Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is on most travelers’ bucket lists. But over-tourism is threatening much that makes this city so desirable to visit. St. Mark’s Square, the Piazza San Marco, and adjacent alleys are so crowded that it’s difficult to walk, let alone enjoy the architecture, or the romance of the canals. How best to enjoy Venice off the beaten path? How to get away from the crowds?
The iconic landmarks of Venice, those sites we see in every travel magazine – St. Mark’s Square, St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, Bridge of Sighs, are all located in the San Marco neighborhood, a very small section of the city. This is the area where congestion is the greatest. To enjoy Venice without the crowds, you will want to avoid this area in the middle of the day.
Here are our recommendations for enjoying the least touristy parts of Venice.
Get lost in the alleyways of Venice
If your cruise ship’s tender drops you in St. Mark’s square, don’t despair. Just move on through the crowds and pick an alleyway to explore. There are miles (actually kilometers…) of calli (alleys) throughout Venice. And there are almost 400 bridges! Just start wandering and you’ll find hidden gems. Around every corner are lovely campi (squares), fountains, and churches. Once you’re away from the tourist trail you will find authentic, and less expensive, restaurants.
But bring a good map, you will probably get lost at least once!
Explore the neighborhoods of Venice
There are six sestiere, neighborhoods, in Venice, each with its own characteristics. The San Marco neighborhood is where most tourists spend their time. Once you’ve gotten away from San Marco the crowds will thin out.
The largest neighborhood in Venice, the Castello has an authenticity you won’t find in San Marco. Visit the Castello neighborhood to see the Arsenale, a complex of former shipyards and armories, built in 1473. Today, this complex is where you’ll find the Venetian Biennale, a biennial art exhibition.
Easy to get to from St. Mark’s across the Accademia Bridge, this neighborhood has a lot to offer. Great restaurants in the campo Santa Margherita area, charming shops, and the world famous Peggy Guggenheim collection.
Walk across the Rialto Bridge (snap a couple of pictures while you’re there!) and you will come into the neighborhood of San Polo. First stop should be to the bustling Rialto Market. Continue wandering this charming neighborhood, enjoying the architecture and picturesque canals.
The oldest, and one of the least touristy parts of Venice. Enjoy wandering this quaint district before stopping for a meal at one of its wonderful pizzerias.
There are few Venetians left living in Venice, but those that do may be in the Cannaregio neighborhood. This is a great place to stay if you want a more authentic, less touristy, part of Venice. The Jewish Ghetto, the oldest in Europe, is here, and is known for its annual Hanukkah festival. Also in Cannaregio is one of the iconic Grand Canal palaces, Ca d’Oro, open to the public now as an art gallery.
Visit spectacular churches many tourists miss
St. Mark’s Basilica is a opulent, gilded cathedral in the Italo-Byzantine style. The original church was built between 1060 and 1100, but almost a century of embellishments have created the basilica you see today. It is indeed a masterwork and a don’t miss Venice landmark. An average day in Venice will see a long line waiting to get in. If you’re not interested in waiting there are many other extraordinary churches in Venice.
(see our recommendations for tours of St. Mark’s Basilica that’ll get you inside without the wait or the crowds)
Instead of St. Mark’s Basilica, visit any, or many, of the other 138 churches in Venice. Each is worth visiting, but if you’re limited in time, head to one of the lesser known but equally beautiful basilicas in Venice.
Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Built in 1492, this Gothic cathedral is one of the most important Franciscan sites in Italy, and the exterior reflects that. The building is simple with none of the ornamentation seen on other cathedrals of this size. But step inside for a wealth of history and art, including works by Donatello, Vecellio, and Bellini.
Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
A visit to the this church is great for three reasons – the history of the church, the beautiful architecture and the views you get of Venice from this spot.
The basilica was built after a terrible plague hit the city of Venice in 1630. The church was built as an offering to the city’s health and thus the name – St. Mary of Health. This is a beautiful church both on the exterior, with its two domes and bell tower, and the interior of the basilica, which streams with light. A very different church than others in Venice.
