Secret Venice: how to get off the beaten track and find hidden gems in Venice

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Forget the doom and gloom scenarios about this beautiful city. It’s still easy to find secret spots and explore the hidden gems of Venice. Here’s an inside guide.

Unusual Venice - off the beaten path in Venice

How to Get Off the Beaten Path in Venice

Venice has a tempestuous love affair with the world. Millions of adoring fans visit La Serenissima each year, lured by the sirens of the Adriatic – gondolas, waterways and the dream of birds fluttering up from St Mark’s flagstones.

But if three’s a crowd, then 30 000 is a crush and the combination of cramped bridges, high prices and humidity leave many swearing off the city for life. Yet it’s easy, not to mention, lovely, to get off the beaten path and find those hidden gems in Venice. Here’s how and what it’s like.

How to Get Off the Beaten Path in Venice – At a Glance

  • Wake up early. Seriously. The city looks so beautiful then and you’ll catch local people going to work.
  • If you see a tourist sign, walk away from it. Venice is small so you can’t get seriously lost.
  • Travel in the off season. The city is there all year. Stay away from the Biennale or during June-September.
  • Use public transport. Hope on a vaporetto instead of a glossy black gondola.
  • Use the app Spotted by Locals. It does what it promises.
  • Don’t join a tour! That’s the guaranteed way to be with other tourists.
  • Stay overnight. Stay several nights. Learn the rhythm of Venice. Woo her with your time.
  • Go to concerts, go to mass, go to restaurants without a booking.
  • Learn a little Italian. Say ciao. Smile!

When in Venice, take a gondola ride, cross the Rialto Bridge, and stop for coffee in the splendid Piazza San Marco – this is what all the tourist guides say. But only when you’re done exploring the main attractions and decide to go off the beaten path will the City of Masks show, well, its true face.

Map of Unusual Places to Visit in Venice

Venice off the beaten track - find unusual things to do in Venice Italy here with this beautiful article from @insidetravellab

Visit San Francesco della Vigna

Enjoy a peaceful morning while exploring this beautiful church in the eastern part of Venice.

Designed by the famous architect Andrea Palladio, it is a masterpiece in itself. But when you combine its impressive symmetry with the exceptional artwork inside and the serene gardens that surround it, it quickly becomes one of the best places to get away from the rush of the city.

Take your time to admire its Baroque decorations and walk along the lovely gardens lined with orange trees. Or attend mass if you are lucky enough to visit when it is held.

Cross the Ponte De Chiodo

Venice has a lot of bridges, but only a few have preserved their initial design. Ponte de Chiodo dates back to the 15th century, and – this is a bit scary – it has no railing or parapets.

However, it is the perfect place to take photos without bumping into hundreds of tourists trying to do the same thing. The bridge is located in the local Cannaregio neighbourhood, so you’ll also discover more hidden gems like local shops, restaurants, and cafes.

Stroll on Strada Nova where the Venice Carnival is held or simply sit on a terrace and watch the tourists as they enjoy their gondola rides.

Take a Boat Ride to the Burano Islands

Far from the hustle and bustle of St. Mark’s Square, the Burano Islands are known for their colourful houses and delicious food, usually based on the catch of the day.

The only way to get there is to take a boat tour, but you’ll get the chance to admire the Venetian Lagoon on your way and take spectacular photos of the island as you approach it.

Also, since you are going off the beaten track, make sure to visit the Church of San Martino with its gorgeous frescoes and bell tower.

Discover La Grande Bellezza of the Dorsoduro Area

For a more authentic Venetian experience, head to the historic neighbourhood of Dorsoduro, bordered by the Grand Canal to the north and the Giudecca Canal to the east.

Despite its splendour, this area receives fewer tourists, so you can take your time to explore each landmark.

Gaze at the magnificent works in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection at the Venice Museum or stop by the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute, a magnificent 17th-century church that dominates the skyline of the area.

This is also a great place to try traditional Italian food, so go for it.

Isola Di San Michele buildings as approached from the water in Venice

Pay Your Respects to the Dead on the Isola Di San Michele

It may seem odd to take a boat ride just to visit a cemetery, but there’s a lot more to explore on San Michele Island.

The site of the first Jewish cemetery in Venice, it is also the resting place for many famous people, including writer Ezra Pound, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and actress Eleonora Duse.

