Geography of Venice

A look into the geography of Venice and its islands, transportation within the lagoon, and how floods affect the Venetian historic center.

As a city, Venice occupies an exceptional location in a lagoon on the Adriatic Sea.

Throughout the centuries, the Venetians have built their place by driving piles of oak and alder in the sandy soil, and on top of these foundations, they built houses and palaces, struggling against the continual movement of the tides.

In addition to the historic center (plus Giudecca), major islands within the lagoon include:

Lido, Murano, Burano, Torcello, San Michele (Island City Cemetery), San Erasmo, Mazzorbo, The Vignola Certosa San Francesco del Deserto, San Giacomo in Paludo, San Servolo, and San Lazzaro degli Armeni.

The city is crossed by a total of 177 canals (the largest of which is the Grand Canal), 455 bridges (usually arched to allow boats), over 118 islands.

Venice’s historic center is divided into six districts or ‘sestieri’:

  • San Marco, Cannaregio and Castello on the left bank of the Grand Canal, and
  • Santa Croce, San Polo and Dorsoduro on the other side.

In terms of city center, the district of San Marco and its St. Mark’s Basilica are considered the heart of the city.

Of the geography of Venice districts, Castello covers the entire south-eastern part of Venice, with its name linked to the presence of a legendary castle which was there.

The Cannaregio district, meanwhile, occupies the area between Rialto Bridge and the railway station.

Its name comes from the straight channel that traverse the district. On the other side, Santa Croce and San Polo are named after two churches, the first of which has been destroyed, the other not.

Dorsoduro’s name, meanwhile, is due to the altitude of sestiere, which is higher than the others.

Consequently, during episodes of “acqua alta” (high water levels), it is less frequently flooded.

The historic center is entirely pedestrianized, canals, including the main one, Grand Canal ending at the Giudecca Canal and the lagoon around the city, acting as routes for the various boats that are the means of public transport.

Venice is a unique city where one moves almost exclusively on foot, but there are also water taxis – small motorized boats carrying eight to ten people – and gondolas – small & light rowing boats.

Other, larger boats, are intended primarily for commercial transportation.

Geography of Venice Italy

PHOTO: Satellite picture of the geography of Venice.

The location of city center of the Venice in the Geography of Venice and its lagoon is such, that most of the transport of persons and goods is by water.

The location is also why the city, in the twenty-first century, remains the only large city to be free of cars and trucks to this day.

One of the traditional ways of transportation is by the Venetian gondola, although they are primarily used by tourists or for special occasions (ceremonies, weddings and funerals), with a cost of the gondola rides one of the reasons behind its limited usage.

Nowadays, Venice has only about 425 gondolas left in use.

Local Venetians mainly use water buses, called vaporetti, managed by ACTV, for traveling the islands within the main channels, and traghetti, which are gondolas with two rowers, allowing pedestrians to cross the Grand Canal on a few places without bridges.

In fact, for the Geography of Venice, sea and the lagoon remained the only existing means of transport in Venice until the nineteenth century, and the construction of a railway bridge.

When that link was taken into use in 1846, it allowed train connections to Venice-Santa Lucia train station, built in 1860, from  rest of the European continent.

Quickly after inauguration, the station became a popular terminus for travelers from European capitals, as it leads right up to the heart of the city, close to the Grand Canal.

Later, in 1933, a road link, the Liberty Bridge (Ponte della Liberta), was also established, leading to a large parking lot on within an artificial island of Tronchetto, on the northern outskirts of Venice.

In terms of air traffic, Venice is served by the airport of Venice – Marco Polo, named in honor of the city’s most famous historical citizen.

The airport is located on the edge of the lagoon, but within the continent. To get from the airport to the historical center, you must either take rental car, a bus, taxi, water taxi, or a water bus.

The buildings of Venice are constructed on wooden pillars, which are exposed to the tides, especially between autumn and early spring.

Geography of Venice includes that the city is, in fact, periodically flooded, by what Venetians call ‘acqua alta’.

There are several things explaining this natural phenomenon, including tides caused by moons gravity, effect of sirocco winds from Africa, preventing the lagoon from emptying, with high tides succeeding each other.

Acqua Alta conditions have always existed, but is in recent decades, the floods have become more severe under the combined influence of several causes of climate and human activity.

The consequences of these floods are important in the daily lives of people, who must leave the lower levels of houses and use elevated walkways to move.

Important consequences also include the deterioration of monuments and habitats that follows from the harmful products to the stone and brick.

Today, the accurate measuring of Venice’s subsidence has not been established, and its evolution is still a controversial subject.

The latest initiative, launched by a consortium of Italian industrialists, is to build 78 movable gates within three passes of the lagoon to protect the city.

During normal tide, these gates / drawbridges are filled with water and submerged.

When tides are greater than one meter, an injection of compressed air evacuates the water, allowing the gates to stop the water inflow and close the passage, separating the lagoon from the sea.

This project, called MOSE, began in 2003 and the work is expected to continue until 2014.

MOSE is controversial especially given its costs and doubts among scientists on the efficiency of this system would have, perhaps being useful for onlye very high tides.

The project, in addition, will not solve the other major problem of the city, waves in the lagoon.

Apart from floods, Venice has a climate that is a rather humid all year long, with very moist summers. Winters are cold, on the other hand, with frost and fog in January.