You don’t have to veer far from the crowds to discover Venice off the beaten path. Even in the swarming crowds of San Marco in summer, a secret Venice is only a couple of minutes away.
Most visitors are on a day trip to Venice, and they all want to see the same Venice attractions. They don’t have the time to delve into secret Venice – they’re going to be stuck in queues half the time they’re there.
Our guide to off the beaten path Venice takes you beyond all the usual Venice tourist spots. The usual Venice sights are amazing, but exploring Venice off the beaten track gives you a different, deeper perspective of the city.
We show you some of the hidden gems in Venice city proper, and take you around some of the islands of the lagoon for new Venice experiences. Enjoy!
- 1 Scala Contarini Del Bovolo
- 2 Libreria Acqua Alta
- 3 San Francesco della Vigna
- 4 San Pietro di Castello
- 5 Santa Croce degli Armeni
- 6 Gesuiti Church, Cannaregio
- 7 Madonna dell’Orto
- 8 Scuola Grande di San Rocco
- 9 The Greengrocer of Rio San Barnaba
- 10 Squero di San Trovaso
- 11 Tolentini Church
- 12 San Michele in Isola
- 13 Mazzorbo
- 14 San Francesco del Deserto
- 15 Sant’ Erasmo
- 16 Pellestrina
- 17 San Servolo
- 18 San Lazzaro degli Armeni
Scala Contarini Del Bovolo
The first of our Venice hidden gems is a ten-minute walk from either San Marco or Rialto. However, it is rather well hidden, in a warren of tight narrow streets. Close to Campo Manin, and one of the worst buildings in Venice, is one of the most beautiful – the Scala Contarini del Bovolo.
It’s in a small courtyard at the front of a medieval palace. The Scala is an arched spiral staircase on the outside of the palazzo. The Venetians nicknamed it ‘del Bovolo’ or snail-like because of the spiral effect.
The Scala is an arresting sight after the walk through the narrow streets. You can also climb this staircase, which takes you to the level of Venice’s rooftops. There is a magnificent view from the top to San Marco’s domes and campanile.
Getting there: The nearest vaporetto stop is Sant’Angelo, but you could walk it from Rialto or San Marco. The key is finding your way to Campo Manin – there’s a tiny yellow sign on the south side of the square directing you to the Scala.
Opening times: 10.00 am to 6.00 pm daily
Cost: €7.00 per adult, kids under 12 go free
Libreria Acqua Alta
The next of our Venice secret places is a wonderful shop in the Castello sestiere. It’s a second-hand bookshop named after ‘acqua alta’, the Venetian high tide which usually submerges at least part of the city.
The Libreria is one of the places in Venice that does indeed get flooded. Many books are stacked in boats and bathtubs, and this is all done out of necessity.
It’s one of the most beautifully ramshackle shops you could ever stumble upon, and definitely one of our favourite shops in Venice. There’s a good stock of book in English as well as Italian.
Getting there: It’s another walk – the nearest vaporetto is ten minutes away. It’s off Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, between Santa Maria Formosa and San Zanipolo churches. You can read about both of these in our Venice churches article.
Opening times: 9.00 am to 8.00 pm daily
San Francesco della Vigna
This church in a quiet Castello backwater is one of the most rewarding places to see in Venice. The campanile is a prominent landmark from the northern part of the lagoon, but relatively few disembark at Celestia to see this lovely Renaissance church. The campanile is not at all dissimilar to that of San Marco.
As a result of its location, San Francesco is well off the beaten track Venice, which makes it an even more pleasing discovery. Make the effort and you’ll also find a façade by Andrea Palladio, who built the more celebrated San Giorgio Maggiore.
The church is endowed with a wealth of art treasures, including Giovanni Bellini’s Enthroned Madonna with Saints. The cloister – a rarity in Venice – is a beautiful place to pause to savour the peace and quiet for a while.
Getting there: It’s a five-minute walk from Celestia vaporetto stop, where services 4.1 and 5.1 call.
Opening times: 8 am to 12.30 pm and 3 pm to 7 pm
San Pietro di Castello
This basilica is hidden away at the far east end of Venice, and the most people tend to see of it is its white stone bell tower. This campanile has quite a precarious lean, like sevearal others in the city.
San Pietro di Castello was, from 1451 to 1807, the Cathedral of Venice. It was succeeded by San Marco, which has always overshadowed it. The current church is the second on the site, and Andrea Palladio partly designed the façade of this church. Externally the rest of the church has other similarities with his work in Venice, including the dome and windows.
