14 Unusual Places to Visit in Venice Off the Beaten Path
Venice is a sophisticated city to visit. With over 400 bridges and canals, a dense labyrinth of small lanes and narrow “calle”, the best way to explore its lesser-known sites is walking. I love Venice, and because I live only an hour away, it’s naturally easy for me to revisit over and over again. After dozens of day trips, yet I feel as if I were a first-time visitor. And all the times I’m thrilled to explore a little bit more of the non-touristy spots of this unique Italian city.
Fact is that Venice is severely affected by the impact of over-tourism. On this post, I’m sharing some of my favourite sites of what I call “unusual Venice” that will show you La Serenissima, (Venice’s nickname), from a different perspective, thus helping you learn more about its rich and strange history and uncover Venice off the beaten path.
The Venetian Lagoon
With 550 square km, it’s the largest wetland ecosystem in the Mediterranean basin that comprises 118 small islands and 150 canals. While most islands are abandoned, some have been restored and opened to public again. From Medieval churches, bell towers, ancient buildings, archaeological sites, farmhouses, to long stretches of salt marshes, a.k.a. “barene”, shoals and mudflats a.k.a.”melve” it is an ideal eco-habitat for thriving birdlife. A variety of birds like ducks, herons, seagulls and many more, even 8000 flamingos reside permanently in the Venetian lagoon. And the number of birds is increasing from year to year. It’s a real paradise for nature and history lovers that are keen to explore more of the unusual things in Venice.
Here below 5 lesser-known Venetian islands of the Lagoon worth exploring:
It was the first island to be inhabited with a rich combination of history, myths and tales. The main attractions among all the old palaces are the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral with beautiful Byzantine mosaics and the Devil’s Bridge “Ponte del Diavolo”, an old bridge with no guardrail that holds the legend of a quirky spirit. Torcello is known as a place of quiet and peacefulness that inspired writers like Hemingway who came here to live and work on his novels. You can go to Torcello from Venice by taking the ferry no. 13 and changing in Burano.
In the past, some islands used to be a refuge for plague victims. Two locations: the Lazzaretto Vecchio and the Lazzaretto Nuovo were created with this purpose: thousands of people were sent and buried during the plague outbreaks between 1400-1600. Thanks to a restoration of the Lazzaretto Nuovo island, you can now visit the museums and most archaeological sites that show the odd history of this island. Lazaretto Nuovo is also known as the home of the Vampire of Venice after a woman skull was found in one of the plague graves. You can go to Lazzaretto Nuovo from Venice by ferry no. 13.
This is the largest and greenest island in the Venice Lagoon that delivers most of the agricultural produce for Venice. It’s ideal for a visit to Venice in summer for sunbathing and stopping over on the way to the Lido and Murano. Being the Sant’Erasmo island flat, and sparsely populated, dotted with farmhouses, fields and gardens, it’s an excellent site for a walking or biking adventure along the island shore and on the inland paths and rural lanes. You can get there with the ferry 13 or 18 from Fondamente Nove.
The Certosa island is the closest to Venice main island, and you can also stay overnight in the hotel. There is an interesting Church Sant’Andrea Apolosto dated back to 1492 with artworks from Tintoretto and Tiziano. Since 1985 a restoration program made it possible to reopen it to the public with a refurbished marina that hosts over 120 sailing boats. A hotel, a restaurant, a cafe and picnic areas among reed beds and fields are beloved by the local Venetians who come over to hide from the hordes of people visiting Venice.
San Servolo Insane Asylum Museum
If you want to visit another unique place of Venice, visit the Insane Asylum Museum of San Servolo Island. This is a permanent exhibition with a rare collection of the finds, objects and documents of the ex-mental institution of the city, which marked the history of the island from 1700 to 1978. There is also an anatomical room with a collection of skulls and brains and the Apothecary room displaying over 200 pharmaceutical vases in different sizes and shapes. Next to this unique museum, you can visit the old convent and take a walk in the beautiful park that surrounds today’s modern congress and cultural centre. You can reach San Servolo Island by boat n0. 20 from San Zaccaria, the waterfront adjacent San Marco Square.
San Giorgio Maggiore
Long queues at St Mark Square waiting to go up the Bell’s Tower is the common scenario. So why waste hours of your time, when you can get a super view of the whole of Venice with the lagoon somewhere else, away from the crowd. Take the ferry to San Giorgio Maggiore island. First visit the church which houses fabulous Tintoretto works of “the last supper” and walk up the staircase of the bell tower, for 60 meters, (elevator is also available) to admire the magnificent view of the Basilica and the Palazzo Ducale as well as a beautiful 360° panorama of the Venetian lagoon with its islands.
Unique Churches of Venice
Venice has over 130 churches spread throughout the city, mostly located in squares (Campi) and on the minor islands. These two churches I have picked are simply unique and must-see places, even if you don’t like churches.
