Insider’s Venice: 10 less-visited islands, museums and palaces
Published by: Robert Veel | Aug 23rd, 2017
By Robert Veel, Academy Travel
The crowds in Venice are almost as famous as the gondolas. At the cruise port, as many as five large ships can arrive in a day, disgorging up to 20,000 fun-seeking day-trippers. An equal number can arrive by coach, arriving at the island car-park of Tronchetto and winding their way up the Grand Canal to St Mark’s.
The itinerary of these day-trippers is almost always the same: walk to the Rialto, visit the markets, continue to St Mark’s, wander around the piazza, visit the Basilica and Doge’s Palace, shop. Local guides give this well-trodden route a curious name, ‘il camello’, perhaps referring to the conga lines of punters making their way from site to site, much like desert travellers of old.
More informed travellers make a little more effort and include well-known institutions such as the Accademia Art Gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, with perhaps a trip to the Franciscan church of the Frari to see Titian’s spectacular Renaissance altarpiece.
But go beyond these famous sites and it’s remarkably easy to encounter another Venice, uncrowded and – wait for it! – with even the occasional living, breathing Venetian to be seen. No site in Venice is ever completely tourist-free or ‘undiscovered’, but there are certainly plenty of wonderful places to go where you won’t have to queue to get in, jostle with other tourists or be hassled by touts.
The following list of personal favourites includes islands, palaces and museums.
1. San Giorgio Maggiore
‘Hidden in plain sight’ best describes San Giorgio. The island, dominated by Palladio’s church of St George, sits directly opposite the Doge’s Palace in the heart of Venice.
To get there, catch the #2 ferry from San Zaccaria stop, not far from Piazza San Marco. Marvel at Palladio’s multi-layered classical façade and luminous interior. Admire Tintoretto’s masterful Last Supper and Manna for Heaven, whose light sources match Palladio’s windows.
Walk around the church, past the small yacht marina, for a café with some of the best views in Venice and the Giorgio Cini Foundation, a private museum hosting top-line visiting exhibitions. You can also take a tour of the beautifully proportioned cloisters of the Benedictine monastery, also designed by Palladio, and once a place of celebrity exile for famous foreigners, such as Florence’s Cosimo de’ Medici.
The only crowded bit is the bell tower (accessed from inside the church), but it’s worth it for the views of the city, the Grand Canal and out to the Lido and the Adriatic beyond.
2. San Lazzaro degli Armeni
If you want to get a sense of Venice’s extensive contacts with the Orient, there is no better place than the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, just off the Lido. To get there, catch the #20 ferry from San Zaccaria. There is a daily morning tour that coincides with the hourly ferry schedule.
The island’s name reflects two parts of its history. It was first a leper colony (hence San Lazzaro) and you can still see the ground level windows on the 14th-century Gothic church, created so the lepers could observe the religious services from a safe distance.
In the 18th century the Venetians allowed an Armenian religious community to live on the island, fleeing Turkish persecution. The island quickly became a storehouse for great treasures of Armenian civilization, with priceless medieval manuscripts and historical artefacts.
There are also frescoes by Tiepolo and even a painting of Lord Byron, who stayed on the island and compiled an Armenian-English dictionary (as you do).
Even though it’s in a salty lagoon, Venice has some of the freshest vegetables in Italy. They are grown on the islands of the lagoon, especially on Sant’Erasmo. The island is strictly for those who want to get away from it all, and imagine what Venice was like when it was no more than a scattered collection of fishing and farming villages.
Take the #13 ferry from Fondamente Nove, on the north side of Venice’s main islands. The ferry ride is 40-50 minutes and you should spend a couple of hours wandering the island, so it’s a half-day excursion. There is also a good country restaurant on the island.
Serviced by the #2 ferry, the long, curving Giudecca island is a great place to see ordinary Venetians getting on with their lives.
You can visit Palladio’s impressive Rendentore church, built by the Venetian state in thanks for surviving the 1576 plague.
Nearby is the ‘Tre Oci’ Palace. Designed in a neo-gothic style in 1912-1913 by the Bolognese painter Mario de Maria, Tre Oci was once home to renowned architect Renzo Piano. Today it houses visiting art exhibitions, particularly of contemporary photography. (‘Tre Oci’ means ‘three eyes’ in Venetian Dialect, and indeed the building has three easily-spotted round openings on its façade.)
In the laneways off the Giudecca waterfront are a number of small, simple local eateries, noticeably less expensive than those in central Venice.
