Venice By Numbers: Fabulous, Fascinating Facts To Add Magic To Your Trip

Happy Birthday Venice! Or maybe I should say tantissimi auguri! March 25th is the official birth date of Venice, although there is no documentation for when the city on the water actually started. This date was chosen because at noon on the 25th of March in 421 A.D the first church of Venice was dedicated. This was the Church of San Giacomo on what was then the tiny islet of Rialto.

How Venice Started

Do you know how Venice got started? After the fall of the Roman Empire the Barbarians (Huns and Longobards) invaded Italy, looting and pillaging and destroying everything in their path. Some of the Veneti (people from the Veneto) escaped by hiding out in the marshy lagoon that lay between the mouths of the Po and Piave rivers, and the Adriatic Sea. This swamp was full of raised mud mounds or mini islands (islets)

The island of Torcello was first settled in 452 and has the oldest of Venice’s treasures.

They couldn’t build their town on the silt and mud so they had to come up with a clever idea. The end result was an engineering marvel that not only built the floating city but has kept it going for 1600 years! Those original buildings are mostly gone but there are buildings in Venice still standing after 1000 years.

They devised a system where they took huge wooden poles – essentially tree trunks, up to 10 meters long, and drove them down through the silt and mud of the marshy islands until they hit the hard clay way down below. The put these poles or pilings side by side so they were touching, then filled any space between with rocks and stones. The pilings were of water resistant wood like oak and larch, and they didn’t rot because in order for rot to set in you need both water and oxygen. Not only was there no oxygen below the water level, but the lagoon was full of silt and mud that absorbed into the wood and then over time became petrified and hard as stone.

Two layers of wood went over the pilings, then a layer of stone or marble upon which the houses and then palaces were built. Brilliant, no?

Venice By The Numbers

Venice is full of secrets along with some pretty fascinating facts and figures. So let’s look at some of the numbers.

The Sestieri

Map of Venice via Wandering Italy

Venice is a really small city, broken up into 6 neighborhoods or sestieri. There are 3 neighborhoods on either side of the Grand Canal. The first three are: Cannaregio (by the train station)which is also the most populated one, San Marco, in the middle and where perhaps the most famous tourist sites are, and Castello, the largest of the six.

On the far side of the Grand Canal there is the Dorsoduro at the top, roughly opposite San Marco. This is where the huge white church, Santa Maria della Salute watches over the canal. Next is the smallest sestiere, San Polo, amongst other things home to the Rialto fish market. Lastly curving around the bottom is beautiful Santa Croce.

Three islands immediately off of Venice each belong to a different sestiere. Giudecca is considered part of Dorsoduro, San Giorgio Maggiore is part of San Marco and the cemetery island of San Michele is part of Cannaregio.

RELATED POST: 10 Fabulous Books To Read Before You Go To Venice

The Canals

grand Canal Venice
The Grand Canal in Venice

Venice has 3 canals, the most famous of which is the Grand Canal. The two other canals are the Cannaregio Canal which until the train line was built was the main route to Venice from the mainland, and the Giudecca Canal which is also the throroughfare for the cruise ships.

A rio in Venice

The little waterways throughout the city are not actually canals, they are called rii. (One rio, two rii). There are 150 rios or rii in Venice. As Venice needed more terra firma some of the rii were filled in and became rio tera’. Which essentially means earth filled rio. There are 53 rio tera’ in Venice. There are two types of rio tera’, the rio terra tombati which are completely filled in and the rio tera’ con volti, which still have water flowing beneath them.

Gondolas and Gondoliers

You will fall in love with the gentle swish (not even a spash) sound of the gondola in Venice. A ride on a gondola should be on your list of things to do while there, just stay away from the main tourist areas. Ask your gondolier to take you down some side canals/rios to get away from the traffic and the tourists, and get him to tell you about the things you are seeing. Most tourists seem to try and squash as many people as possible onto their gondola to try and save some money, then spend the whole time taking selfies and getting instagram fodder. Your best experience is to only have a couple of you on board, relax back into the cushions and let your gondolier tell you his story.

There are currently only 400 gondolas in Venice. At the height of the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated there were as many as 10,000 gondolas! Custom made for the shallow lagoon, each gondola is made from 8 types of wood: lime, larch, oak, fir, cherry, walnut, elm and mahogany. Or 9 if you count the oar which is made from beech. Gondolas have been around for nearly 1000 years, with the first documentation of them dating back to 1094.

The gondola’s S shaped iron prow represents the bends in the Grand Canal, the 6 teeth represent the sestieri or districts of Venice, the curved top is the doge’s cap and the 1 ‘tooth’ sticking out the back represents the island of Giudecca. If you look closely you will notice that gondolas are lopsided. This is to balance out the gondolier’s weight.

Gondoliers have incredible posture. Watch them and you’ll see that along with their oar they are maneuvering the boat with their feet, hips and shoulders. It’s not easy to become a gondolier. The training alone takes more than 400 hours, the exam is difficult and even if you pass it there are only 3 or 4 new licenses issued per year!

My favorite gondolier move? Watch the way they slip a leg out and gently push off from any wall they come too close to. It’s almost like a ballet.

RELATED POST: 15 Thing You MUST Do In Venice

Streets and Such

That’s Santa Maria dei Miracoli peeping out at you from behind the bridge.

Venice only has 1 strada (street), the Strada Nuova in Cannaregio. Those other streets and walkways? These are called calli (one calle/two calli) and there are roughly 3000 of them. Then there are 367 rami, the small streets or ‘branches’ connecting the bigger ones. There are 10 rughe, streets lined with shops and named after the French rue, and 42 salizade, the first paved streets in Venice. These were important streets and were paved with a stone specific to Venice called masegni.

