Whenever I think about Venice, my eyes fill with tears of joy. I swoon and smile and reminisce about just being there. The first time I experienced this floating city was on a solo trip around Italy in 2015. When I got home and told my partner, Scott, and saw the look of wonder in his eyes, I couldn’t wait to throw him on a plane and give him the same breathtaking experience.
My top 5 off-beat activities I want to share with you are probably not found in guide books. They are just simple, fun, mostly free activities that will make you fall even more deeply in love with Venice.
#1 – Visit Alta Acqua Liberia – the used bookstore with an entire gondola inside.
Whenever I visit a new place, one of the first things I do is find a bookstore. The titles, the motif, the types of books offered tell so much about the personality of the town or city. Alta Acqua Liberia matches the quirky, mysterious nature of Venice. Nestled in a quiet canal side street in Castello, you could easily walk right by. In front of the store there are a few tables displaying some used items, so it looks like a small second hand store at first glance. But walk inside and you are met with floor to ceiling books, a huge gondola smack in the middle brimming with books, cats languishing on shelves (yes, cats live there); it is staggering to the senses. You get the feeling that some of these books have lived here for a very long time and if they could talk, they would tell some mind-blowing tales. When I got to the cookbook section, I was on cloud 9. I told Scott to come back in an hour and not any sooner.
#2 – Admire the Venetian art of mask making.
The year: 1650. The place: the island lagoon of Venice, Italy. It is the day before Lent and you with thousands of others are wildly celebrating Carnevale (Latin for farewell to meat). You have donned a larva (Venetian white half-mask) and a tabaro and bauta (long black cloak with hood) and are dancing in the streets. Having fun yet?
Venice has a long and interesting history with masks. Although we associate them with Carnevale, decorative masks were once a part of the fabric of daily life on the lagoon. In the mid-seventeenth century, when theater-going was booming in Venice, mask wearing grew to include theater patrons as well as the performers. It was common to see maskers in cafes, theaters, casinos, and public squares. Everyone in society played along: gamblers, detectives, husbands, wives, thieves, swindlers, cops and robbers, dignitaries and low brow; anyone who could benefit from being incognito. Even Giacomo Casanova, the famous Venetian lover, utilized the anonymity of a mask in his affairs with many women, including his affair with a nun.
During the 17th century, mask wearing was allowed for 6 months out of the year and ended the first day of Lent. Each year, the government declared on which days masks were permitted. It was a big deal.
I imagine being a mascherari (a mask maker) was pretty big business in those days. They had their own guild and were considered among the finest artisans and craftspeople.
What is the history of Carnevale and the masks?
On January 18, 1798, when Austria took control of Venice, it nearly destroyed the Carnevale celebration. Then in the 1930’s, Mussolini banned this religious festival altogether. But in 1979, a clever group of artisans got together and revitalized Carnevale and brought it alive for tourists. So when you are in Venice, wander through the side streets and you will begin to notice the hidden studios of Venetian mask-makers. Ask them about their craft, and better yet, buy an authentic mask, bring it home, and wear it to your next board meeting!
#3 – Spend hours riding around on a vaporetto, especially at night.
When traveling in Venice, the most important purchase, in my opinion, is the vaporetto pass. This public-bus-on-the-water will take you everywhere you want to go all around Venice and the surrounding little islands. You can buy a Venezia Unica pass online here for 1, 2, 3, or 7 days. The pass allows you to jump on and off any of the vaporetto lines which run from one end of Venice to the other, 24/7. Yes, they never stop running, day and night. I spent hours just sitting on the Vaporetto, riding it from island to island, pinching myself. I love how the Medieval buildings sit right on top of the water, the way the lights play on the lagoon, and I imagine 800 years of history taking place in the casinos, and dark, bridged alleyways. I can look into the Gondola boats and image what the gondoliers’ lives are like and the customers their boats have seen. I am anonymous, a solo traveler, a fly on the wall, who is free to just ride along and let my imagination go wild on the Venetian lagoon.
#4 – Eat sandwiches and cookies, often.
Every time you turn around, there is another blisteringly beautiful display of panini (sandwiches) and Venetian cookies. Between jumping on and off the vaporetto and walking through shops and canal-lined streets, you really do work up an appetite, so all of this eating is completely justified.
#5 – Go to the Farmer’s Market and wander around Castello
Venice is divided into six sestieri or districts. Each has its own charm and alluring sites.
Cannaregio – The most populated and home to the Jewish Ghetto.
Dorsoduro – Best Venetian night life and home to Academia Art Gallery.
San Marco – home to Saint Mark’s Square and Basilica.
San Polo – Connects to the famous Rialto Bridge and Fish Market.
Santa Croce – Only sestieri linked to the mainland, so some car traffic is allowed.
And then there is Castello – my personal favorite. I reminds me of old time Italy. After the teeming crowds at popular tourist sights around Venice, Castello’s lazy atmosphere is a welcome break. Each week, they host a farmer’s market that rivals the Rialto fish and produce market, but it much more peaceful and serene. I could spend hours wandering around the cobblestone streets, stopping in green, flower-filled parks and getting a big dose of slow, Italian life.
Bonus activity: Dance in St. Mark’s Square.
If you don’t have a partner, dance with yourself to the live Jazz in St. Mark’s Square.
So there you have my 5 favorite off-beat activities in Venice! I hope you enjoyed it. If you have not been to Venice, let me know how I can help you get there!
What are your top 5 in Venice or elsewhere?