The church sits at the entrance of the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood with a view to St. Mark’s square and the Doge’s Palace. This is a wonderful spot for photographers looking to get a image of the city! Combine a visit to Santa Maria della Salute with a stroll the Zattere, a beautiful promenade along the waterfront.
Ride the vaporetto through the canals
This is an easy and inexpensive way to enjoy Venice without the crowds. Just purchase a ticket for the Vaporetto, the public water bus, and ride around the lagoon. Buy a day or multiday ticket to get on and off when you see an interesting stop. Relaxing and fun!
Go to the Opera
A ‘traveling opera’ performed in a Venetian palace! The audience moves from room to room in the palace as the opera progresses. An unusual Venice experience to be sure! Musica a Palazzo
Hop on boat to the island of Burano
Jump on the vaporetto (no. 12) for the half hour trip to the colorful island of Burano. This is a great destination for a day away from the crowds in Venice. The homes in Burano are painted bright colors, a tradition that stems from the wish to distinguish own’s home from their neighbors. Be sure to have room on your phone or camera for lots and lots of pictures!
Burano is also famous for lace-making. You will see many shops selling lace, though most of these are now machine made. Visit Scuola del Merletto to see examples of the hand made lace that made Burano famous.
Burano is just one of the many beautiful islands in the Venetian lagoon. For suggestions on visiting several in one day read How to See the Italian Venetian Islands in One Day.
Island of Murano – Most tourists have heard of Murano and its beautiful glass works, so though it’s very interesting to see, it can be crowded. But don’t hesitate to go if you’re interested! Many hotels offer free vouchers for tours to Murano.
Plan your visit to St. Mark’s Square to avoid the crowds
At one time, Venice was the wealthiest and powerful country in the world, and no where is that history more evident than in St. Mark’s Square. The Basilica with it’s opulent exterior and gilding, and the Doge’s Palace, one of the most recognizable building in the world. First time visitors to Venice will want to visit the iconic sites as well as see the picturesque Bridge of Sighs no matter the crowds. If you can, plan a visit for very early or very late in the day. Or book a skip the line priority tour.
Two tours to consider for a less touristy visit to St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace:
- St. Mark’s Basilica After-Hours Tour with Optional Doge’s Palace
- Skip-the-Line Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica
Have a drink in St. Mark’s Square
If you can’t avoid the crowds in Venice, then you might as well embrace them! Find a spot in one of the many cafes to do some people watching. You will likely be treated to some wonderful music as you soak in this amazing square.
If you are visiting on a cruise ship, and have only a short time in Venice, you may want to join your cruise ship’s tour, but try for a half day tour so you have some time for the exploration on your own. Save this article for your next visit to Venice!
Best time to visit Venice to avoid the crowds
Low season runs from November through March, so these are the best months to avoid the crowds, but the winter season is also when rain can bring high water and flooding to the city.
Shoulder season months of April and October should bring good weather and reasonable wait times.
How to get around Venice:
No expense: walk! Venice is a walking city if you are fit. There are numerous small to medium sized bridges crossing the canals.
Least expensive: the vaporetto, Venice’s water bus. You can take this from the train station to St. Mark’s Square or jump off at any other stops along the way. The vaporetto is not cheap however, get a pass for several days if you expect to be staying. Click for a vaporetto map and info on ACTV tickets
More expensive: water taxis. Your hotel can call for a taxi to pick you up and transport you to any destination. We traveled to the airport on a water taxi. Definitely the best airport commute we’ve ever had.
Most expensive (not to be considered as transportation): gondolas. These are lovely and romantic, but incredibly expensive. Agree on a price if you decide to partake.
Related post- What to Pack for a Mediterranean Cruise
Have you visited Venice? Are there any out of the way spots you’d recommend to a first time visitor?