Read about the city
Venice is definitely a city you should read about before you travel. Although the city is impressive even if you haven’t done any background reading, visitors will be filled with questions such as how does it work? how are buildings constructed? Some research and preparation will help you discover the answers, along with all sorts of unsuspected details, which together should really add to your appreciation and understanding of Venice, its geography and its history. On a practical level, too, some reading in advance will help you to plan your stay in Venice, to grasp the practicalities of the city and to determine your holiday priorities.
How much you read will depend on just how prepared you want to be. For my first trip I read Jan Morris’s Venice, the classic book in English about the city, which pretty much shapes its readers perceptions of Venice. I also used a guidebook for practical information, opening times and maps. Although on this website we provide a large amount of information, which can all be printed out for handy reference, you will still need a detailed map of the city and ideally a guidebook.
When I first got to know Venice, I couldn’t find a guidebook that did everything I wanted while containing real local insights. Much later, as I prepared to leave the rental flat in Venice where I’d been spending half of my time for several years, I decided to write my own. As well as detailed guides to sights, it also contains background information and context to add to your Venice experience, as well as guided walks for discovering the very different areas of the city: Italy Heaven Guide to Venice / buy from Amazon.co.uk (affiliate link)
The Blue Guide is one of the best if you’re looking for detailed, clear guides to Venice’s architecture and museums. For a more general and briefer guidebook with practical information, there are a number of options. The big names – Lonely Planet and Rough Guides – have decent guides. Some publishers offer abbreviated little volumes for visitors on a short break, but a more thorough guide is best in Venice, where you’re likely to stumble upon churches and sights by surprise, and want to look them up in your guide’s index. A ‘top ten’ type book won’t be of so much use at those times.
General background reading
Jan Morris’s book Venice is an absolutely essential companion to the city. It’s an entertaining read which flits about, weaving historical detail with personal anecdote. My only possible reservation would be that this idiosyncratic account is so compelling and convincing that it has shaped English-speakers’ perceptions of the city so totally that it’s hard to see or read about Venice from any other viewpoint.
John Julius Norwich is the leading writer of English-language history of Venice. His history of the Republic is overpowering and takes a while to get through despite being very readable. Your head will spin with the many doges, but there are enough entertaining anecdotes to retain the reader’s interest. Understanding the city’s global importance in the past gives a rather sad perspective on its status today, as it heads towards becoming a tourist Disneyland.
There are rather too many personal accounts of visiting Venice. This is the sort of city to which writers are drawn, and even more than the rest of Italy, the sort of place where poetically-minded English-speakers churn out manuscripts. The quality is as variable as the authors’ personalities; browse or read several reviews before you buy to make sure you choose a book that suits you.
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