Don’t be a tourist in Venice.
Be a traveler.
Venice, the most unique city on earth, gets a reported 25-30 million visitors per year.
Most tourists spend only 8 hours in Venice, coming in with a cruise or day trip.
I admit to being guilty of bringing some of my Glam Italia Tour groups in for just one day when the itinerary won’t permit a longer visit. The way I see it, to spend only one day in Venice is a crime, but to miss Venice all together is a worse crime!
Sometimes I get lucky and am able to stay in La Serenissima for several days. I was there for a week recently and with some days to myself was able to observe tourist culture in Venice from many different angles. Unfortunately I found that unlike my little groups who are perpetually in awe of this magnificent place, and who are respectful and polite, there are an enormous number of tourists who come here and treat Venice appallingly.
I worry about Venice. I worry that it may not still be around for my grandchildren, should I have any.
I worry when I watch the wake from the cruise ships splash up against the walls of buildings that are slowly sinking.
You should treat every place you travel to with respect, especially Venice.
How To Not Be A Tourist In Venice
1. Don’t Take A Cruise.
The average cruise ship holds 3000-4000 people, all of whom converge on a very small area of the city at once. The day I left Venice I went past the cruise ships and counted 5 of them, which means that day there were probably 15,000 – 20,000 cruisers descending on the city and hovering in the same small neighborhood.
Imagine that in your neighborhood at home! It would be awful.
The problem with this is that Venice was not designed or built to cope with this influx of thousands of humans. In my opinion the cruise ships are contributing to the demise of the most unique city in the world.
2. Don’t Crowd The Bridges.
The connection between the cruise ships and the bridges is significant. Venice is a series of tiny islands connected by bridges. These bridges were not built to take the weight of the thousands of tourists pouring over them from the cruise ships, and the volume of people is contributing to the destruction of the bridges.
Not all the tourists are from cruise ships, plenty come in by train as well.
One thing to remember when crossing the bridges in Venice is that these are the thoroughfares over which the people who live here go about their daily life. This is how they go to and from work, to and from their appointments, to and from everywhere they go during their day. Can you even imagine how annoying it must be to try and get to where you need to go and be stuck in the middle of a tourist crowd?
Be respectful when crossing the bridges.
3. Don’t Throw Trash In The Canals.
It is ridiculous to even have to say this, but don’t throw trash in the canals. While I was there this summer I was horrified to see all the plastic bottles and food wrappers hitting the banks of the canals with the tide.
If you watch the locals moving around the city you will notice they don’t carry plastic water bottles with them and they don’t walk around eating fast food. That is the domain of the tourists, and it is tourists who are throwing this trash into the canals.
4. Explore Different Sestieri
Venice is divided into 6 neighborhoods or sestieri. (One sestiere, 2 or more sestieri) Cannaregio, the largest, stretches from the Santa Lucia train station to the Rialto Bridge. Santa Croce, the oldest and least touristy abuts San Polo, the sestiere that runs between Santa Croce and the Dorsoduro. San Polo is home to the Rialto fish market and Dorsoduro is home to the easily recognizable Guggenheim museum and Santa Maria della Salute church.
San Marco meets Cannaregio at the Rialto Bridge and encompasses the area of Piazza San Marco, the Basilica, The Doges Palace and Bridge of Sighs, before it meets Castello the sestiere that ends at the lagoon, with the Arsenale shipyards and the Fondamente Nove vaporetto stop, which is the gateway to Murano, Burano and Castello.
Most tourists stay in the area from the Rialto Bridge to the far side of St Mark’s Square. That wouldn’t be such a big deal except that we are talking about a very small area and an enormous number of people.
Venice has so much to offer and so many beautiful things to see. Get out of San Marco and go explore some of the other sestieri. This is where you will see the magic of the city. When you wander along the smaller canals and the less tourist-populated parts of Venice you will fall in love with it. The cost of food and drinks is drastically less outside of San Marco than in San Marco, the walkways and bridges are not congested, and this is where you will find the artisan shops instead of the made-in-China merchandise that has flooded the market.
5. Explore The Other Islands.
The islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello and Lido are all fabulous and easily accessible by vaporetto.
You may not think about a day at the beach while in Venice, but the beaches on the Adriatic side of Lido Island are fabulous! The water is warm and the beach is clean.
