Photo Credit: Luca Florio on Flickr
As one of Italy’s most touristy cities, Venice doesn’t always receive high marks from travelers seeking off the beaten path experiences. Due to the high volumes of tourists, many don’t enjoy Venice at all, staying only to see the must-see sights like Saint Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the Rialto Bridge. And while Venice has had its troubles with too many visitors, the floating city also tends to still make bucket lists for its unusual and unique makeup. While the touristy areas of the city can leave much to be desired, Venice does have another side many leave home without even seeing. If you are searching for an off the beaten path itinerary in Venice, we have come up with some Venice secrets you won’t have to share with everyone and their mother.
Visit Burano’s Kaleidoscope of Colors
Just 30 minutes from the center of Venice, you can roam the colorful small island of Burano without hordes of other tourists. The residential island is known for its bright, candy-colored buildings. In fact, before a resident can paint their house, they have to get approval from the local government. Almost tropical in appearance, Burano makes for a vivid place to pack up your camera and take photographs while in town.
In addition to just roaming the colorful streets of Burano, the island is also known for its lacemaking. You can pop in the Museum of Lacemaking to learn all about the history and artistry of lace in Burano or even purchase the real thing while on the island. Burano is also home to its own kind of leaning town, the bell tower of the 15th century San Martino Church. Thanks to land subsiding, the bell tower distinctively leans, creating quite the thrill to walk around if you dare.
Row Your Own Gondola Through the Canals of Venice
A quintessential activity in Venice often involves taking a gondola a ride on its historic canals with the help of a singing gondolier. That ride is often quite different than dreamed versions, consisting of packed canals filled with other travelers doing the same. A gondola ride in Venice can also be quite costly for just 20 minutes around the city. Instead of hopping aboard a gondola for a ride while in Venice, a non-profit organization makes it possible to learn how to row your own gondola.
Row Venice helps you learn how to row your own gondola in hopes of preserving Venice’s water culture and traditions. The rowing school explores the style of rowing of standing up, facing forward that is native to Venice and made famous by its gondoliers. The company provides rowing lessons for 90 minutes for up to four people in a traditional Venetian hand crafted all wood batellina. A private lesson for one to two people costs 85 Euros. The experience provides a great way to still see the canals of Venice but in a much more off the beaten path way, all while learning something new.
Feel the Isolation on Torcello
Torcello was once a very populated island. The Byzantine settlement acted as a trading hub to the East throughout much of its history. However, by the 12th century, the island in the Venetian lagoon would succumb to a malaria epidemic, drying up its trade importance in the process. Today, just a handful of people still reside on Torcello, making for a quiet place to stroll when the crowds of Venice are starting to get to you.
Located directly across from Burano, Torcello doesn’t boast any stores and has only one restaurant. Its most famous landmark is the Cattedrale di Torcello Santa Maria Assunta. Dating back to the 7th century, the church is worth a visit for its 11th and 12th-century Byzantine mosaics alone. In addition to the mosaics, you can also climb up to the top of the cathedral’s bell tower for panoramic views of the island and rest of Venice. As there aren’t many facilities on the island of Torcello, it is best to bring your own picnic and enjoy the peace and quiet for the afternoon.
Explore the Original Ghetto in Cannaregio
When you are in the center of Venice, it can seem as though the city is indelibly marked by tourism. However, right next to the main train station is a very different neighborhood in Venice, Cannaregio. The neighborhood remains largely unchanged by tourism, filled with more shops, bakeries, fruit and vegetable stands and fewer mask and glass tourist outlets. A good starting point in the neighborhood is Strada Nova, the main street through the district.
Settled primarily in the 15th century, Cannaregio’s main draw is the Jewish Ghetto. Once the heart of the Venetian ship building empire, the area gave the world the word ghetto. Today it is home to several important synagogues, which you can tour the Jewish Museum of Venice. The museum also boasts a wide selection of ancient books, manuscripts and important examples of goldsmith and textile manufacturing made between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Cannaregio is also home to one of Venice’s oddities, Calletta Varisco. Known as the narrowest street in Venice and one of the narrowest streets in the world, Calletta Varisco measures just 20 inches wide. Named for the Italian philosopher Bernardino Varisco, you won’t want to try to walk down this street in Venice after a big pasta dinner.
Satisfy Your Inner Book Nerd at Libreria Acqua Alta
Meaning, “Library of High Water,” the Libreria Acqua Alta is one of Venice’s quirkiest shops. Located on Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, the bookstore sits just a few steps from Saint Mark’s Square. It is arguably the only place on the planet where you can roam new and used books housed in boats, gondolas, and bathtubs. Due to Venice’s constant flooding, the owner resorted to placing the books in buoyant objects in order to protect them from water damage. Roamed by several cats along with the occasional book lover, Libreria Acqua Alta remains an unusual spot to explore while in Venice even if you aren’t looking for a good book.
Seek Peace on the Island of San Francesco del Deserto
Most travelers forget about the island known as San Francesco del Deserto while in Venice. Located in between the islands of Burano and Sant’ Erasmo, San Francesco del Deserto is home to just a monastery, Monasterio di San Francesco del Deserto. You can tour the monastery and its grounds with a Franciscan brother leading the way. Still a sacred place of prayer, the monastery’s gardens boast 4,000 cypress trees alone. Inhabited only by a small community of Franciscan monks, the site is about as far removed from the crowds of Saint Mark’s Square as you can get while in Venice. It is believed that St. Francis even stopped by here on his trip back to Europe from the Holy Land in 1220.
Getting ripped off over a bad meal in Venice or discovering that the gondola ride you always dreamt about is not really what it seems can leave the traveler a bit jaded about the city of canals. However, if you get lost while in Venice and head away from the tourist draws, you’ll find a very different city, the one of your imagination.
Have you been to Venice? Share your secret finds in the Italian floating city with us in the comments below.