Venice: what to see and do in Italy’s water-logged wonderland

Grand Canal and Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy

Water is life, and in Venice that rings truer than the bells of Basilica San Marco.

Britain’s canals helped lay the foundations of a global empire, and in Amsterdam the waterways play second fiddle only to the city’s cyclist-empowering bike network. But in the floating postcard that is Venice, the waves represent the Alpha and the Omega.

Sadly, the popularity of the Queen of the Adriatic has dredged up a raft of problems. Too many tourists and not enough locals has left the economy up a less favoured creek with a broken paddle.

To make matters worse, Unesco has fired off warning flares that Venice’s unique marine ecosystem is taking a hammering from sea monster-sized cruise ships making dock.   

But despite the tepid tides there is così tanto da amare about the city of water and the people who inhabit it. So, to assist you in charting your course for a pearl in Italy’s glistening collection of major cities, here are our five top tips to get the most out of Venice.

Just be sure to raise anchor and set sail when the forecast is a showing a little more clear skies, little less storm clouds.

Get on the waves

Vintage rowboats? Old hat. Gondolas? Cliche. Paddleboarding along narrow, water-filled streets. Now you’re starting to think outside of the box.

Yes, the only way to see Venice is from the water, but that doesn’t mean the options have to be limited.

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open water: Gondolas remain a popular method of transport for touists

Be it with kids, in a couple, or with a whole crew of friends, beginners and pros can join a fad that is still gathering pace: who said your Instagram posts were lacking in originality?  

Just don’t try and get down on one knee on a paddleboard or you – and the rock – may end up in the drink… there is a reason gondolas still hold the crown when it comes to proposals.

Visit the world’s most beautiful bookstore

A mighty claim from a bookshop that routinely floods, but Libreria Acqua Alta – Book Store of High Water in the local tongue – is almost certainly in the running for whackiest library on earth.

AcquaAlta. #libreriaacquaalta #venezia

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Fed up with their hardbooks getting damp at the first sign of high-tide, the proprietors sought to preserve their precious pages by stacking them in boats and bathtubs to float through any trouble.

Complete with a staircase made of books and a full-sized gondola, the whimsical nook is a scene straight from the lesser known Macaulay Culkin fantasy ride The Pagemaster – the only thing missing is a cartoon Moby Dick.

Paint the town red, blue, yellow…

Four islands held together as much by their bold painting preferences as their network of bridges form Burano.

Venetian Gothic dominates large parts of the lagoon, but residents of Burano don’t subscribe to the widely-heralded style, plumping for explosive splashes of primary colours to decorate their homes.

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primary cool: A kaleidoscope of colour in Burano

But is not all fun and games. The local government is very particular about who can douse their property in colour, with no two neighbours may have a matching exterior.

The decades-old tradition has embraced a revival in recent years, and while the crowds clamber for the best vantage point of the more papped parts of the ‘mainland’, a short detour will ensure a unique shot with no filter required.

Get a taste of island life

When your city spans multiple islands, you have the freedom to start designating different landmasses for certain purposes.

Be it the Island of San Servolo – Island of the Mad – which for 250 years served as the city’s official floating mental asylum, or the Poveglia Plague Island – which should need no introduction – Venice has long flexed its Maritime muscles to utilise its empire. But what did they do about the threat of vampires?

About a decade ago, archeologists uncovered mass plague graves on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. While the scattered remains of doomed souls came as no surprise, the skeleton of one woman with a brick lodged in her mouth gave rise to the legend of the Vampire of Venice.

Presumably the best method to tackle Dracula’s spawn back in the day was to give them something tough to chew on. Either way, they’ve got an island for it if the problem persists.

Get lost

Yes, you read that correctly. From San Marco’s Square you can dash back and forth between all the hotspots – and in the summer months they truly swelter – but it is on the less trodden walkways that you’ll find a truer Venice less masked by the tourist masses.

After all, Basilica San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, Campanile di San Marco, and the Bridge of Sighs will all still be there upon your return.