The most important thing about real estate is location, location, location. Venice, perhaps more than any other city, is known for its unusual geography. The city seems to float above the waters of the Adriatic Sea, built over fifteen hundred years on a series of islands in a shallow lagoon.
The first settlers of Venice were refugees: Romans who were fleeing the Italian mainland as barbarian hordes tore apart the Western Empire. As the invading tribes of Goths had no knowledge of shipbuilding, the desolate islands of the lagoon became a haven. Tradition dates the founding of Venice to noon on 25 March 421 C.E. A quarter-century later, the threat of new invaders such as Attila the Hun forced enough people to the barren lagoon islands and islets to make Venice a proper settlement.
In the following centuries, the people of Venice grew rich trading fish and salt, the only resources on their otherwise unenviable islands. As their numbers grew, they raised new islands out of the lagoon, held together by woven walls of sticks. By the Middle Ages, the Venetians were a merchant republic, overseen by a Doge. Their wealth and relative freedom were the envy of Italy and Europe as a whole.
Once a place where no one wanted to go, Venice is now swarmed by tourists. However, it is possible for the savvy traveler to beat the crowds and get to know this marvelous city and its indomitable residents. Below are twenty places and activities to keep you away from the crowds.
20 Rialto Market
Very little, if anything, grows on the thin, salty soil that supports the city of Venice. However, fresh produce from the shores of the lagoon makes its way by boat every day to the Rialto Market. The fish on display, however, are Venice’s finest, the continuation of its ancient seafaring traditions. For half a millennium, the market of Rialto has been part of these traditions, remaining to this day a place where Venetians buy their groceries and meet their friends for drinks after work.
A word to the wise: don’t touch the wares. Squeezing a tomato or testing the heft of a melon will get you into trouble with the vendors.
19 Basilica del Frari
You may have company for this one, but the crowds should be much thinner than at Saint Mark’s Cathedral or the big museums. The Basilica del Frari, however, still serves the local community. Neighborhood residents will socialize outside after stopping in for a prayer. Unlike many Venetian churches, Basilica del Frari stays open through the lunch hour.
Inside are many works of art to attract the visitor. These include Canova’s sculptured tomb and productions by Bellini. The real show-stopper, however is an in situ Titian (or Tiziano) painting over the altar: The Assumption of the Virgin, which depicts the Virgin Mary being taken up bodily into heaven at the end of her life, watched by the Apostles.
18 Traghetto Santa Sofia
As a consequence of its unique construction, the easiest way to get around Venice is by boat, specifically, by the long, elegant, black gondola. Riding in a gondola is the most touristy thing a traveler can do in Venice. Away from the pricey, kitsch tours aimed at visitors, however, the gondola remains a staple of Venetians’ everyday comings and goings.
The main traghetto, or launching-point, for locals is at Santa Sofia on the Grand Canal. From here, Venetians cross the city’s main waterway. As taxis and Grand Central Station are to New York City, gondolas and Traghetto Santa Sofia are to Venice.
17 The Jewish Quarter
The Jewish Quarter of Venice is over five hundred years old. While Jews have lived in Venice for a thousand years or more, it was not until 1516 that the city of Venice ordered them to move into an area once occupied by foundries, called geti in the Venetian dialect. From this came the general term for Jewish quarters throughout Europe: “ghetto.”
While this order confined the Jews of Venice and placed them under curfew, it, paradoxically, allowed them to build their homes, businesses, and synagogues in relative legal security. Today, the Venetian Jewish community remains in its ancient locale, with five operating synagogues serving the population.
16 The Jewish Museum of Venice
The Jewish Museum of Venice stands as a community’s monument to its long, proud, and often troubled history. For visitors to the city, the Museo Ebraico di Venezia serves as an interpretative guide to the surrounding nuovo ghetto.
Along with a collection of Judaica items and interpretive exhibits explaining the history and traditions of the Jewish people, the museum hosts traveling exhibits and special events, such as talks and cultural occasions. Of special interest to the traveler are tours of the ghetto, including to its five synagogues.
Leaving the museum, visitors will be able to better appreciate the yeshivahs (Hebrew schools) and other community centers of the ancient Venetian Jewish Quarter.
15 Fondaco Tedesco
Close to Rialto Market is another attraction that provides a respite from the crowds. Native Venetian Stacy Gibboni recommends taking the aptly-named Rialto Bridge to Fondaco Tedesco. Fondaco Tedesco is a rooftop terrace that overlooks the city.
