Venice has one of the world’s most challenging city layouts but still manages to look deceptively simple. At a glance, you may perceive it is some large islands wrapped around a sweeping large S curve of the Canale Grande with some 150 other canals crisscrossing their way across the islands connecting a jumble of alleys. The reality is a lot more intricate and to understand it, you have to gain a fair idea of the city’s streets i.e. its canals.
Around the 5th century, a huge lagoon with many small marshy islands existed in the place that is now Venice.
The early settlers of Venice were confronted with the challenge of preparing the Venetian lagoons for human inhabitation. They began by draining out a few portions of the lagoon and widened/ deepened the canals and shores in the banks.
Several tightly spaced wooden stakes constructed from water-resistant alder wood penetrated the layers of sand and mud to be supported by the tough clay beneath. Strong wooden platforms overlaid with stone were put on these stakes. The city of Venice was built on this base.
There is a notable absence of forests in the Venetian lagoon and the wood had to be brought in by boats on a large scale from far-flung areas that are now parts of places like Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia.
The canals of Venice have varying depths, depending on tide levels and dredging. Many canals are just 1.5 to 2 meters in depth. The Grand Canal is about 5 meters deep and the Canale Della Giudecca which is the deepest goes up to 17 meters in depth.
The deep water-filled canals of Venice have not yet decayed the wood that rests on them. This is because the water has poor oxygen content and doesn’t allow microorganisms to flourish. The salt content is very high and minerals and salt have seeped into the wood, transforming it into a hardened stone-like material.
The canals of Venice were refurbished several times in history by the inhabitants of the city. Therefore the once-natural canals of the city are almost manmade. The city uses its canals like normal streets; you will see spazzini (sanitation boats), ambulances, Vigili del Fuoco (fire services) and Vaporetti (water buses) besides Gondolas, Traghetti and Water Taxis. You will also see an array of barges that deliver everything from vegetables to construction materials.
Famous Canals of Venice
The historic Venice Centre is 2.5 miles away from dry lands and is joined to the mainland city of Venezia Mestre by Ponte della Liberta (i.e. the Liberty Bridge). There are six neighbourhoods (sestieri) of Venice Centre: San Marco, Castello, Dorsoduro & Giudecca, Cannaregio, San Polo, and Santa Croce. There are numerous water bus stops in all of these districts besides private water taxi clusters.
BELOW: In the map below, you will see the three main canals in Venice Centre… Grand Canal, Giudecca Canal and Cannaregio Canal. There are numerous other canals in the neighbourhoods.
The most important water traffic corridor of Venice, the Grand Canal makes a reverse S shape through the central sestieri of the city. It is about 3.8 km long and ranges from 30 to 90 meters in depth with an average depth of 5 meters.
Its banks are lined by incredible architecture like the Santa Maria della Salute, Palazzo Grassi and the Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande. A constant flow of water buses, private water taxis, gondolas and barges carrying produce to the multiple markets around, can be seen here.
The Grand Canal has four bridges straddling it… each of which offers a unique view of it.
The Ponte della Costituzione (or the Constitution Bridge) is a modernistic glass construct that joins the bus terminus on Piazzale Roma to the train station in Santa Lucia. This newest bridge in Venice was created by Santiago Calatrava amidst huge controversies by politicians and the public who primarily objected to its minimalistic style contrasting with the city’s medieval theme.
The bridge features a tube-like steel truss and a parapet made of glass with bronzed railings. Kids can have a grand time witnessing waterbus traffic flowing from the nearby Piazzale Roma Vaporetto Terminus, from the transparent walls of the bridge.
The Ponte degli Scalzi is popularly called the barefoot bridge named after the shoeless monks who used to travel on it. This connects the Santa Lucia train station region with the Santa Croce area and lies at the Western end of the Grand Canal. This bridge also offers swift and less crowded access to the walking path from the Station to the Piazza San Marco.
