Revealing Venice beyond the madding crowds

gs to do and see - grand canal venice

Venice is a dream but it can also be a nightmare. I will never forget the tide of humanity that greeted me when I first stepped off the vaporetto into St Mark’s square many years ago. It was not a pleasant experience. There is no doubting the unique beauty of the city but it is hard to appreciate when crushed into the armpits of your fellow tourists.

This time I wanted to discover more about Venice, its history and culture and notice the details that make the lagoon city so special.

Unique details of Venice

the venetian lagoon at sunset

Venetian legends and symbols

Venice, like all great cities, harbours captivating legends and tales. The islands and six sestieri or districts within the Venetian lagoon form the shape of a fish where the Arsenale is the tail. The theme of the sea and its fishy bounty is never far from the Venetian psyche.

Another instantly recognisable symbol of Venice, the gondola is loaded with symbolism. Look closely and you will notice the six districts and the Grand Canal are represented on the beautiful metal design on the front of each vessel.


The winged lion symbol of Venice is everywhere. It appears on corners, flags and monuments. This is the symbol of St Mark the patron saint of the city whose remains were stolen from their resting place in Alexandria later to be interred in the grandeur of San Marco.

Fresh water wells of Venice

While Venice sits on the sea, before modern pipelines there was no reliable source of fresh water. Once every Venetian campo or square and each courtyard featured a cisterne or well topped with an often ornate ‘vera’ or wellhead. These stone structures were an ingenious way to provide fresh water to the inhabitants of the lagoon city.  A filtration system using sand and clay ensured collected rainwater and water brought from the mainland remained fresh and drinkable.

Wells of Venice - one of 600 remaining wells in Venice

Today there are around 600 wells surviving from a peak of 6,000. None are in use but they are often beautiful and provide an important link to the city’s past.

A Venetian breakfast

Enjoy a piece of traditional lemon and almond cake for breakfast with your cappuccino. It is delicious and not too sweet.

Venetian lemon breakfast cake

View of the Venetian lagoon from San Giorgio Maggiore

This panoramic view of the lagoon city is taken from the tranquility of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore a short vaporetto ride from San Marco. Take the lift to the top of the church tower and enjoy the scene of boats zigzagging across the lagoon and beyond. As an added bonus the church is home to several Tintoretto masterpieces. Enjoy the views from dawn to dusk when you stay with the resident monks on the island.

view of san marco venice from san giorgio maggiore

A remarkable bookshop

Bookshops are often romantic but I defy you to find one that stirs as many emotions as Libreria Aqua Alta. Books are stacked haphazardly in shelves, guarded by resident cats and piled high in two gondolas. Step outside into the courtyard and climb the book staircase for a special view of one of the smaller canals of the San Marco district. Address: Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5176/B, 30122, Venice

Libreria Aqua Alta Bookshop Venice

Casual cicchetti

Seafood plays a starring role in the small morsels called ‘cicchetti‘ found at bacari (bars) around the city. At between €1 – 2 per snack you can sample the local cuisine slowly, bite by bite. You must try the creamy subtle baccala – smoked whipped cod, marinated polpo (octopus) and tuna polpette (rissoles). If you are not a big seafood eater there is still plenty to try. We ate local olives, cheeses and cured meat as well as pasta at several bacari. I would hate for you to be thirsty. Your grazing should be accompanied by wines such as valpolicella varieties from the Veneto region.

Related  A feast! Savouring the authentic tastes of Venice

Venetian seafood cichetti

Gondola workshop

The enduring sight of shiny black gondolas weaving their way along the canals is thanks to the hard work, skills and tradition of the artisans who build these unique vessels. Watch them at work at the Squero San Trovaso in Dorsoduro. You can also enjoy a spritz and excellent cichetti from Osteria Al Squero opposite the boatyard.

Gondola workshop Venice Italy - what to do in Venice

Palazzos and paintings

The art and history of Venice are inextricably linked. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the quiet but magnificent baroque palace Ca’ Rezzonico. This palazzo is home to beautiful frescoes by Tiepolo, works by Canaletto and a wonderfully restored pharmacy including fittings in Murano glassware from the 18th century. Peek out the windows for stunning views of the Grand Canal.

Fresco detail from Ca Rezzonico Venice Italy

Spritz in the campo

Find yourself a beautiful campo or square and relax with a spritz. This refreshing aperitif is served in a large wine glass and includes prosecco, a bitter liqueur such as Aperol or Campari and is topped with soda water. I suspect it would not taste the same out of the fresh sea breezes of the Venetian lagoon. We spent some hours people watching in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the shade of the impressive Renaissance basilica and hospital over a spritz or two.

Gondola ride in the side canals of Castello and San Marco

Quiet venice canal scene

When in Venice you must take a ride in a gondola. Yes it is an expensive treat at €80 for half an hour but it is a once in a lifetime experience. A gondola ride along the Grand Canal will be spent dodging the vaporetti and water taxis. Instead, enjoy floating along the side canals of San Marco and Castello and listen for the language of the gondoliers. Their lilting dialect is unique and evolved as a way to help them navigate the canals. Even on a busy weekend afternoon in early October we enjoyed quiet moments on the canals with only the sound of the oars gliding through the water.