Gibboni recommends the terrace as an early stop in a Venetian adventure as it allows travelers to look out over the city and orient themselves before setting off on their day. The view of the Grand Canal, which curves nearby, is great in and of itself, however.
Best of all, as of late 2017, admittance to the Fondaco Tedesco was free.
14 Tonolo Café
This charming spot for sweets also comes recommended by native of Venice Stacy Gibboni. Gibboni recommends a visit to Tonolo Café somewhere between two other attractions on this list: the Basilica del Frari and Il Zattere. Tonolo is just a short walk from Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin over the high altar of Basilica del Frari.
According to Gibboni, Tonolo is a favorite with locals and a true neighborhood institution. Its sweets and coffee offerings set it far ahead of numerous competing cafes in the area. Tonolo Café is a good spot for a quick break during a long day of walking.
13 The Arsenal
Venice’s identity comes from its island geography; Venice’s power has always been based on its mastery of the seas around it. Any trip to Venice, especially one undertaken by a history buff, should feature a visit to the Arsenal, the disused naval shipyards that kept the merchant republic in control of her watery empire.
The Arsenale di Venezia also has the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest extant shipyards. In touring the yard, visitors will be able to admire not only the technical prowess of Medieval and Renaissance shipwrights, but also numerous sculptures to the glory of Venice. As always, the lion of St. Mark features prominently.
12 Arsenal Naval Museum
Adjacent to the Arsenale complex is the Venice Naval Museum. Just as the Venice Museum of Jewish History serves as an interpreter for the city's Jewish Quarter, so too does the Naval Museum to the surrounding shipyards of the Arsenale di Venezia.
Along with explaining the physical structures that remain in one of the world’s oldest naval wharfs, the museum places Venice’s navy within its historical context. Visitors will walk away understanding what made the city powerful as well as beautiful.
Stacy Gibboni, the Venice native, particularly recommends the museum’s Ships Pavilion, which features a number of ships representative of their particular times.
11 Scala Contarini del Bovolo
This next attraction is an architectural delight. Also sure to delight visitors to Venice is that this sight is free, like the Fondaco Tedesco, and, also like the Rialto-area terrace, offers a great view of the city at the top of its eighty steps.
Attached to the palazzo of the Contarinis, one of Venice’s most prominent and early families, is a scala (staircase) of unusual design. Combing architectural elements from Gothic, Byzantine, and Romanesque styles, what most sets apart this staircase is its tightly spiraling shape. Called “del bovolo,” meaning “of a snail” in the Venetian dialect, the staircase left such an impression on Medieval Venetians that one branch of the Contarini family became known as “the Snails.”
10 Kayaking to Mazzorbetto Island
Time and time again, we see that Venice’s unique location has defined the layout and character of the city. It is only fair, then, that the natural features of La Serenissima should deserve travelers’ attention along with the human achievements of its artists and engineers.
Mazzorbetto Island is nearly uninhabited. It is managed by an Italian boyscout association, which provides a few caretakers, the islands’ only inhabitants, and has reclaimed most of the land to its natural state. Locals enjoy hiking on the island. Canoeing and kayaking are popular ways to get to Mazzorbetto. Otherwise, the island is accessible via Burano.
9 Pellestrina Island
While Mazzorbetto Island may be charming because of its lack of inhabitants, Pellestrina Island’s charm comes from its residents. Pellestrina Island supports an authentic, working-class Venetian neighborhood.
Isola di Pellestrina is a long thin island, also called a lido, that separates the lagoon from the wider Adriatic. Because of this location between the lagoon and the sea, Pellestrina has traditionally been known as a fisherman’s neighborhood. Many of the five thousand residents still fish for their livelihood.
Pellestrina is readily accessible by ferry. After eating a fresh seafood lunch, travelers can grab a shaved ice drink, and spend an afternoon wandering through the narrow streets lined by pastel-painted houses.
8 Il Museo di Manicomio
For most of human history, mental illness remained mysterious to medical authorities. Laypeople attributed psychiatric disorders to possession by demons or punishment for sin. Through a combination of fear and non-comprehension, there is a long history of involuntarily committing mentally ill persons, often for life, often in overcrowded and inhumane institutions.
