With its meandering canals, the dizzying labyrinth of small streets, regal gondolas, and improbable existence perched on a series of islands, Venice has long captivated travelers as a beautiful place that is full of stories — and a few secrets. Curious to learn more about the mysterious island city? These fun facts about Venice will help.
This is a guest post that was written for GetYourGuide by one of our favorite travel blogs, Our Escape Clause. (Thanks, Kate!)
1. The city rests on 118 islands separated by 150 canals
Many of the islands are knitted together with a series of 400 footbridges, but some, like famous Burano, Murano, and Torcello, are set further out in the lagoon and are only accessible by boat or water taxi.
2. There are no cars in Venice
Once you reach the city center, you won’t spot any cars: boats essentially take the place of cars in central Venice, and canals take the place of roads.
3. Venice is known for its lace and glass
Specifically, Venice’s most famous hand-crafted lace comes from the outlying island of Burano, while the best of its iconic glass is made on the outlying island of Murano. You can visit both islands today. Throughout the centuries, these artisanal products have found their way around the world, including into the hands of several monarchs (including Henry VIII) and even a handful of popes!
4. Only four bridges cross the Grand Canal
They include the wooden Ponte dell’Accademia near the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Ponte degli Scalzi near the train station, the modern Ponte di Calatrava a Venezia (officially “Ponte della Costituzione”) that opened in 2008, and of course the oldest, grandest, and most famous of them all — the Rialto Bridge, which was built in the late 16th century. If you’re lucky enough to be spending a couple of days in Venice, consider making a point of crossing all four!
5. Venice was once an independent empire…
The independent Republic of Venice lasted from 697 AD all the way until 1797 AD–more than a thousand years in total! At its height during the 14th century, Venice ruled all the way to Crete and along much of the Balkan coastline, controlling ports in places like modern-day Zadar, Croatia and Kotor, Montenegro.
6. … and it was extremely wealthy
Venice was once the location of the heart of trade between Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, and it became extremely wealthy in the process, at one time commanding respect as the wealthiest city in Europe.
The republic was ruled by a Doge (the head of state, who was elected for life) and a series of councils. The Doge’s Palace is one of the best places to tour in Venice today, and was not only the home of the Doge, but also acted as the home of the councils, the prison, and the general center of government.
7. Venetian masks aren’t just touristy souvenirs
Once used as part of daily life to conceal the wearer’s identity during less-than-savory activities (especially by the standards of the Church in the Middle Ages), Venice’s masks are intertwined with the culture of the city itself. So while today, they’re mostly associated with the Venetian Carnival, but masks have a more than 1000-year-old history in the city. They make lovely souvenirs for every budget, from 3€ for small, mass-produced masks to thousands for hand-crafted works of art.
8. Marco Polo was a Venetian
Born in 1254 to a wealthy merchant family, the famous explorer Marco Polo originally hailed from the island-state. During his lifetime, he spent roughly 24 years living abroad, interacting with the Mongol Empire, and traveling along what is now known as the Silk Road. Eventually, he was captured by Genoa, then the arch-rival of Venice, and while imprisoned wrote “The Travels of Marco Polo”, or simply “The Travels”. Today, while you can’t go inside, you can take a tour which takes you past his home!
9. Around 400 gondolas float through the city’s canals today
Seem like a lot? At one point in time, around 10,000 gondolas populated the city’s canals! In previous centuries, wealthy Venetians would use a gondola the same way that their counterparts in Rome or Paris might use a horse and carriage, always having one (complete with a driver) at the ready. Gondolas also used to be used for transporting various goods and for public transportation, but modern motorboats have taken over those duties now.
Today, virtually all of the 400 remaining gondolas in Venice are used for tourism purposes. Enjoying a Venetian gondola ride is one of the most popular things to do in the city, and a great way to enjoy some of the best views of Venice.
10. The Rialto Market is nearly 1000 years old!
The Rialto Market, located just steps from the famous Rialto Bridge, was founded in 1097 and has been an important part of the cultural landscape of Venice ever since. During the Venetian Empire, the Rialto Market was one of the largest and most powerful in the world. Spices, jewels, food, cloth, and animals both the east and the west were sold to buyers from all over Europe and beyond.
11. The famous Horses of St. Mark’s Basilica aren’t actually Venetian
While the Horses of St. Mark are associated with Venice — they stood on top of St. Mark’s Basilica for hundreds of years — they’re not original to Venice. The city acquired them in 1254 when they took them from then-Constantinople in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. And their actual origin? Their history predates even Constantinople. Theories suggest they date to the 4th century BCE and may have originated in Egypt or Rome.
You can visit the horses on the interior of the second floor of the St Mark’s Basilica. In the 1980s, the horses were moved inside to protect them from the elements, and replicas overlook Piazza San Marco in their place.
Kate has spent more than 3 years traveling the world full-time and documenting it all on her website, Our Escape Clause. When she’s not writing, you can normally find her on a hike somewhere wandering around a city, reading a great book, or planning one of the next thousand trips she plans to take.