It’s easy to get swept up in the magic of Venice’s most iconic sights, like St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace, and never make the time to explore the outlying islands of the Venetian Lagoon. However, if you pass up the chance to visit these less obvious destinations you’ll be missing out.
Away from the tourist traps lie evocative outposts of traditional Venetian arts and culture, from the lace shops of Burano to the glassblowing workshops of Murano. The quiet island of Mazzorbo feels a world away from the bustling streets of Venice, while Torcello – a once-significant island which was abandoned in the Middle Ages due to malaria – has an eerily beautiful, ghost town atmosphere.
The Venetian Lagoon is like a little galaxy of different worlds, but its islands are easily accessible from Venice and from each other. If you’re planning on doing some island hopping in a short space of time, it’s a good idea to buy a 24-hour vaporetto ticket, which allows for unlimited travel on Venice’s water taxis across the lagoon.
The colorful island of Burano sits in the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon, and catches the eye right away with the pastel-painted houses that line its narrow streets. While the houses give the town a cheery, free-and-easy feel, they actually follow a regimented color scheme, and residents must have any new lick of paint given the green light by the local government.
Start your stroll around Burano at the most famous residence of them all, Bepi’s House, just off the town’s main square. This property is not only decked out in bright blue, red, green and yellow, but also decorated with all manner of geometric shapes and patterns.
Aside from its houses, Burano is famous for its production of lace, which in times gone by made it to the ruff collars of the great and the good across Europe. Learn all about the fabric’s history and production at the lace museum and pick up some locally made lace as a gift or souvenir.
Orient yourself using the famous leaning bell tower that looms somewhat precariously over the island. The tower is part of the beautiful Church of San Martino, which dates from the 1600s and is well worth a visit.
Mazzorbo and Torcello
Connected to Burano by a narrow wooden footbridge, Mazzorbo is a peaceful island scattered with vineyards and orchards. It’s a favorite of professional and amateur artists alike – Winston Churchill, no less, used to enjoy painting here when he got the chance – and a great place to get a feel for what life has been like in the quieter reaches of Venice, largely unchanged, for centuries. Fishing nets line the shore, and artichoke fields and wineries dot the interior. Stop for lunch at a traditional trattoria, followed by an afternoon’s wine tasting.
Just north of Mazzorbo is the island of Torcello, which has a similarly end-of-the-world, slightly forgotten, feel. It’s very evocative, which goes some way to explaining its long appeal to artists and writers – Ernest Hemingway wrote part of his novel Across the River and Into the Trees here.
The island was first settled way back in the 5th century and is famous for being the ‘parent island’ from which Venice itself began to be populated. Then, during the medieval period, the swamp around the island began to attract malarial mosquitoes, which drove people away.
Today, malaria is no longer an issue, but still hardly anyone lives here, and most visitors come to view Torcello’s historic churches. The Church of Santa Maria Assunta is the oldest in Venice, dating from the 7th century. Despite its age, the church houses remarkably well-preserved mosaics, depicting both heavenly scenes and cautionary images of fire, brimstone and damnation.
Not to be confused with Burano is the similarly named Murano, actually a clustered group of seven islands just a mile north of Venice. Murano is also famous for its crafts, this time in the form of glassblowing. At the Museo del Vetro you can learn all about the area’s history of glass-making, which dates back all the way to the 13th century – the museum shop is also a great place to pick up high-quality souvenirs.
To get a feel for the day-to-day industry of glassblowing in Murano, head to one of the many working factories on the islands which welcome visitors. Mazzega is one of the most prestigious of the lot, and you can book a tour that will let you see its expert artisans at work, creating the colored glass which Murano is particularly famous for. The colors come from the addition of metals to the glass at the molten stage. The prized ruby glass is created by adding gold, while manganese creates a rich amethyst color.
Another essential activity during a trip to Murano is a walking tour of its historic churches. The Church of Santa Maria e San Donato dates back to the 7th century but is most famous for its beautiful Byzantine mosaics from the 12th century. The Santa Maria degli Angeli, meanwhile, is recognizable by its striking bell tower.
The islands of the Venetian lagoon offer no end of side trips to enjoy during your stay in Venice, but don’t just take our word for it – jump on a vaporetto and discover them for yourself.