Il Museo di Manicomio, which, unfortunately, translates as “The Madness Museum” attempts to restore dignity to the patients who once lived on San Servolo Island. Rather than sensationalize the island as some sort of “haunted asylum,” the museum coolly and respectfully examines the island’s thousand-year history as a psychiatric hospital. Two admittance times are offered daily.
7 The Quarantine Islands
Like San Servolo, yet another set of Venice’s lagoon islands served as a quarantine for a mysterious and feared illness. While the fear of mental illness was unjustified, this other illness, even today, is understood as synonymous with death: bubonic plague.
Waves of the Black Death swept Europe throughout the Middle Ages. In an attempt to halt the spread of the illness, Venetian authorities established a quarantine island, a “lazaret” or lazaretto.
The first of these, the “old lazaret” (Il Vecchio Lazaretto) was a lido near Pellestrina Island. The “new lazaret”(Il Nuovo Lazaretto) is closer to the heart of Venice. Today, the site is an ongoing archaeological dig, with more mundane items being found along with “plague pits” (mass burials).
6 La Biblioteca Marciana
As this a list of Venetian attractions without crazy crowds and tourist kitsch, readers may be surprised to see a building off of Piazza San Marco featured here. However, this site is a free art museum that does not fall on most travelers’ radar.
The National Library of Saint Mark (La Biblioteca Nazionale di San Marco) offers visitors a respite from the bustle of the Piazza outside. Adorned with elaborate sculptures and frescoes, the library has, in addition to its extensive collections, large reading rooms. These reading rooms could be the perfect pit stop when cafes are too crowded or travelers are not ready for a fourth espresso.
5 Il Zattere
This is a famous attraction in Venice, and it may well be crowded, but it earns a place on this list for two reasons. First of all, le Zattere, a promenade that runs the length of the Dorsoduro neighborhood, is as much a main thoroughfare for locals as it is for tourists. Second, while crowds in a museum or piazza might be panic-inducing, they should be less bothersome while in an open, passable environment.
Le Zattere offers magnificent views of the waterfront and many important churches. As many of these ornate churches line the promenade, a stroll can be turned into a tour of some of the city’s most beautiful houses of worship.
4 Il Caffe Rosso
After strolling le Zattere, go deeper into Dorsoduro and follow the famous red sign to Il Caffe Rosso! The red sign is so distinctive that it gave a café without a name its moniker, “Red”. Located centrally in Campo Santa Margherita, Caffe Rosso has served as a local icon for over one hundred years.
Originally, Caffe Rosso was popular with prominent Venetian politicians, earning it the nickname of “The Republic of Santa Margherita.” Today, il Rosso remains popular with locals, particularly students, as well as tourists.
Along with coffee and pastries, Caffe Rosso is also a bar with a selection of wines and beers.
3 Souvenirs Like A Local
The eternal conundrum of the savvy traveler: you need to buy a souvenir for the folks back home, but you do not want to waste precious space in your carry-on on junk that could have been bought anywhere in the world. The solution is to buy not only something characteristic of your destination, so that your loved ones can enjoy its unique charm, but also something made by locals that will contribute to the prosperity of the place that hosted you as a traveler.
Posting on a locals’ forum of advice to travelers, Venetians offered several ideas for souvenirs, as well as where to find them. Their ideas included traditional Venetian masquerade masks and models of the city’s watercraft.
2 Mornings At Cafe Florian
This café is even older and more storied than Il Caffe Rosso. Café Florian has operated off of Piazza San Marco for almost three hundred years. In that time, Café Florian has attracted the likes of Casanova and other historical figures. The café has been particularly popular with artists and writers, hosting Monet, Lord Byron, Dickens, and Hemingway.
Consequently, Café Florian also attracts hordes of tourists in from the piazza. Stacy Gibboni recommends waking up early to grab your coffee. Before sunrise, before the tour groups arrive, locals too stand in line for the café’s fare.
This will put you in the perfect position to catch our final entry in all its glory…
1 Sunrise At Piazza San Marco
This tip, again, comes from native Venetian Stacy Gibboni. If you have woken up early and gotten ready in good time to make it to Café Florian before the crowds, you will likely have Piazza San Marco to yourself.
The piazza is one of Venice’s most famous attractions. It is especially crowded in the afternoons when the tour groups, which have allowed tourists to dawdle at the hotel getting ready, arrive. Locals will not go to the Piazza San Marco except early in the morning.
Difficult as it may be to wake up early after a long flight or a long day of sightseeing, sunrise at Piazza San Marco is an unforgettable experience.