More background info: Venice, to most people, needs little introduction. It’s one of the world’s most fabled places … and quite rightly so, as it is absolutely unique. Its looks and original atmosphere are hard to beat, and the same goes for the extraordinary location in the middle of a large shallow lagoon.
It’s an ancient place probably founded sometime in the middle of the first millennium A.D. and by the Middle Ages
had become a major independent state built on trade. At one point its merchant empire reached all along the Istrian and Dalmatian coast and as far as Cyprus
. But its core had always been the historic city state built on islands and stilts in a lagoon on the north Adriatic coast. The city was ruled not by any dynastic royalty but by an elected leader referred to as “doge” (a word that is apparently related to “Duce
” if only etymologically).
of Venice (inspiring Shakespeare to write a play with that title; see here
) also included Jews, and indeed Venice gave the word ‘ghetto
’ to the world, as an area within the city into which the Jews were confined. Other dark aspects of the early history of Venice were its role in the crusades and in the slave trade.
By the time the transatlantic slave trade
set in, however, the power of Venice had much declined
, also because the sea routes established first by Portuga
l and later also by Spain
and the Dutch
diminished the importance of the overland trade (especially in spices) from the Orient, in which Venice had specialized.
In 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte
conquered Venice. This ended the restriction of Jews to the ghetto
. Over the following decades Venice changed hands repeatedly, between France, Italy
, briefly becoming independent again and eventually was integrated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
The city survived WW1
virtually unscathed, hence all the intact ancient architecture. The same did not apply to its Jewish population in the ghetto
, however, who eventually were deported in the Holocaust
. Only a handful survived the Nazi
camps and returned.
has a long tradition in Venice. It was part of the Grand Tour
(arguably a precursor of the first forms of tourism proper – see also here
) and privileged elites kept coming throughout the 19th and earlier 20th centuries.
With the onset of mass tourism after WWII, Venice became an ever more popular destination for tourists in general. In recent decades, especially through the emergence of the cruise ship boom, this has led to severe “overtourism”, with crowds that are no longer manageable and has put a severe strain on the city’s resources and resident population. The latter have hence become fewer and fewer, many preferring to flee the tourist hordes (and concomitant inflation of the cost of living) and moved to the mainland. Only about 50,000 remain resident in the old city. At its peak, tourist numbers have exceeded that number per day!
To curb the trend towards increasingly unaffordable living space for residents there is now a restriction on the number of hotel rooms or properties for tourist accommodation generally. There are also currently measures being brought in to restrict cruise ship access to Venice and its lagoon and at least divert the larger ones of these destructive monsters of the sea to ports away from the historic city.
I’d be all for banning them altogether, at least from the lagoon! Not only are they the worst contributing factor to the problem of overtourism, they also pollute the environment and endanger the old architecture when they enter the Giudecca Canal and float past St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace at a close distance like towering high-rises dwarfing the city. That’s not only a risk for the old architecture – and utterly destructive in a purely aesthetic way in any case – but has also led to actual accidents. In 2019 a large cruise ship rammed a small tourist boat that was moored on the banks of Canale Giudecca. Nobody was killed (but several injured), yet it was a clear warning sign.
Even without human influence, there have been watery accidents. Most spectacularly in 1970, on 11 September (another 9/11
!!), when a tornado
hit Venice and caused much damage. 21 people were killed in a vaporetto (see below
) that was sunk by the tornado and many more were injured on land and/or made homeless.
A less dramatic, but slow and constant problem with water and weather is flooding, partly due to subsidence and partly to rising sea levels as a result of global warming
. Especially in winter there are frequent periods of “Acqua alta
” (literally ‘high water’) at high tides that flood lower-lying areas of the city, especially the famous Piazza San Marco. At these times wooden boardwalks may be the only way to get around, and at severe water levels (up to over 1.5m above normal high tide are on record) even that may not be possible. There are initiatives for building an inflatable dam system to close the openings of the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea that are supposed to help at such times. At the time of writing it’s still not in place. Whether it will be soon and then work as intended remains to be seen.
I’ve visited Venice twice, first as a teenager on an Interrail trip through Europe, when I, like most visitors, had no more than a day in the city and barely scratched the surface. “Overtourism” hadn’t yet quite set in, but I remember it having been pretty busy already. With the crowdedness getting worse and worse in more recent decades and years, my desire for a return visit diminished ever further. It felt like I’d probably never get to see the place again, or that I would even want to.
