Most people visit downtown Venice to browse the mom-and-pop shops, grab a slice of pizza, maybe catch a concert at the gazebo in Centennial Park, and soak up its small-town charms. But there’s a fascinating story behind the city’s founding that will help you appreciate Venice even more. If you slip on your sneakers and follow the handy self-guided walking tour brochure produced by Venice MainStreet and the City of Venice, you will learn all about it.
Venice was a small fishing and farming community until the powerful Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers—the oldest labor union in the country—purchased the land and officially founded the city nearly a century ago as a retirement destination for its members. The BLE hired renowned city planner John Nolen to map out what was to become Florida’s first master-planned city. Nolen’s wide palm-lined boulevards and intimate neighborhoods with pocket parks designed to bring residents together exists to this day—it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010—as does the mandate that buildings adhere to the Northern Italian architectural style.
Start your walking tour at 200 N. Nassau St., at the Hotel Venice. The first building constructed by the BLE in 1926, the 100-room hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. It became the administrative offices and classrooms for the Kentucky Military Institute, a private boarding school, from 1933 to 1971 and is now a retirement facility. From there, it’s a quarter-mile stroll past the San Marco Hotel at 238 W. Tampa Ave. (now the Venice Centre Mall), the Hines Building (now Luna’s Ristorante) at 200-220 St. Augustine, and the Orange Blossom Garage (now the home of the Venice Theatre) at 140 W. Tampa Ave. Down West Venice and Miami avenues are 13 other original 1920s commercial buildings still in use as shops, restaurants and offices. And be sure to stop by 351 Nassau St. S., the home of the Venice Museum & Archives.
Your walk is not complete until you head due west toward the Gulf of Mexico, whose proximity was essential to Nolen’s plan. Hang a right at beautiful Venice public beach onto Tarpon Center Drive and walk a mile until you dead-end at Humphris Park at the South Jetty. Then do like the locals and take a break here to bird-watch, picnic, or just rest your feet. You’ve earned it.
625 W. Venice Ave.: Several historically significant 1920s homes, dating from before the real estate crash of 1929, remain on the island of Venice. This one, with its beautiful bas-relief of birds and vines, is one of the nicest.
The Lord-Higel House: Head to 409 Granada Ave., behind City Hall, to see the oldest building in south Sarasota County, which is now under restoration. When built in 1896, it stood in a 90-acre citrus grove.
Centennial Park: Venice’s beloved gathering spot. Located at the corner of West Venice and Tampa avenues, it has picnic tables, restrooms, a children’s splash fountain and gazebo for community concerts.
The Train Depot: Built by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in 1927 at 303 E. Venice Ave., the former Seaboard Air Line railway station is now the southern terminus of the Legacy Trail. Tours conducted by the Venice Area Historical Society are currently on hiatus due to Covid-19.
Venice Municipal Pier: A bit farther south from our planned walk, so unless you’re especially hardy, jump in the car and head to 1600 Harbor Drive S., which is also the parking lot of Sharky’s on the Pier restaurant. The 720-foot fishing pier is open 24 hours a day and no fishing license is required.