Venice: The Islands in the Lagoon (San Giorgio Maggiore, Murano, San Michele, Burano, and Torcello)
The City of Venice, Italy is founded on a collection of islands in the lagoon, and built on a network of canals.
But the main island of Venice is not the only one in this lagoon. There are many others and all are very different in their appeals and the experiences which can be encountered. This page looks at just five of these islands, and suggests that a visit to one or all of these would enhance any vacation spent in the historic city of Venice.
The five islands considered are San Giorgio Maggiore, Murano and San Michele, Burano and Torcello. All are briefly described in this article - how to get there, what can be seen, and what makes them worthy of a visit.
Visiting the Islands
Venice is built on a great collection of islands, and the nature of the city means that there are no roads and no cars in the old city - only canals and boats. And many kinds of boats, from the giant cruise liners churning out the day visitors at St Mark's Square every day of the year to the traditional and world famous gondolas which ferry tourists down the canals. But there are also workhorse boats - the water buses known as 'vaporetti' - and the vaporetti are the essential means by which thousands of people are carried every day, both within the city itself, and across the water to other islands in the Venice lagoon.
Vaporetti are operated by ACTV, a public transport company, and for anyone who visits the area, it is well worth getting to know the service they provide because these water buses offer the prospect of a host of varied island experiences. The author of this article would recommend that all tourists who visit Venice for three days or more should spend one of those days away from the city, travelling around the islands of the lagoon. And although one could hire a private water taxi, the convenience and value for money of the vaporetto service make this the best option for most of us.
Vaporetti (singular - vaporetto) water bus stops are to be found along the length of the Grand Canal of Venice and around the coastal area of the city. Tickets can be purchased for single trips or for multiple trips, and for most tourists, a one or three day travel card may be the best solution. It enables one to just hop on and off the boats without the hassle of figuring out costs and buying tickets every time. And particularly for the purposes of the excursions to the outlying islands suggested here, a vaporetto travel card is a sound, economical investment.
There follows a brief assessment of five islands. All of these can be easily reached by vaporetto, and a trip out to any of these islands will - in the opinion of the author of this article - enhance the experience of a vacation in the Venice lagoon.
San Giorgio Maggiore
We will start with the closest of the islands to Venice, and the easiest to get to. San Giorgio Maggiore is almost literally a stone's throw away from St Mark's Square - the most scenic and historic part of the City of Venice. And therein lies the appeal of this island. Whilst many tourists will climb to the top of the campanile (bell tower) in St Mark's Square to obtain a good view of the city, the best view of St Mark's itself and the beautiful Doge's Palace which fronts on to the Venetian shore, is to be had from the Palladian Church bell tower on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And the tower also affords views of other iconic sights such as the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, as well as the nearby island of La Giudecca.
The No 2 vaporetto makes regular and frequent trips to the island, from the San Zaccharia pier close to St Mark's. The journey only takes a few minutes, and most tourists will only spend an hour or so on the island, but the crossing is well worthwhile.
San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the least commercial of the islands which receives visitors from Venice. Apart from the view of the city across the lagoon, the only reason to visit San Giorgio Maggiore is to see renouned architect Andrea Palladio's Church, on which construction began in 1566, to be completed in 1610. The church is a Renaissance style building which replaced an earlier building destroyed in a 13th century earthquake, and it is celebrated for its design and for the many artworks which are contained within. And the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore has another claim to fame; since 1417, every single Catholic Pope has been elected in Rome with just one exception - during the years of Napoleonic rule in Rome, cardinals met in Venice to elect a new pope, and on 21st March 1800, Pope Pius VII was elected on this island.
To see the views of Venice described above, one must ascend the 200 year old bell tower. An elevator takes one to the top and there is a small charge to use it. But the price is less than to scale the St Mark's Campanile, and the queues are much less.
Behind the church is a monastery and there are good views of this. The monastery is believed to be the oldest continuously operating Benedictine monastery in the world.
If debating whether or not San Giorgio Maggiore is worth a visit, one could almost argue 'why not?' It is such a quick trip from the key Venetian attractions of St Mark's Square, and affords such a great view of the city, that it would be a mistake to ignore this island. With the additional interest of Palladio's Church, I believe that only those on the very tightest of time schedules should give San Giorgio Maggiore a miss.