Although it looks similar to colorful Burano, Murano is quite different. Either island is a fabulous place to get away from the crowds and enjoy a quiet lunch.
Torcello is very different again. The island is small and the main attraction, the basilica, is spectacular.
6. Buy From Artisans.
Don’t buy cheap, knock off, tourist souvenirs. The vendor stands in Piazza San Marco and along the waterfront, and the cheap souvenir shops all sell cheap trinkets made in China. This is not merchandise made in Venice, and not only does it not help the Venetian economy, it hurts it. Venetian merchants have had to move out of the city, their shops taken over by the sellers of this junk.
Why not be respectful, wander the other sestieri, and buy from the remaining Venetian artisans in their artisan stores. Before it’s too late.
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7. Hire Local Guides.
Italian guides have to be licensed. They are required to have degrees in Italian history or in art history. They study hard and work hard to earn the right to be an official guide. Here is an excerpt from the SeeVenice.it website:
The exam was really hard and it took months to pass all its steps. Written exams, oral exams, compositions about the history, the art and the city in all its aspects. Its museums, churches, palaces, even the ones that no longer exist… all its narrow alleyways! And of course, that wonderful and complex environment, the Venetian lagoon. And wait, let’s not forget there’s more. Language tests, three languages spoken fluently required. University degree required.
When Luisella from SeeVenice.it took her exams hundreds of people applied, only 26 were approved. Tour guiding here is a serious profession. Make sure the guides you hire are licensed local guides in Venice, not interlopers.
** A word to the wise. Venice is very small and all the professional guides know one another. Non-licensed guiding in Venice is forbidden.
*** Disclaimer: I don’t know Luisella and haven’t booked See Venice for my tours. I work with another guide in Venice. However, if I am quoting her website it is only fair that I put a link to it. And face it, in order to be a licensed guide in Venice you have to be both qualified and good, so I don’t hesitate to refer her!
8. Eat The Local Cuisine
Italian cuisine is entirely regional. The food is different everywhere you go in Italy and one of the big tourist mistakes is ordering what we here in the USA consider to be Italian food, regardless of where you are.
Lasagna and pizza are not Venetian foods, so don’t order them here. Try cicchetti, (the local version of tapas), baccala’, and the famous local pastries. My book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy has a chapter devoted to Italian cuisine with a region by region guide to what to eat, where.
On the subject of eating…
9. Know Where You Can’t Eat.
There are places where it is not ok to eat. Don’t eat sitting on the steps of churches, on monuments or the steps of monuments, or on the steps of bridges. This is actually punishable by fine. If you want to have a picnic or eat while on the go, there are plenty of open spaces, parks and benches to find a good spot at and have a meal with a view.
Piazza San Marco is considered to be a monument. You can eat at an outdoor café or restaurant there but technically you cannot just buy a sandwich and a drink and hang out in the piazza eating.
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10. Don’t Feed The Pigeons
Piazza San Marco is famous for its pigeons. You can stand in the piazza with your arms out wide and pigeons will land on you. To me, pigeons are flying rats, so I would rather die than have them on me, but plenty of tourists enjoy the idea of having pigeons land on them.
Just don’t feed them. Venetian pigeons are quite aggressive. They are used to tourists feeding them and will fly up and try to steal food from your table. So as a sign of respect, don’t feed them.
11. Swimming and Swimwear.
Swimming in canals, bathing in the fountains, and wearing swimwear in the streets is both forbidden and punishable by fine. There are great beaches on Lido island if you want to swim. And no matter how hot it is, it is never appropriate to wander around town in your swimwear. Have a little respect.
Before you say that cruise tourism is funding the city, stop and think for a moment. The thousands of tourists arriving on ships every week aren’t filling the local hotels. They aren’t eating breakfast or dinner in Venice. They buy a gelato, and maybe some lunch, then buy some made-in-China trinkets before heading back to the ship. Some will buy tickets into museums and the Doge’s Palace. A few will spend money on gondola rides. But when you weigh out the dollars coming in versus the damage cost to the most unique city on earth, a city already facing the reality of sinking, is the cruise business really worth it?
What are your thoughts on tourism in Venice? Let me know in the comments below.