But then in 2020
came the coronavirus pandemic
, which slashed tourist numbers. In particular, all cruise ship traffic stalled! As the summer neared, I realized that this might be THE big chance to see Venice without the tourist throngs. And so my wife and I booked an overnight train from Vienna
and accommodation in Venice (see below
) and off we went. Tourist hotspots like the Rialto Bridge or St Mark’s Square weren’t exactly empty, but we never had to elbow our way through dense crowds. Once off the main tourist drags, we often had whole piazzas, alleyways and canal-side walkways all to ourselves. It was wonderful!
Of course, I also did my preparatory homework to see how much I could find to usefully cover in terms of dark tourism, even though on this occasion dark tourism really wasn’t the prime reason for going.
One place I had already been aware of is the former plague quarantine and lunatic asylum island of Poveglia
, which is a household name especially for those into ‘paranormal’ tourism
' who believe it to be one of the world’s most “haunted” places. I lack that sort of belief, but would still have liked to see Poveglia for its atmospheric ruins and historic legacy, more as an urbex
destination. But out of safety concerns (only regarding unstable structures, not because of any vicious ghosts) it is officially illegal to go and land on the island. I know people have done it anyway and I have seen very atmospheric photos from there (e.g. in this book
). But since I wouldn’t cover a place on this website that is only visitable illegally, I gave up on the idea of trying to find a skipper who I could bribe into taking me there.
I would have gone to the Lazzaretti islands that are normally accessible to the general public, but at the time of my visit this was not possible due to the pandemic. The rest is described below:
What there is to see: Venice really isn’t primarily about dark tourism, yet there are dark points of some interest dotted around, and three of those are given their own separate entries here, namely these:
Note that of these three only the first one is located within the historic city, the others are on separate islands requiring boat transport by vaporetto (see below
Also on an island outside the city itself are the two Jewish cemeteries, namely on Lido
. This is the long island that forms part of the barrier between the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic Sea. The sea-facing eastern shore is where all the beach holiday facilities are and that’s what most mainstream tourists come for (and/or to find a proper pizza from a wood-fired oven – see below
!). To get to Lido you can take a vaporetto. From the main tourist piers at San-Marco-Zaccaria the fastest line is No. 14 which goes to Lido direct, but you can also use Lines 5.1/5.2 or 6, which make a couple of intermediate stops, or even Line 1, the main tourist vaporetto which goes through the Canale Grande, thus connecting all the way to/from the train station. On Lido you can take bus line A for three stops north, or just walk it (it’s less than a mile, ca. 15 minutes), to get to the Old Jewish Cemetery
. The New Jewish Cemetery
is a few hundred yards further south along Via Cipro (in between is also Lido’s Christian cemetery). Both cemeteries have very restricted access, so most visitors will have to make do with a peek over the wall or through the (mostly closed) gates. It is, however, possible to arrange a guided tour with the Jewish museum in the Venice Ghetto
It was on my way back to the historic city, when I got off the vaporetto at Santa’ Elena that by chance I spotted the humble memorial stone
commemorating the deadly tornado
of 11 September 1970 (see above
). I didn’t have any idea that such devastating storms can occur in this part of the world, but when I got back home I did my research and soon found out the story (see e.g. here – external link, opens in a new window). It’s close to the pier, walk inland and the stone is in between the trees at the first fork in the footpath.
A few more words about other islands: the most legendary one from a dark perspective is Isola Poveglia
), but because this is officially off limits to tourists and I didn’t bother with finding a private skipper who I could try and bribe to take me there illegally, I did not see this. Neither did I manage to see the islands of Lazzaretto Nuovo
and Lazzaretto Vecchio
. All three were originally quarantine stations to keep the plague out of the historic city. The older one (‘Vecchio’), founded in the 15th century, then became the very first “hospital” (hence the name Lazzaretto) where contagious diseases were studied. Both Poveglia and Lazzaretto Vecchio also served as burial grounds. They are located south of the old city close to the lagoon-facing shores of Lido, Poveglia is the furthest away, while Lazzaretto Vecchio is within spitting distance from Lido just south of the Armenian monastery island (see under San Servolo
). Lazzaretto Nuovo is located on a marshy island north-east of old Venice, adjacent to Sant’ Erasmo (Venice’s vegetable garden, as it were, as it’s the island where most of its agriculture takes place). In the 18th and 19th centuries the Lazzaretti islands were converted for military use and eventually abandoned in the 20th century.