When you visit Venice, whether it be for the first, second or third time, make sure you notice the details. We went on a food and market tour of the city and learnt many things from our guide but we also learnt much from talking to the locals and watching their unique way of life.

Have you been to Venice? What little details and perspectives did you discover when visiting the city?

Read more posts about Italy

A feast! Savouring the authentic tastes of Venice
Orta: the prettiest lake in northern Italy
Top resources for planning your dream trip to Italy
Pretty towns of the Italian Riviera

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    • 5th October 2016 / 8:49 PM

      My hubby took some photos of me there but I look quite ridiculous with my mouth wide open!

  1. 6th October 2016 / 8:42 AM

    It’s about 10 years since I visited Venice. It wasn’t too crowded but it was in March, I think. I have such happy memories of a beguiling city, lots of Vaporetto trips, wonderful food and general ‘wandering about’.
    Very pleased to be joining up with #FarawayFiles. Wishing you every success with it x

    • 6th October 2016 / 9:08 AM

      Thank you so much Trish. We are all so excited to be working together and sharing all your fabulous stories. I am all for wandering about. It is certainly the best way to discover a city like Venice

  2. 6th October 2016 / 9:26 AM

    The last time I went to Venice was on the spur of the moment a few years ago MID AUGUST (yes I know sounds mad huh?) but surprisingly we found a hotel room easily and didn’t find it crowded at all – I can only assume everyone else was so scared of the crowds that they stayed away making room for us!!! We took a gondola ride as the treat for a son’s birthday (his request) and agree that it has to be done in Venice no matter what the cost. We loved it. I would like to go back again and spend more time exploring off the beaten track like you have, your photos are lovely.

    • 9th October 2016 / 3:32 PM

      Thanks Phoebe, you were in luck. Sounds like your son has impeccable taste. I think a lot of the crowds are from the incoming cruise ships that lurk in the lagoon. Hope you can make a return trip soon. I am already pining for Venice as the rain falls in coolish London

  3. 6th October 2016 / 9:48 AM

    Such great Ideas, I love exploring the alternative side of a city & I am always pointing people in the direction of more unusual things to do in Edinburgh/ I’d love to visit Venice!

    • 9th October 2016 / 3:35 PM

      Thank you! I think it is always nice to strike a balance between the obvious and not so obvious when it comes to travel. The popular places have usually earned their reputations but I also like to discover more about the local culture and immerse myself in a place I visit. I’ll be checking in with you when we visit Scotland next year 🙂

  4. 6th October 2016 / 10:34 AM

    Can you believe that I’ve never been to Venice! Is there any time of year when the crowds subside? Even a bit? Great tips – pinning for personal use later! #FarawayFiles

    • 9th October 2016 / 3:36 PM

      Thanks Erin! Winter is supposed to be lovely but I am all for traveling in spring and autumn in Europe as there are far fewer crowds. And if you are lucky, some sun!

  5. Gina Caro @ Gypsy Soul
    6th October 2016 / 12:13 PM

    I went to Venice many years ago when I was working out in Italy on a straw bale house. It is one of my most favourite places. I was only there for one day so I’d really love to go back at some point.
    Your pictures are lovely! #FarawayFiles

    • 6th October 2016 / 12:34 PM

      Thank you Gina – I only went for one day too last time and to spend nearly 3 days there was a dream come true. Thanks so much for your lovely comment

  6. Clare Thomson
    6th October 2016 / 2:22 PM

    Such a beautiful city – and I love your tips about avoiding the crowds. I am desperate to go to that book shop, take my boys on a gondola ride down the smaller waterways and enjoy all the foodie treats in this most wonderful of cities. #FarawayFiles

  7. 6th October 2016 / 5:11 PM

    It’s too long since I was in Venice – a romantic holiday with my now husband of over a decade – and this is reminding me of all the wonderful reasons to visit. We were there in autumn: still sunny but without the swarms or heat. Perhaps time to return with my daughter? #farawayfiles

    • 12th October 2016 / 10:18 PM

      And thanks for linking up with #citytripping

    • 6th October 2016 / 6:30 PM

      Definitely not one for the carb phobic but incredibly delicious

  8. 6th October 2016 / 7:35 PM

    Reading your post really makes me want to visit Venice now, today! I have been to Florence and loved it so much. The pictures are absolutely stunning.

    • 7th October 2016 / 8:28 AM

      Thank you so much Oonagh. I am almost afraid to go back to Florence because I might not leave. I adore Italy.