You will find the bridge to your immediate left as you exit the train station. This is also one of the highest bridges in Venice.
The Ponte de Rialto (Rialto Bridge) is the most famous bridge spanning the Grand Canal and till 1854, this was the only bridge connecting both sides of the city. This beautiful marble and polished stone arched bridge was designed by Antonio da Ponte after he successfully won a competition entered by all famous architects of the Renaissance period and it was completed in 1591.
The bridge is now a core meeting point for the citizens. The San Polo side of the bridge has the famous Rialto market with many souvenir and food stands.
The Ponte dell’ Accademia is a wooden bridge that connects Dorsuduro’s Accademia Gallery to the San Marco neighbourhood. The steel bridge dates back to 1985 and it has two predecessors of the same design. The bridge straddles the Grand Canal around the St Marks Basin.
There are several ways you can explore the Grand Canal. A relatively inexpensive way is to take the Line-1 Vaporetto… it goes all the way through Grand Canal with 21 stops on either side of the canal taking about 1 hour each way. If you are lucky to get an older Vaporetto, then there will be an open space right in front with views… grab a seat there. In all Vaporetti, there is open seating space at the backend as well after the enclosed cabin.
Go through Vaporetto Service & Routes in Venice to get complete details.
Another way to explore Grand Canal as well as several other smaller canals is to take a traditional and romantic Gondola ride. Although this is a lot more expensive and you can only ride with your own small private group of up to 5 – 6 persons, you can appreciate the architecture at your own pace and watch the people and activities on the bridges as you go under them.
The cheapest way to experience a boat ride on Grand Canal is by taking the Traghetto Service to cross over the Grand Canal at one of the several points along the canal. Traghetti (plural of Traghetto) are large public gondolas that are used to ferry passengers across the Grand Canal. There are seven routes presently operating at seven different points along the Grand Canal where you can avail of the Traghetto Service. While you can sit on the edges of a traghetto, most Venetians stand upright.
If you want to indulge, then private water taxis can be a great way to take a fast boat ride along the Grand Canal.
The Canale della Giudecca is a wide water channel that divides Central Venice and the La Giudecca island, cutting through the Dorsoduro sub-district. This is the deepest canal with almost 17 meters in depth. This is large enough for big vessels to access the city.
The Giudecca canal joins the Marittima cruise basin that is used by cruise ships of different sizes. This is why you will find cruise ships, private speedboats, ferries, delivery boats and even the Coast Guard Cutter here apart from the usual ACTV / Alilguana water buses and private water taxis.
Some of the landmarks to look out for here are the Le Zitelle and the II Redentore church and the Palazzo Giustinian Recanati which is a renaissance palace. You can also catch a look at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Gallerie dell ’Accademia. Venice’s chic university district is nearby too.
The canal has a beautiful fondamenta (walking bank) with shades right next to it, along its whole length. Sail down the Guidecca may be complemented by a walk down it.
If you want to enjoy a boat ride on the Giudecca Canal and see the many historical sites along the banks, you have two great options.
- Take the Vaporetto Line-6 from Piazzale Roma. It goes all the way up to Lido Island via Giudecca Canal stopping only at some 7 points including at Zattere and Giardini.
- However, one of the best ways to enjoy the lights of Venice at night is by taking the Vaporetto Line-N which starts from San Zaccaria, then goes through Giudecca Canal and then through Grand Canal, all the way to Lido. It has stops at Redentore, Palanca, Zattere, Tronchetto, and Piazzale Roma.
This 800-meter canal ends at the Venetian Lagoon. This is also the narrowest major canal in Venice with the width ranging between 22 to 27 meters. The Cannaregio Canal merges with the Grand Canal right after the Ponte delle Guglie. Its banks are lined with historic buildings like the Santa Maria dei Penitenti Church (18th century) and the Church of St Job (15th Century).