Inside the main work of art to look out for is Paolo Veronese’s SS John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul.
Getting there: Vaporetto lines 5.1 and 5.2 call at nearby S. Pietro di Castello.
Opening times: 10.30 am to 4.30 pm, Monday to Saturday.
Cost: €3.00 for entry to this church alone. Otherwise, it’s part of the Venice Chorus Pass scheme, whereby a pass covers your entry to 18 churches around the city.
Santa Croce degli Armeni
This tiny church is one of the most secret places in Venice, yet it’s within a stone’s throw of Piazza San Marco. As it’s in such a built-up area you can’t really see the exterior of the building – but we can assure you it has a small dome.
When you enter, you will discover a tiny Baroque jewel you would never guess existed from outside. The church was founded in the late 15th century but was too small to meet the Armenian community’s needs. It was enlarged by Baldassare Longhena – architect of Santa Maria della Salute – and Giuseppe Sardi, re-opening in 1688.
It’s a serene little church, and look upwards to see the blue painted dome. It’s one of the most unusual – and least accessible – places in Venice to visit, but well worth it.
Getting there: The easiest way is to walk along Calle dei Fabbri, turning right at Rio Terà de le Colonne. It’s hidden in a sotoportego (covered street) to the right. Otherwise it’s a short walk along Ramo San Zulian from the church of the same name with a right turn after crossing the Rio dei Ferali canal.
Opening times: the 10.30 Mass on the last Sunday of the month is the only time the church is open.
Gesuiti Church, Cannaregio
Another of the hidden gems of Venice is in the north of Cannaregio, close to Fondamente Nove, the northern shore thoroughfare. They originally had a church in Dorsoduro, but were expelled from the city in 1606. Upon their return, they settled in far-flung Cannaregio instead.
The Jesuit church shows no restraint whatsoever, inside or out. The facade is full of statuary in dramatic poses: it should look gaudy but somehow looks fantastic.
Inside, the walls and some pillars are covered in marble inlay which disconcertingly looks like patterned wallpaper.
The Gesuiti has a great range of Venice art to wonder at, including a cycle of 21 paintings by Palma Giovane in the sacristy. Both Titian and Tintoretto, two of the greatest figures in Venetian art, are also represented here. Some of the side chapels are very eye-catching too, including the ornate marble Chapel of St Barbara.
In summer, the adjacent convent has accommodation for visitors. If you’re planning to visit Venice on a budget, this could well be worth considering.
Getting there: The Fondamente Nove vaporetto stops are around the corner. Otherwise you could easily walk there from Rialto in 10-15 minutes.
Opening times: 10.00 am to 12.00 pm and 4.00 to 6.00 pm, Monday to Friday
This Cannaregio church is if anything more remote than the Gesuiti. This is the one place in Cannaregio that should be on any Venice itinerary, simply because it houses some of the best works by Tintoretto.
It’s also a very attractive church externally, set back in a square with a lovely canalside setting. It’s named after a statue believe to have miraculous properties which was kept in an orto, or orchard, close by.
Tintoretto lived a short walk away, so this was his parish church. It has some of his finest work, most notably The Last Judgment and Idolatry of the Golden Calf, which flank the high altar.
Getting there: Orto vaporetto stop is two minutes’ walk away. Services 4.1, 5.1 and A call there.
Opening times: 10.00 am to 5.00 pm daily; 12.00 to 5.00 pm on holidays.
Cost: A donation is requested.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
The scuole grandi of Venice were charitable and religious confraternities around the city. Some became extremely wealthy, and became major patrons of the arts.
One of these is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which translates as the Great School of St Roch. It’s hidden away next to the church dedicated to the same saint, in the shadow of the Frari Basilica.
The sumptuous building is one of the best things to see in Venice. The Sala Superiore could even rival the Doge’s Palace for sheer grandeur.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco outdoes even Madonna dell’Orto for Tintoretto masterpieces. The Sala Superiore ceiling and walls are decorated with Biblical scenes, while the downstairs Sala Terrena has scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
Getting there: The nearest vaporetto stop is San Tomà.
Opening times: 9.30 am to 5.30 pm daily, except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Cost: €10 per adult.
