Living in: Venice

In this living, breathing, sinking city, residents enjoy dreamlike canal settings, peerless Gothic and Renaissance architecture and masterpieces by Titian and Tintoretto.

Venice is one of those places that everyone has seen before they visit. The green canals and famous bridges; the warmly coloured palazzo (grand residences) and narrow alleyways; the breathtaking openness of Piazza San Marco, the arched prow of a gondola and the gentle wake behind a vaporetto (waterbus) – all have been immortalised in mediums as classic as Canaletto’s paintings and as mainstream as Facebook photos. And for every traveller who has been disappointed in a destination upon arrival, there is a happy visitor in Venice, where the city looks exactly as it is supposed to. Venice is both a well-preserved monument and a living, breathing, sinking city, full of contemporary art, traditional crafts and high culture.

What is it known for?
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Venice is visited by more than 60,000 people every day, many of whom come to experience dreamlike canal settings, peerless Gothic and Renaissance architecture and masterworks by Titian and Tintoretto. La Serenissima (the most serene), as Venice is sometimes called, has been an attraction for centuries, but modern tourism is both the Venetian economy’s driving force and the curse that is driving out growing numbers of locals. As cruise ships continue to drop off thousands of day trippers, saving a sinking Venice – from both the rising waters and from becoming a living museum – is the goal of many local and international groups.

The majestic Basilica di San Marco and its grand Campanile bell tower that rises above Piazza San Marco, call to mind the golden age of the Republic of Venice, which ended in the early 18th Century. This was when the city and the Doge ruled the coastlines of the eastern Mediterranean, from Dalmatia to Crete. Visitors will find masterworks from Bellini to Tiepolo housed in museums like the Gallerie dell’Accademia, but today’s Venice is also home to a robust contemporary arts scene. The Venice Biennale, one of the world’s most important art events for collectors and curators alike, takes place every odd year from June to November, and showcases leading and emerging artists from around the world, complete with celebrities and glamorous parties. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection houses a first-class collection of 20th-century art from Dali to Duchamp in a beautiful white palazzo on the Grand Canal, and the Punta della Dogana, a contemporary art centre at the tip of Dorsoduro, contains the modern art collection of Francois Pinault, the CEO of Kering, which owns labels like Gucci and Saint Laurent. The Ponte della Costituzione, a controversial bridge designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, opened in 2008; the startlingly modern structure of tempered glass and marble swoops across the Grand Canal.

Preserving Venice, which is sinking one to two millimetres each year, has been the city and the Italian government’s focus, with the first stages of the MOSE project going into effect in 2013. The 78 floodgates installed in the lagoon will eventually close off the three inlets during high tides, blocking them from swamping the city.

Where do you want to live?
Venice is divided into six sestieri (divisions): San Marco, San Polo, Dorsoduro,  Castello, Cannareggio and Santa Croce, all cut through by the Grand Canal and smaller canals. Houses are numbered, but not usually in a straight line or by street, so finding a particular address is not always easy. The most popular sestiere for foreign buyers is San Marco, near famous landmarks such as the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco. “The San Samuele area of San Marco is a central position close to everything,” said Claire Hazle, Italian sales agent for Knight Frank. Across the Grand Canal, Dorsoduro is also very popular, with beautiful shops and good restaurants. It is also less frenetic than San Marco. “For quieter living, the Giudecca [part of Dorsoduro] is in demand,” Hazle explained. “Boat parking is easier to find here and prices are lower.”

The most desirable type of property is a restored, historic, canal-front palazzo with original beams and plasterwork. “Most common to the market are fully restored apartments normally with a terrace or water view,” Hazle said. “Apartments in large historic palazzi are also available, and are sometimes unrestored or need a lot of work.” A rare property will have a private garden or a water gate, both of which are highly sought after.

Side trips
The Lido, Venice’s wide beach just a short vaparetto ride across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco, attracts both tourists and locals in the summer. “The sandy beach at the Lido is very family oriented,” Hazle said. “There is tennis and other activities on the other islands in the lagoon.” The islands of Burano, known for its lace and brightly coloured houses, and Torcello, known for its Byzantine-era mosaics and medieval churches, are excellent day trips, located about 10km from Venice and reached via a 45-minute boat ride. The town of Vicenza, about 60km west of Venice, and the surrounding Veneto region are filled with Palladian houses and villas, a must for any architecture buff.

Marco Polo Airport has direct flights to many European and international cities, while Treviso Airport, where budget airlines such as Ryanair fly to, is 30km to the north. London and Paris are about a 90-minute flight away, and it is a nine-hour flight to New York. Tren Italia, the country’s primary train operator, has frequent service to the rest of Italy, and overnight trains to other European capitals and cities.

Practical info
Despite tourism and the floods slowly driving out some Venetians, apartments and houses remain hard to find. In addition, the housing market in Venice has stabilised after the recession hit in 2008 and overall prices fell. “We have seen decreases of approximately 15% to 20% in prime property value since the start of the recession,” Hazle said. However, prices have increased around 5% since the beginning of 2013, with most foreign buyers being European and Russian. “We see great interest from French buyers, who normally are from Paris, and other northern Europeans, such as Belgian, Dutch and British buyers,” Hazle said. “They usually have artistic and cultural interests in Venice.”

For properties near the Grand Canal you should expect to pay 7,000 to 15,000 euros per square metre. A renovated one bedroom restored apartment around San Marco starts at around 500,000 euros, and a similar property in Giudecca starts at around 350,000 euros. The rent for an 85sqm apartment in these neighbourhoods ranges from around 1,150 to 1,500 euros a month.

Further information
Venice Daily Photo: a photo blog of city life and rhythms

Venezia Net: comprehensive guide to the city’s events, culture and restaurants

Venezia Blog: an Italian-American expat’s view on life in Venice