St. Mark’s Basilica. The Doge’s Palace. Textbook Venice vacation sites. Yawn. Boooooorrrriinnnnngggg. Okay, not exactly. They are two fantastic attractions, and if you ever find yourself in Venice, you’d be mad not to visit them. But, what about, as Robert Frost might say, “the road less traveled.” That’s right, all those unusual things to do in Venice that exist off the well-traveled tourist track? Interested? Well, then, come with us and discover an undiscovered Venice.
Located at the northern end of the Venetian lagoon is Burano, a fishermen’s island with undeniable charm. Marked by the multi-colored houses that line the island’s canals, this place is a fantastic getaway from the swathes of tourists that throng the squares, waterways and cobbled streets of Venice. Lace is made here, and while little of what is sold here anymore is authentically Buranese, Burano does boast an excellent Lace museum, Museo del Merletto.
2. San Giorgio Maggiore
Everyone’s first impulse is to climb St. Mark’s Campanile for the best views of Venice. The problem is, it’s EVERYONE’s first impulse, so you have to contend with crowds of biblical proportions. And, between you and me, it’s not actually the best view. No, instead do Venice off the beaten track and head of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Here, climb the Palladian church that dominates the Island and enjoy a view of Venice that is second to none.
3. St. Marks... at Night
Yeah, remember when we were giving it all that about St. Mark’s just a minute ago. How it’s what everyone does, etcetera, etcetera. Well, we stand by it, but with a slight caveat. One of the most unusual things to do in Venice is, without a doubt, to go and visit St. Mark’s Basilica at night. One, it's beautiful. The church is backlit, and its stunning, colossal facade packs even more of a gut-punch in this light. Two, there is no one around. And, for a place that is pack from sun up to sun down, it's quite usual to have the place to yourself. To experience the Basilica in total quiet. Magic, even.
4. Murano and Glass Making
Murano is world renowned for its glass. So, if you’re keen to see it blown and shaped into vases, glass souvenirs and the like then make your way to this little island. There are options for workshops which will give you a complete insight into the whole glass making process. Or, you can make your way to Murano’s glass museum which will run you through the entire history of glass and the island’s tradition of making it. Once you’re all glassed out, then make your way to the church of Santa Maria and San Donato which boasts a stunning 12th century, Byzantine mosaic floor.
Torcello marks the beginning of Venice. This is where Romans from the mainland town of Altino eventually fled to escape the barbarian invasions that regularly saw the destruction of their towns. A visit to the two stunning churches here, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and Santa Fosca, is a must. From the 11th century, both churches from the outside may not look like much. But, head indoors and find richly decorated interiors of tiled mosaics.
6. Fangotherapy - healing mud baths
If the idea of lathering yourself up in specially aged mud and letting its healing qualities work their magic sounds like you, then consider a bout of fangotherapy. Near Padua, an hour from Venice are the towns of Abano and Montegrotto Terme. Here, exist a slew of 5-star luxury resorts to more budget-friendly equivalents who all offer up the muddy spa treatment. Aside from heated pools, saunas, jacuzzis, and hydrotherapy you can tour the beautiful Euganean countryside with its Palladian-villas and renaissance abbeys and castles. And, of course, chow down at some fabulous restaurants and trattorias enjoying the very best of Italy’s culinary expertise.
7. Learn to Row a Gondola
Okay, so everyone who goes to Venice is bound to end up in a gondola at one point or another. It would be sacrilege to visit the watery city and not do it. If you’re with a partner, there perhaps isn’t anything more romantic than a moonlit gondola ride through the city’s waterways while your gondolier serenades you. But, for something a little different, why not do the ol’ role reversal thing and get behind the oar yourself. In Venice, there are plenty of places where you can sign up for hour (or more) long classes that will teach you how to row yourself. Believe us, it ain’t easy, and it's for sure one of the more unusual things to do in Venice!
8. Visit Verona the home of Romeo & Juliet
Fans of Shakespeare should make for Verona, only an hour and a half from Venice by car or train. Beyond the somewhat gimmicky, but essential stop at Juliet’s house, is one of Northern Italy’s most attractive cities. The tangled knot of Verona's streets give way to some beautiful squares, wonderful churches, and fantastic museums. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna Achille Forti is an impressive modern art museum with a collection of paintings that span the 100 years between 1840 and 1940. Also of note is the Giardino Giusti, a fabulously manicured garden regarded as one of the finest examples of Renaissance landscaping.
9. Ponte dei Pugni
For quirky things to do in Venice, look no further. The Ponte dei Pugni, or for those of us not proficient in Italian, the Bridge of Fists, has a truly bizarre history. This bridge was where, for generations, the good people of Venice came, between September and December to settle scores. That’s right; this was the bridge for a punch-up. The fights were incredibly popular, and the aim was to knock your opponent into the canal below. That might not sound like much, but a) the waters are cold in those months and b) the waters were filthy and sewage strewn. What remains today are the four pairs of white marble footprints that marked where the fighters had to stand before throwing down.
10. Vegetable Barge
While at the Ponte dei Pugni be sure to check out the vegetable barge as well. Pulled up at the foot of the bridge is a gondola piled high with fresh vegetables from the Veneto region. So, stock up for a veggie feast.