Not far from the “Floating City”, this small island combines the beauty of natural landscapes with the solemnity of the mosaics and sculptures that populate the cemetery.

You can expect a great day trip, but keep in mind that this is a sacred place and it’s appropriate to adopt a more sombre dress code.

Find Literary Gems at the Libreria Acqua Alta

For book lovers, this is heaven!

Located in an old building that faces one of the city’s canals, the Libreria Acqua Alta is a new and second-hand bookstore like no other in Venice.

The store’s name translates to “High Water Bookstore,” which is fitting considering its location in Venice, a city that frequently experiences flooding.

Skim through the books, take spectacular photos, and befriend the store’s cat. This is the perfect spot to buy an antique volume you will cherish for the rest of your life.

Enjoy the View from the Fondaco Dei Tedeschi Terrace

Not really a secret spot but one that often gets overlooked by tourists trying to cram the main Venetian attractions in their tight schedule, this rooftop terrace is a great place to see the Rialto Bridge and Grand Canal from the heights of the sky. Plus, access is free, and you only need to book a slot in advance.

Climb the Bell Tower on the Isola Di San Giorgio Maggiore

Another wonderful day-trip destination, the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore is just a short boat trip from Venice.

The biggest attraction on the island is the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, designed in the 16th century by Andrea Palladio.

Take a tour of the church and climb to the top of the bell tower for a view that will take your breath away. And if you are an art lover, stop by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini to admire some unique Titian and Veronese paintings.

Finally, the island is also worth visiting for its water activities, which include boat tours and water sports.

Scuola Grande di San Marco exterior facade

More Art at the Scuola Grande di San Marco

Hidden in plain sight, this beautiful building houses centuries of Italian history and art inside its unique Renaissance architecture. Take a guided tour or explore it on its own.

You will discover the works of famous Italian artists like Tintoretto or Carpaccio. Built during the 13th century, this building was both a place of worship and a meeting place for the Confraternity of San Marco, so during your visit, you will learn a lot about the Romano Catholic Church and its importance in the public life of Venice.

Discover the Gothic Venetian Architecture of the Scuola Grande Di San Rocco

One of the most spectacular secret places in Venice, Scuola Grande Di San Rocco is a bit more recent than the Scuola Grande Di San Marco but just as fascinating. With a similar history, this place has an extensive art collection that includes the works of famous Venetian artists.

However, the architecture is different, so go inside to see what a Venetian Gothic interior looks like. Spoiler alert – it is breathtaking!

Hit the Antique Shops in Campo San Maurizio

Although located in the heart of Venice, this square is a very peaceful place compared to St Mark’s Square. So, if you feel you need a break from the crowds, you can catch your breath here.

The square is home to several galleries and antique shops, but it also houses some upscale restaurants and boutiques. And just in the middle, you’ll find the beautiful building of the Church of San Maurizio, which is definitely worth a visit.

Palazzo Contarini Del Bovolo with its twisting staircase in Venice

Snail Your Way Inside the Palazzo Contarini Del Bovolo

One of the most striking experiences in Venice is climbing the Scala Contarini del Bovolo.

This external spiral staircase at the Pallazo Contarini del Bovolo has imitates the spiralling shell of a snail.

In the 19th century, the palazzo was abandoned and fell into disrepair, but fortunately, it was restored in the 20th century and today is open to the public.

Discover the Violent History of Ponte Dei Pugni

Ponte Dei Pugni, or the Bridge of Fists, is located in the district of Dorsoduro, spanning the Rio di San Barnaba canal, and it is known for the city’s unique tradition of fist fighting.

It was the site of violent clashes between rival factions during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the tradition of fistfights persisted until the 18th century.

Today, you can still see the stone footprints on the bridge that were once used to mark the starting point of these fights.

Try Kosher Food at the Jewish Museum

Just a short walk from the city’s main attractions, you’ll find the Jewish Ghetto with its synagogue and museum. Take a guided tour around the neighbourhood to learn about the hardships the Jewish community in Venice endured and how the quarter was rebuilt after WW2.

The museum houses a vast collection of Judaica and Jewish art, including manuscripts and paintings. You will also find a Kosher restaurant, so this is a great place to sample some traditional Jewish food like matzo ball soup or geflite fish.

