Most visitors to the Veneto devote all their time to Venice, which is understandable – until you discover the rich variety of experiences that await just an hour or two away.
First, there are the city-states Venice annexed in the 15th century: Padua (Padova), with its pre-Renaissance frescoes; Vicenza, with Palladio's peerless architecture; and Verona, with its sophisticated bustle atop Roman foundations. All are easily reached by train from Venice.
Then there are the wines, in particular Valpolicella's bold Amarones. In a party mood? The hills around Conegliano produce Italy's finest bubbly: Prosecco Superiore. For harder stuff, Bassano del Grappa provides its eponymous firewater.
When the Adriatic wipes Venice clean of its mists, you can catch glimpses of the snowcapped Dolomites – in less than two hours you can go from canals to the crisp Alpine clarity of Belluno and Cortina d'Ampezzo: a land of idyllic hikes, razor-sharp peaks and the world's most fashion-conscious skiing.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Veneto.
With a profusion of domes and more than 8000 sq metres of luminous mosaics, Venice's cathedral is unforgettable. It was founded in the 9th century to house the corpse of St Mark after wily Venetian merchants smuggled it out of Egypt in a barrel of pork fat. When the original building burnt down in 932 Venice rebuilt the basilica in its own cosmopolitan image, with Byzantine domes, a Greek cross layout and walls clad in marble from Syria, Egypt and Palestine.
Holding pride of place on the waterfront, this pretty Gothic confection may be an unlikely setting for the political and administrative seat of a great republic, but it's an exquisitely Venetian one. Beyond its dainty colonnades and geometrically patterned facade of white Istrian stone and pale pink Veronese marble lie grand rooms of state, the doge's private apartments and a large complex of council chambers, courts and prisons.
Padua's version of the Sistine Chapel, the Cappella degli Scrovegni houses one of Italy's great Renaissance masterpieces – a striking cycle of Giotto frescoes. Dante, da Vinci and Vasari all honour Giotto as the artist who ended the Dark Ages with these 1303–05 paintings, whose humanistic depiction of biblical figures was especially well suited to the chapel Enrico Scrovegni commissioned in memory of his father (who as a moneylender was denied a Christian burial).
Built of pink-tinged marble in the 1st century AD, Verona's Roman amphitheatre survived a 12th-century earthquake to become the city’s legendary open-air opera house, with seating for 30,000 people. You can visit the arena year-round, though it’s at its best during the summer opera festival. In winter months, concerts are held at the Teatro Filarmonico. From October to May, admission is €1 on the first Sunday of the month.
Venice's historic gallery traces the development of Venetian art from the 14th to 19th centuries, with works by all of the city's artistic superstars. The complex housing the collection maintained its serene composure for centuries until Napoleon installed his haul of art trophies here in 1807 – looted from various religious institutions around town. Since then there’s been nonstop visual drama on its walls. Note that the gallery is in the midst of a major refurbishment; some rooms may be closed.
In medieval times this part of Cannaregio housed a getto (foundry), but it was as the designated Jewish quarter from the 16th to 19th centuries that the word acquired a whole new meaning. In accordance with the Venetian Republic’s 1516 decree, by day Jewish lenders, doctors and clothing merchants were permitted to attend to Venice's commercial interests, but at night and on Christian holidays they were locked within the gated island of the Ghetto Nuovo (New Foundry).
Baldassare Longhena's magnificent basilica is prominently positioned near the entrance to the Grand Canal, its white stones, exuberant statuary and high domes gleaming spectacularly under the sun. The church makes good on an official appeal by the Venetian Senate directly to the Madonna in 1630, after 80,000 Venetians had been killed by plague. The Senate promised the Madonna a church in exchange for her intervention on behalf of Venice – no expense or effort spared.
Napoleon pulled down an ancient church to build his royal digs over Piazza San Marco, and then filled them with the riches of the doges while taking some of Venice's finest heirlooms to France as trophies. When he lost Venice to the Austrians, Empress Sissi remodelled the palace, adding ceiling frescoes, silk cladding and brocade curtains. It's now open to the public and full of many of Venice's reclaimed treasures, including ancient maps, statues, cameos and four centuries of artistic masterpieces.
Everyone wanted the commission to paint this building dedicated to St Roch, patron saint of the plague-stricken, so Tintoretto cheated: instead of producing sketches like rival Veronese, he gifted a splendid ceiling panel of the saint, knowing it couldn't be refused, or matched by other artists. This painting still crowns the Sala dell'Albergo, upstairs, and Tintoretto's work completely covers the walls and ceilings of all the main halls.