Venice canals (Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash)
Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash

To Discover Venice’s Hidden Treasures, Learn to Travel Like a Local

There are locals, and then there are locals, those who have spent years cultivating an exhaustive knowledge of their city. If you can find the latter, you will strike travel gold. These uber-locals make first-timers feel like they know a city and give return visitors a renewed sense of wonder.

Traveling families who want to be independent but supported by locals will find perfect balance with Monograms. The company uses its large network and team of local experts to manage the planning and trip logistics, then offers enough guidance to help families find the best in every city. I explored Venice with Monograms, and found a secret city within the city I thought I knew.

Monograms Local Host Igor Scomparin is a Veneto native and Venice expert whose impressive knowledge spans the spectrum from mainstream to ultra-obscure. Want to know a cool fact about the popular Piazza San Marco? He’s your guy. Interested in finding a working urban vineyard hidden behind monastery walls? He knows just the one.  

I went to Igor for help planning a long morning walk. Within minutes and armed with only a paper map and a black pen, Igor had outlined a path that would take me into quiet neighborhoods, past incredible bookshops, and even into a local hospital.

“A hospital?” I wondered out loud.

“It’s a real hospital,” Igor explained. “But find the right stairway and you’ll find a strange museum in a beautiful room.” Beautiful? Strange? Igor insisted, “Very few people know about it. It’s one of the secret jewels of Venice. The ceiling … you’ll want to spend all day staring at it. But you won’t, because there is so much else to see.”

And so I set off, wending my way through the city on and off the black line he had drawn for me, alternating intoxicatingly between lost and found. As I backtracked after taking a wrong turn for the fifth time, I realized that sightseeing anywhere off the beaten path in Venice simply has to be as much about the journey as the destination. Anything else would lead to panic, despair, and insanity.

Eventually, a narrow alley spit me out onto the wide Campo Giovanni e Paolo. I had reached the Ospedale Civile, the hospital, but as I opened the door into a clinic full of crying babies, I felt a thousand miles away from the promised mysterious staircase crowned by a hidden museum.

I wandered down hallways, following doctors. No museum. I trotted up steps behind industrious nurses. Nothing but linoleum floors and gurneys. I asked patients, doctors, and cleaners in Spanish-laced Italian if they could point me to the museum. No one knew.

So I started over. I went back to the campo, found the grandest entrance, and reentered the hospital. There it was, the staircase, off to the right of the hospital’s information desk. At the top of the stairs, the buzz of the hospital faded away, revealing a reverent silence that perfectly matched these unexpected surroundings. I had found the Scuola Grande di S. Marco.

This room offered a direct line to the building’s origins—long before it was a hospital—as a marvel of the 15th century. Built as the home for one of Venice’s revered Scuole Grandi, or great schools, it served as a gathering place where, for hundreds of years, influential non-nobles pursued charity, culture, and religion.  

Without a local to point you in the right direction, it’s all too easy to miss much of the magic.

Those pursuits were on full display in the massive room that spread out before me. Above, ornate decorations in lagoon blues, regal golds, and blood reds adorned every inch of the high ceiling. Crests, winged lions, and symbols within octagonal relief frames created a geometrical sea of life that surged across the room. Along the far wall, large windows let in enough light to illuminate this secret world. Massive painted scenes stretched the length of the interior wall, and in the front of the room columns flanked a statue of Jesus on the cross.

Igor had mentioned the strange museum inside the beautiful room, and after the spell of my surroundings loosened slightly, I looked into the center of the room. Long glass cases, horizontal curiosity cabinets, filled the room’s interior. Inside, objects of steel and glass caught the light from the windows.

The walls swirled with religious stories, with cultural glories. And these cases glistened with thousands of antique medical instruments, strange artifacts that traced the path of the human relationship to the mysteries of the body.

In the late morning light, medicine and history mingled, the museum guard and I its only witnesses. Hidden inside a hospital tucked into the labyrinth of the city, the room silently sparkled, its gilded ceiling and stainless steel tools sharing equally in the sunbeams streaming through the windows.

And then, back out into the sunshine. The strangest thing about Venice may be that so much that is so different is so close, stitched together by the pulsing lifeblood of canals, threaded by bridges and history. And without a local to point you in the right direction, it’s all too easy to miss much of the magic.

Christine Sarkis
Christine Sarkis is a traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor. The former executive editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, Sarkis has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir. Email Christine at familyvacationist@gmail.com