The Grand Canal
In a city built on the sea, the most important street isn’t a street at all, it’s a canal. The Grand Canal, Venice is the city’s main artery, a 2-mile, s-shaped waterway lined with some of Venice’s most important buildings and jam-packed with private boats, vaporetto (water taxis) and barges. The palaces, museums and warehouses that line the Grand Canal were once the abodes of some of Venice’s most prominent mercantile families and trading corporations. Although Venice’s empire of commerce is a thing of the past, the Grand Canal is still the focal point of people and goods coming into and out of the city. Standing on the banks today watching the world float by is to see, perhaps, better than anywhere in the world, the fantastic, relentless ebb and flow of city life.
Visiting the Grand Canal: What to See
The Palazzos, Fondacos, and Ca’ d’Oro
The buildings along the Grand Canal were built between the 13th and 18th centuries by the most prominent families and merchant guilds in the city. Because they sat along the city’s main thoroughfare they were also conspicuous displays of wealth. If you have a keen eye, you can detect the different styles represented by various facades like the classic Renaissance lines of Sansovino’s palaces, or the intricate details of the Baroque Palazzo Balbi.
One of the most unique sites is the Fondaco dei Turchi, a building that used to be home to the Byzantine Turks who established and maintained the trade routes between Istanbul and Venice. Its facade drips with the embellishments of the Veneto-Byzantine style which began with Venice’s sacking of Constantinople in 1205 and evolved through trade with the Ottoman Empire who later conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul.
Another jaw-dropper is the Gothic splendor of the facade of the Ca’ d’Oro. Originally a family home for the Contarini family, it is one of the more elegant and embellished facades on the Canal, as well as one of the oldest. Its name translates to “golden house” in the Venetian dialect because it was originally adorned on the outside with lavish amounts of gold. In its heyday the entire facade gleamed in the sunlight though today the gilding has been lost.
The Rialto Bridge
Various bridges have spanned Venice’s Grand Canal near the Rialto Market since 1181. They haven’t always been the most, ahem, sturdy structures. After various wood bridges collapsed and burned, Venice’s government decided in 1551 to build a stone bridge that would hopefully prove a bit more durable. Everyone from Sansovino to Michelangelo was considered for the spot of lead architect, but the commission was eventually won by a relatively unknown architect named Antonio Da Ponte. The difference between his design and his competitors’ was in the arches. While most of his competitors’ designed contained multiple arches in the classical style, Da Ponte’s daring single arch was so unorthodox some thought it would later collapse. As the only bridge over the Grand Canal for some 300 years and still one of only four, it has withstood the test of time admirably. Crossing the bridge today is an action that unifies both local and visitors alike as it is still probably the most important non-watery thoroughfare in the city.
San Giorgio Maggiore
Sitting at the mouth of the Grand Canal’s southern terminus into the lagoon is the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. What distinguishes it from Venice’s many other islands is the San Giorgio Monastery, run by the local Benedictine monks. This monastery just so happens to have the best view of Venice from its impressive bell tower. Even better (and somewhat rare in Italy) there is an elevator to the top, so you don’t have to take the stairs, unless you want to.
The Cemetary of San Michele
Until the 19th century, when a Venetian died he or she was buried under a large paving stone on one of the central islands. As you can imagine, sanitation was, show we say, lax. In 1837 the government designated an outer island – San Michele – as the official graveyard of Venice and since then, all true Venetians, as well as a few expats, have come here to be laid to rest. Among the more famous names are Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, and the Austrian mathematician, Christian Doppler, who, you guessed it, identified the doppler effect.
Santa Maria della Salute
Venice was laid low by the plague on various occasions during the middle ages and never worse so than in 1630 when the bubonic plague ravaged much of Northern Italy. Perhaps the only good thing to come from this calamity was a church. During the height of the suffering the republic made a votive offering – if God delivered them from the plague, they would build a church and dedicate it to Our Lady of Health, i.e., Santa Maria della Salute. Today, the church probably the most iconic dome in the entire Venetian skyline, as well as a treasure trove of art (much of it chock full of plague references) by the likes of Josse de Corte, Tintoretto, and Titian.
Tips for Seeing the Grand Canal
Like Broadway or the Champse Elysée, Venice’s Grand Canal never closes and is rarely quiet. You can see it any time you like just as long as you can find your way through Venice’s Labyrinth and out to the banks of its largest waterway.
You don’t need tickets to see the Grand Canal but you do if you want to see it on a boat. Gondola rides often stick more to the smaller canals in Venice, where they don’t have to fight the currents that sweep through the larger waterways. Most of the boats in the Grand Canal are water taxis, called vaporetto, pleasure barges or tour boats. Vaporetto can be hailed at any certified stand. For a more in-depth experience check out Walks of Italy’s Venice Boat Tour.
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to swim across the Canal. Not only will the aforementioned currents likely take you for quite a ride, the water is notoriously dirty and there is a lot of boat traffic.
The Best Time to Visit the Grand Canal
Sunrise and sunset offer the most classic and romantic views of the Grand Canal. Unsurprisingly, sunset tends to be a more popular time for visitors, meaning you can forget about any pictures from the Rialto bridge that aren’t filled with fellow visitors. If you can get out of bed, the early morning is actually a very peaceful time in Venice and it’s also the best time to contemplate the calm waters of the Grand Canal.
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