Among all the beautiful churches in Venice, I Frari, as the locals call it, a.k.a. The Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari is a church that stands out for the Venitian Renaissance art with the imposing wooden choir and the majestic Titian’s altarpiece paintings: the Madonna di Ca Pesaro and the Assumption of the Virgin. Moreover, you can see the tombs of early Doges. There is a 3 Euro entrance which is, in my opinion, well spent. If you like churches and want to see a special one, this is the place.
If you love to walk and explore the area near St. Mark’s Square, just 10 minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of Venice, you can visit San Zaccaria Church. Although its exterior is unassuming, you will love the superb massive paintings covering the walls dating back to 16 and 17th centuries. The highlight of this church is the San Zaccaria flooded crypt underneath, walking through the catacombs is truly a cool and unique experience. The entrance to San Zaccaria Church is free, there is a small fee to visit the crypt and to have the paintings lit up.
Offbeat Venice Squares and Campos
There are many beautiful squares and Campos in Venice, I have picked two different places I particularly like that are less-known. Here are a few things to look for.
The Jewish Ghetto in Cannaregio
To learn about the Venetian complex and dark history, you must visit the Jewish Ghetto in Cannaregio. The curious thing is the word Ghetto originated from the Venetian word Geto, which means „foundry“. This factory used to be in this site of the city during the middle ages. Later on, the authorities decided Jewish people should live in this restricted area.
Because of the segregation rules and persecution, they had to build their synagogues upwards, so they are all on rooftops buildings: There are five synagogues that you can visit. It’s one more unusual thing to do in Venice to learn about the dark history of this area. You can visit the museum or go on a private guided tour.
Campo Santa Margherita with antique markets and vintage shops
One more unusual thing to do in Venice is to look for vintage shops. From old fabrics and home interiors and decors to accessories like hats and gloves to clothes in Venice, it’s worth wandering off and getting lost in the tiny calle around St. Markt Square and further away.
In Venice, there are flea and antique markets at many of its beautiful Campos, and one of my favourites is the Saturday market at Campo Santa Margherita; this campo has a great atmosphere, just off a canal, with a church that hosts permanent exhibitions, some of the best vintage shops, great eating venues and cafes where the locals go.
The Venetian Patisserie
When in Venice you must try its unique food and also try to learn all the funny names they have! From an aperitif time in the local „bàcari“ (taverns) and “ombre” (glasses of red wine) with „cicheti“ (appetisers) to ist delicious patisserie. Walk around, and you will find many places where the locals eat. Campo San Polo Campo San Margherita and Rio Tèra, are my favourite areas for the best patisserie and coffee experience in Venice.
Check out the Martini Bar & cafeteria in Rio Tèra, and the famous Marchini Time for great coffee time. Try its „Basi in Gondola“ which means “Kisses on a Gondola”, or some more of their specialities. Only a few minutes walk away from San Marco Square; this is a real artisan patisserie worth checking out when visiting Venice.
Venetian masks decorating art
If you like me love the Venetian masks, skip on those touristy mask shops in Venice and visit a real workshop like the Ca Macana – the most known – where you can learn from the specialised artisans about the unique Venetian mask decorating art. While some are free demonstrations open to the public, if you want to dive into the details of this technique, you can sign up for a paid course.
The Venice Music Museum
One must-do thing in Venice for music lovers is attending a concert inside a Venetian church or a Scuola Grande. Among the many, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the San Vitale Church hold over 200 shows a year. If you love music, also a visit to the Music’s Museum in San Lorenzo Church is indeed a unique and different place to visit in Venice.
Have visited Venice and ticked all the iconic attractions already? These alternative things will show you the unusual Venice off the beaten path, and away from the crowds.
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Where to stay in Venice
Venice there are +3000 places, from budget hotels, B&B to high-end resorts and fully furnished rental apartments. It takes a little bit of time to do proper research online, but it’s worth it. If you want to save a little bit of time when searching, check out these three places below. They are outstanding value for your money, and I recommend them from personal experience.
8 Tips for visiting Venice more responsibly and respectfully
Because Venice is suffering and collapsing with hordes of people, (nearly 30 million tourists in a year), please visit most respectfully. These tips for visiting Italy will help you travel more consciously and will contribute to preserving Venice’s beauty and heritage sites. Thanks for your help!
- Travel independently, explore on foot, instead of using the ferry.
- Prefer weekdays over weekends for your trip to Venice.
- Go on walking tour, but if you join a tour make sure it’s a small group of max 10 people.
- Recycle plastic, paper, glass, and take the garbage back home, if litter bins on the street full.
- Consider staying in cities near Venice, or on smaller islands of the lagoon.
- Look for alternative things to do and places to stay away from the crowds.
- Do not hang out in groups and don’t speak loudly at night in the street, be respectful of the locals.
- Consider visiting nearby towns and go on a day trip from Venice to the Dolomites
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