As I think about our trip to Venice, I find myself humming and singing along to Ziggy Marley’s song, “Roads Less Travelled.” The title perfectly captures our approach in navigating one of Italy’s most popular cities.
Venice has long captivated the hearts and imaginations of millions of tourists with its unparalleled beauty and rich history. This enchanting city, with its Gothic charm, is renowned for its masterpieces of art and architecture. While the main attractions of Venice, such as the Piazza and Basilica of San Marco, are well-known (and plagued by over-tourism), there is a hidden side to this city that remains undiscovered by most visitors, where you can explore the lesser-known treasures and off-the-beaten-path small streets and canals that allow you to discover the essence of Venice.
Venice is often referred to as La Serenissima, or The Most Serene, and to truly discover her serenity, one must venture beyond the touristic areas . . . and that’s exactly what we did. In following Ziggy Marley’s advice and taking the roads less travelled, we started in Cannaregio, which is often considered a sanctuary for the Venetians themselves. It is away from the bustling crowds and offers a glimpse into the authentic Venetian lifestyle. Cannaregio is one of the six Venetian districts and the best way to experience it is to simply wander around. It was easy to feel the tranquility of this non-touristy district and yet we were still delighted by what we saw around every bend as we explored its side streets and canals.
Cannaregio is home to the Jewish Ghetto of Venice - the oldest ghetto in the world. Even though the once thriving Jewish community is now much smaller than it once was, it is still possible to catch a glimpse of their local traditions and culture by walking through the small medieval alleys.
For book lovers, a visit to Libreria Acqua Alta is a must. It’s just a 10-minute walk from Piazza San Marco and is in the Castello district of Venice. This unique bookstore, named for the frequent flooding that Venice experiences, takes you on a journey through time as you browse its extensive collection of books. From ancient texts and manuscripts to contemporary novels, the shop is a treasure trove of literary wonders. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the mystical aura of the store, where books are scattered in every corner and sometimes even serve as furniture.
Inside Acqua Alta, you'll discover unexpected surprises, such as a real gondola used as an exhibit, a staircase made entirely of books, and a door that opens onto a canal. As you peruse the shelves, you will also encounter the resident cats, nestled among the stacks of volumes. Acqua Alta is not just a bookstore; it's an experience that transports you to another world.
Along with the Cannaregio and Castello districts, our other favorite neighborhood was the Dorsoduro district. Just a hop over the Grand Canal via the Accademia Bridge, this area has always been a haven for artists, writers, and designer ateliers, making it the Venetian equivalent of the hipster hangout, “Pigalle”, in Paris. It features many great museums, galleries, and churches, and with a fraction of the crowds and costs. Here you can explore the narrow streets and discover everything from jazz clubs to art galleries. Dorsoduro is also home to Ca' Foscari, the famous University of Venice, which gives this neighborhood a wonderful vibrancy without feeling overcrowded or touristed.
Dorsoduro is the home to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. This historic building houses a collection of works by the renowned artist Tintoretto along with famous masterpieces by Tiziano, Giorgione and Tiepolo. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is often referred to as the "Sistine Chapel of Venice."
Venice's struggle with over-tourism is evident, especially in the San Marco and San Polo districts, which have overwhelming crowds due to their popular attractions and central locations. The influx of tourists is further intensified by the cruise ship industry, as these massive vessels bring in thousands of visitors at a time, adding to the congestion in the city.
Despite these challenges, Venice offers pockets of tranquility and authenticity. Venice is a city that invites exploration and discovery. Beyond the crowded tourist spots lie countless gems waiting to be unearthed. From the secret streets of Cannaregio to the artistic wonders of Dorsoduro, Venice offers a wealth of experiences for those willing to venture off the beaten path. So, step away from the crowds and immerse yourself in the true essence of this enchanting city. Take Ziggy Marley’s advice . . . and take the roads less travelled.