Last Updated on January 10, 2024 by Laura Teso
Among the islands in the Venetian lagoon, Torcello island is probably the most ancient. It was in fact one of the first to be inhabited, before the foundation of the city of Venice. Over the centuries, the island has suffered a progressive decline, due to the siltation of the lagoon and the strong predominance of Venice. Nowadays it attracts tourists for its important basilica, the archeological museum and, why not, a couple of renowned restaurants.
Origins and Historical Significance of Torcello island
The archaeological finds on the island date a stable occupation between the 1st and 2nd century AD. Over time, the island flourished, becoming a thriving center of trade and political power, attracting merchants and artisans from across the region. In its highest period it hosted almost 20,000 inhabitants. Currently, Torcello has about a dozen residents.
The progressive swamping of the island and the attraction of the more and more thriving Venice, led to a gradual abandonment of the island. With the decline of Torcello the buildings fell into ruin. And some of them were dismantled by the Venetians who used the bricks for new buildings in their city.
What to see in Torcello island?
Visitors to Torcello will find themselves enchanted by the remnants of its glorious past.
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta
The 7th century Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta is a masterpiece of Byzantine art. The basilica’s interior is adorned with stunning mosaics that date back to the 11th century, depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints. No photos allowed, sadly so I can’t show you. Visitors can also climb the Campanile, i.e. the bell tower, offering panoramic views of the island and the surrounding lagoon.
In front of the Basilica, there’s a nice antiques shop with a fascinating outdoor space. I warmly suggest you to take a pic, at least from the outside.
Chiesa di Santa Fosca
Another architectural marvel is the 12th-century Chiesa di Santa Fosca, a Greek cross plan church, surrounded by an octagonal portico. You will appreciate its harmonious proportions and elegant design.
The Museum provides a fascinating insight into the island’s rich history, showcasing archaeological artifacts, paintings, and documents that chronicle Torcello’s rise and fall.
In the open space in front of the museum, overlooking the two churches, you can see a stone-seat. According to tradition, it would have been the throne of the Hun king Attila, who sacked Venice in 452 AD. But more likely it was a seat reserved for the local magistrates.
The devil’s bridge
Along the way from the water bus stop and the Basilica, you’ll pass along the 15th century devil’s bridge, ponte del Diàvolo in Italian. Together with the Chiodo Bridge in Cannaregio, it retains the characteristic of the ancient Venetian bridges, i.e. it has no parapet. The origin of its name is mysterious. Some say that Diavoli was the nickname of a local family, others trace it back to a legend.
Legend has it that once upon a time, a young Austrian fell in love with a girl from Torcello. The girl’s family, however, did not approve of the relationship. The young woman then turned to an old sorceress, who invoked the devil on the Torcello bridge. He brought the two lovers together and they managed to run away. But the Devil doesn’t give anything for nothing. And so he asked something in exchange: the soul of a child for 7 years on Christmas Eve. The sorceress promised him, but soon after she died and thus she could not fulfill the pact. So every year on December 24, the devil shows up at the Bridge in the form of a black cat, looking for young souls.
Casa Museo Andrich
On the island, there’s also the House-Museum of Venetian artist Lucio Andrich, who bought the house in 1950. The artist lived and worked in this house all his life, transforming it into a place of art and culture. More info at: museoandrich.com
Where to eat in Torcello?
No trip to Torcello is complete without indulging in its culinary offerings. The most iconic restaurant in Torcello is Locanda Cipriani, founded in 1934 by Giuseppe Cipriani, already famous for his Harry’s Bar in Venice. The Inn has been frequented by famous people from around the world, including Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Princess Grace Kelly.
I’ve also heard great things about Trattoria Al Ponte del Diavolo, serving up authentic Venetian fare in a warm and inviting atmosphere.
For a less expensive lunch, you can try Trattoria tipica veneziana, a sort of self-service with a pleasant garden where to sit and enjoy an informal lunch at low prices.
How to Reach Torcello island
Torcello is easily accessible by vaporetto (water bus) from Venice, with regular services departing from Fondamente Nove (or also from Murano) on line 12. The journey takes approximately 45 minutes, providing a scenic cruise through the Venetian Lagoon. Or you can reach it by the island of Burano with line 9.
Torcello promises an unforgettable journey through the mists of time, leaving an indelible mark on your Venetian adventure.