Get off-the-beaten-path in the Venice lagoon and discover secret vineyards, colorful islands, and pristine beaches just a short boat ride away from St. Mark’s Square.
If we told you there was a way to experience an authentic side of Venice without the crowds, would you believe us? The secret lies in getting away from Piazza San Marco and venturing further out to explore smaller islands strewn throughout the marshy, magical Venice Lagoon. Few people realize that Venice is comprised of a number of different islands, each with their own unique histories and identities. Discover candy-colored fisherman homes, secret vineyards, pristine beaches, and picturesque cemeteries when you get off the beaten path and delve deeper into the world’s most famous lagoon.
San Francesco del Deserto
Surrounded by cypress trees and pines and dominated by a 13th-century Franciscan monastery, San Francesco del Deserto is an idyllic refuge in the Venice Lagoon. It is named for San Francesco d’Assisi, who spent time on the island in the year 1220, and is home to a handful of friars who reside in the monastery and offer tours of the grounds and two cloisters. The island is only accessible only by private transport, so it’s best to organize a boat excursion departing from nearby Burano.
Isola Santa Cristina
It may be hard to imagine a wild, eco-sustainable island thriving in the Venice Lagoon, but Isola Santa Cristina is just that. This private island hotel, only accessible to guests staying at the resort, offers an exclusive natural experience for those lucky enough to visit: the island boasts fishing ponds, orchards, vineyards, and wild animals such as peacocks, pheasants, and pink flamingos. The island retreat is owned by a family who have infused the property with their passion for sustainability, organic living.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking for a special place to organize or join a yoga retreat, Isola Santa Cristina is a great bet.
Sant’Erasmo is the largest island in the Venice lagoon, though it is better known for its agriculture than its architecture. The so-called “countryside” of Venice, Sant’Erasmo is sparsely populated and the land is largely used to grow produce like peas, asparagus, figs, and the island’s famous violet artichokes: these mineral-rich fruits and vegetables are then sold at the buzzing Rialto market in Venice. This is a great place to get away from the hustle of Venice and enjoy a picnic or bike ride through the island’s picturesque roads.
INSIDER TIPIf you can organize your schedule, don’t miss the artichoke festival held in May each year and the Sant’Erasmo Regatta, a traditional race with 16th century-style boats, in June.
Situated just beside Sant’Erasmo, Lazzaretto Nuovo is a small island that served a big role in maintaining Venice’s prosperity during the Middle Ages. When the Black Plague hit the lagoon in the 15th century, Lazzaretto Nuovo became a quarantine for ships arriving from different ports in the Mediterranean. It is likely, in fact, to be the world’s first lazaret–a quarantine colony to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Under Napoleonic rule centuries later, the island served as an entryway to access Venice proper and fortifications can still be visited today.
One of the most fascinating architectural features of Italy is its picturesque cemeteries, often positioned in the most privileged of positions, and Isola San Michele is one such example. The walled cemetery dates back to 1807, when it was deemed unsanitary to bury the deceased on the mainland, and bodies were transported to the cemetery on special funeral gondolas. There are dozens of notable figures buried on the island along with graves from WWI. The island is also home to the beautiful Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, the first Renaissance church built in Venice in the 15th century.
Venice’s Lido is best known for hosting the Venice International Film Festival in the late summer each year and for its long sandy beach that gives way to the Adriatic Sea. The entire island is 12 kilometers long, just under two kilometers wide, and divided into divided into three settlements: the Lido itself, which hosts the Film Festival; Malamocco, which was once the home of the Doge of Venice, and Alberoni, which contains a golf course. Don’t miss a visit to the Ancient Jewish Cemetery and a boat ride through the lagoon on a historic yacht organized by the Relais Alberti hotel.
As the closest island to Venice proper, Murano enjoyed strong industrial links to La Serenissima throughout much of its history and remains an active presence in the lagoon to this day. Murano is internationally renowned for a glassmaking industry that dates back to the 13th century. Although glass was originally produced in Venice during the days of the Venetian Republic, the fear of a fire burning down the city’s wooden buildings had the furnaces relocated to Murano. During the Middle Ages, Murano was the main producer of glass in Europe and the island continues to produce ornate chandeliers, contemporary art, household objects, and Murano beads in a variety of techniques, from lampworking to glass blowing.
INSIDER TIPA tour of the Museo del Vetro will give a nice overview of Venetian glassmaking over the centuries and you can see artisans at work on the island’s many historic foranci, or furnaces.
Further north in the lagoon lies Burano, a fishing island made up of hundreds of colorful houses that earn it the title of one of the most colorful towns in the world. Unlike Murano, which enjoyed industrial prowess for much of its history, Burano remained largely agricultural and fishing was its main industry. The colored houses are said to have been painted in bright hues to help fishermen navigate the lagoon on foggy days. Burano is also well-known for its lacemaking traditions, which originated in the 16th century.
When you’re done exploring Burano, cross a wooden footbridge to reach Mazzorbo, a tiny island with a real treasure. Here – tucked within ancient walls and in the shadows of a 13th-century bell tower – lies the Venissa Wine Resort and one of a handful of Venice’s secret vineyards. Venissa grows the lagoon’s famous Dorona golden grape, once enjoyed by the Venetian Doges during their banquets and then nearly lost to history during major flooding in the 1960s.
INSIDER TIPEnjoy a wine tasting, Michelin-starred meal or overnight stay at Venissa to thoroughly enjoy the tranquility of this little island.
Together with Burano and Mazzorbo, Torcello completes the trinity of what is known as Native Venice, where the roots of the Maritime city began. Torcello, which was first settled in the year 452, was an important religious powerhouse and was home to a cathedral and Venice’s bishops for over 1,000 years until St. Mark’s Basilica was built. Torcello’s main attraction is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639, which has impressive 12th-century Byzantine mosaics depicting the Last Judgment.