When you visit Venice, do you want the whole of Venice? Do you want the Venice of sunrises and sunsets, sweet leisurely breakfasts, and crowd-free calli? Do you want at least a little taste of what the locals get from her? Do you want La Serenissima to give you an experience that sends you away enriched, inspired, and uplifted?
You can’t read, write or think about Venice lately without hearing about the unattractive spectre of overtourism. The high-maintenance Adriatic princess is probably its biggest victim. Many travel writers are advocating ‘undertourism’ instead – the idea of travelling somewhere off the beaten track, less-visited, unknown; seeking out more low-key locations, attractions and adventures. They tell us we should stop going to the crowded bucket-list destinations and go somewhere else instead. There is definitely something to be said for spreading the travel love more widely.
But, I think that’s easy advice to give if you’ve already been to the ‘over’-visited destinations. There’s a reason some places are particularly popular. I could visit Gaudi’s breathtaking architecture in Barcelona over and over again. Dubrovnik was a fascinating walled city long before it became King’s Landing. I struggled to find a place to sit for a beer in the centre of Edinburgh this summer, but I would recommend anyone to go and experience that city’s utterly unique buzz of culture during the month of August every year.
There’s no alternative to Venice. If you want to visit, you should. But be kind to her, be benevolent. She’s not just there to look at and move on. Give her some of your time, care and attention, and she can still give a lot more back than a tick on your list. I have some suggestions for how to do that…
This is the most important one. Find a way to sleep in Venice, and for longer than a couple of nights if you can. It doesn’t have to be in one of the fancy hotels. There are budget options too, especially if you go in the off-season, when you can avoid the crowds and perhaps experience the dramatic acqua alta. Ideally, avoid using Airbnb. I know, it’s so convenient. But the rise in unregulated rentals is putting too much pressure on the property market, and pricing locals out of the market.
The point is, that as much as Venice needs tourism to thrive, it needs its tourists to spend more than the cost of lunch and a couple of museum tickets. Its tourist economy benefits more from evening diners, hotel stays and accommodation spends. If Venice becomes a place where people only spend the day, and leave again, it becomes unsustainable. And the best part? When the cruise passengers go back to their cabins, Venice will still be yours, to explore, in so many vivid ways. Read on to discover some of them. But first, speaking of cruises…
Arrive by Land or Air
It might seem counter-intuitive to say, please don’t arrive in Venice by sea. Certainly, there’s nothing like collecting your bag from baggage claim and following the signs to ‘water transport’. There is nothing like the feeling, if your budget can stretch to it, of jumping on a water-taxi from the airport, and watching the wake fly as you bounce across the lagoon, or from outside the Santa Lucia station, and gliding through the Canal Grande. The Alilaguna line from the airport or the vaporetto water bus is just as thrilling a way to arrive on the water, if a little slower. But please, if you want to experience Venice as responsibly as you can, don’t arrive on a cruise.
There’s much to debate around the increasing mass-market popularity of cruises, the enormous vessels that bring global visitors to multiple destinations, and their long-term impact on a range of locations.
But I will say this, unequivocally, and especially in the context of this article; DO NOT come to Venice on a cruise. For one thing, you won’t be able to do most of what I’m about to suggest here. For another, it’s just bad for Venice. The city’s unique geography means that all those thousands of disembarking passengers have to be contained in a finite area. Not only that – the day tripping passengers are not inclined to spread out beyond the main sights, quite understandably, since they only have one day to see them. So the crowds around Rialto and San Marco become suffocating. Then there’s the fact that all those tourists are only contributing a limited amount to the city’s economy, even as the infrastructure strains to serve them.
And when you watch one of those enormous vessels passing through the Giudecca Canal, dwarfing the buildings of a 1300-year-old city with their mass-consumerist modernity, there’s no doubting that the displacement of water they create is damaging the very fabric of the city.
Take a Cichette Tour
There are a number of tours on offer to discover the Venetian equivalent of tapas or pintxos. With this one from Urban Adventures, you’ll join a local guide and visit several favourite bacari – Venetian wine bars. From place to place you’ll taste different, predominantly Venetian wines (look out for the unique Raboso sparkling wine), along with your sampling of cichetti – small dishes of food. Along the way pick up local knowledge and explore some of the Rialto calli you might otherwise have missed.
It’s all very well sitting in a gondola, being rowed for an extortionate price, jostling among all the other gondole, and working hard internally to savour the romantic moment. It’s quite another to row yourself through the canals, sharing the effort with friends, away from the crowded gondola hotspots, and dock your own vessel as the golden hour descends. Row Venice is an all female owned enterprise that offers a unique experience – a rowing lesson on a wooden betela, a traditional Venetian boat that is wider and more stable than a gondola. Depending on the time, you can even learn on the Canal Grande, or you can opt to combine your lesson with a water-based cichetti tour.
Make your Own Art
Fallani Venezia is an artisan printing studio that offers a crash course in the process of screen-printing, and a chance to take away your own handmade screen print. If, like me, you’ve never quite understood how screen-printing actually works, here’s how you find out. It’s no longer a mystery to me! And I relished the intriguing moment when we left the calle and entered through a doorway into a real art-lined Venetian studio. After taking in some of the ubiquitous Renaissance art, you can get up close to the creation of contemporary art by dynamic Venetian artists.
Right now, you can buy prints from a special series by Venetian artists, and the proceeds will help Fallani Venezia recover from this winter’s acqua alta flooding. Click here for more details.
