While half the fun of being in Venice is following your nose and seeing what lies around the next corner, sometimes it’s good to have a vague destination to head for. With this thought in mind, here are our top 5 off-the-beaten-path attractions in Venice you can set off to look for – whether or not you get there is totally up to you!
The Jewish Ghetto is focused on the Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovo campos in Cannaregio. This area is set apart from Venice’s medieval heart because it was once used as a foundry (or ghetto), to reduce the damage should a fire break out.
In 1516 it was decreed that the Jews of Venice should be restricted to this remote part of Venice, and the Jewish Ghetto was born. Expansion was difficult in this tucked-away location, whose bridges were gated, locked and guarded at night. The buildings are tall because the only way to build was up, and even the number and size of the tenement buildings’ windows was controlled.
While you’re here, take a seat in the leafy square, visit the museum or take a tour of the richly detailed synagogues that take up the top floor of some of these early skyscrapers.
The Ghetto is just over the Cannaregio canal. To get here, walk along the Lista di Spagna from the train station, turn left after crossing the bridge over the canal, then follow the laneways leading into the Ghetto.
For a glimpse into Venice’s early days, trace the city’s watery origins on a visit to the island of Torcello. Once home to 20,000 people, the island is now a rural backwater occupied by sheep and rabbits. Venice was born here in around 683 AD, but the neighbouring Rialto settlement began to gain ascendancy from the 12th century as malaria took hold in Torcello.
There are a couple of giveaways to Torcello’s former glory. The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is a Byzantine classic with golden mosaics of the Madonna and saints. The church of Santa Fosca houses the remains of a Libyan saint, the 15-year-old Fosca, and has a lovely portico. Nearby, one of the few remaining palazzos houses a museum filled with remnants from Torcello’s history, including Byzantine artefacts.
The cathedral’s tall fortified bell tower looks hugely out of place in the pastoral setting of Torcello, with its overgrown walkways, crumbling bridges and meandering canals. You’ll find the island is a magical place to visit, enjoyed as much for its eerie atmosphere and tranquillity as for its sights. While you’re here, make a date for lunch at the legendary Locanda Cipriani, a Hemingway favourite and still owned and run by the famous Cipriani family.
Torcello lies northeast of Venice in the Venetian lagoon, around 10km from San Marco. To get here, catch a Burano-bound ferry from the Fondamenta Nuove stop on Venice’s northern promenade. Torcello is another few minutes away from Burano by boat. Once you get to the island, it’s around a 10-minute stroll to the churches and museum from Torcello’s ferry stop.
Venice’s former shipyard is the gem of the Castello sestiere (quarter). It was in the walled Arsenale that the galleys were built that kept the Republic powerfully afloat during its medieval and Renaissance heyday.
The Arsenale is like a mini city, entered via grand crenellated towers of terracotta brick that mark the opening to the shipyard canal. You’ll also spot several lion of Venice statues, brought here as the booty of war several centuries ago.
After decades if not centuries of neglect, the Arsenale’s many workshops and buildings are being revitalised. Exhibitions are held here during the Biennale, and any time of the year you can glimpse the waterways and enormous scale of the enterprise that produced the Republic’s thousands of ships.
Visit the Naval History Museum nearby to see warships, weapons, maps and gondolas from over the centuries. The highlight is the Bucintoro, a model of the ceremonial barge used by the doges.
The Arsenale is in Castello. To get here, just keep walking along the Riva degli Schiavoni until you come to the Arsenale canal.
4. Bovolo Staircase
One of the more unusual sights in a city crammed with unique buildings is Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, in a little dead-end lane near Campo Manin. What makes this 15th-century palazzo a standout is its adjoining tower, ringed with an ascending loop of arches spiralling up from the ground floor to the top.
‘Bovolo’ means snail, and the winding staircase does indeed swirl like a snail’s shell. Apparently, the staircase tower was added on to the palazzo when the owners requested an additional staircase – the architect’s wily solution was to stick it on the outside.
Renovations are currently under way, so access to the tower is off limits for now. Still, there are ancient wells in the surrounding courtyard garden to look at, and the spiral arches are quite mesmerizing.
The palazzo is a little tricky to find; look for the signs in Campo Manin.
5. Rosa Salva
If you’d like to head somewhere with something sweet as your delicious reward, make the Rosa Salva pasticceria in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo your destination.
The Rosa Salva cafe has been creating sweet pastry confections for over a century, since 1879 in fact. There are several branches across Venice but this is the most historic and atmospheric.
Order a coffee and fat tramezzini sandwich loaded with mayonnaise and tuna, choose from shelves laden with biscuits, sweets and pastries, or buy a gelati ice cream to take away.
The Rosa Salva cafe in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo is in Castello, opposite the 14th-century church that gives the campo its name – pop inside to admire the doges’ tombs, stained-glass windows and paintings by Veronese. Also opposite is the city’s hospital – set within the former Scuolo Grande di San Marco, it has to be the world’s grandest hospital building.
Definitely a must! Great way to see some other islands.
It's was great! Nicely organized and tour guide was excellent speaker in about 7 languages.
Very fun tour, the glass in Murano is beautiful as is the island of Burano.
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