As much as it's a PITA to go from California to Italy, it's still one of my favorite places to visit. Let's say that the juice is worth the squeeze. Venice was the first city I visited in Italy, and as a 22-year-old, it left a deep, dark impression on my mind. Life is fundamentally sweeter, I became convinced, when your city, sidewalks, and streets are built to human scale. Life is better without the intrusion of private automobiles.
La Serenissima is just that: without the noise of traffic or the fear of encountering weaponized transportation, you can find the serenity to lose yourself in the details.
An independent republic for centuries, the Venetian Archipelago gathered wealth by dominating the East-West trade routes that lined the Adriatic. So mixed in with Italian-style papal splendor papal splendor, you get Byzantine mosaics, and Islamic inflected arches. Considering how much Islamophobia there is at every level of American society, I get the warm-fuzzies pondering how these disparate cultures coexist so beautifully in Venice, at least architecturally.
Of course there are home-grown aesthetic traditions that are also worthy of celebration. Legend has it that Burano, less than an hour's ferry ride across the lagoon from Venice proper, owes its brightly painted houses to a local custom: a fisherman painted his house a garish hue to stand out from his neighbors', the better to be seen from a distance as his boat sailed home. This led to an arms race of colored plaster as the other fishermen wanted their own houses to stand out as well. But instead of mutually assured destruction, we get maximum color satisfaction.
Ready to take a trip there yourself? For practical travel advice, you really can't go wrong with Rick Steves. He's delightfully nerdy and knows what he's talking about.