Visit the Palazzo Grimani Museum

Opened to the public in 2008, this 16th-century palace remained a hidden gem in Venice due to its location in a less touristy part of the city.

However, this masterpiece of Renaissance architecture is worth getting off the beaten path. It houses an impressive collection of art and antiquities, including paintings by Lorenzo Lotto and Jacopo Sansovino. Not to mention that it was the residence of the Grimmanis, one of the most prominent Venetian families during the Renaissance, a detail that makes the visit even more exciting.

Take a Secret Itineraries Tour of the Pallazo Ducale

The Doge’s Palace is definitely not a hidden tourist attraction in Venice. It is right in the heart of the city, and everybody visits it. However, there are only a few areas of the palace you can explore during a regular visit.

For a more intimate experience, book a tour of the secret parts of the palace and delve deeper into its history by discovering the spectacular Chamber of the Secret Chancellery or the Chamber of the Inquisitors.

Mist in Venice

Finding Hidden Gems in Venice: A Travel Story

Perhaps I’ve spent too much time squashed on the London Underground, but in Venice there’s still real beauty to be found. Yes, the sight of sweaty tourists and adverts swamping the Bridge of Sighs is off-putting, but buongiorno? The rest of Venice is as captivating as ever and it’s only a footbridge away.

My latest trip to Venice left me with just over twelve hours in this watery playground. Enough time to make the pilgrimage to St Mark’s Square, say hello to the pigeons, scramble through the masses on the Rialto Bridge and enjoy a plateful of polenta and cuttlefish served in the trademark black ink sauce.

Wander Away from the Crowds

With a couple of hours to spare, I wandered off piste, turning right onto the Strada Nova and just drifting along. At the very first corner I found myself alone, accompanied only by the lapping of the water and my footsteps on the stone. Glossy black gondolas stood idle, wrapped up in canvas for Sunday’s day of rest. Venice may only have a few thousand true residents and an empire long since gone but behind the “I Love Venice” T-shirts people still live everyday lives.

Lines of laundry stretch along the peeling plaster and painted shutters like flags on a village fete. Tanned men in loafers drive their speedboats too fast, sloshing foam onto the brickwork that looks as though it has seen it all. There’s the sound of a baby crying and the smell of freshly baked bread.

Another canal takes me past a vegetable market, where chubby cherry tomatoes and stout pumpkin-sized ones change hands beneath the shade of a church tower. A male voice choir entertains in one piazza, while a saxophonist lets rip in another. Gondoliers in stripy T-shirts smoke and read the newspaper, their straw hats tilted to protect them from the sun.

The World’s First Ghetto

Then I cross the Ponte de Gheto Novo, the wrought-iron bridge that carries me into the square of the same name. As it turns out, I have been wandering through the district of Il Ghetto, the small enclave of Venice that gave its name to every sad and squalid ghetto ever since.

In the 14th century, this was the Jewish area. Closed gates enforced a curfew at night, property rights were restricted and Jewish citizens had to identify themselves by wearing a badge. This sounded to me like the beginning of the holocaust but apparently, in the Middle Ages, such treatment was mild in comparison to persecution elsewhere. Jewish refugees arrived here from Spain, Portugal and the outposts of the Ottoman Empire, building upwards and upwards in this cramped corner of relative peace.

Jewish Heritage in the Ghetto in Venice

Today those boundaries have long since gone, leaving butter-coloured walls and dark-chocolate shutters overlooking the children who play in the square. A bustling restaurant serves kosher food, stars of David glitter in traditional Venetian glass and synagogues operate freely.

In one corner in the shade, a set of metallic plaques commemorate the lives of the more than 200 Jewish individuals sent to the death camps during the Second World War.

Surrounded by the romance of the sleek gondolas and the wealth of historic art, this atrocity seems somehow even harder to comprehend than usual.

Venice Today

Walking past students sitting cross-legged in doorways and sketching in charcoal, I realise that the ghetto that spawned them all doesn’t dwell in the past.

Handmade posters name countries, detail times and catalogue dates – but it’s not a tourist-driven schedule, nor an historic monument.

It’s the programme for the World Cup.

In a world of love affairs, La Serenissima, it seems, has fallen for the beautiful game. And even when trying to get off the beaten path, there’s a slow realisation that perhaps in the end all paths in the world are the same. To sport, to games, to football?

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