Venice radiates an inexplicably romantic energy. Whether it’s the glistening gold mosaics of the Chiesa d’Oro soaked in midday sun, the warm resonance of morning bells gently waking the city atop the Campanile di San Marco, or the gondolas gliding effortlessly along the Grand Canal, carving ephemeral serpentine-incisions through aquamarine water, you can’t help but feel a deep sense of reverence for Venice and its unparalleled cultural heritage.
Built atop a 117-island archipelago in the littoral Venetian Lagoon, Venice has been a mainstay of Italy’s tourism industry since the 18th century, with a large portion of the city and surrounding lagoon designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, in recent years, Venice’s popularity as a world travel destination has led to numerous unforeseen problems for the city, including overcrowding, an accelerated rate of structural decay, and the ever-increasing prevalence of exploitative vendors of counterfeit goods. That said, the city’s tourism woes shouldn’t be cause for abandoning your travel plans, as Venice still has some best kept secrets and undiscovered sites that are often overlooked by most visitors, and can be enjoyed in relative tranquility.
Below, we’ve profiled four islands in the Venetian Lagoon that (despite being left out of most Venice travel itineraries) are prime travel destinations with fascinating histories, much exploratory potential, and myriad examples of old-world architecture.
Murano – The Glass Island
Since the 13th Century, Venice has been renowned for its vibrantly colored and highly elaborate glass making – an unintended consequence of Venice’s geographic location and history as hub for trade between the Eastern and Western worlds. Before the Venetian Republic was able to usurp the glass making throne and establish a monopoly on the development and refinement of modern glass making techniques, many Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, had long been producing artisanal glass work. It wasn’t until Marco Polo’s return to Venice, after establishing a bolstered trade route with the Orient, that the highly technical glass-making processes – originally developed in the Eastern world – were learned by Venetian glass makers.
In 1291, fearing the large scale destruction fires could cause to the primarily wooden buildings, the Venetian Republic mandated all glass making foundries be moved from the city to the nearby island of Murano, and thus “The Glass Island” was officially born. Much like its ship building enterprise at the time, Venetian authorities understood the importance of protecting vital industries, and went to great lengths to keep secret the glass making techniques learned from the Middle East, even threatening to execute Murano’s glass-makers who tried to set up foundries outside of the Republic.
Despite the secrets of Venetian glass propagating throughout Europe a few centuries later, Murano’s glass industry still thrives. The island is home to a variety of glass-related attractions including the Glass Museum, offering a century by century tour of Venetian glass history, and many foundries still offer glass-blowing demonstrations to curious onlookers. Countless artisanal glass shops line the streets of Murano, where you can purchase everything from pseudo-gem stones and colored glass pendants to milk-glass chandeliers and crystal stemware.
Visitors to Murano will also find a wealth of impressive examples of Byzantine and Gothic architecture to explore, like the Basilica dei Santa Maria e San Donato, known for the highly intricate 12th century Byzantine mosaic pavement surrounding the edifice, and large bones resting behind the alter, said to be the remains of a dragon slain by Saint Donatus of Arezzo.
Even though Murano lacks the same tourism clout of Venice, many of the attractions on the island are equally impressive and fascinating and you won’t get bogged down by the sheer volume of tourists flocking to the lagoon each year.
San Giorgio in Alga – The Abandoned Island
Though significantly smaller than most other Venetian islands, and without any semblance of “tourist attractions,” San Giorgio in Alga may not seem like a best kept secret, but in reality, represents the pinnacle of Venetian Lagoon’s elegant decay. The now abandoned San Giorgio in Alga has a rich and storied history beginning when a Benedictine monastery was constructed on the island around the year 1000 AD. Eventually coming under the ownership of a clerical order that implemented radical monastic reform, the monastery inhabited the site until a fire in 1717 enveloped the island and the structural losses became too great to repair.
By the early 1800s the island had become the location of a political prison, and held strategic military importance due to its position in the center of the Venetian Lagoon. As World War I was ramping up, bunkers were built on San Giorgio in Alga, though they were rarely ever used, and the island fell into abandonment once more. The last chapter of San Giorgio in Alga’s history of successive inhabitancy and abandonment, came during World War II when Nazi divers used the island as a secret training ground for Frogmen, practicing planting water mines in the dead of night. Soon after the war ended, the island was again uninhabited and has remained that way ever since.