The Greengrocer of Rio San Barnaba
This is a change from the churches and art masterpieces. This could even be the title of a mystery in history novel, but it isn’t. So don’t go searching for it in the Libreria Acqua Alta!
Dorsoduro is one of our favourite areas to stay in Venice, and this humble boat is one of our Venice highlights. It’s a canal barge full to the brim with fruit and vegetables, and locals regularly stop by to stock up on their supplies there. Only in Venice could you shop like this. We love the Rialto markets, but this is even better.
It’s on the stretch between the San Barnaba church and the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) where Nicolotti and Castellani faction members would regularly meet for a punch-up. You won’t encounter anything so unseemly nowadays – this is one of the prettiest canals in Venice.
Getting there: It’s around a five-minute walk from Ca’ Rezzonico vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal.
Opening times: Any time between 8.00 am and early afternoon.
Cost: None, unless you’re shopping of course.
Squero di San Trovaso
The impossibly picturesque Squero di San Trovaso is a working boatyard in Dorsoduro, next to the church of the same name. If a gondolier needs his boat repaired – or even a new one built – this is where he or she would need to go.
You can visit the Squero, but according to the website only in groups of 25 or more. It’s well worth contacting them even if you’re alone or a couple, they may be able to show you around for a short time.
Otherwise, you can see most of the action from across the Rio San Trovaso. The yard is often busy with squeraroli, and you’ll often see several boats out at once.
Getting there: Zattere vaporetto stop is a three-minute walk away
Opening times: Weekday business hours, roughly 9.30 am to 5.00 pm.
San Nicolo da Tolentino is one of the lesser-known Venice things to see. It’s visible from the station end of the Grand Canal, but few venture down the Rio dei Tolentini canal in Santa Croce to visit it.
I’m glad I made the diversion once. It has a classical façade and exuberant Baroque interior, including a frescoed dome. There are also works by Palma Giovane and Bernardo Strozzi.
Getting there: It’s a short walk from Piazzale Roma vaporetto stop – you can reduce the journey by cutting through Giardini Papadopoli Park. This is built on the site of Santa Croce church, which gave this sestiere its name.
Opening times: 8.30 am to 12.00 pm and 4.30 to 6.30 pm Monday to Saturday, and 4.30 to 6.30 pm Sunday.
San Michele in Isola
The Venetian lagoon is one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe, and the various islands are as fascinating as the city itself. One of the closest islands to the city is San Michele in Isola, the city’s cemetery. You get a great view from the vaporetto stops at Fondamente Nove, and as you turn towards the left of the island you get a wonderful surprise in the shape of the Renaissance church of San Michele.
Both the church and cemetery are well worth visiting. It’s one of the more unusual things to do in Venice, and gives you a great insight into the city. The cemetery is divided into many sections, including Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. In the latter you can find the tomb of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
Those buried in graves in San Michele do not quite get eternal rest. After ten years underground they are discreetly exhumed and moved to an ossuary on the island, more of a filing cabinet of the dead. These high walls of tombs are common in Italian cemeteries.
Getting there: Vaporetti 12, 13 and 4.1 all call at Cimitero stop.
Opening times: 7.30 am to 6.00 pm daily in summer, 7.30 am to 4.30 pm daily in winter.
We’ve written about Burano and Torcello in articles elsewhere on the site. Together these islands make a great day trip from Venice, but there’s another island in the area also worth seeing. Welcome to Mazzorbo.
You chug up the canal alongside Mazzorbo, and there’s just a few houses and a church visible. Just let your curiosity get the better of you, and disembark. It’s not the most obvious place to find one of the best things to do in Venice.
On Mazzorbo, you’ll find countryside, a picturesque vineyard, a small village and one of the best restaurants in Venice, Venissa. You can also stay in rooms there or on Burano island, or enjoy a picnic dinner on board a bragozzo boat on the lagoon.
Getting there: The number 12 vaporetto calls at Mazzorbo. You can also cross from Burano to Mazzorbo on a footbridge.
Opening times: You can walk around the island at any time.
San Francesco del Deserto
The monastery of St Francis of the Desert is one of the most remote Venice islands. It’s not even on the vaporetto network. This tranquil backwater was visited by St Francis of Assisi in 1220, and the first monastery was founded soon afterwards.
Once on the island, which is close to Burano, you can enjoy a guided tour of the monastery, or even stay there on a prayer retreat if you arrange in advance. One of the best secret things to do in Venice.