This next island is one of the major attractions as an excursion for tourists from Venice, and the foremost appeal is its industry. Murano is world famous as a glass manufacturing centre, and has been throughout more than 700 years. Each day, boat loads of tourists arrive from the city, many of whom will be on escorted tours arranged to visit the numerous glass furnaces opened to the public. And of course there are abundant opportunities to buy glass souvenirs afterwards - more than half the shops on Murano are glassware retailers, and there is also a museum dedicated to the industry here which one can visit.
There are several water bus stations on Murano, which is less than two kilometres from the city, and several vaporetto lines from Venice stop here, including routes from St Mark's in the south of the city, and from the road and rail links to the west. The shortest route however, is from the Fondamente Nove Station on the north coast of Venice, which is just 10 minutes away. Water buses belonging to the Alilaguna Company also regularly carry passengers from the mainland, so there is no difficulty getting to this island.
Most tourists who come to Murano will visit a glass factory and spend time doing some souvenir buying. If they are on an escorted tour, they may only be here for an hour or two.
But it would be a mistake to think that Murano is just about glass blowing. The island is worth visiting in its own right. Rather like Venice, Murano in fact consists of several islands close together and separated by canals which are much more comparable to Venice's Grand Canal in size than to the many tiny creeks which cross the city. There is a lot more space than in Venice, so broad footpaths line the waterways and make this a really nice island to just stroll around. And the presence here of some interesting buildings including a lighthouse and historic churches, makes Murano an island where one could easily spend a pleasant half day, perhaps incorporating lunch in one of the waterside restaurants.
A separate article by this author focuses on the history and appeal of the Island of Murano, including the pros and cons of choosing Murano as a place of residence during a vacation to the Venice Lagoon. But to summarise this little review - if San Giorgio Maggiore offers great views of the City of Venice, then the appeal of Murano is altogether different. A chance to see a fascinating industry in close up and to buy authentic souvenirs of that industry, and a chance to visit a historic island and enjoy a less pressurised and cramped environment than one has to face in Venice itself.
The appeal of San Michele is very different - some might argue that it has no appeal to tourists looking for a fun-packed vacation. Why? Because San Michele is essentially one large cemetery. Nonetheless a brief stop over of an hour or so may appeal to many who find old tombs fascinating. I say 'stop over' because for anyone who visits Murano, San Michele is not out of the way. The island lies directly between Murano and Fondamente Nove in the north of Venice, using the regular 4.1 and 4.2 vaporetto lines.
The existence of the cemetery owes much to the chronic lack of space in Venice; there just isn't much room for tombstones in the city. Even on San Michele, space is at a premium, and most of the dead only rest in peace for a few years before the bones are disinterred and stored in small boxes known as ossuaries. Nonetheless, these can be quite beautiful (see the photo on this page). Only the wealthy can normally afford to have the remains interred in the ground in perpetuity, and consequently many of the old tombstones in the graveyard are of important individuals. Three of the most celebrated are the graves of poet Ezra Pound, the composer Igor Stravinsky, and the ballet impressario Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev's tomb intriguingly is regularly festooned with ballet shoes left by admirers.
The only buildings on San Michele are associated with the cemetery. Notably there is the island church. Though the cemetery is 19th century, the Chiesa di San Michele in Isola and adjacent chapel and cloisters are considerably older. The Church of San Michele was designed in the 1460s and is regarded as the first example of Renaissance architecture in the Venice lagoon. It was also the first church design of Mauro Codussi, renouned architect of the Torre dell' Orologio in St Mark's Square and the nearby Church of San Zaccaria. The interior of San Michele's church is lovingly maintained, and is decorated with beautiful artwork, and it will appeal to many who wish for a brief change of pace in their schedule. There is no entry charge, although a box for donations is provided.
San Michele offers something quite different to San Giorgio Maggiore or Murano - an island of peaceful tranquility where one can wander in solitude and contemplate past lives and enjoy a beautiful church.
