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Venice Islands Tour
Plan a self-guided day trip in the Venetian Lagoon.
If you're spending more than a few days in Venice, allow time to visit the islands of the Venetian Lagoon.
The itinerary in this article will take you to:
You'll reach the islands on water buses operated by ACTV, the Venice public-transportation company. Allow a full day for the entire excursion, or half a day if you skip San Michele and the Lido.
ACTV's lagoon water buses can be crowded during peak season, on weekends, or if local groups of senior citizens or schoolchildren are traveling between the islands.
If crowds bother you, or if you're unwilling to stand on a moving boat when seats aren't available, consider one of these alternatives:
In a city where the water table lies almost at ground level (and sometimes above), disposing of the dead has never been as simple as digging a grave and covering the body or coffin with dirt. And in Venice, a city with limited real estate, just finding enough room for departed citizens has always been a challenge.
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the Napoleonic authorities decreed that bodies would no longer be buried within the historic center. Instead, the dead were dispatched to a new walled cemetery on the island of San Michele, which is within a gondola's rowing distance of the city's northern waterfront.
The island is attractively landscaped, with tall cypress trees and a 15th Century church with a cloister that leads to the cemetery proper.
Most of the shallow graves that you see are occupied for just ten or twelve years; after that, the graves are excavated and the bones are transferred in boxes to mausoleum niches or dumped into a communal ossuary.
During your visit, take time to see the Protestant and Orthodox cemeteries, which are less formal and more neglected than the Catholic sections. You'll find graves of 19th and 20th Century foreigners, including celebrities like Ezra Pound, Serge Diaghilev (whose grave normally is decorated with a ballet slipper), and Igor Stravinsky.
How to reach San Michele:
Take the No. 4.1 or 4.2 motoscafo from the Fondamenta Nove water bus stop on the northern edge of the historic center. The ride to the Cimitero stop takes only six minutes.
If you wish, you can board the No. 4.1 or 4.2 boat at a different station along the route, such as S. Zaccaria Jolanda near the Piazza San Marco. Stay on the boat until Cimitero, which is the next stop after Fondamenta Nove.
(This can easily add 30 to 45 minutes to your journey, depending on the boat and boarding point, so we recommend going to Fondamenta Nove on foot if you're within walking distance.)
Glass has been made on the islands of the Venetian Lagoon for at least 1300 years.
The industry had its beginnings on Torcello in the 7th or 8th Century; production later shifted to Venice, where it remained concentrated until the fornaci or furnaces were moved to the island of Murano as a fire-prevention measure in 1291.
Today, "Venetian glass" is a synonym for "Murano glass," and the island's glass industry is enjoying a resurgence under a new generation of master artists and craftsmen.
Still, most of the island's glass production falls under the heading of "gifts and trinkets," and the items that you'll see being blown in Murano's glass factories tend to be designed for impulse sales in the fornace shop.
(Mind you, there's nothing wrong with that: A tiny hand-blown glass cow or a candy kiss twisted from melted silica can be an affordable, easy-to-carry, and cherished souvenir.)
If you're even remotely interested in the history and art of glassmaking, spend 30 minutes to an hour at the Museo Vetraio or Glass Museum in the center of the island.
Murano also has two historic churches that are well worth visiting (especially the Basilica di Santi Maria e Donato with its beautiful mosaics).
For more information about the island and its attractions, see our illustrated 11-page Murano travel guide.
From the Cimitero Actv platform on San Michele, catch the next boat that's headed in the direction of Murano. (You'll see it coming from Venice's Fondamenta Nove.)
On Murano, you'll have a choice of boat stops. We'd suggest getting off at Colonna or Faro and following the canals to the center.
Murano is a small island, and it's hard to get lost. If you're in a hurry and just want to see the Glass Museum and the Basilica, stay on the boat until either Navagero or Museo. It's only a few minutes from Murano to any of the stops.
Another option is to skip the cemetery island and take the 4.1, 4.2, 13, or 12 boat directly to Murano from the Fondamenta Nove. (The 13 and 12 stop only at the Faro station on Murano.)
Finally, the line 6 "Diretto Murano" boat service runs from the Piazzale Roma and the Venice railroad station to all of the Actv stops on Murano. This boat is handy if you're coming from the mainland. Travel time is about half an hour, depending on where you board and get off.
The island of Burano lies in the northern part of the Venetian Lagoon, about 40 minutes from Venice by motorboat.
It has a much different atmosphere from Murano or Venice's historic center, thanks to the Buranese custom of painting houses in bright colors--a tradition that may have had its origins in the color schemes of local fishing boats.
Everywhere you look, you'll see houses clad in blue, green, pink, rose, lavender, purple, yellow, and other colors. And because Burano's houses tend to be small, the island has a cheerful coziness. It wouldn't be surprising if Burano were used as a model for a family resort at Disney World.
Fishing is one traditional occupation of the Buranelli; the other is lacemaking. If you haven't spent your souvenir budget in the glass shops of Murano, you may find it hard to leave Burano without a supply of doilies and table linens or a wedding dress.
(One word of caution: True Venetian Point lace is in limited supply, and many items in the shops are imported or machine-made.)
A "must see" attraction on Burano is the Museo del Merletto, or Lace Museum, in the old Scuola di Merletti or lacemaking school. The small two-story museum has impressive displays of historic and contemporary lace designs.
If you're lucky, you'll find a group of Buranese women (mostly older ladies) wielding their needles in a sewing circle upstairs, near the display of traditional lacemaking implements. (Closed Tuesdays.)
