If you’re looking for a short day trip from Venice, you may choose to visit Murano, Burano or the other islands of the lagoon. But head in the other direction, across the Giudecca Canal, and you’ll come to the islands of Giudecca and San Giorgio. Is it worth visiting these islands, and what is there to see and do?
The Islands Of Giudecca And San Giorgio
Giudecca (part of the Dorsoduro district of Venice) and San Giorgio are a series of small islands to the south of the city. The islands of Giudecca are separated by narrow canals, but linked by bridges. San Giorgio is the last island of the chain, and the only one that isn’t connected by a bridge.
Historically Giudecca was a residential area with large houses and gardens. However over time it became industrialised, with factories and shipyards, and narrow streets and workers’ houses replaced the grand estates. Today it is very much a residential area, but there are restaurants and hotels, and a few sights for tourists. It is a place for anyone who wants a peaceful day out, and to see a different side of Venice.
San Giorgio, on the other hand, was originally a monastery island. It is now best known for the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, the church that dominates the view across the Giudecca Canal from San Marco.
I took the vaporetto to Sacca Fistola at the western end of Giudecca. This turned out to be a bad move: this end of the island appears to be primarily a service area for Venice, with a police station, power plant and lots of housing. The island at the very end (Sacca San Biagio) is actually inaccessible, being an industrial site for Veritas, the Venice waste removal company.
For day trippers a better option would be to take the boat to Palanca, departing from Zattere in Dorsoduro. From here you can stroll eastwards along the fondamenta (waterfront), a pleasant walk with lots of cafés and restaurants. You’ll also be rewarded by lovely views across the water to Venice.
Churches And An Art Quarter
There are several churches on Giudecca. However the most impressive is the magnificent Il Redentore. Designed by Palladio in the 16th century, this church is full of artworks, including paintings by Tintoretto and Veronese.
You will also pass the Casa dei Tre Oci (an exhibition space in a Gothic palazzo) and the Giudecca Art District. The latter was closed when I visited (November 2021) and all I saw was a gondola repair workshop and some old boats. However it appears that in the summer there are workshops and a restaurant, and the website suggests that there is also a range of temporary exhibitions.
Tourists tend to stick to the fondamenta, the rest of Giudecca being mostly residential. However, if you have time it might be worth exploring a bit further. I found the Calle Convertite interesting, a canalside road with boats and old warehouses. The women’s prison (still used) is on this street: apparently there is a farmers’ market here on a Thursday morning. And, although I didn’t see it myself, the area around the Accademia Teatrale seems to have some striking modern buildings (a bit of a rarity in Venice).
Visiting San Giorgio
You can reach San Giorgio by vaporetto from Giudecca or across the canal from San Zaccaria. Although the island is very small, there is a surprising amount to see here.
The main attraction is the 16th century Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore. This was designed by Palladio and contains paintings by Tintoretto. It is possible to take the lift to the top of the belltower for breathtaking views of Venice (assuming you don’t visit on a misty day, as I did).
The Monastery Complex
The basilica was built on the site of an earlier monastery, and the complex now includes several areas that are open to visitors. I went into the old abbey, now owned by the Cini Foundation, where there was an exhibition of north African carpets and textiles. I was also able to go out into the abbey garden – not too much to see in November but it must be very pleasant in the summer. Nearby was Le Stanze del Vetro, a museum with some impressive pieces of local glass.
San Giorgio is also home the Vatican Chapels, a series of ten modern (2018) chapels set in woodland. Here you will also find the Borges Labyrinth, a maze built in 2011. Visits to the chapels and labyrinth are by tour only, and need to be booked in advance. Finally, the island has a café and bistro where you can enjoy lunch or a drink.