Both Lazzaretti are now looked after by volunteers
for visitors are normally possible to see the archaeological digs and abandoned buildings. However, because of the pandemic these were suspended when I was in Venice in August 2020. At the time if writing they were still not running again, but hopefully by the time you read this they should soon restart. At Lazzaretto Vecchio restoration work is ongoing and there’s a plan to turn it into an Archaeological Museum of the Venice Lagoon
. (see also this dedicated website
, where you can also check for updates regarding access/tours – external link, opens in a new window).
But now to the main historic city of Venice. As already said above there isn’t really much dark beyond the places covered separately and above, although some street names like Calle de la Morte (‘death lane’) may raise a dark tourist’s eyebrows.
Not especially dark as such but a good illustration of Venice’s ongoing fight against water (see above
) is the flooded crypt of San Zaccaria
church. It’s also quite an extraordinary sight to behold, and the reflections in the water do have a certain spooky quality. Moreover, the crypt is the final resting place of eight of Venice’s doges. To get there enter the main church and keep right for Cappella di Sant’Atanasio. For entering this, an admission fee is charged at a desk outside (1.50 EUR when I was there). The chapel is worth a good look around for its works of art, but to get to the crypt you have to find the narrow stairs leading down – see the photos below
. Opening times: daily 10 a.m. to noon and 4-6 p.m., on Sundays only in the afternoon.
Being a military site and a relic of Venice’s former maritime might, the Arsenal can be regarded as having a certain dark aspect about it too. It’s certainly worth a look, as it contrasts with the rest of Venice’s architecture. You can peek into the large basin, but otherwise most of the Arsenal is normally off limits to mere civilian mortals except on special occasions (e.g. when the Biennale is on). If you’re walking to the Arsenal from the north via Calle San Francisco you pass an unexpected site: disused gasometers. I wouldn’t have thought I’d encounter such industrial relics in this ancient city! Also en route nearby, on Campo San Francisco have a look at the facade of the building just south-east of the big church and spot the skull and the two crossed hands with holes in the palms (which must be an allusion to crucifixion).
Another unexpected find in the western part of Venice was the large prison (Santa Maria Maggiore) that I spotted from the Fondamenta Procuratie. As it’s a working prison it’s out of bounds to tourists, though.
Among the top mainstream sights of Venice is also one that can be considered dark: the Bridge of Sighs, a covered foot bridge which leads from the Doge’s Palace across a narrow canal. This used to be the route for convicts to the adjacent prison. You’d have to be on a special guided tour of the Doge’s Palace to see the inside of this; most people huddle together on the Ponte della Paglia to get that obligatory postcardy photo of the Bridge of Sighs. It might even be the single most photographed sight in Venice.
All in all, Venice is certainly not a top dark destination, but does cater for those on the lookout for dark elements to some degree. Most of the dark sites are also off the most beaten tracks, so if/even when mass (over-)tourism returns and cruise ships spill out their thousands of day trippers, you can get away from the worst of the throngs and enjoy the less touristy and darker sides of this ultra-charming place.
on, or rather “behind” the coast of northern Italy
, namely spread over various island in a lagoon on the northern edge of the Adriatic Sea, ca. 70 miles (115 km) west of Trieste
and a good 80 miles (130 km) north-east of Bologna
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: not tricky to get to, but easy to get lost in! Not cheap, but not necessarily excessively pricey either.
Details: The best way to get to Venice is by train – and NOT by those cruise ships that are so hated, rightly so, by most Venetians. In the residential parts you can spot plenty of posters from the anti-cruise-ship campaign “No Grandi Navi”. Cruise ships threaten old Venice both physically and culturally, they pollute and anyway only allow their passengers far too little time for actually getting to see this marvellous place beyond the handful of prime sights that have been photographed to death as it is already. Moreover, these ugly monsters of the seas bring in far too large hordes at the same time, so that the standard tourist drags can clog up so much that you literally can no longer move. Absolutely not my idea of a fulfilling mode of travel.
Come by train instead and stay longer, and you get an infinitely better experience – and by paying for accommodation and restaurant meals you give this fragile city back more, much more than all those cruise shippers who pay for no more than a few souvenirs and perhaps an ice cream or a drink. Note that not all long-distance trains go all the way to the Santa Lucia train station, which is the terminus right in the historic city, but only to Miaste station on the mainland. However, you can easily hop on another train from there for the last stretch of the way.
