our last traghetto. A short detour via San Moise bypasses the row of palazzi that rise straight from the water, and we are soon beside the canal again, on the on the well-traveled fondamente leading to Piazza San Marco.
A Moonlit Gondola Ride
There remains only the finale to our day on the Grand Canal, a trite-but-true gondola ride. We wait for twilight, that lingering soft afterglow that disguises the fading colors and water-stained walls, as chandeliers begin to flicker from the windows. A rising moon hangs above tiled rooftops, and of course our gondolier breaks into a Puccini aria.
My husband has a better baritone voice, but in a graceful gondola, with moonbeams shimmering along the water in a pathway before us, who’s critiquing the singer?
- 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.
- A traghetto ride costs €2; try to have exact change, and pay as you alight at the end of the ride.
- 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.