Most first-time visitors to Venice spend the majority of their time around its (rightfully) famous Saint Mark's Square. Those with a bit more time also try to squeeze in a quick tour of Murano, a nearby island where they can watch a glass making demonstration and maybe buy a glass souvenir or two.
You can still do a lot, even if you only have a half day to see Murano. On the other hand, maybe you have more time and curiosity and want to avoid that whirlwind “tourist attraction” experience. If so, we encourage you to stay on the glass island for a while and keep on the lookout for all that Murano has to offer.
Perhaps, to be more precise, I should say islands. Actually, Murano is a collection of 7 individual islands, all linked together by bridges.
Getting to Murano
On our second day in Venice, we walked straight to St. Mark's Square, where we caught vaporetto line 42 to Murano. Unlike our previous day on Burano, the weather was cool, with wisps of clouds high overhead.
As we stepped off the boat, we felt as though we had entered a different world. Here was a quieter, more laid-back island with its own Grand Canal and (of course) fascinating shops and sidewalk cafes.
Murano has been occupied since Roman times, and each century brought its own architectural style to the island. They are still there, all vying for attention, and that makes Murano that much more attractive. Unfortunately, our cruise itinerary only gave us a few hours to enjoy what the island had to offer. We couldn't fit everything in, but here's my list of the top things we wanted to see. Maybe you'll have more time and can do more than we were able to.
As a precaution against fires, in 1291 the Doge of Venice ordered all Venetian glass makers to move their furnaces (fornaci) to Murano. This worked out well, as glass was becoming a coveted craft, and this kept the workshops from curious eyes eager to steal the secrets of the trade. It didin't take long for Murano to become associated with the most coveted and high quality glass in the world.
Their reputation has been secured, so these days many of Murano's glass factories offer demonstrations and have a shop for visitors. We didn’t visit any during our day on the island because
- we had read that the best factories prefer to focus on their craft, rather than on tourism, and
- I enjoy watching glass blowers so much that I have been known to completely lose track of time.
Better not to start at all, we thought. Only later did we find out that time-pressed visitors like us can take a 40-minute factory tour. *sigh.” Maybe next time.
Tip: Beware of the scams offering a free boat ride to see the glassworks at Murano or the lace-making in Burano. You’ll pay for your “free” ride with the grossly overpriced shops you’re escorted to, and may find yourself obligated to pay more than you thought you’d agreed to. In the long run, it might be cheaper to pay for a local tour guide who will bring you to reputable vendors.
Museo del Vetro glass museum
If you're interested in the art of glass making, Museo del Vetro is for you. This is a history museum that showcases Venetian glass techniques over the centuries, and displays varieties of glass from as far back as Egyptian times. The building itself has served a number of purposes over its lifetime: first built as a patrician's palace, it became home to the bishops of Torcello in 1659, then two centuries later it became Murano's town hall. It only became a museum when Murano was annexed to Venice in 1923.
- Admission is €10 (some discounts are available).
Basilica di Santa Maria e San Donato
Dating from the 7th century, the Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Donatus is the duomo for Murano Island. Inside, exquisite, Ravenna-quality Byzantine mosaics cover its floor and dome. Outside, the bell tower, like most bell towers, is separate from the Church.
While many churches contain the bones of saints, this basilica contains more than just the relice of St. Donatus. Suspended behind the altar are four rib bones, measuring more than 1 meter long. According to legend, these bones came from a dragon that St. Donatus slew in Greece. Who knows? Maybe it's true.
- Find it at: Campo San Donato 11, Murano, Venice, Italy
Chiesa di San Pietro Martire
The Roman Catholic Church of Saint Peter the Martyr was built in 1506 and still functions as a parish church. This naked brick building is popular with tourists because it houses the chapel of the Ballarin family, notable for their glassmaking skills, as well as excellent Renaissance art works by artists such as Tintoretto and Bellini.
- Find it at: Chiesa di San Pietro Martire, Murano, Venice
Campo Santo Stefano
Campo Santo Stefano is best known for the abstract blue glass starburst sculpture in the middle of the square. Next to it are the Church of St. Stephen and its 19th Century clock tower. Both dominate the island and can be seen from far away. Maybe as a result, this is one of the most visited spots on the island.
- Find it at: Campo Santo Stefano, Murano, Venice, Italy
Palazzo da Mula
The Palazzo da Mula is one of the last remaining examples of Venetian Gothic architecture. The building was once a luxurious summer residence of the Venetian patricians, who could afford an ornate facade with large Gothic windows. A garden and courtyard made Palazzo da Mula unique among Venetian palaces due to the high price of land in the island empire.
- Find it at: Fondamenta da Mula, Murano, Venice, Italy
Murano glass shops
Murano is best known worldwide for its exquisite, hand-crafted glass. Besides its glass, not much else is worth buying as a memento of your visit, unless you’re in the market for postcards and other standard tourist souvenirs.
Buying glass? Buyer beware.
Because so many souvenir shops try to pass off cheap Chinese counterfeits as Murano glass, true Murano glass is now protected with a trademark. Look for the “Vetro Murano Artistico” trademark decal in the windows of shops and showrooms that sell authentic Murano glass.
Tip: No matter where you travel, never sign a contract that’s not in English, and use a healthy dose of skepticism if anyone offers to “translate” it for you.
Our best tip for visiting Murano
In addition to these “must-see” things in Murano, there's an even more important “must-do” item you must put on your itinerary: Savor every moment. Avoid the temptation to rush from place to place so you can squeeze everything in.
You will miss so much by rushing past the island's many ancient buildings, beginning with all those details that make Murano so uniquely Venetian and ending with the quirky things that its creatives have sprinkled around their island.
Murano isn't just living in its past glory; it has a fun, modern vibe as well. We got a real kick out of these quirky lamp posts.
The most precious thing about travel is the opportunity it offers to expand your horizons. It's a chance to see new things, experience new traditions, meet new people, taste new foods.
Italy should not be rushed. Take a bit of time to just sit and watch Murano's daily life: exasperated mothers with crying children, excited teens with cell phones in their ears, wizened old ladies walking hand-in-hand with their beloved husbands. Sit quietly in a church for a while and savor its peace. Sip a glass of the local wine and enjoy the waiters' foreign chatter, just because you can. It's all part of the travel experience.
This is your trip and your opportunity. Seize it.