The lovely Three Arches Bridge stands on it (the only existent multi-arched Venetian bridge) and there is also the Guglie Bridge. If you plan to walk in the streets leading off from the canal, do look at the Palazzo Savorgnnan, Palazzo Labia and the Palazzo Priuli Manfrin. If you take Line 1 Vaporetto, then also you can see the canal’s some of the best architectural offerings.
ACTV waterbus lines 5.1 and 5.2 circle around Venice (one counterclockwise and the other clockwise) and use the Cannaregio Canal. Most of their day-time runs start from Lido, and have stops at San Pietro, Fondamente Nove, Guglie, Piazzale Roma, Zattare, San Zaccaria and then back to Lido. However, some of the early morning and late evening runs get shortened, so you need to check the ACTV schedule.
The Alilaguna Orange Line airport vessels also use this canal. You will find the Ponte delle Guglie if you follow the principal walking route joining the Rialto Bridge and the San Marco Piazza from the Santa Lucia Rail Station.
The Venetian Lagoon envelops the city of Venice and accommodates many beautiful islands (north of central Venice) that are worth a visit and are accessible by the Vaporetti or Motoscafi. Each of these islands has specialities of its own and their main attractions can be viewed when you sail around them.
The Venetian Lagoon was a natural construct but channels have been dug in it to let cruise ships enter. Currently, its average depth is 100 cm and it hosts a precious (increasingly endangered) ecosystem of birds and marine life. Venetians cycle and picnic on its surrounding islands while sailing, fishing and rowing on the lagoon are common activities.
Murano Island is known for its stained glass work. The island has its own grand canal and a large bridge straddling it. Watch out for the view of Santa Maria e Donato Basilica with 9-century-old mosaics. Murano gave Venice almost a monopoly on stained glass art for many years.
Burano is known for its lace crafting art and along with Torcello, they are far north in the Venetian Lagoon. Burano is listed as one of the most colourful cities in the world as it has houses in all shades of the rainbow. Queen Anne, Caterina de Medici and the Tudors all wore lace crafted on this island.
Torcello is famous for its historic Basilica (built in 639 C.E) that was renovated in 1008 C.E. Along the 40-minute ride to reach this island you will cross the Isola di San Michele (cemetery island populated by tombs of dead celebrities) and the residential islet Mazzorbo.
Pellestrina and Lido are two strips of sandy islands separating the Adriatic sea and the Venetian Lagoon. Lido is the epicentre of Venetian glamour and exciting beach life… it was the first beach resort in the world!!
Many of the 150 canals in Venice are known as neighbourhood canals or side canals. These are collectively known as Rii (singular Rio). When you walk across footbridges in Venice, look for signs on buildings that bear the names of these canals like Rio del Palazzo, Rio Marin, etc.
If you are looking for a romantic ride or a quiet observation session of Venetian life, then you are better off exploring the smaller canals because the typical rush of waterbus traffic, barge and speedboat will not be present.
Some top picks that you can explore are detailed below.
Canal di San Pietro is situated at the eastern end of Venice. You can see some famous landmarks here like the Palazzo Patriarcale, Basilica di San Pietro di Castello and the Pier Luigi Penzo Stadium. This is a quiet and peaceful canal, best enjoyed by a private Gondola ride that may stretch up to one and a half hours if you want to soak in all the sights.
A beautiful and peaceful canal connecting the 16th-century Jewish Ghetto to the lively Strada Nova shopping street (Cannaregio) district, the Rio della Misericordia is a great canal for a leisurely ride. The surrounding streets of the canal are filled with vintage stores and old taverns. Sailing this canal at night when the light catches the waters and a thousand reflections of the streets’ old buildings fall on it, is a recommended Venice experience. There are several canal-side restaurants in the middle section of the Rio della Misericordia.
Another very narrow canal known as Rio di Palazzo is famous for the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri in Italian) that crosses over it. It’s a white lime-stone built enclosed bridge and has small windows with stone bars. The bridge connects the prison building with the interrogation chambers in Dodge’s Palace. The bridge was so named because the prisoners could get their final view of Venice and sigh while walking over the Bridge as they were taken to their prison cells.