Today, San Giorgio in Alga goes largely unnoticed by visitors and residents of Venice alike, as only its ancient crumbling structures remain, slowly being reclaimed by nature. But that’s also what makes this such a great place to visit and explore. Accessible by water taxi or private boat hire, San Giorgio in Alga is an excellent place to discover for those interested in unabated exploration into history, photography, or appreciation of Italy’s historic prominence and many beautifully decaying structures. Very few people have ever visited the island, let alone photographed the area, so heading to San Giorgio in Alga for a day of adventure and mystery would make you one of a very small group of people to ever set foot on the island.
Isola di San Michele – Island of the Dead
When the Republic of Venice was conquered by Napoleon in 1797, citizens endured many radical changes to their way of life as declared by the new Empire’s laws. One such law mandated that the dead could no longer be buried below churches or paving stones in the city – a primitive and highly unsanitary burial method in a city constantly besieged by flooding, even by 18th century standards. So in 1836 the island of San Michele, named for the existing church on the island, was designated as a cemetery that’s still in use to this day.
The verdant and palatial grounds can be toured, and there are two churches on island, San Michele in Isola, and San Cristoforo – both of which are pristine examples of some of the earliest Renaissance architecture found in the Venetian Lagoon. Adjacent to San Michele in Isola’s Istrian marble facade is the Cappella Emiliani chapel, built precariously – even by Venice standards – on the edge of the island overlooking the water.
The cemetery itself is divided into sections based on the deceased’s religious ideology, place of birth, and former profession, including: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, foreigner, children, and gondoliers. The Greek Orthodox section is within a tranquil garden where the tomb of the Russian composer, conductor, and pianist, Igor Stravinsky is located. Once a year on All Soul’s Day (Festa dei Morti in Italian) locals flock to the Isola di San Michele cemetery for mass in remembrance of the deceased. One thing to keep in mind when visiting this fascinating island is that because the cemetery is still in use, some graves and burials may be recent, and others at the cemetery may be in mourning – so it’s recommended to dress modestly, speak quietly, and show respect to those who are there for loved ones.
San Servelo – Island of the Mad
Originally settled by Benedictine monks sometime around the 8th century, the Island of San Servolo was home to both the monks, and up until the 15th century, displaced nuns escaping the the tsunami ravaged island of Malamocco. Later during the Ottoman invasion of Crete, another escaping group of nuns found refuge on San Servolo, remaining there until the beginning of the 18th century when the monastery was converted into an insane asylum. Upon Napoleon’s conquest of the once independent Venetian Republic, the government mandated all mentally ill individuals from across all Venetian social classes be interned on San Servolo. Admitting over 200,000 patients in its 250-year lifespan, the asylum continued to operate until 1978 when new laws meant to reform mental health institutions, mandated the closure of the San Servolo psychiatric hospital. Soon after the hospital’s closure, in an effort to preserve its numerous historical documents, the Venice Government established the Institute for the Study of Social and Cultural Marginalization.
In 2006, the island of San Servolo was re-opened to the public as it is today, serving primarily as the location for the Museum of the Insane Asylum of San Servolo, known colloquially as the “Museum of Madness.” Housed in one of the Benedictine convent’s wings, the Museum of Madness is divided into nine exhibition sections detailing the history of mental illness treatments over 250 years in Venice, including: the laboratory, the ambulatory, sickness therapies, pharmacy, anatomical theater, and straitjackets.
Visitors to the museum can browse photo archives cataloging patients on the island from 1874 through the 20th century, and a library of documents detailing religious and scientific medical studies conducted from the 16th century onward. There are also far darker exhibits that speak to the ethically questionable therapies used to treat the mentally ill in previous centuries (decades even) like chains and straitjackets used to restrain patients, and archaic electroshock machines. The museum is also on the grounds of a fairly large park with some of the most diverse flora in all of Italy which at one point was used to supply the asylum’s pharmacy.
Elsewhere on San Servolo is Venice International University, a ten university collaborative research center, where numerous art exhibitions, performances, and music festivals are hosted on the island.
Discovering Venice’s Best Kept Secrets
Most of Venice’s best kept secrets are hidden away from the Piazza San Marco, Grand Canal, and Doge’s Palace. That isn’t to say those aren’t incredible monuments worth visiting, rather, a little personal exploration beyond the pages of a guide book can take you to many intriguing and delightful places with captivating histories of equal cultural significance to their more popular counterparts. All the islands profiled above are accessible by a combination of water taxi, ferry, or private boat hire, departing from Venice proper.