5. Ca’ Pesaro
Take the #1 ferry to the San Stae stop to visit this imposing baroque palace, once the home of the aristocratic Pesaro family. It houses the modern art collection of the City of Venice.
Most of the works were acquired at Venice biennales since 1896, and include works by Marc Chagall, Gustav Klimt, Henry Moore and many modern Italian painters. Look up, and there are great 18th-century ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo and others to admire.
The upper floor of the palace houses a large but fairly kooky collection of Asian art left to the city. It’s a jumble of Samurai swords, ceramics, paintings and furniture, mainly from China and Japan. The collection of lacquerware is among Europe’s finest.
6. Ca’ Rezzonico
Another fine baroque palace on the Grand Canal, since the 1930s the Ca’ Rezzonico has been Venice’s museum of 18th-century art and life.
It’s a double-size palace, with two courtyards back from the canal entrance, reminding you of the nouveau-riche Rezzonico family’s wealth at a time when Venice was in sharp decline.
Enter via the grand staircase and two-story ballroom and enjoy room after room of Tiepolo ceilings, paintings by Rosalba Carriera and Francesco Guardi, and entertaining miniatures of everyday life by Pietro Longhi.
The furniture is truly eye-popping – superbly crafted, elaborate, gilded and often downright ugly.
7. I Gesuiti
I’ve never understood why this architectural gem, the main Jesuit church of Venice, is not better known. It’s in a slightly remote corner of the city, not far from the Fondamente Nove ferry stop.
In another nod to Venice’s oriental connections, the sober baroque façade gives way to a spectacular interior, with green and white marble creating a stone carpet of damask cloth from the entrance to the high altar.
The church closes in the middle of the day, so make sure you visit in the morning or after 3.00pm.
8. Confraternity of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni
Venice’s confraternities were an essential part of the social fabric of the city, places where non-nobles and foreigners could meet, network and seek and give charity. Looking after the sick, the injured and the widowed of their community was a big part of the confraternity’s work.
Perhaps because they are a little difficult to explain to modern-day visitors, they are not much visited. The confraternity, or ‘scuola’, of San Giorgio is close to the Arsenale, in the district where the Esclavonian (or Croatian) community lived, many of whom were mariners in the service of the Republic.
Their intimate confraternal hall is decorated by a celebrated series of paintings by Vittorio Carpaccio from the early 1500s, telling the story of St George, St Augustine and the little-known St Tryphon (another dragon-slaying saint from the East).
9. Confraternity of San Rocco
San Giorgio degli Schiavoni on steroids! The 16th-century confraternity of the plague saint San Rocco is a testament to hypocrisy and the inflated sense of self-worth of the ‘brothers of the bench’ – the senior members of the confraternity. But it is also visually spectacular and truly unique.
Having acquired great wealth through donations and bequests, the confraternity set out to build a magnificent headquarters, with a grand façade, marble staircases and a dazzling geometric marble pavement on the upper floor.
A competition was held to select a painter to decorate the interior. Legend has it that Jacopo Robusti, better known as Tintoretto, broke in to San Rocco the night before the competition and installed one of his paintings.
The competition was a lay-down misere for Tintoretto, who spent the next 23 years painting large scale canvases, more than 60 of them. A vast crucifixion scene, some 12×5 metres, dominates the council room of San Rocco, suggesting that the brothers were only slightly less important than the Holy Family.
10. Querini-Stampalia Museum
This 18th-century aristocratic house is a double delight. Firstly, it gives a wonderful snapshot of what life was like for the privileged classes in the final century of the Venetian Republic, with family portraits, bedroom furniture, gaming rooms, chandeliers and salons.
In contrast, the lower floor and the adjoining research library are modern, a fine example of the work of Italian architect Carlo Scarpa (1908-78). Scarpa specialised in converting ancient buildings for modern purposes, with sensitive but forward-looking designs. Scarpa’s library atrium and Islamic-inspired courtyards are a breath of fresh air in an ancient city.
The Querini Stampalia also has one of the best gift shops in Venice. The museum is located at one end of Campo Santa Maria Formosa, about 10 minutes’ walk east of San Marco.
Robert Veel designed Academy Travel’s Venice residential tour, which has run each year since 2006. After studying and teaching at the University of Sydney, he has been visiting the city and lecturing on Venice for over 20 years.
Many, but not all, of these sites are visited on Academy Travel’s residential tour of Venice. Take a look at the tour to see what else is covered in this trip. Very few tour companies offer such an extensive, in-depth tour of Venice for small groups.
Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.