Secret Venice: the 5 Most Underrated Islands in the Venetian Lagoon
Venice is a tricky place to navigate, I won’t deny it. I’ve spent too many afternoons lounging in small cafes, Spritz in hand, watching couples, families, and groups of friends engage in orienteering battles, angrily brandishing maps or wearily flipping through guidebooks in their attempt to seek out the ‘hidden secrets’ of the city. It’s unsurprising that most visitors to La Serenissima never make it beyond the standard tourist trail – looping from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto bridge, following the Grand Canal round to the Ponte dell’Accademia before returning to their hotels to pass out, exhausted. Indeed, it took me at least six months in Venice to venture right out into the lagoon to explore the islands that make up the lesser visited half of this beautiful city.
Of course, almost every tourist visiting Venice goes off on a day trip to see Murano and Burano – and rightly so, these two islands are an excellent place to observe the quintessentially Venetian trade of glass production. And, granted, Burano is spectacularly pretty on a sunny day, when the brightly painted houses reflect in the water to provide a truly unique photo opportunity. However, once you’ve finished taking photos on Burano and you’ve completed the obligatory Murano glass-factory tour, you have barely touched upon the wealth of fascinating experiences that Venice’s lagoon islands have to offer. Whether you’d prefer an action-packed day in the sun exploring the Lido, or a quiet retreat to a lesser-known island, there’s plenty to discover!
The first island on this list is certainly the best known. Home of the Venice film festival, and star of the 1971 cult film Death In Venice, Lido’s quaintly faded seaside charm has earned it many famous fans over the years. Certainly, several holidaying visitors do venture here, taking the number 1 vaporetto from the San Zaccaria stop at San Marco over to the island to stroll along its beachfront, admire the uninterrupted views of the Adriatic and escape the bustle of the city centre. This beach is a great destination in its own right, and is packed with young Italians in the summer. However, almost no one ventures further than this central stretch, thereby missing some of Lido’s loveliest spots. Hire a bike (you can get a tandem, or a four-wheeler if you’re on a group trip and feeling brave!) from Venice Bike Rental (Gran Viale 79), then turn right along the beachfront road, heading south. After a thirty-minute cycle you reach the charming seafront village of Malamocco, where you can stop for a fresh fish lunch before cycling a few minutes onwards to one of the unspoilt beaches at the island’s southernmost tip.
The largest island in the lagoon, Sant’Erasmo is also one of the least frequented by tourists, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful. When you step off the vaporetto (the number 13, which leaves every hour from the Fondamente Nuove stop), you’ll find yourself in the sort of countryside setting more associated with a traditional rural Italian village than with Venice. The grassy areas along the south side of the island provide idyllic spots for an afternoon picnic, though Sant’Erasmo has few tourist services so make up your lunch before you leave the main part of Venice! I recommend walking along the quiet, rural lanes to the Torre Massimiliana fort – if you didn’t bring a picnic there’s a tiny local restaurant (Bar dei Tedeschi) here by the water that is always populated with chattering Venetians, drinking the tiny 1 € glasses of wine and watching over their children as they paddle in the nearby lagoon.
One of the most peaceful and lovely spots in the lagoon, Torcello is an island older than Venice itself, dominated by a large nature reserve, with its own stunning cathedral. And, dating from the 7th century, the Chiesa della Santa Maria Dell’Assunta is rightly famous for the beautiful Byzantine mosaics decorating its interior. However, my favourite attraction on the island is the slender Ponte del Diavolo – while it is just a bridge (granted, a pretty one), for me this is a particularly romantic and tranquil spot. It’s a rare example of the original Venetian bridge-building style, with no parapets, and local legend claims it was built in one night (hence its eerie title). Another local story claims the bridge played a key role in a tale of star-crossed lovers, and that every night the devil appears pacing the bridge, waiting for one of the pair to fulfil the pact they made with him. The loveliest of the several small osterie on the island is right by this landmark (Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo) and prides itself on a delicious fresh menu that changes with the seasons. You can reach Torcello by taking the vaporetto 12 to Burano, and then the number 9 onward to Torcello (leaving every half an hour).
|Photo credits: Andrea Drago|
While not technically a lagoon island, Chioggia makes my list because it provides the magical experience of Venice without the drawbacks that make visiting the city with small children or large groups fairly challenging. It’s a miniature copy of La Serenissima, complete with bridges, canals and pretty side streets, but it also has cars, inexpensive restaurants, and most importantly for those with young children, a large and beautiful beach within cycling or walking distance! While it can seem quite far for a day trip, the journey from Venice is an adventure in itself, taking in views of the Lido and Pellestrina along the way. However, you could certainly justify spending a night or two in this pretty town simply to relax in the sun and enjoy some time on the beach at the end of your break in Venice, far away from tourists.
The pace of life is slower here, and I’d recommend having a look at the famous fish market and picking up some treats to cook for dinner before hiring bikes and heading to the lovely Sottomarina beach for the afternoon. There’s also a beautiful cathedral with a 14th century campanile, and several art museums. The town is famous for its seafood so make sure you treat yourself to a delicious meal in one of the old and well-known restaurants, such as El Gato, to taste the true flavours of Chioggia. Try the traditional sarde in saor, a traditional Venetian fish dish with onions.
Both buses and boats connect Chioggia to Venice – the quickest route is via the ACTV bus to Chioggia and Sottomarina.
It’s the number 80E which leaves Piazzale Roma every thirty minutes, and the drive to Chioggia takes around an hour. Alternatively, for the longer and more scenic route, you can take the vaporetto No.1 to Lido and catch the number 11 bus from the stop on the right-hand side of Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta. The bus will board a ferry to Pellestrina, where you’ll need to take a passenger ferry on to Chioggia. This route takes around an hour and fifteen minutes.
Venice is truly a unique place, and while visiting we can often think of it as an individual city, forgetting that part of what makes it so special is its position in the centre of a beautiful lagoon dotted with islands. In order to discover the true character of the city, I recommend exploring the other towns and islets that make up the rich tapestry of the laguna di Venezia. You’ll better understand life in this eccentric city, and better still, you’ll discover a new part of Venice that isn’t mentioned in a guidebook and belongs solely to you and your memories.
Written by: Isobelle Ford
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