  9. 6th October 2016 / 9:30 PM

    I love the little squares around Venice. I also love getting lost in its alleyways, I think it’s the best way to explore it apart from the gondolas. :p

  10. 6th October 2016 / 9:30 PM

    I went to Venice years ago, and didn’t like it because of the crowds. The tips here are great for finding quiet corners . Thank you! #farawayfiles

  11. 7th October 2016 / 1:04 AM

    There is a bookstore in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood that reminds me of the bookstore you mention- without the cats, of course. The books are stacked haphazardly and I’m sure it’s impossible to find anything if you’re looking for something specific. But it’s great for finding random treasures. #farawayfiles

  12. 7th October 2016 / 2:02 AM

    Lovely post. Enjoyed the story of the cisternes and I want to visit Libreria Aqua Alta during my next visit to Venice.

  13. 7th October 2016 / 8:25 AM

    I really enjoyed reading this! It’s so interesting to learn more than just what you see directly in Venice which are overwhelmed by tourists! Saved this for later!! #FarawayFiles

  14. 7th October 2016 / 3:49 PM

    You’ve captured to spirit of Venice so well, Katy – and amazing photos. I loved hearing about the history, and yes it’s all in the details. It may be crowded, but it’s a magical city. #farawayfiles

  15. afamilydayout
    8th October 2016 / 9:09 AM

    I have visited Venice twice – both on day trips in the middle of summer which is really not the best thing to do to! I’d love to visit during the Carnival and see a different side to Venice. Definitely like the idea of the Venetian breakfast, my kind of start to the day! #farawayfiles

    • 9th October 2016 / 3:38 PM

      Oh yes, Carnevale in Venice has leaped straight into my top 5 experiences I must have. I can just imagine traipsing over bridges in ornate gowns. Love it!

  16. 9th October 2016 / 5:17 AM

    Yum! Traditional lemon cake for breakfast sounds perfect. When I visited Venice I hoped to find that bookstore but forgot to write down the address. I did find another cool bookstore, but the books weren’t stored in boats like that one!

    • 9th October 2016 / 3:37 PM

      Next time! It is a pretty chaotic bookshop I have to say. I am not even sure if much gets sold but that’s part of the charm.

  17. 10th October 2016 / 4:55 PM

    Lovely post Katy! You’re right, it’s so important to pay attention to the details in a city. The gondola ride prices shocked me while I was there but I got lucky – I teamed up with 3 other travellers who were debating the cost so we could split the bill. And that lemon torte is making me hungry 😉

    • 10th October 2016 / 9:07 PM

      Ooh well done Ellie on organising a crew for your ride. I cant imagine how disappointed I would have been had we left without enjoying that experience. Thanks for stopping by

  18. 11th October 2016 / 9:10 AM

    beautiful post on Venice’s less known features:)

  19. Lisa (Travel Loving Family)
    11th October 2016 / 9:16 AM

    Great post! I am also a huge fan of Venice when you can sneak away from the crowds. The very first time I went into Venice I was onboard a cruise ship, we woke up at 5am to watch the arrival. Unfortunately we couldn’t see a foot in front of us because it was so foggy! Fortunately, I have been back several times on ships and so I have since experienced the arrival into this magical city. It is definitely worth waking up early for when there is no fog! My favourite things to do in Venice are visiting Murano and Burano to shop for handmade glass. Completely agree with you re: the gondola rides, expensive but so much fun! #CityTripping

  20. 11th October 2016 / 11:07 AM

    I absolutely love this post! I visited Venice for the day, over 20 years ago, and I didn’t have the chance to savour it properly. I’m a huge fan of bookshops, and the Libreria Aqua Alta sounds out of this world. Great tips here – I’m pinning this for later!

  21. aandj8804
    11th October 2016 / 2:07 PM

    Even though I’ve been to Venice I learned so much more about this enchanting city from your post than I knew from my own time there! Thanks for sharing! I look forward to the day when I can return and explore the city more! 🙂

    • 11th October 2016 / 3:26 PM

      What a lovely comment. Thank you so much. This makes all the writing and photo editing so worthwhile. I hope you return to Venice very soon.

  22. 11th October 2016 / 3:10 PM

    Great photos, wonderful stories; this is the Venice that visitors want to see, but I’m not sure that many actually do. #citytripping

    • 11th October 2016 / 3:25 PM

      Thanks so much! You made my day. I do think people want to see and experience the details. When you first visit a city it is so hard not to get swept up by seeing the main attractions. Second visits have a lot less pressure though I understand that is not always possible.

  23. 11th October 2016 / 7:21 PM

    You have made it sound so romantic – which I suppose it is – when you manage to escape the crowds. We went over ten years ago and I think the cost must have put us off going on a gondola so we missed out on a must-do. We did have plenty of spritz though. #citytripping

  24. 11th October 2016 / 8:56 PM

    Never been to Venice. Have been thinking about it for a long time though. One day. And this list of hidden pockets of interest is definitely motivation!

  25. 29th January 2017 / 1:04 AM

    Would really love to explore these places you have mentioned. I have been to Venice 3 times now but you’ve introduced me to some corners I have missed.

    • 29th January 2017 / 1:54 PM

      Thanks so much Mary. Hope you can return to Venice soon to do some more exploring.

  26. 9th March 2017 / 9:35 AM

    Awesome post ,keep it up!

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