Revealing Venice beyond the madding crowds

Venice things to do and see - grand canal venice

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Venice is a dream but it can also be a nightmare. In summer the huge crowds of people can almost ruin your experience. 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. And those crowds are only getting bigger.

But here’s the thing. You can discover Venice beyond the crowds.

This is my guide dedicated to helping you discover the beauty of the lagoon city, its history and culture. I want you to notice the details that make Venice so special. I hope you enjoy discovering some of the more unusual things to do in Venice Italy.

Hidden gems 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. You can try a delicious version with a great coffee at Pasticceria Rizzardini – Campiello dei Meloni, 1415

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.

To get to San Giorgio Maggiore take vaporetto number 2 from the San Marco S. Zaccaria stop to see one of the most beautiful views of Venice.

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.

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.

Make sure you peek out the windows for stunning views of the Grand Canal.

Fresco detail from Ca Rezzonico Venice Italy

Spritz in a quiet 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.

This square is a quiet oasis away from the crowds. Children play, grandmothers chat and you can enjoy your lunch at leisure.

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.

Explore the colourful island of Burano

Burano - one of the hidden gems in Venice

If you are in Venice for 3 days or more, make sure you make the time to venture out to the smaller islands in the lagoon.

Burano is my favourite. This tiny island is a vibrant colour pop in contrast to the muted hues of the main districts of Venice and is well worth the 45 minute vaporetto ride from the Grand Canal. It

Note – take the express vaporetto 12 from San Zaccaria near San Marco. This line also stops at the famous glass blowing island Murano.

Discovering more unique things to do in Venice

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.

You could also take an self guided electric boat or kayak tour of the outer lagoon and enjoy a relaxing few hours looking for flamingoes and other native wildlife.

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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