Most famous for Venetian glass, Murano has all the charms of Venice with way fewer crowds! Here’s a few tips on the best way to see the island.
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A quick note about coronavirus and my travel content: in these crazy times, I know much of the world isn’t traveling right now. But my hope is that you keep dreaming and planning for travel, and when the time comes, you go! In that spirit, I’ll continue sharing travel tips for when it’s safe for global travel.
Murano is a well-known but less popular spot to explore when in Venice! Whether you’re looking to build an elegant glass collection or just want to see beauty, exploring Murano makes for a great day or afternoon!
One of the BEST parts of Murano is that you get a bit of a feel of what Venice may have been like a generation or two back. There are still tourists, but it’s distinctly quieter and has a more local feeling than the main island of Venice.
To get there, catch a vaporetto (water bus). Routes work a bit like a subway system, but with fewer stops and more beautiful views. You can buy single ride or 24 hour passes. Generally I like walking everywhere within Venice, but the vaporetto is a great way to get closer to your hotel with luggage and is a must to get to the outer islands.
Our Murano Tour
We decided to do a guided exploration of Murano through Context Travel. They offer both group and private tours, and if you’re traveling with family or a small group, I highly recommend the private tour. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s worth it!
Our tour gave us three hours with an expert tour guide. When we arrived, Andrea asked us whether we were focused on history, learning the process, buying, or something else. He then tailored the tour to maximize what we wanted for the morning. He was born and raised on the island of Murano, giving us the best possible insider experience!
Venetian glass has been famous since the 13th century and was considered the finest glass in the world in medieval times. Since glassmaking shops often caught fire, they were concentrated on Murano to protect the larger population on the island of Venice. Conveniently, it also protected the craftsmen’s expertise for centuries.
Since we wanted to get an overview of the process and history of Venetian glass, he first took us to Ars Cenedese. Because of our tour, we were able to watch them work for a while, learning about the process of heating, pulling, shaping, and blowing that makes both traditional and modern glass creations.
The ovens themselves look like they hold hellfire – the heat looks unlike anything I’ve ever seen! They’re running 24 hours a day in order to keep them to a temperature of around 2000°F. We watched as a blob of molten glass became a beautiful fluted dish with an edge lined in red. The method of adding patterns was fascinating: they put the smallish heated blob into a device that shaped it into a shape resembling a pineapple, then blew it to expand the ripples in the glass.
Watching them work makes it so easy to see why true Venetian glass is so expensive. This single bowl took two people about 20 minutes to create, and then it needs two days to cool at very specific temperatures to prevent cracking or imperfections. Every time you add a new color to the piece, it has to be re-fired. The bowl we saw would retail at close to $400.
After watching that, I didn’t think things could get more impressive, but we moved on to the painting room. Old school Venetian glassware was often painted with intricate patterns or scenes, often in gold. One woman sat painstakingly hand painting identical patterns on a set of wine glasses. It was incredible to see her work!
Needless to say, when we headed to the showroom, I didn’t want to touch anything! Venetian glass showrooms hold some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Ars Cenedese’s showroom is particularly famous for its’ art panels from the 50’s, but my favorite pieces were probably the animal creations!
In spite of the high cost, Venetian glass is meant to be used. Andrea pointed out a traditional design from the 1980’s of drinking glasses that he and his siblings used daily as kids. I love that – these creations of great beauty and craftsmanship are still meant to touch our lives daily, not just be pieces of art put on the high shelves.
After seeing one of the most classic studios, we headed for one focusing on more modern designs: Massimiliano Schiavon.
They also boast a large workspace attached to the showroom where you can watch them work. This one feels a bit more like a show: there’s even leather chairs along one side for watching in comfort, but the staff don’t stop to explain what you’re seeing as they go.
This studio has a lot more modern designs: there was mosaic-style glassware, modern takes on the classic Venetian glass chandelier, and recreations of famous paintings in glass. I loved their light pieces that cascade down, almost like the most beautiful mobile you’ve ever seen.
We also visited several smaller showrooms that sit in shops along the waterways. Andrea pointed out many different shops, including which ones were the oldest families in glassmaking and what they specialized in. Whether it was the feuding families with shops separated only by a canal or the ones known for their specific styles of creations, he knew them all. While this wasn’t a buying trip for us, I could tell that he knew where to get the best of each aesthetic if you were looking for something specific.
My favorite small showroom was Cesare Toffolo, famous for its tiny creations! Miniature animals and vases, yes, but with incredible attention to detail. A two-inch bowl of fruit had grapes the size of a grain of quinoa dripping off the side, and looked incredibly realistic to boot.
One funny part is that this trip really highlighted to me just how distinct the Venetian accent is. We did this tour last fall, meaning my Italian was even rustier than it is now, but I could barely get a word of what he said in Italian! (He spoke perfect English, but he’d say a bit to me in Italian when I told him I’d just moved here.)
Murano On Our Own
At the end of our tour, Andrea gave us several recommendations for great restaurants at various price points and the best gelato on the island. He even drew us a map in case we wanted to head back to any showrooms to shop more!
We followed his tips and headed to Ristorante Da Tanduo for a pasta lunch. When in Venice, order seafood as much as possible, and this place won’t disappoint! Both the seafood pasta and risotto were delicious – the pasta had a bright tomato sauce and the risotto was rich and comforting.
Best gelato on the island can be found at a hole-in-the-wall looking spot called Bar Gelateria al Ponte. It lived up to the hype! It also had a good looking selection of sandwiches and quick bites if you want a cheaper and faster lunch option.
After lunch, we rounded out our Murano glass experience with a visit to the Museo del Vetro, the Glass Museum. Housed in a former bishop’s palace, the building alone is worth a wander. But the museum does a great job of laying out the history of Venetian glass. It focuses more on the different styles that were popular through the centuries than the creation process, but it was really clarifying to see everything grouped by era instead of loosely mixed as it tended to be in the showrooms.
My favorite was seeing the tiny cameo-style portraits popular in the 19th century. They were made with pin-sized rods of glass that was then cut into slices and blown to enlarge, showing a recognizable portrait! The museum had several famous faces, including Garibaldi, Napoleon, Christopher Columbus and the Virgin Mary.
Both a tour and the museum are worth a visit. If you only have time for one, I’d do the tour – you get a better sense of the creation and diversity within Venetian glass.
I loved Murano and have been dreaming of going back ever since! If you’re looking for more Italian guides, check out all my Italy guides or follow me on Instagram to see daily glimpses of life as an expat!