11. Forget Harry’s Bar
Harry’s Bar might be an institution, and everyone might go there to get a drink. But, we’re on course to discover the undiscovered Venice, so forget Harry’s Bar. For an equally great experience, head to Giudecca’s Skyline Bar. It’s on Giudecca Island, but the bar offers a free shuttle service across the canal, so you don’t have to worry about getting there. Giudecca offers fantastic panoramas of the city and one of the most complete and intricate cocktail lists we’ve ever seen. So, head over at aperitivo o’clock for an Italian cocktail and while you sip them down, snap some photos.
12. Ca’ Macana’s Carnival Masks
Just about everybody in the world associates Venice with their elaborate carnival masks, but where do they come from. Granted carnival is a magical time full of hijinks and partying, but the masks don’t just materialize from thin air. No, they are works of art that are crafted by hand. And, Ca' Macana make the best in Venice. Don’t just take our word for it, Stanley Kubrick was such a fan he bought a load for his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Head here for a tour and a workshop on how the masks are made and decorated. Then, make for the on-site store and pick up a couple for yourself.
Cannaregio is the second largest district in Venice and the area’s thoroughfare, the Strada Nuovo, cuts straight towards the city’s main attractions. But, head off the beaten track, and surprisingly Cannaregio remains part of an undiscovered Venice that many tourists don’t visit. Here, the streets are lined with wonderful little butchers and bakers and offer up a slice of true Venetian life. It is also home to the Venetian ghetto where members of the Jewish faith were forced to live by the Venetian Republic.
14. Punta della Dogana
In Venice, contemporary art may be furthermost from your mind. After all, with all the classic art about, who’s got time for the new stuff? But, if you’re after alternative things to do in Venice, then you have to check out the Punta della Dogana. This museum, housed in an extraordinary building that dates back to 1677, has since been renovated by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Inside, a dramatic space now hosts some of the most ambitious exhibitions of the contemporary art world.
15. San Michele Island
This one definitely ranks high on the list of unusual things to do in Venice. The island of San Michele has served as Venice’s cemetery since the early 19th century. There are no residents on this island just tombstones and elegant churches. Now, despite how grim that sounds, it's actually not, and there is a strange peacefulness about the place. Remember though, this is a sacred place and not a tourist attraction. So, if you do plan to visit, be respectful and dress accordingly.
16. Scuola Grande di San Marco
This is one of those unique things to do in Venice that you only learn about from a seasoned traveler or an in-the-know local. Hiding in plain sight on the top floor of the Civil Hosptial is another slice of undiscovered Venice waiting for you to find it. Head up the stairs of this building and emerge into the Museum of the History of Medicine. Here, displays house ancient books, old medical equipment, and artifacts under an absolutely stunning carved wood and gilded ceiling. What could be better? Well, it's completely free.
17. Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour
Okay, not strictly one of the most unusual things to do in Venice
, because everyone goes to the Doge’s Palace, and many also get tours. But, for those interested in a complete tour. One that will open them up to all of the Palace’s nooks, crannies and amazing works then be sure to grab a Secret Itineraries tour. It’s the most complete experience out there, and if you’re going to visit this Venice stalwart, then you might as well come out of it an expert.
18. A Taste of Seafood Luxury
While everyone’s heading to Timon, Venice’s trendy steak joint, make for their second, more recent restaurant. Timon all’Antica Mola boasts laid-back vibes, simple chic interiors, plenty of atmospheres and the best seafood in Venice. If you’re looking for a romantic meal for two, this isn’t the place. Tables are squeezed together and the clientele young and energetic. It’s a great spot to grab a stellar meal away from the tourists.
19. Lazzaretto Nuovo - Quarantine Island
Venice, like much of Europe, was hit by the plague. But, due to the city’s close living quarters, residents were much more susceptible to catching the disease. As a result, the city built two quarantines. Lazzaretto Nuovo, or new quarantine, was one of them. Initially, the island served a way station where the crews of ships importing goods could be searched for signs of the black death. But, eventually, the outbreak was so severe people were carted off and kept separate. Many never left, and in recent years mass graves have been found. The island is now open to the public, and there are a series of small museums dedicated to its unusual history.
20. St. Mark’s Clock Tower
For a sight at some of the finest 15th-century engineering make your way over to St. Mark’s Clock Tower in the Piazza San Marco. The legend goes that when the clock was revealed, the Doge found it so beautiful he had the clock’s maker blinded so that he could never make another like it. The clock’s bell, which is struck hourly by two bronze figures, is the same that was cast 1497. Maybe not unusual, but definitely something special.
21. Malefatte Boutique
Everyone knows that Italy is one of the fashion capitals of the world. So, why not pick up some fine looking threads while you’re there? But, forget the high-end brands. Say no to Chanel, Prada, and Dolce and Gabanna because the Malefatte Boutique’s got what you're looking for. Here, you can pick up handmade clothes and goods made by male and female members of the Italian penal system. So, if you're looking for quirky things to do in Venice or, at least, quirky places to shop, this is worth seeking out.
22. Casanova Museum
Okay so we said 21 unusual things to do in Venice, but here’s one for good measure. Let’s call it a bonus activity. Everybody knows who Casanova was, the philandering lothario who toured Europe bedding women and getting into trouble. But, what about the man behind the myth. That’s what the newly opened Casanova Museum
endeavors to uncover. So, for an afternoon of intrigue and closer look at the life of Casanova, head here where you can enjoy interactive exhibits and a virtual experience.
Alright, there you have. If you’re looking to explore Venice off the beaten track, discover the undiscovered, here are 22 things to help you do that.