It is in theory also possible to come by bus or by car, as parallel to the railway causeway connecting the old city to the mainland is also a road (there’s no pedestrian access to it though!). When coming by car you’d have to park your vehicle (for a hefty fee!) for the duration of your stay at the parking facilities at Piazzale Roma or by the cruise terminal, as the rest of Venice is 100% car-free. And there are no mopeds or bicycles either. So getting around is by boat or on foot only.
There is public transport
in the form of the water buses
. There are countless lines reaching numerous places along the central Canale Grande and Canale di Cannaregio as well as the entire outer perimeter of historic Venice. Moreover they provide the only regular way of getting to the outlying islands. If you intend to use vaporetti a lot there are useful day and multi-day tickets. Water taxis
are also available but these cost a fortune and are sheer luxury. The famous clichéd gondolas
are these days only for tourists, hired by the hour, to just get slowly taken along pretty canals, but do not constitute a viable means of transport any longer, except for those two or three for the general public that do nothing but cross the Canale Grande and back at a couple of points that are inconveniently far from the mere four bridges that cross this main central waterway. By far the best way to get around Venice’s main six districts (‘sestieri’) is on foot – see also below
Bear this transport situation in mind when choosing your accommodation
too! There are many options, and price-wise the sky’s the limit. But you can also find quite affordable places if you shop around. When I was in Venice in August 2020 I split my accommodation between both ends of the scale and first stayed a few nights for a very reasonable price at a guest house right in the Ghetto
, and then added a night at the independent classic hotel The Metropole, which at the time had a fantastic special offer on that brought down the price to within a range I could just about afford for a night (rack prices are in the luxury bracket). All the regular chains have branches here too, but I tend to prefer independent places.
Staying in furnished holiday flats (including that big player whose name suggests a combination of flying and B ‘n B) is perhaps not such a good idea. They may be convenient, but in a place like Venice these cannot be recommended because they drive the locals out; and these are already under pressure with regard to the cost of living, pushed up by tourism. So don’t make it worse by supporting these ex-private tourist apartment deals.
As for food & drink
, the first thing you have to understand is that Venetian cuisine has next to nothing to do with the internationally standard pizza & pasta version of Italian food. There is pasta, alright, though done in different ways to the familiar dishes of further south. And with regard to pizza, note that the traditional wood-fired pizza ovens are forbidden in the historic city as a fire-precaution measure. So the pizzas offered to tourists on the main routes are of a substandard sort – unless you go to the outer island of Lido, where these restrictions don’t apply (they also have car traffic and buses on Lido). So instead why not discover proper Venetian dishes
, which often revolve around seafood and polenta. Creamy salt cod puree is a classic too and the most typically Venetian dish has to be “sarde in saór”, which is marinated sardines with onions and sultanas (a culinary trace of Venice’s trading history with the Orient). Typically Venetian are also the little tapas-like titbits called “cicchétti ”.
I found that heading where the local residents go pays off, so you should have good chances of eating well especially in the Cannaregio area, in particular along the Fondamenta Misericordia.
As for drinks, Venice doesn’t make much wine itself, for obvious enough reasons, but the quality, especially of white wines, from the Veneto region on the mainland is amongst the best in Italy, and often quite affordable too. All the usual soft drinks and lager beers are available everywhere too, but good quality craft beer is a little harder to find here than in some other Italian cities, with one shining exception being “Il Santo Bevitore”, also in the charming Cannaregio district, and it has a lovely canal-side location to boot.
Tap water is generally perfectly safe to drink. The only issue may be old lead piping in historic buildings, so if you’re staying in an ancient place that may not have had its pipes modernized, let the water run for a while before filling a glass or bottle.
Time required: Most tourists come only for a few hours, maybe one day, only to tick off the famous guidebook-prescribed top sights, and thus miss out on much of the real charm of Venice. I had five days when I visited in the summer of 2020, and never got bored or ran out of things to see and explore. I could easily have stayed even longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing much in the immediate vicinity, but e.g. Bologna
is only a one-and-a-half to two-hour train ride away; similarly, Trieste
can also be reached by train in two to two-and-a-half hours. Even Milan
are an easy half-day train journey away. For other dark attractions in northern Italy, such as Fossoli
or Vajont Dam
, you’d ideally need a car.
