We last visited Venice almost ten years ago and when we arrived this time we quickly felt not a lot had changed. The magic of the canals was still very much on display for all to see and the Vaporettos (public water taxis) continued to heave thousands of tourists a day up and down the Grand Canal to St Marco Square, just as we remembered.
This incredibly famous Square is always totally packed, especially in summer. The thronging tourists meander around souvenir shops dodging loaded pigeons while the violinists blissfully play their classical symphonies in the overpriced restaurants. The queues at the Doge Palace (a must see by the way) and St Marks Basillica, stretch out for a frightful and forgettable forty minute wait. The Bridge of Sighs is packed every day with ‘selfie-stick tourists’. Who doesn’t love Venice? It appears the whole world does and that is why we decided to take a day out from the crowds and visit three of its many islands, hoping to escape some of this raucous rubberneck pandemonium.
Most of the islands are a short boat ride away from San Marco Square. There is no order to our choice but each island is unique with its own traditions and we managed to see them all in one day.
#1 Lido, best for the beach
Lido is one of the largest islands with the lagoon on one side and the open sea on the other. When we arrived we felt a sense of space and uncrowded peacefulness. Most famous today for the Venice film festival in August/September, Lido is slightly dilapidated, especially around the beach front.
The main promenade links the lagoon side to the sea and has the occasional grand building and a host of interesting narrow lanes running off it. The cafes are bountiful with Italian cakes and aromas of freshly made espressos, it is the perfect place for people watching. The iconic Hotel Excelsior (http://excelsior.hotelinvenice.com) close to Lido Beach, has recently undergone extensive renovation and is now open.
We saw many people exploring the island on bikes and one enthusiast recommended Alberoni, a nature reserve, rich with sand dunes and a lovely, unoccupied beach. However, having limited time on this visit, we had to be satisfied with Lido Beach which is really ‘the place to be seen’. Rumour has it that the front sun beds on the beach fetch US$1000 a day during the film festival. The sandy beach is very long and the water is clear, clean and shallow. Lido beach is also famous for the traditional beach-huts at the back of the beach known as Capannas. Lido Beach seemed very family friendly and according to the locals Alberoni Beach is the place to go in summer as it is almost exclusively gay. Apparently, if you enjoy being spoilt for choice, go on Saturdays and Sundays in July and August.
To get Lido, take Vaporetto 1, 2, or 52, from St. Mark’s Square
#2 Murano, the Glass Island
Murano, famous for glass making since 1291, is a small island and easy to find your way around. Some might say the twenty or thirty shops along the canal selling Murano glass are tourist traps. We found if you take the time to explore the shops or glass factories then you will see how the long tradition of glass making has been developed and their modern creations are amazing with the use of brilliant colours and stunning designs. Some of the best glass shops are close to where the Vaporetto first arrives. A tip we must pass on is don’t get tricked into getting a free boat ride to Murano. A friend of ours did and after several hours of saying no to a glass purchase she was shown the back door of the shop and had to find her own way home.
You will need at least a couple of hours in Murano, there is also a glass museum (http://museovetro.visitmuve.it/en/home) and at the end of the canal front shops in Campo Santo Stefano there is a new installation called the Comet Glass Star. The artwork is enormous, made by a local Murano glass maker Simone Cenedese.
To get Murano, take the 4.2 water bus from St Marco
# 3 Burano, the Island of Colours
Burano is probably our favourite island, famous for its houses painted in pastel colours. The colours of the houses follow a specific system originating from the golden age of its development. To paint a home, one must send a request to the government, which will respond by making notice of the certain colours permitted for that lot. The island seems more like a movie set with the bright colours of the houses reflecting off the water in the canals. We walked in the many narrow streets of this gorgeous island and had a glimpse of how the locals live. See the shops with intricate laces and crisp table linens (this place is famous for it). Treat yourself with a gelato as colourful as the island itself. Capture your memories with pictures of the panoramic backdrop or just sit down and take in all the beauty and magic of this historic, unique place.
Speaking of treasured memories, on the way back to catch the Vaporetto to Venice we came across a godlike vision who was refuelling his boat. Not shy for the camera he struck an impressive pose (see our lead photo). The island has many treats and our boatman was just one. A photography tip is to go later in the day when the light is less intense and the colours reflect beautifully off the canals.
Getting to Burano, take the Vaporetto 12 from St Marks Square
We prefer to stay at Hotel Roma (3 stars and very affordable : http://www.hotelromavenezia.it) a little out of Venice in an area called Mestre. Here it is much cheaper and you gain a real sense of how the locals live. Mestre is 10 minute bus ride to Venice Railway station.
Each night we dined in the open air garden of a wonderful local Italian restaurant called, Al Giardinetto (http://algiardinettopizzeria.com) just one street from our hotel and costing a third of the price one might expect to pay in the heart of Venice. Amazing food, wine and friendly service.