Cruises in and around Europe are increasingly popular and if sneak peaks at the 2008-2009 itineraries are any indication, cruise passengers will be getting more options. In fact, a new cruise line called Azamara is even promising not just more Europe, but new European ports of call. Which brings us to one of the oldest European ports, the city of Venice.
Venice is not like anywhere else on earth. It's not the only city that is laced with canals (Amsterdam has canals, too, so does Stockholm), and it's not the only city with an ancient past (Rome probably beats Venice in the historical department and Florence definitely edges her out in art). But there is something incredibly different and delightful about Venice.
You can't drive in Venice. Entrance in and out of the city is by boat (you take a water taxi from the airport), so arriving by cruise ship is close to the way the city was meant to be approached.
When you actually reach Venice, you'll have to get around by walking or boat. By far, the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to go from point A to point B is to jump on the boat-bus, called a vaporetto. You buy tickets for it just like the bus. If you're a cruise passenger in town for the day, it may pay for you to buy a pass good for the whole day. Not only could it save you some lire, you don't have to hassle with buying tickets when you want to get a ride.
Water taxis are another option, but they're a bit more expensive. Even more expensive, but delightfully romantic and unique, are gondolas. Expect to fork out a lot of money for the experience, but, trust me, it will be an experience.
Most Venetians get around by foot, and you probably will, too. The city has all the twists and turns you'd expect from an ancient town. Because of the network of canals, you will sometimes find yourself in the intriguing position of being able to see where you want to go but not be able to figure out how to get there. Relax, Venice has something interesting practically around every corner, so even if you get lost, you'll probably still do a lot of great sightseeing.
The biggest tourist spot in town is the Piazza San Marco where St. Mark's Cathedral is located. You can tour the cathedral and even climb the towers (not hard) to get a panoramic view of the square. Legend holds that the cathedral contains the grave of St. Mark, author of the Gospel according to St. Mark.
The square is full of pigeons (all of the time) and tourists (mostly in warmer months). Depending on when you travel, you may also see scaffolding or wooden walkways around the plaza. These aren't risers for a concert or show. They are walkways designed so that people could get across the square even when it floods, which it does often enough for the city to have built elevated walkways.
Nearby is the Doge's Palace. Doge (dough-jay) is the name the Venetians gave to their ruler back in the day when Venice was an independent nation. It's a sumptuous kind of place, fit for a monarch, but most tourists enjoy the lesser accommodations better. The Doge had so many enemies he annexed a prison to the palace which is reached by crossing the Bridge of Sighs. There is a self-guided tour of the prison but it is very important to stick to the pathways marked. You are perfectly free to wander around as you see fit, but the place is like a honeycomb and you can get lost.
Getting lost is a typical Venetian experience. The city is full of unmarked streets, twisted lanes, and narrow passageways.
One of Venice's favorite native sons was reputed to have been lost. Marco Polo lived in Venice and set out for China, where he spent 20 years. When he returned, he was vilified by Venetians who called him “The Liar" for making up stories. You can visit his home. It is located on a short cul-de-sac named “The Liar"The Liar. "
Venice was always better known for commerce than art, but there are some artistic treasures. If you like eating what the locals do, you're going to try seafood and a dry sparkling wine called Prosecco. Of course, most tourists end up enjoying more generic Italian favorites here, too, such as cappuccino or espresso and rich gelato.
If you have time, take a vaporetto out to Lido island. It's an island that's just a short boat-bus ride from the main drag (the Grand Canal) and there is more relaxed (and less expensive) shopping and some beaches.
Another great thing to check out is Murano, an island famous for colorful hand-blown glass. You can buy Murano glassware all over Venice, including a special design known as mille-fiori (thousand-flowers). In Murano, you can watch artisans at work and get a much broader sampling of their products. You'll find Murano glass products in lots of stores.
Glass purchases from large stores can be shipped to you at home; most shopkeepers will be able to make such arrangements, at least for larger purchases.
Venice is a well-known city for tourists. It always has been, and cruise ships and package tours to Europe continue to feature it prominently. But Venice is also a very personal kind of city. Two tourists visiting the city on any given day can walk away with distinctly different impressions and experiences.
Mandy Karlik is a travel writer and cruise aficionado who is going to Mexico on her next cruise. To read more about cruise destinations, go to http://www.thecruise-shopper.com
Mandy Karlik blogs at http://www.cruiselinenews.blogspot.com