Roman Catholics and lovers of solitude may enjoy a side trip to the monastery island of San Francesco del Deserto, where the nine Franciscan monks welcome visitors from 9-10 a.m. and 3-5 p.m. daily.
The island is 20 minutes by rowboat from the Burano waterfront. (A gondolier does the rowing.) For more information, or to book an overnight stay, call the monks at 041 528 6863 when you're in Venice.
How to reach Burano:
Board the ACTV's Line 12 boat at Fondamenta Nove in Venice or the Faro stop on Murano. From Faro, it's a 33-minute trip to Burano.
(In summer, the No. 12 boat starts its run at Zaccaria, east of the Piazza San Marco, stopping at Fondamente Nove before continuing on to Murano and Burano.)
From spring through fall, you can also get to Burano on the No. 14 water bus from Zaccaria via the Lido and Punta Sabbioni.
There isn't much to see on Mazzorbo, a small island that adjoins Burano, and that's part of the island's nearly tourist-free appeal.
The villas, gardens, and churches of earlier centuries are mostly gone, although the tower of the medieval Chiesa di Santa Caterina continues to dominate the bucolic landscape.
The most interesting sight on Mazzorbo, at least for fans of architecture and urban planning, is the government-assisted "case soziale" housing project designed by Giancarlo De Carlo.
The houses, which are painted in Buranese colors, were built from 1979 to 1986. My favorite touch is the nursery and florist's shop with colorful tile trim.
How to reach Mazzorbo:
The ACTV's 12 (Lagoon North) boat stops at Mazzorbo on its way to Burano, but we'd suggest touring Burano first. Then, if you have time, walk across the wooden footbridge to Mazzorbo.
(You can't miss the bridge: It's within sight of the Burano ACTV station.)
There was a time, nearly 1,500 years ago, when Torcello was the largest and most important settlement in the Venetian Lagoon.
Those days are long gone: As silt from rivers on the mainland filled up the shallow waters around Torcello, trade became more difficult and malarial mosquitoes bred. The 20,000 or so inhabitants gradually made their way to Venice, and today only a few dozen innkeepers, farmers, and other hardy souls live on the largely abandoned island.
Still, it's obvious even from the Burano waterfront that Torcello is worth a visit: A magnificent Byzantine-Italian cathedral dating back to 639 A.D., the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, looms over the island with the Bell Tower and Church of Santa Fosca alongside.
Allow 45 minutes or an hour to visit the religious buildings around the central piazza, which is a short walk along a canal from the ACTV pier.
Tickets are sold individually for the Basilica, the Bell Tower, and the small Archaeological Museum, but the best deal is a combination ticket that includes all three plus the use of an audioguide in the Basilica (still called the "Cathedral" by many, and still in use for weddings and religious festivals).
Don't let claustrophobia or a fear of steep stairs keep you from ascending the Bell Tower: The climb is easy, via a series of gentle well-lit ramps, and from the top you'll get a fine view of the church buildings, the island, and the Lagoon.
If your exertions leave you hungry or thirsty, head for one of the indoor-outdoor restaurants around the piazza or along the path to the boat dock. (A kiosk also sells bottled drinks and other refreshments.)
How to reach Torcello:
You can reach Torcello directly from Venice on the , which also serves Murano, Burano, and other major points in the northern Lagoon.
Most, but not all, No. 12 boats go from Burano to Torcello and back during the journey from Venice to Punta Sabbioni. (You can check the timetable at Fondamente Nove, the departure point in Venice, before boarding.)
From about 7 to 9 a.m., a small No. 9 boat often provides morning commuter service between Burano and Torcello, depending on the season.
From Torcello or Burano, you'll have several transportation choices for the journey back to Venice:
The Lido is a long, narrow island that acts as a barrier between the Venetian Lagoon and the sea.
Much of the island is taken up by 19th and 20th Century villas, some of which have been converted to hotels. Well-groomed beaches cater to summer holiday crowds and guests of luxury hotels on the side that faces the Adriatic.
(Motor vehicles are permitted on the Lido, which is served by a car ferry.)
When you arrive at the Lido's ACTV station, cross the street carefully and continue into the main shopping area. Here, you'll find a small department store, boutiques, cafés with gelato counters, and restaurants. The business district feels lively and prosperous, thanks to tourists in the summer and a year-round population of suburban commuters.
Keep walking down the main shopping street, the Gran Viale S.M. Elisabetta. In a few minutes you'll reach the promenade on the Adriatic side of the island.
To your right is the former Hotel des Bains (the setting of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice). Farther along the waterfront are the Palazzo del Cinema (used by the Venice International Film Festival) and the neo-Moorish Hotel Excelsior.
Just to your left are the Bagni Communale, or public beaches, with bathhouses for day visitors and residents.
Walk along the Adriatic in either direction, and wander out on one of the massive stone jetties that help to protect the beaches from erosion.
How to reach the Lido:
See Return-trip options for information on boat service to the Lido from Burano.
If you prefer to visit the Lido directly from Venice, you have a number of choices--including the No. 1 vaporetto, the 5.1/5.2 and 6 circolare routes, the double-deck boats that depart from a pier near San Marco, and the 17 car ferry from the Tronchetto parking island. See our Venice Vaporetto Routes article for more information.
Lido to Venice
After you've explored the Lido, head for the ACTV station at the lagoon end of the Grand Viale shopping street. Take one of the following water buses:
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