We all know Venice for its romantic charm, scrumptious food and glorious architecture, but there is a dark and mysterious side to the city that is just waiting to be discovered.
Around 400 AD, Venice was known as a refuge for people looking to escape other areas of Italy following the collapse of the Roman Empire. The water surrounding the city provided residents with independence from the turmoil elsewhere, but it wasn’t all plain sailing.
The Black Death devastated the population in the 1700s, leading to the construction of a quarantine station on Poveglia Island. Folktales suggest a vampire was once found on the island and many locals believe it remains haunted to this day. Although the rivers protected the population from war, it threatened their livelihoods with regular flooding.
Known as acqua alta, the phenomenon typically occurs in the winter months due to high tides in the Venetian lagoon, but 1966 saw the worst flood in the city’s history. It left thousands of residents without homes and damaged historic monuments. It was only after assistance from UNESCO and other organisations that communities could start recovering.
Venice went on to channel its fear and suffering into art and design, building breathtaking architecture such as the Basilica di san Marco and laying the foundations for the city to turn into the cultural hub it is today.
Underwater beauty at the Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria
Completed in the 15th century, the Church of San Zaccaria is a combination of stunning Gothic and Renaissance styles and is more than worthy of a visit in itself, but its historic crypt is what makes the building especially compelling.
Containing the tombs of Venice doges (the chief magistrate and leader of the city), the underground area features a host of columns and features designed in Gothic and Renaissance styles. These, surrounded by permanent standing water, create an ethereal atmosphere.
One of the many resting places here belongs to Alessandro Vittoria, a celebrated artist from the late 1600s who helped popularise classical Venetian sculpture. His tomb is located next to a self-portrait bust of himself, a genre of art he pioneered in the city.
Outside of the crypt, the church is home to the remains of San Zaccaria and was designed by two separate architects (Antonio Gambello and Mauro Codussi). Gambello was responsible for the Gothic features, whereas Codussi introduced many of the Renaissance elements.
There are pieces from a host of other celebrated artists, including the Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints painting from Giovanni Bellini. Its beauty was so spellbinding that Napoleon stole and kept it for 20 years!
Length of time to stay: If you take a tour of the church as well as the crypt, you can spend around two to three hours here.
Price: Admission to the main hall is free, but access to the three chapels and crypt is priced at around €1.
Nearby attractions: St Mark’s Basilica is only a short walk away, meaning visitors are mere minutes from one of the world’s most revered buildings. The Doge’s Palace is another attraction close by and is a fine example of Gothic architecture.
Places to eat: The cosy and welcoming Bistro de l’Osmarin is only just over 100 metres away from the Church of Zaccaria and serves up a wide variety of Italian cuisine.
Take a whistlestop tour of Venetian beauty on Canal Grande
Canal Grande is revered for its sophistication and beauty, but its ancient history is what really makes it stand out as one of the quintessential symbols of Venice.
Originally a waterway for trade surrounded by merchants, the 2.36- mile route gradually saw wealthier families move in during the 12th and 13th centuries, replacing older settlements with homes made in the Byzantine style.
The Rialto Bridge has been a focal point of the canal since 1591 and joins the Accademia, Scalzi and Calatrava bridges. It was designed by Anthony da Ponte and includes stone sculptures of the city’s patron saints St Mark and St Theodore.
To truly make the most of the canal, it’s advisable to take a water bus along the full route, where you will get the best possible views of the city. There is a selection of magnificent 15th-century palaces to appreciate, including Ca ’d’Oro, which was the home of eight doges between the 1000s and 1600s. It is now a museum housing the art of Giorgio Franchetti, whose remains are housed in the atrium.
Of course, once you have explored all of the histories of the area, you can try some of the classy bars and restaurants and take advantage of the mesmerising photo opportunities.
Length of time to stay: A water bus trip up the canal will only take around an hour, but exploring all of the stunning buildings and restaurants could easily last all day.
Price: Ca’ d’Oro costs around €10 for admission, while a day pass for all water transport is available for €20.