The island of Burano is some distance from Venice - the vaporetto ride takes about 40 minutes - but for anyone planning to spend more than two days in the region, Burano is a place one must visit - surely one of the prettiest seaside villages in the world, and one with a unique appeal. Burano, like all the islands here, has its fair share of architecturally interesting buildings (it even has its own leaning tower), but the draw of this island are the rows of multicoloured domestic houses - pale mauve, peppermint green, rose pink, mustard yellow and sky blue - almost every colour you can think of is used in the painting of the Burano houses. Garish? No. It works. And I think the picture postcard look is guaranteed to brighten up anyone's day.
Burano, like Murano, actually consists of several islands very close together and separated just by canal-like waterways. But Burano is smaller and there is only one water bus station. The vaporetto to take is the No 12 line from Fondamente Nove, which also calls at Murano. Many will visit both Murano and Burano as part of a half day package, perhaps spending a couple of hours on each island, although both really deserve longer.
Burano is a charming island town just to wander around. It has its canals just like Murano and of course Venice itself, and there are wide pavements and piazzas on which to while away the time, with all the usual appeals such as souvenir outlets and cafes to keep visitors happy. But there are other interests here. Burano has long had a reputation for the production of fine lace, an important local industry which allowed what was previously a poor fishing community to flourish for many centuries. Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have visited here in 1481 to purchase cloth for the altar of Milan Cathedral. Lace is still made in Burano, though little is now created by traditional techniques. The other main interest is the 16th century Church of San Martino, noted for its important works of art and the aforementioned, heavily leaning bell tower.
But it's those coloured houses which are the biggest draw. They are not a recent phenomenon. It has always been that way on Burano, and now the colour schemes with which residents can paint their houses, are controlled by the authorities. Anyone who wants to resurface their houses has to do so within an approved list of colours. The history is unclear, but it's said the bright colours helped identify the houses from a distance out to sea, and may once have related to the colours of the fishermen's boats on an island which still retains the air of a charmingly quaint fishing village.
Of all the islands in the lagoon, Burano is the one which most people will fall in love with. I challenge anyone to dislike this place, and most will probably want to spend longer here than the time they have budgeted for.
In complete contrast to Burano is the neighbouring island of Torcello, which seems to be all but deserted. Anyone who visits without knowing the island's history may be surprised by what they see, because less than 100 people live here, and yet Torcello has its own cathedral! What, one might ask, is the purpose of a cathedral on an island with so few inhabitants?
The Venice lagoon was first populated by refugees fleeing from the Germanic hordes who invaded Northern Italy in the final days of the Roman Empire. And the first island to be extensively settled was not Venice, but Torcello. In its heyday, as many as 20,000 people may have lived here, and until the 10th century this island was more populous than Venice itself. But things were gradually changing. Silting up of the shallow waters around Torcello turned the waters swamp-like, and unsuitable for trading ships. The swamps also encouraged malarial infestations. The combined effects of loss of trade and malarial outbreaks led to a gradual evacuation of the island in favour of Venice. And as the people left, redundant buildings were scavanged for brickwork to use in Venice. Few buildings of antiquity were left intact - one of course, was the cathedral, and that is why this rather unique island and its cathedral exists in its current state today.
Torcello is so close to Burano it would be well worthwhile paying a visit whilst on a trip to the famous island of painted houses. The water bus service between Burano and Torcello is the No 12 vaporetto - the same as ferries passengers from Venice. But not all vaporetti stop at Torcello, so consult the boat schedules or ask when boarding.
From the vaporetto stop on Torcello there is only one route to follow - a path between green fields on one side and a water channel and green fields on the other. Soon one passes a small brick and stone bridge nicknamed the Devil's Bridge, which dates to the 15th century. A very short walk from here gets one to the few buildings of note.
Two mansions which were once the local seat of government, now house an archaeological museum exhibiting a number of local relics as well as finds from Palaeolithic and Roman times. More relics are displayed in front of the museum, including a giant stone armchair known as 'Attila's Throne' (in reality probably once used by a local official such as a judge).
To the right of the museum is the Church of Santa Fosca, which is a very interesting looking 11th century building. And next to this is the historic Cathedral of Torcello. Founded in 639 AD and largely rebuilt by 1008, this cathedral - known as the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta - is often regarded as the oldest monumental building in the entire Venice lagoon, and is noted for its glittering 11th-12th century Byzantine mosaics, particularly the depictions of the 'Madonna and Child' and 'The Last Judgement'. There is also an 11th century bell tower, which one may be able to climb for panoramic views.