Experience High Culture
Listen to the music of Vivaldi at a baroque concert. At the Chiesa di San Vidal near the Ponte dell’Accademia, the Interpreti Veneziani string ensemble plays a regular season of Venetian baroque music, including Vivaldi, in between their tours around the world’s concert halls.
Get Up Early
Things don’t get very busy in Venice until mid-morning, once the cruise passengers have disembarked and the day trippers have arrived. So take an early stroll, arrive at the Accademia or Guggenheim as it opens, and beat the crowds.
Or you could get up even earlier, and get yourself to San Marco in time for sunrise. The streets really are deserted at this time. Even if it’s not a clear morning, being out in Venice as the early light slowly washes over the city means you get it almost to yourself. You’re going to want to take a picture or two, but try to put the phone away and inhale the unique moment of being in an urban environment, surrounded by history, and with no vehicles to be heard, only the slip-slap of the lagoon’s waters.
As we strolled towards San Marco before 6am, the only people we saw, apart from actual Venetians on their way to work, were young millennial couples, girl in some variation of floaty dress, boy clutching tripod and other photographic paraphernalia, striding purposefully to find the best spot for the best capture for their influencer feed. Because, y’know, the world definitely needs another photo of Venice. And if there isn’t a beautifully-composed, floaty-robed, artfully-filtered, deceptively tourist-free selfie of you on Instagram, were you even there?
Stay up Late
Not for the nightlife though. Some bars stay open longer into the evening, with little clusters of drinkers outside in the calli, perching their drinks on the ledges of neighbouring shops. There are a few livelier bars in the student neighbourhood around Università ca Foscari.
(There’s a poster you’ll see around advertising Venice’s ‘only’ nightclub. I don’t know whether that would make it lacklustre or legendary. I didn’t find out.)
So the empty streets of Venice at night are a magical place to be, and very safe. Even though you might feel lost in the narrow streets, you’re not really lost – there’s nowhere far enough to go and be lost, unless you walk right into the lagoon. The lights reflected in the canals or on the paving of San Marco – again, surprisingly empty and devoid of crowds in the middle of the night – are a sight you’ll always remember. Whether or not you put it on Instagram.
Take a Traghetto
Even if you don’t get a chance to join Row Venice, you still don’t have to fork out 100 euro for a gondola ride. Instead, get your gondola fix on a traghetto, which operate at a few crossing points along the Grand Canal. It’s effectively a gondola ferry, giving you a two-minute, two-euro taster of how the locals still use these iconic traditional boats.
Find your corner
Choose accommodation away from the hottest of hotspots, and give yourself a sestiere to discover during your stay. Take an afternoon to explore the residential parts of Dorsoduro, or Canareggio, or Castello. Find the quieter campi or piazze and the curious secluded areas that most don’t see. My favourite is Dorsoduro: follow my exploration here.
Learn some Italian
English is spoken everywhere, sure, and you’ll hear many other languages around you, not just from the tourists. The waiters in Venice will impress you with how multilingual they are. So if you manage to order from the Italian menu, with even just a few expressions of politesse and the vocabulary needed for ordering a meal, you’re going to have a more authentic and meaningful moment than most people.
Murano, for the glass factories, and Burano, for the colourful fisherman’s houses and lace-making, are the two outlying islands visited by everyone with more than a couple of days in Venice. You know you’ve seen those rows of coloured houses on Instagram.
But instead, I recommend a visit to Torcello. I didn’t go there until my third visit, and I wished I could have stayed longer. Venice itself is a clustered, urban environment, but stepping off the boat at Torcello, I felt like I had suddenly arrived in Tuscany. It’s a pastoral idyll resting in the lagoon, quiet and calm, the noise of any accompanying visitors softened by the surrounding cushions of greenery.
Disembarking from the shuttle boat from Burano, it’s a short and refreshing walk to the oldest building in the lagoon, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria dell’Assunta, which presents a charming Romanesque-style structure in contrast to the gothic embellishments of most of Venice. If you want to escape from the pace of Venice, this is the perfect place to come, perhaps with a picnic of local produce. Whenever I go back to the lagoon, a return to Torcello will be high on my list.
For a longer stay, to feel less like a tourist, and more like a distinguished guest, turn your visit to Venice into a study trip. You could go on a writing retreat, like I did with Rachael Herron. Sign up here for news of future retreats. In the same cultural centre where we stayed (also a reasonably-priced accommodation option), someone was teaching a week of urban sketching. (We didn’t have a writers v. artists showdown, but that could have been fun.) There are Italian language and cooking classes in Venice, and you could even emulate the Edwardian travellers on their grand tour and take an art history course.
Go Deep with a Personalised Tour
There are plenty of walking tours around Venice, showing off its major sights, ticking off the usual list. Instead, have a think about a more specific aspect of Venetian history or culture you’d like to know about, and gain deeper insight into the city. A food tour, such as the wine and cichetti tour, might interest you, or you might want to know abou a particular period of history. Friends of mine went off one day for a two-hour tour of the medieval era with Federico, packed with insights and insider knowledge not normally available on a standard tour. You can contact him here, or try Walks of Italy and ask for Mose, another personal recommendation I’ve received.
Have you been to Venice? Or planning a trip? What do you think makes it special? What do you think about overtourism, or cruises? I’d love to hear from you!
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