Nearby attractions: Gallerie Accademia is based at the centre of the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria Del Carita and features a varied collection of Venetian and European paintings. The Ca’Rezzonico Museum of the 18th Century is another must-see and features artworks from the time period in one of the city’s most prestigious palaces.
Places to eat: You won’t want to miss enjoying a meal overlooking the Canal Grande. Antico Forno serves up authentic dishes with a laid-back vibe, while Al Merca’s lunch is perfect for those looking for a light meal.
Curses, ghosts and spooky buildings: Take a Venice ghost walk if you dare!
You may still be in Venice, but some of the city’s abandoned, mysterious and allegedly haunted sites could not be further from the pomp and circumstance of the Canal Grande.
Top of the list is Ca’Dario. Constructed in 1487, the building’s beautiful marble and stone design fit in with the others close to it, but its dark and mysterious past has always made it stand out.
Originally owned by Giovanni Dario (who later committed suicide), the site is said to carry a curse that has been linked to several deaths over the years. Eight people who either owned the property or were linked to it are known to have died under suspicious circumstances.
Campo Dei Mori is another building synonymous with mystery. The Mori were three brothers who owned the palace around 1112, but rumours suggest they remain at their home as stone busts to this day! According to myth, after overpricing poor quality goods, the trio was turned into stone by a local customer and can still be seen today.
For a better perspective on Venice’s dark side, take part in one of the ghost tours available through the city. Guided by locals with comprehensive knowledge of the area’s history, expect to hear some spine-chilling tales!
Length of time to stay: An official ghost tour of Venice will last around 90 minutes to two hours, but doing it yourself can easily take three to four hours.
Price: For a guided tour, prices vary between €18-20. Tickets can also be booked in advance online.
Nearby attractions: As the ghostly spots of Venice are spread across the city, you will be sure to see some outstanding places on your travels. One of the top destinations you’re likely to come across is the Madonna dell’Orto church, which is close to Ca’Dario. Visitors can look forward to captivating art from Jacopo Tintoretto, Giovanni Bellini and more.
Places to eat: Osteria L’Orto dei Mori is right next to the Campo dei Mori and serves up authentic Venetian dishes with fantastic service, while the classy Antinoo’s Lounge is another option.
Basilica di San Marco: Ancient stories and spectacular artistry at the everlasting ode to Venice!
It may be widely renowned as one of the most popular tourist attractions in Venice, but the Basilica di San Marco offers more than just photo opportunities
There are over 500 columns and capitals in the building, many of which are made in the Byzantine style and date back to the sixth and 11th centuries. These stunning structures, combined with more than 85,000 sq ft of mosaic, create an otherworldly atmosphere and an inexplicable sense of opulence.
The cathedral features a wide selection of trophies obtained in the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. Over three days, a variety of valuable works were destroyed in the battles, but the Venetians instead decided to take the masterpieces for themselves. Statues such as the Horses of Saint Mark were originally stolen during these battles and placed in the Basilica.
After operating as the doge’s private chapel in the 12th century, the Basilica became a venue for public ceremonies and celebrations and a symbol of Venice’s wealth. It was only in 1807 that it became the city’s official cathedral following orders from Napoleon.
There are plenty of spellbinding works to explore throughout the church, but the most prestigious is perhaps the Pala d’Oro. Portraying the life of Christ and other biblical tales through divine enamelled medallions, the unforgettable piece was crafted by Venetian craftsmen and Constantinople artists. After being commissioned in 976, it was finally completed in 1345.
Length of time to stay: Around two hours is the perfect amount of time to see the Basilica’s artistic marvels.
Price: Admission is free, but this does not include the Pala d’Oro. To make the most of your visit, book your tickets online for a €2 service fee. This will give you more time inside the building and allow you to dodge the queues.
Nearby attractions: Thanks to its location in St Mark’s Square, the Basilica is close to other top sights. Next door is St Mark’s Museum, where many spectacular works can be seen, while St Mark’s Square itself is also a glorious place to explore. It is particularly impressive at night when the crowds are smaller and the lights create a majestic atmosphere.
Places to eat: The cathedral is surrounded by restaurants. For Italian food and fantastic service, the deluxe Bar da Enzo and the cosy and friendly Al Chianti are two of the best to choose from.