Getting there: You can get there on some tour packages (usually in conjunction with Burano) or charter a private boat from Burano. You need to contact the monastery in advance on 0039 41 5286963. It helps greatly if you have some grasp of Italian, as the monks speak very little English.
Opening times: Visits by arrangement except for Mondays.
Sant’ Erasmo is one of the best non-touristy things to do in Venice. For once there are no buildings of note, no great works of art, no leaning campanile, no Baroque bluster. This is partly what makes it one of the most intriguing day trips from Venice.
The only things you’ll find on Sant’Erasmo (apart from a small fort and church) are fields full of artichokes. It’s pancake-flat, with the lagoon on one side and the Adriatic on the other. You can walk or hire a bike from the one hotel on the island. You can eat there or stop for a drink at one of the two wineries on the island. Cycling on Sant’ Erasmo is one of the most enjoyable Venice activities, and something you couldn’t even contemplate in the city itself. It’s a wonderful place to chill out, one of the best islands in Venice to go off the beaten path.
Getting there: The 13 vaporetto usually stops at all three Sant’ Erasmo stops. These are (from south to north) Capannone, Chiesa and Punta Vela. If you want to hire a buicycle, your best bet is to alight at Capannone and walk down Strada Vicinale dei Forti to Il Lato Azzurro Hotel.
Opening times: All year round, all day.
Pellestrina never comes up in discussions on Venice sightseeing, but it gave me quite a surprise when I passed through.
It’s a long, narrow island like its neighbour, Lido. I had to catch a bus down through Lido and Pellestrina to reach the town of Chioggia, to the south of the lagoon. On my left was the sea walls (murazzi), Venice’s line of defence against global warming and rising sea levels.
On the right was the lagoon, which got more and more interesting the further south we went. Out here there are magnificent views of the vast, empty lagoon and vast, empty skies which are especially striking at sunset. You’ll also find some ramshackle wooden mussel fishermen’s huts on stilts, a wonderful surprise indeed.
There are also some great seafood restaurants along the village, including Da Celeste Pellestrina and Ristorante da Memo.
Getting there: Bus 11 runs south from Lido, Malamocco and Alberoni, hopping on board a ferry before continuing through Santa Maria del Mare to Pellestrina.
Opening times: All year round, all day.
Cost: None – just your bus ticket.
The tiny island of San Servolo houses the Museo del Manicomio, the Psychiatric Hospital Museum. You’ll also see references to it as the Insane Asylum Museum, a reminder of the insensitive terminology used in the past.
This Museum is one of the most unique things to do in Venice. It served as a mental hospital from 1725 until 1978. Some of the exhibits are absolutely harrowing to see. The thought of using shackles and straitjackets is terrible, but this is what they did. They also used electroshock therapy and – a glimpse of enlightenment – music therapy. This was instigated by a hospital director who was close friends with the composer Giuseppe Verdi.
Getting there: The number 20 vaporetto from San Marco (San Zaccaria) calls at San Servolo roughly every 40 minutes.
Opening times: The Museum is open for tour at 10.45 am and 2.00 pm Monday to Friday. Guided tours also run between 9.00 am and 4.00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, but should be pre-booked.
Cost: €6.00 per adult
San Lazzaro degli Armeni
This is the second Armenian church in our list, and it’s aligned to the Armenian Catholic church, as opposed to the Armenian Orthodox church of Santa Croce degli Armeni.
You have to catch the 3.10 ferry to San Lazzaro to join a guided tour. The tiny island lies just off the lagoon-side shore of Lido island.
The island was used as a leper colony in the 12th century, and was later taken over by the Armenian Mekhitarist Order. It grew to become one of the most important sites of the worldwide Armenian diaspora, and houses one of the largest libraries of Armenian books in the world. The monastery at San Lazzaro also holds what is believed to be the second largest collection of Armenian manuscripts in the world.
My guided tour was conducted by a very impressive multilingual monk, who took us around the church, the cloister gardens and the Armenian Museum. He also told us about the famous visits made by Lord Byron, who learned Armenian there in 1816 and 1817. The room where he studied is named after him.
Getting there: You have to catch the 20 vaporetto from San Marco (San Zaccaria) wharf B at 3.10 pm. This arrives on San Lazzaro at 3.25 pm.
Opening times: only one guided tour runs each day, meeting the 3.25 ferry.
Cost: €6.00 per adult.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.