Venice is a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of this it can get extremely crowded, and there will be times when you want to get off the beaten track. Fortunately there are lots of lesser known things to do in Venice: here are ten of them.
1. Flooded Crypt Of San Zaccaria
As you might expect, water is a bit of a theme in Venice. The basements of many buildings are permanently flooded, and one place – the Church of San Zaccaria – has decided to make a feature of this flooding.
With its ornate interior and original artworks, San Zaccaria is worth a visit in its own right. However you should not miss the undercroft, where several notable Venetians were buried. The surface water combines with the columns and archways to create a beautiful space of light and reflections.
Access to the crypt is via a door to the right of the church entrance and there is a small entry charge. There is a raised walkway through the crypt but it is a good idea to have suitable footwear in case it is more flooded than usual!
2. Libreria Acqua Alta
(Contributed by Ania of The Travelling Twins)
Libreria Acqua Alta is a fantastic bookstore in Venice and one of the Best Bookshops in the world. What is so special about it? When “high water” (“acqua alta”) appears in Venice, it also floods the store. So the owner, to protect books from the water, decided to place them in extraordinary places.
You can find books on a gondola, inside the shop. Or in the bathtub beside the classic shelves. These strange bookshelves give the place a unique atmosphere, and at the same time, perfectly protect against high water. Old encyclopedias, located in two courtyards adjacent to the bookstore, serve as stairs and cover-up cracked walls. The decor is completed by oars and mannequins, and the owner’s cats, all appearing in different places.
Libreria Aqua Alta is worth visiting not only for its atmosphere but also to browse the enormous selection of Italian publications, and many foreign-language editions. There are series dedicated to Venice, and others devoted to art, cinema or music. There is a vast collection of comics (unfortunately only in Italian), as well as postcards, notebooks, and calendars.
3. Cloister Of Santo Stefano
Many of Venice’s palazzi and other grand buildings have now been converted to a more everyday use. Some function as hotels or apartment blocks, and others have been taken over by the university or by government offices. But there are opportunities for the curious tourist to peek inside and appreciate their former glory.
One such building is the Cloister of Santo Stefano, adjoining the church of the same name in the Campo Santo Stefano. Rebuilt in 1529 and painted with frescoes, this was part of a medieval Augustinian monastery. Today it is occupied by the Agenzia delle Entrate (Italian tax agency) but you can walk around during office hours. Most of the frescoes have now been removed but several ancient tombs remain.
When you leave, walk round to the other side of the building and look at it across the water from Campo Sant’Angelo. Here you will get a glimpse of Rio del Santissimo, a canal that goes right beneath the Church of Santo Stefano, the only underground canal in Venice.
4. Naval History Museum
(Contributed by Victoria of Guide your Travel)
The Naval History Museum, or Museo Storico Navale di Venezia, is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of Venice and anything maritime. The museum is located a bit outside of the heart of Venice, but since the island is small you can easily reach it on foot.
The Naval History Museum is extensive and spreads over five levels with over 42 exhibition rooms. You can see historic ships and artefacts from different time periods and cultures. The building was constructed in the 16th century and has had many different uses over the years. This is a great place to spend an afternoon, or even a whole day if you want to see every single exhibit.
The museum is open from 8:45 to 1:30 daily except for Sundays, and there is an entrance charge. Check the website for details.
5. Scuola Grande Di San Marco
The Scuola Grande Di San Marco is really two sights in one. First there is the building itself, created to house the Confraternity of San Marco in 1260, and now used as a hospital. From the grand marble facade to the ornate interior, visitors can marvel at the architecture. In particular, the Chapter Room has a carved and gilded ceiling, and the walls are covered with Renaissance paintings.
The Scuola is also home to one of Venice’s many small museums, the Library of San Marco. This is an exhibition of medical treatises and instruments in use during the 19th and 20th centuries. Marvel (or shudder) at tools once used for amputation, gynaecology and more.
There is an entrance charge for the museum. Note that information is shown in Italian, and that some of the exhibits may be gruesome!
6. Rialto Markets
While the Rialto Bridge is certainly not off the beaten track, the markets that take place on the nearby canalside are more frequented by locals than by tourists. There are two markets: one selling fresh fruit, vegetables and groceries, and the Pescheria, full of locally-landed fish and seafood.
The markets are open every morning from Tuesday to Saturday. It is a great place to shop if you are self catering or just want to pick up some picnic food. Even if you aren’t buying, visit to soak up the atmosphere before stopping in one of the many local bars.
7. Palazzo Fortuny
The 15th century Palazzo Fortuny was originally a private dwelling. It was purchased by Mariano Fortuny, a Spanish fashion designer and art collector, in 1898. When he died he gifted the palace and its contents to the City of Venice.
The Palazzo Fortuny is now a museum and cultural centre. You can see Fortuny’s workshop, as well as his collections of artworks, including paintings, fabrics and fashion accessories. Temporary exhibitions showcase contemporary art and design, and there is also a programme of cultural events.
LivItaly have a whole range of small group tours in Venice and throughout Italy. Readers of this site can get a 5% discount on all of their tours by using discount code BEWITCHEDBYITALY
8. Giardini Reali
You might not expect to find a peaceful garden just a few minutes away from St Mark’s Square. But when I visited the Giardini Reali (Royal Gardens) – admittedly on a wet morning in November – there was no-one else there!
Built by the Emperor Napoleon on the side of the Grand Canal in 1806, the gardens were later opened to the public, and a greenhouse and coffee house were added. However, they were gradually forgotten and the site was abandoned. It was not until 2019 that the site was reclaimed and renovated: today visitors can enjoy the gardens, the pergola and the greenhouse, and even buy a drink in the very smart Coffee House.
9. Take A Small Group Tour
Of course, you will want to see the major tourist sights of Venice, but you can avoid the crowds if you take a skip-the-line tour or even by visiting outside of normal opening times. LivItaly has lots of options including a Semi-Private St Mark’s At Night tour.
They also have some more unusual activities such as a Venetian Rowing Lesson or a Private Ghost Tour With Gondola. Remember that readers of this website can get a 5% discount on LivItaly tours with discount code BEWITCHEDBYITALY.
10. Take A Day Trip
Another way to remove yourself from the bustle is to take a day trip. There is a whole range of trips that you can take from Venice, without any need for a car. There are short visits to the islands of the lagoon, most of which are connected by the waterbus. And slightly longer journeys will take you to the art cities of Veneto, including Vincenza and Verona.
Read more: 8 Day Trips From Venice.
More Inspiration For Lesser Known Things To Do In Venice
Don’t be put off the city by tales of overcrowding. Measures such as the Venice Tourist Tax or the recent cruise ship ban are not designed to deter tourists, but to encourage them to explore more meaningfully, to get beyond the obvious tourist sights. It is very easy to get off the beaten track: there are literally dozens of lesser known places I could have included in this list.
For more inspiration you might like to look at our Ultimate Guide For Your Trip To Venice, and at the books Secret Venice and Soul of Venice.