Without a doubt, Venice is one of Italy’s tourist hotspots, with millions every year flocking to the city’s major attractions, such as the glittering Grand Canal with its gliding gondolas and the always-buzzing St Mark’s Square. Despite its incredible popularity, however, you should not let the crowds put you off visiting this magical city – there’s still a host of secret spots and unbeaten paths that are well worth visiting to see Venice from a different perspective.
The Malefatte Boutique (Misdeeds Boutique) is a Venetian boutique with a difference – the store is a non-profit work-in-jail cooperative selling products made by both male and female prisoners from the local jails. The majority of the products are made from recycled PVC, meaning that each one is environmentally-friendly, as well as totally unique. Choose from a wide range of bags, as well as other stylish accessories such as wallets and phone cases.
Island of Sant’Andrea
While tourists head in their droves to Murano for the glass shops, Burano for its colourful houses, and Torcello for its nature reserve, the nearby island of Sant’Andrea is often unfortunately overlooked. Though the island appears unkempt, a vast ruined 17th century fort makes up for it, offering unrivalled views over the city and lagoon from the top.
Packed with natural wonders, the Southern Lagoon offers a tranquil slice of peaceful paradise far removed from the bustling crowds of central Venice. The area is perfect for bird-watchers, as it is home to a number of rare species including the grey heron and the black-winged stilt. Boat tours are also available for those looking to take in more of the area, passing remnants of the city’s working past including ancient fishermen’s huts, held up by stilts, and an old hunting lodge, nearing the point of falling apart.
The Ghetto is a reminder of one of the darker chapters of Venice’s history, and was where Jews were once compelled to live under the rule of the Venetian Republic. As the first Jewish ghetto in Europe, this is in fact where the word ghetto originates from. Until recently this has been a largely forgotten part of the city, though it is becoming more and more popular, so make sure you pay the Ghetto a visit before it becomes too crowded. You can easily spend a morning walking along the narrow canals and through the cramped alleyways, with a museum also offering an insight into what life was like for those living in the ghetto.
Libreria Acqua Alta
From Thomas Mann to Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare to John Ruskin, Venice has long attracted and inspired works of great literature and poetry, so it’s only fitting that one of the world’s most characterful and eccentric bookshops is to be found nestled on the city’s waterfront. Because of the constant risk of flooding, the collection of Italian and international reads are stored in an eclectic mixture of water-proof containers; you’ll find them stacked in barrels, bathtubs, canoes and gondolas.
Mainly a working class area rarely visited by tourists, the Castello district remains untouched by outsiders and is home to some of the city’s most interesting places. One of the main attractions of the area is the San Giorgio dei Greci church, the oldest Greek Orthodox church found outside of Greece and Turkey. It dates back to the 16th century, when there was a sizeable Greek community, who ultimately helped to shape the architecture of Venice with its many Byzantine buildings.
If you’re looking for where the locals spend their free time, look no further than Cannaregio, a district where the bars and restaurants are packed with genuine Venetians and the shops avoid selling tacky souvenirs. There’s also a few interesting sights here, and prices are much lower than in the touristy St Mark’s Square.
Dorsoduro promises a slice of the real Venice, where the local people go about their daily lives oblivious to the hubbub going on in St Mark’s Square. The district is home to some of the city’s most magnificent buildings, including Ca Zenobio and Ca Rezzonico, two important examples of 17th century Venetian architecture. Ca Zenobio is home to some great works of art by some of the period’s most important artists, while Ca Rezzonico has a fascinating museum all about 17th century life in Venice.
Though the word ‘Rialto’ will bring to mind for tourists the famous landmark of the Rialto Bridge, for Venetians, the Rialto Market, located in the San Polo district, will automatically come to mind. Many locals head here to do their shopping and it is a great place to observe everyday life, as well as pick up a few things yourself. The market begins at dawn, selling extremely high quality and fresh flowers, fruit, vegetables and fish, with the chance to pick up some real bargains after 8am.
San Francesco del Deserto
Again, little-known by visitors, San Francesco is an island tucked away between Burano and Sant’Erasmo, and is home to a tranquil monastery, surrounded by gardens lined with over 4000 cypress trees. After enjoying a gentle stroll through the gardens, head to the medieval cloisters, where you’ll learn more about St Francis’ arrival on the island in 1220. According to legend, after his arrival, he planted a stick into the ground and it grew into a pine tree, with a flock of birds then flying to him and offering their birdsong.
Where to stay
While the city’s famous galleries and museums are well worth a visit, Ca’ Sagredo offers a true insight into the golden age of the Venetian Republic with its stunningly opulent interiors. This restored aristocratic palazzo dates back to the 15th-century, and is filled with antique furnishings and breathtaking paintings, and is so impressive that it has been designated a National Monument.
Tucked away in the very authentic district of Cannaregio, Palazzo Abadessa is the perfect place from which to explore this local’s-favourite area. After a day enjoying the bars and boutiques of Cannaregio, retire to the hotel’s beautifully peaceful garden.
The Romanelli family has been welcoming guests to this beautiful hidden gem for three generations, and there’s a real sense of old-world hospitality and charm. Nestled in the San Marco district just a short walk from the Ghetto, this family-friendly favourite is ideal for exploring some of the lesser-known sights.
A short boat-journey away from the city centre, Venissa Wine Resort offers a completely different Venetian experience. The hotel is located on the last remaining medieval vineyard in Venice and produces the favourite vintage of the Renaissance-era Doges, once thought lost to history. Just across the bridge is the traditional fishing village of Burano.