Photograph by Michael Neumann, Getty Images
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Kayaking through the canals allows freedom to see places gondolas cannot access.

Photograph by Michael Neumann, Getty Images

Discover the Secret Side of Venice

All tourists take gondola rides, but kayaking allows you to explore the city most don't see.

Venice may be obviously, even overwhelmingly beautiful. Despite its circular alleys and its pastel palazzos, Italy’s most touristy city (only 55,000 people actually live in Venice’s historic center, which gets a whopping 20 million people a year) always feels like it’s withholding something.

Sure, you can work your way down a litany of prescribed tourist sites–the crowds of San Marco, the Rialto, the Accademia–but every street you turn down, every bridge you cross, you’re always glancing out of the corner of your eye at the path not taken, wondering if there’s a hidden private party going on at the piano nobile, or first story, of a random palazzo (during Carnival season, in February, there probably is), whether an unmarked courtyard leads to a still-better trattoria in town.

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Tourists can navigate their own path alone in a kayak.

It was on my fifth visit to Venice that I started to realize that it’s only possible to really see Venice by staying on the water, rather than on land. I’d chosen a baroque floating hotel of sorts whose 10-day tour wisely focuses its efforts on the Venetian lagoon. The winding geography of the city–so dizzying on land–makes perfect sense from a narrow river boat; The constant motion–as we docked near the Biennale one night, near the Accademia the next–highlights the dazed, dreamlike atmosphere of trying to maneuver the city, where every moonlit wrong turn seems to take you into an alternate parallel universe.

But it is only once I board my kayak, slipping out a back door in a 15th-century palazzo in a tiny, unmarked courtyard in Cannareggio and finding myself straight on the water–that I really discovered the heart of the city.

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A kayaker experiences solitude during a sunset on the Grand Canal in Venice.

As we kayak from Cannareggio to the Jewish ghetto, where white sheets hang from laundry lines–latticing the canal–over our heads, our guide showed me a completely different Venice to the one I’ve seen for years: a Venice where the grand front entrances of palaces open straight onto the brackish, blue-green water, where locals drive their personal boats past the slick obsidian vessels of the gondeliers (whatever you do, the guide made clear, do not scratch their boats). Locals call out directions in dialect as they turn each blind corner; the vaporetto water-taxis make perilous waves as we try to cross the Grand Canal. Families sit on balconies, looking out windows, over canals inaccessible from the street.

Venice will never give up all its secrets. But ninety minutes into my kayaking–my arms sore and my shoulders sunburned–I’ve learned a few more.

Tara Isabella-Burton, who is a frequent contributor for National Geographic Travel, recently wrote about her favorite Italian island. Follow her travels on Twitter.