Venice: Here's the real secret to skipping the tourist crowds
Visitors to the Italian city often overlook the islands scattered across its lagoon. They shouldn't, says Domhnall O'Donoghue.
Set the mood
Many tourists want to see as much as possible when abroad.
With Verona, Florence and Rome winking at them on the horizon, it's understandable that jam-packed Italian itineraries only allow for a day or two in Venice.
My advice? Allow extra time to explore some of the 118 islands nearby instead (Rome, which has survived more than the fall of its Empire, isn't going anywhere anytime soon).
Whether it's Torcello, home to a throne legend says belonged to a certain Attila the Hun; the ghostly San Servolo, a one-time mental asylum; or the candy-coloured Murano and Burano, famed for glass and lace respectively - this is where the Queen of the Adriatic has hidden her crown jewels.
Known as the Garden of Venice, walkers and cyclists can roam the lush vineyards and farms of Sant'Erasmo or visit the all-year-round photographic exhibitions in its immaculately renovated Torre Massimiliana (free). Elsewhere, the secluded monasteries of San Francesco del Deserto (donations only, sanfrancescodeldeserto.it) and San Lazzaro degli Armeni (€6) will rejuvenate the most jaded spirits.
Speaking of spirits - cemetery lovers will be in seventh heaven in Isola di San Michele, where world luminaries such as composer Igor Stravinsky and author Ezra Pound have been laid to rest. Bodies were once carried to the island in funeral gondolas...
JW Marriott recently breathed new life into Isola delle Rose by converting a former hospital for pulmonary diseases into a luxurious five-star hotel (jwvenice.com, below; rooms from approx €300 midweek).
If an overnight stay breaks the bank, avail of their complementary transportation from St Mark's Square and treat yourself to some pampering in the heavenly Goco Spa instead (50-minute massages start from €124), or a well-deserved Spritz in its rooftop bar, which offers astonishing 360-degree lagoon views. Salute!
Complete with fireworks, delicious fritto misto and fabulously out-dated music, Venetian islands host a variety of religious festivals. Try the Burano Regatta in September or Sant'Erasmo's Sagra del Mosto in October for a wonderful snapshot into authentic island life (pellestrinaturismo.it).
Lido provided a backdrop for Visconti's masterpiece, Death in Venice, but the beach-lined island has also welcomed cinema's finest for the Venice Film Festival since 1932. Also worthy of the silver screen is its little-known Nicelli Airport (aeroportonicelli.it). With propeller planes providing a suitably dramatic soundtrack, the neighbouring 1920s-styled bar and restaurant is perfect for an aperitif or supper.
Along with stifling temperatures during the summer, you'll probably become entangled in a one-way love affair with the lagoon's mischievous mosquitoes. Arrive armed and douse yourself in insect repellent regularly.
Get me there
Even Marco Polo would have had difficulty navigating the vaporetto timetables (actv.it).
Simplified, ferries to Lido (Line 2, 5.1, 5.2), San Servolo and San Lazzaro (both Line 20) depart from San Zaccaria near St Mark's Square. Ferries to Murano, Burano and Torcello (all Line 12), Sant'Erasmo (Line 13) and Isola di San Michele Cimitero (Line 4.1 or 4.2) leave from F.te Nove, north of the city.
A private boat takes you from Burano to San Francesco del Deserto (€10 return). Travel passes start from €20 per day. Visit veneziaunica.it for more info.