See also under Italy
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Venice is of course primarily a non-dark tourist destination. The top sights are world famous and need no introduction … St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) with its iconic campanile, the exuberant basilica and the Doge’s Palace are kind-of the epicentre of tourism where all the visitor hordes gravitate towards, usually via the equally iconic Rialto Bridge. To get the best postcard view of Venice it’s best ignore the campanile on St Mark’s and instead get a vaporetto boat to San Giorgio Maggiore and get a lift up the campanile there. Beats all views to be had from Piazza San Marco itself.
Generally, the best way to enjoy Venice and see many of its marvels that are off the standard tourist route (with its endless all-the-same souvenir stalls) is to venture away from all that and explore on foot off the beaten track. You will almost inevitably get lost and hit dead-end passageways that abruptly end at a canal without a bridge to carry on, so you’ll have to retrace your steps and try a different alleyway or canal-side path. Getting lost just has to be accepted (and note that GPS navigation rarely works well here!), and once you get into the groove of it that’s actually part of the beauty of exploring the real Venice. Atmospheric piazzas and architectural marvels are never far away. Other than the ubiquitous palazzos and churches, one of the most sought after (literally – it’s quite tricky to find) is the Scala Contarini del Bovolo (a pretty covered spiral staircase).
For many, going on a gondola ride is an indispensable part of the Venice experience, but note that these are expensive and mostly just a tourist trap and not necessarily as “romantic” as the hackneyed cliché has it. OK, gondolas can go on the narrowest and very atmospheric canals that larger vessels couldn’t use, but you can get just as nice views for free by staying on foot. I preferred that and never felt any urge to go on a gondola.
Try also to get away from the central districts and e.g. explore the northern parts, especially Cannaregio, which is where the majority of Venice’s remaining residents live, so you get a more authentic flavour of life in this unique place. Also interesting and largely untouristy are the western and south-easternmost parts that are less dominated by canals.
And of course you can get boat rides to other islands too, of which Murano is the most popular, partly thanks to the famous glass art produced here.
- Venice 01 - old Jewish cemetery
- Venice 02 - new Jewish cemetery
- Venice 03 - beach holiday horror on Lido
- Venice 04 - tornado memorial stone
- Venice 05 - dramatic weather
- Venice 06 - on the edge of the thunderstorm
- Venice 07 - Vaporetto waterbus approaching Cimitero di San Michele
- Venice 08 - water dog
- Venice 09 - ambulance boat
- Venice 10 - protest against cruise ships
- Venice 11 - even guarding finances is by boat
- Venice 12 - guarding against flood waters
- Venice 13 - flooded crypt underneath San Zaccaria church
- Venice 14 - way down
- Venice 15 - crucifixion hands
- Venice 16 - leaning tower
- Venice 17 - the weight of the world
- Venice 18 - university
- Venice 19 - in the university quarter
- Venice 20 - death lane
- Venice 21 - prison
- Venice 22 - arsenal
- Venice 23 - off-limits arsenal basin
- Venice 24 - dead end
- Venice 25 - church in COVID-19 times
- Venice 26 - the industrial side of the city across the lagoon
- Venice 27 - ex-gasometer
- Venice 28 - boat yard
- Venice 29 - converted industrial architecture
- Venice 30 - overgrown garden
- Venice 31 - tourist central seen from the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore
- Venice 32 - San Giorgio Maggiore
- Venice 33 - Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
- Venice 34 - tourist central seen from Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
- Venice 35 - on Piazza San Marco
- Venice 36 - Basilica San Marco
- Venice 37 - Bridge of Sighs
- Venice 38 - Rialto Bridge
- Venice 39 - private mini bridge without railings
- Venice 40 - competing modes of water transport
- Venice 41 - Canale Grande
- Venice 42 - smaller canal in the residential Cannaregio quarter
- Venice 43 - calm boat traffic
- Venice 44 - Scala Contarini del Bovolo
- Venice 45 - quiet piazza
- Venice 46 - remote corner of the city without canals
- Venice 47 - totally untouristy
- Venice 48 - San Simeon Piccolo opposite the train station
- Venice 49 - Piazza San Marco by night
- Venice 50 - canal-side evening dining
- Venice 51 - Venetian specialities quite apart from pizza and pasta
- fiercly patriotic