Venice is one of the most popular places to visit in all of Europe, and stories of the summer crowds, over-tourism and long queues might make you think twice about going there. Yet if you avoid the peak season and venture further into the secret back-streets of Venice’s many islands leaving the hordes behind at St. Marks Square, there’s a whole hidden world just waiting to be discovered.
We’ve visited the floating city a few times now, and always come home having enjoyed the more unusual sights and activities the most. So if you’re thinking of heading there this year, here are our favourite unique things to do in Venice to get you started.
Try Venetian Mask Painting
You’ll see the colourful masquerade masks lining souvenir shops and street stalls over Venice, some adorned with feathers, others festooned in sequins, and undoubtedly mostly mass-produced fakes made out of plastic, in China. Yet if you venture deep into the back streets of the Santa Croce district, you’ll come across a tiny 17th century workshop called Peter Pan Masks, where visitors can learn the art of creating their very own mask from traditional paper-mache.
Under the expert tutorage of the three sisters who run the workshops, you’ll choose your design, decide on a colour scheme, and get to work with the paint brushes. As the shop is so small, there’s only enough room for a couple of students, which makes it a really intimate and personal class. It’s advisable to book ahead so that they can prepare for your visit, and you’ll have to pick your mask up the next day to allow it to dry overnight.
Learn How To Row Your Own Gondola
You’ve seen (and heard!) all the tourist gondolas as they bob along the canals of the city, charging an arm and a leg knowing that it’s one of the most popular things to do in Venice. However, if you want a gondola experience with a difference, how about having a lesson in rowing one yourself! Learn how to row like a Venetian in a traditional hand-crafted wooden vessel, and explore the hidden backwaters away from the busy waterways of central Venice.
Classic 90-minute lessons can take four people in a gondola at once, so it’s a fun thing to do in Venice with your friends or family. There are also options for enjoying ciccetti-tasting during your time on the water, or heading to the bustling Grand Canal to jump straight in at the deep end for that quintessential Venetian experience.
Go on a Food Tour of the Jewish Ghetto
One of the best parts of a Venice holiday is the food, but you really do have to know where to look. If you stick around the main tourist hot-spots and thoroughfares then you’ll end up with overpriced, underwhelming meals. Yet tap into advice from the locals and you’ll come away feeling far more satisfied, with delicious cuisine that won’t break the bank.
The best way to do this if you’re really looking for unique things to do in Venice is sign up for a food tour. There are several on offer in the city, but our favourite was one that took us into the depths of the Jewish Ghetto on a bacari (bar) crawl to sample authentic local cicchetti dishes (Italian tapas) that are popular with locals on their way home from work. You’ll also learn about the fascinating history of this area of Venice that few tourists explore, and have a chat with locals over a class (or several) of Italian wine.
Visit Venice’s Cemetery Island
Take a boat trip to San Michele, an lagoon island that is an eternal home to many Venetian residents. Hidden behind a long wall lies the cemetery of Venice, which may seem like a strange place for tourists, but it’s actually a fascinating visit for anyone interested in the city’s history. Plus it’s a really peaceful spot far from the busy crowds back across the water.
The island has been inhabited by monks for centuries, including Fra Mauro who in the 15th century dedicated his life to creating a detailed world map using information gleaned from the many traders who came to Venice to ply their wares. You can see this map in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. Back on the island today, visitors can stroll through the cemetery, wondering about the personal stories behind the names on the tombs, which include Russian princesses and composers, Austrian scientists, and French pilots.
Take A Glass Blowing Workshop on Murano
Get hands on during a small group, or private glass blowing lesson on the island of Murano, famed for its colourful houses that line the canals, as well as being home to skilled artisans. During the workshop you’ll discover some of the secrets of the glass-blowers of Murano, the history of the art, as well as getting to have a go at it yourself. It isn’t easy, and you’ll soon come to appreciate why it takes years for these master craftsmen and women to hone their sills. Even better, you get to take home your creation as a reminder of your trip to Venice.
After the class there is often the opportunity to have a look around the showroom with pieces created by your tutor, which are perfect for souvenirs if your creation hasn’t quite turned out the way you wanted it to. There are also sometimes guided factory tours available, depending on which workshop you visit, so do a bit of research to make sure you choose the right course for you.
Have you been to Venice? What unusual things to do did you discover?