The islands of Torcello, Murano and Burano offer hidden charms and plenty of things to do in Venice away from the main sights.
Nothing prepared me for my first sight of Venice. I stood on the deck of the vaporetto, the public ferry, with my luggage at my feet, mouth agog.
As we puttered into the Grand Canal, Venice’s main waterway was alive with activity.
Gondolas and canals
Gondolas glided smoothly over the shimmering water next to the private water taxis that cruised up and down the canal looking for tourists willing to pay their exorbitant fare.
A goods boat pulled up alongside the dock of one of the canal-side hotels and the driver unloaded some daily supplies; boxes of fresh eggplant, fresh limes, juicy plums, yellow capsicums and bright red tomatoes were placed in crates on the dock.
At the Foscari Palace Hotel, which was once a sumptuous Venetian palace, I could easily pretend to myself that I was a visiting noble staying at the mansion of a wealthy Venetian cousin.
Tall ceilings, velvet drapes and French doors with patterned glass panels created a feeling of opulence.
I threw open the French doors of my suite and the activities on the Grand Canal were a picturesque scene below.
Opposite the hotel, money changed hands as shoppers laden with fresh produce from the markets queued up for the short ride across the canal in one of the plain wooden gondolas.
All afternoon, I walked the streets of Venice finding a new delight behind every corner.
The aroma of Italian herbs and spices wafted from the many cafes as people tucked into gelato and pasta.
A cavalcade of gondolas streamed by, some with couples enjoying a romantic ride and others packed with tour groups snapping away at the moving scenery.
There were stands selling colourful masks and trinkets, shops with pretty glassware, fine silk-ties, delicious cookies and local wine.
I wanted to browse through every shop and buy as many trinkets as I could carry.
Gondoliers sat by the side of the canal, basking in the sun while masked buskers in gaudy Venetian carnival outfits entertained tourists along the sidewalk.
At one stall, right in the middle of a courtyard, the romance of Venice overcame one visitor. Putting on a colourful carnival mask, he fell to his knees and proposed to his girlfriend.
The classic beauty of Piazza St Marco’s is spoiled by the myriads of t-shirt and souvenir sellers.
Masses of pigeons flapped around the tourists, landing on their arms and heads. It’s amusing to watch.
One woman screamed and jumped around flapping her own arms in fright while a small boy next to her stood as still as a statue with his arms raised towards the sky.
As I continued to walk, I found myself away from the main tourist area in the back streets of Venice where the charming shops were replaced by moss-covered walls and musty odours of Venice’s back canals.
Wrinkly apron-clad grandmothers peered out of paint-peeled windows and rows of washing flapped from the windows above my head.
The sun began to disappear behind the buildings and darkness slowly descended upon these narrow lanes.
My heart beat a little faster as I realised that I was lost. I walked for hours until I somehow found myself back on the main canal.
The next morning, tired of walking, I hopped on board a boat tour of the outer islands.
Glassmaking is Venice’s second-biggest industry after tourism and the best glass originates from the island of Murano.
I was astonished by the talent of the glassmakers who demonstrated their craft. In a few deft movements, one artisan magically created a delicately sculptured horse out of a shapeless lump of hot glass.
Venice’s glassmaking history is believed to date back before the first millennium.
By 1291, due to the many fires caused by the glass houses’ constant need for high heat, the Council of the Venetian Republic moved all glass houses to Murano.
The tradition has continued up until today where some of the worlds finest glass products still originate from this small island.
The Signoretti le Bricole factory is a favourite of actor Nicolas Cage and is best known for its chandeliers that hang in lobbies of grand buildings all around the world.
Burano’s canals are filled with brightly coloured buildings, lace shops and cafes.
In the 16th century, it was traditional for the women of Burano to work on handmade lace creations while waiting for the men to return from sea.
Burano lace became highly sought-after throughout Europe. Although the more expensive creations in Burano’s lace shops are genuine Burano-made lace, watch out for the cheaper lace items imported from China.
At the island of Torcello I lunched at Locanda Cipriani, a rustic guest house and well-known restaurant.
The Bellini cocktail, a deliciously refreshing concoction of champagne and peach juice, was invented right there in Torcello by Giuseppe Cipriani.
The Cipriani name is legendary in Venetian circles and is linked to the world famous Harry’s bar.
Locanda Cipriani hosts celebrities who just want to get away from the Venice crowds. I thumb through their guestbook, stopping at Nicole Kidman’s sprawling signature. This unassuming rustic hideaway boasts a long list of celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill, many of Europe’s royal families, Prince Charles, the late Princess Diana and Elton John.
As the wind whipped through my hair in the vaporetto, I waved goodbye to Venice’s islands, vowing to return one day to discover more of its hidden charms.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Italian Government Tourist Office
Looking for more things to do in Italy? What about visiting beautiful Lake Como, where you might bump into George Clooney.
If you’re looking for more places to visit around Italy, consider heading across the border to Switzerland. A Jungfrau travel pass is well worth the money.