Some of the most breathtaking Byzantine mosaics in the world, found in the lagoon’s oldest building, the Torcello basilica, reward those who visit this laid-back island, a beautiful 60-minute ferry ride from northern Venice. From the 5th century, mainlanders fleeing invading Lombards and Huns ventured across tidal flats to found a settlement that grew to 20,000 and lasted 1,000 years. However, few clues to the past remain, as the canals silted up, malaria decimated the population and the power base shifted to Venice once and for all. Today, Torcello is home to a handful of gardeners and fishermen.
Boat line 12 from the Fondamente Nuove to Burano, then change to boat line 9
Basilica di Santa Maria dell’Assunta: 041 730 119; Open Mar–Oct: 10:30am–5:30pm daily; Nov–Feb: 10am–4:30pm daily; closed 1 Jan, 25 Dec. Adm €5
Campanile: Open Mar–Oct: 10:30am–5:30pm daily; Nov–Feb: 10am–5pm. Adm €5. Audio guide
Santa Fosca: Closed to visitors during services
Museo dell’Estuario: 041 730 761; Open Mar–Oct: 10:30am–5pm Tue–Sun; Nov–Feb: 10am–4:30pm Tue–Sun; closed public hols. Adm €3
A miraculous survivor, this striking cathedral was founded in 639, but underwent radical restructuring in 1008. It retains its Romanesque form, light-brick walls and an arcaded 9th-century portico.
In these 12th–13th-century marvels, the Last Judgment is dramatically depicted in superbly restored scenes of devils, angels, wild beasts and fires.
This moving 13th-century mosaic shows the Virgin in a blue robe with gold fringing, cradling her radiant child. Below are the 12 apostles standing in a meadow of flowers.
Marble panels show peacocks drinking at the fountain of eternal life, small lions posing under a tree full of birds, while six columns support 15th-century paintings of the apostles with the Virgin.
In vivid swirls of colours, rivalling the flooring in Basilica San Marco, are brilliant 11th-century tesserae of stone and glass. Cubes, semicircles and triangles are laid into square designs. The floor level was raised 30 cm (12 inches) during the basilica’s reconstruction.
Alongside the basilica is this elegant church based on a Greek cross design, encircled by a five-sided colonnaded portico. The inside of the church is closed to visitors during services.
The views from this simple 55-m (180-ft) bell tower reach over the vast expanse of the lagoon, with its meandering canals and tidal flats, to the Adriatic Sea, Venice itself and even north to the Alps on a clear winter’s day.
By popular belief this marble armchair was the throne of the king of the Huns, though historical sources claim it was for the island’s magistrates.
An intriguing, if modest, collection of archaeological finds from the island and priceless treasures from the church are housed in the adjoining Gothic buildings.
A favourite of American writer Ernest Hemingway, who stayed here in 1948, this guesthouse has a quiet charm that has attracted VIPs since it opened in 1938 (see Locanda Cipriani).
The “Scourge of God”, or the King of the Huns, ruled from AD 434 to 453 over an empire that stretched from the Alps and the Baltic towards the Caspian Sea. As part of his campaign against the Roman Empire, Attila attacked Milan, Verona and Padua, and refugees fled to Torcello. Burning the cathedral town of Aquileia gave him great satisfaction – his men raised a hill in Udine so he could enjoy the sight.