Along the pathway, there are several places to eat, some with attractive gardens to sit out in, and also a bed and breakfast establishment. Most famously - and almost as incongruous as the existence of a cathedral on this island - there is the Locanda Cipriani, a prestigious hotel / restaurant which has played host to a number of well known visitors, notably Ernest Hemingway, who stayed here in 1948.
These ancient and modern attractions - together with the greenery of Torcello - make this one of the most relaxing and intriguingly different islands in the lagoon to visit.
For anyone who comes to Venice for less than two days, I think it will not be practical to visit the many islands of the lagoon. One needs a couple of days to take in the sights and the atmosphere of a city which is one of the great destinations of the world.
But for anyone who comes for more than two days, I would thoroughly recommend spending at least half a day cruising to one or more islands. San Giorgio Maggiore can easily be visited whilst in the city, as it is just a short hop across from St Mark's Square, and it affords great views of the Square and of Venice. Put aside an hour of your time to do this.
The two most impressive destinations are without doubt the very interesting Murano and the very picturesque Burano. At least half a day is required for these two islands. But if coming on an unescorted trip to Murano, it's easy to make a brief stop at San Michele for a dramatic change of pace and some poignant sights. And if taking the rather longer trip out to Burano, it would be a shame to miss out on the tranquility of an hour spent on Torcello enjoying the relaxed rural landscape and the truly historic cathedral.
Of course much more time could be passed on any of these five islands. These are minimum times to take in the main sights.
And finally one must mention that these are just five selected islands. Arguably they are the most interesting and accessible, but other reviewers would promote a number of other islands in the lagoon. The monastery island and one time leper colony of San Lazzaro welcomes small groups of vsiitors, and the large agricultural island of Sant' Erasmo offers walks through country fields and shoreline paths. There is the quarantine island of Lazzaretto Nuovo which was used from the 15th century to temporarily house the crews and passengers of ships suspected of carrying the plague, and today the island can be visited by arrangement to see the remains of accommodation facilities as well as the storage house for grains which were fumigated. Mazzorbo is one of the quieter inhabited islands of the Venetian lagoon, linked to Burano by a long footbridge, and depicted in one photo here. It, too, features some colourful houses, and a historic church with a tower which boasts the oldest church bell (1318) in the lagoon. And like nearby Torcello, Mazzorbo is an island which has seen busier times - today much of the island has a rural, tranquil aura.
The whole purpose of this article is to emphasise that there is much more to Venice than just the historic city. There are mainland attractions of course, away from the old city, but this article is about the islands. there are many dozens of these, some of which can be easily reached from Venice, and some of which can only be visited by prior arrangement or private hire boat. Some are inhabited, some deserted. Some have seen better days, and some are thriving. And some even have cars! Perhaps instead of spending just a day or two in the Venice Lagoon as many do, one should think about spending a week or more in this most attractive of European destinations, and visit some of the islands?
All photos for this article were taken by the author in September 2014
This map of the Venice lagoon locates the five islands featured here. By moving the cursor and zooming in, each of the islands can be seen in close up. By clicking 'satellite', an aerial view of the islands can be seen. And by clicking on the human figure and dragging it to selected locations, 360° images may be seen.
The Five Islands Featured on this Page
References and Links
- Church of San Giorgio Maggiore - Wikipedia
- San Giorgio Maggiore - The Churches of Venice
- The church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice - reidsitaly
- Visiting Murano - Venice's Glass Island - bdegiulio
- Murano - Wikipedia
- Venice's Isle of the Dead (San Michele) - New York Times
- The Church of San Michele - The Churches of Venice
- Burano Italy, an island of Venice - Official Website
- Venice's Colorful Burano Island - bdegiulio
- Burano - Walks of Italy
- Torcello - reidsitaly.com
- Visiting the Island of Torcello in the Venice Lagoon - about travel
- Torcello Cathedral - Venetoinside
- Lazzaretto Nuovo - Italy Heaven
- Mazzorbo - Italy Heaven