The bridge of Sighs was built in 1600. It was designed by Antonio Contino, he was the nephew of Antonio da Ponte who designed the Rialto Bridge. You can take a Gondola Ride on the canal Rio di Palazzo and pass under the bridge. There is a belief and a tradition that if a couple kisses while passing under the bridge, they remain in eternal love.
Rio del Greci is short but its banks are filled with magnificent Venetian buildings, some of which have been artfully restored. Some are however falling into despair but nevertheless make for marvellous Instagram feeds. This is a good canal to explore in the eastern, less touristy side of Venice.
The Ponte del Sopolcro bridge straddles the Rio del Greci and you can use it to walk away to the adjacent Castello district that houses some of the best museums in the city. Don’t miss the great view of the Venetian lagoon while sailing under the Ponte del Sepolcro bridge.
Rio San Barnaba is named after the iconic Campo San Barnaba that is featured in Indiana Jones. The canal is narrow and short with a length of around 400 meters. It joins the small Rio dell’Avogaria to the Grand Canal. Not only is this canal great for an intimate look at Venice, but it can also be used as the gateway for exploring the Dorsoduro district.
It is best to explore this canal in the mornings when there are umpteen floating market stands selling vegetables and fresh fruits. The canal is straddled by the Ponte dei Pugna bridge which offers fantastic views of the canal and its beautiful old buildings flanking the banks.
The Rio Della Toletta is a narrow small canal cutting through a quiet part of the Dorsoduro district. There is a lovely walking bank that runs along it and along the canal, you will meet the bridges Ponte del Squero and Ponte della Toletta.
If you are interested in architecture then the adjacent buildings with their vintage (and rusty) wrought iron details and the tottering stucco work constructs may intrigue you. The Rio Della Toletta looks picture perfect and you must round off the exploration by stopping at the Osteria Enoteca Al Artisti, a conventional Venetian Tavern known for its seafood.
The Rio di San Marcuola joins the Rio della Misericordia with the Grand Canal. This canal is in the Cannaregio district that has a modern shopping locus like Strada Nova along with the old Jewish Ghetto. If you are sailing in the evening, then get off at the banks and head off towards the ancient Casino of Venice for a bit of fun… it dates back to the 16th century.
If you don’t want to sail on the canal and just want a good look at it, then walk across the Ponte de l’Anconeta for beautiful views of the Rio di San Marcuola with the Grand Canal outlined in the background.
There are so many things that could fascinate you about these water webs… things that are usually not mentioned in tourist guides. For example, the charming floating greengrocers (called produce barges) sell freshly picked fruits and vegetables. You can find these in Castello’s San Pietro neighbourhood and the Ponte dei Pugni.
It is incredible to see swarms of fish swimming around in the greenish canal waters. When the tide goes down, more steps become available to get down into the canals and sometimes you can see fish nibbling on the moss.
Current challenges with Venice canals
The canals of Venice can sometimes function as effective sewers. Most residential buildings unceremoniously dump laundry detergent remnants, human waste and garbage through the gatoli (sewer pipes built in the 16th century). The canal waters are not exactly hygienic and most of them tested positive for enteroviruses and even Hepatitis A virus in recently conducted studies. However, matters are helped slightly by nature as the tides generally wash the canals of Venice regularly, drawing out much of the garbage into the Adriatic Sea where it gets decomposed. Also, the high salt content in the Venetian canals’ waters helps control the levels of microorganisms.
Smaller canals of Venice are only a couple of meters in depth and they turn even shallower in low tides. The lack of maintenance, sewage sludge and built-up sedimentation can make some of the canals un-navigable at least for some time. Nevertheless, the canals of Venice remain a wondrous, complicated maze that can capture the heart of anyone with an eye for beauty.