Islands, Bridges and Wells

Venice is actually a series of 118 mini islands, connected by 435 bridges. There are only 4 bridges crossing the Grand Canal. From the top down they are the Accademia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge, The Scalzi Bridge and the new guy, the Constitution Bridge, also known as the Calatrava. (Calatrava is the Spanish architect who built it.) There is only 1 bridge that has no railings, the Ponte Chiodo in Cannaregio. This bridge is also interesting because it dead ends into a house. Which by the way is now a bed and breakfast. (There is another railing free bridge on the island of Torcello, known as the devil’s bridge.)

The Ponte Chiodo in Cannaregio

Ever wonder how they got fresh water in Venice before it was eventually piped in, in 1884? If you keep an eye out you will notice that in every campo (piazza) except for Piazza San Marco, and in all the courtyards there is a well. Look a little closer and you’ll see the ground isn’t quite flat – it dips toward the well. This is because through another completely genius feat of engineering the (very) early Venetians devised a plan to capture rainwater, filter it and keep it in these wells. This blog post from Venezia Autentica explains how they did it. It’s worth checking out because did I mention – it’s brilliant!

In 1858 a census of Venice’s wells found there were 180 public wells, 6046 private wells and 556 wells that had been closed or removed. Although no longer a source of water, an estimated 600 of these beautiful and decorative wells are still scattered in the campi of Venice.

The Pilings

Photo of pilings below Venice via Venice by Venetians. Post linked here

I always think of them as poles or tree trunks, but the pilings have their own story to tell. If you look around you’ll notice there are no forests around Venice. The wood for the pilings mostly came from 3 places: Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. And of course they came across the Adriatic on boat and barges, centuries before boat motors were invented. Lots of them. There are more than 10 million pilings below the city of Venice. The Rialto bridge sits on 30,000 of them and the church of Santa Maria della Salute has more than 1 million pilings underneath it!

Want more information about Venice? Get a free PDF of my 10 Favorite Secret Places In Venice These are fantastic places to escape the tourist crowds and see something different in the floating city. You will also automatically get any other secret Venice information I release over the next 6 months. Get your PDF here

The Churches

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
The church of Santa Maria della Salute in the Dorsoduro sestiere, Venice

There are 159 churches in Venice, which basically means there is one every few meters. 27 are desconsecrated, there is 1 Anglican church and 1 Greek Orthodox.

Mass Tourism and Cruise Statistics

Seriously, why are these stupid boats even allowed inside the lagoon??

Little Venice (it really is small) has the hideous ranking of being the 7th busiest cruise port in Europe and the 22nd busiest cruise port in the world. Had covid not shut down the travel industry a minimum of 56 ships would have made 518 port calls in 2020, each dumping an average of 3360 passengers. The estimated number of cruise ship passengers in 2020 that were expected to disembark in Venice (a very small, very fragile city) was 1.23 million. Despite news reports that cruise ships would no longer be allowed into the lagoon in reality the cruise ship traffic growth for Venice for 2020 was projected at 18%.

The MSC Magnifica cruise ship is seen in the Venice Lagoon on June 9, 2019, as people take to the water in the annual Vogalonga rowing regatta in Venice. – Thousands of people took to the streets in Venice on June 8, 2019, calling for a ban on large cruise ships in the city following last week’s collision between a massive vessel and a tourist boat. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP) (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Cruise ships not only destroy the view for anyone trying to enjoy Venice and make life a nightmare for local Venetians, they also cause catastrophic damage to the environment and the city.

RELATED POST: Sustainable Travel – How To Be Part Of The Solution In 10 Simple Steps

The average depth of the Venice lagoon is 10.5 meters (34 feet) with a maximum depth of 21 meters (74 feet). The displacement of a the cruise ship pictured above is 154,000 tons according to the MSC website, and the gross tonnage is 95, 128 GT. These ships cause damage not only in wave damage but also with their wake and undertow eroding and destroying the city’s wooden piling foundations. On top of that the Venetian Port Authority had to dredge a 10 meter (33 feet) deep canal across the lagoon to accommodate the below water depth of them. This in turn allows the Adriatic to pour more water into the lagoon at high tide, causing even more flooding. Although not the sole source of the increased flooding in Venice it is a huge contributor. You can read more about it here and in this 2011 article from the Telegraph.

How is this even considered to be ok??

Venice’s Population Counter

Mass tourism is destructive on many levels but one of the worst (along with the staggering environmental damage it causes) is the effect it has on the local population. It makes living in that place almost untenable. Imagine your neighborhood suddenly getting 5 cruise ships worth of people (as many as 20,000) dumped on it each day ~ it would be a nightmare. As such between the impossibility of functioning in daily life (think doing groceries, taking kids to school, going to and from work, going to the dentist etc) and their home city being turned into a cruise ship Disneyland, local Venetians started being forced to move to the mainland.

A pharmacy on Strada Nova has a digital counter that keeps details of the locla population count. In 1973 the population of Venice was roughly 148,000. This is the count of Venetians born and bred living in their home city. As of February 6th 2021 it was down to just over 52,000.

image via Cecilia Staiano

You can read Cecilia Staiano’s article about the depopulation of Venice here. The photo above is hers taken from her Feb 6th 2021 article.

Venice’s main income source is tourism. The city needs you to come and visit, stay a few nights and enjoy her beauty, her artisans, her cuisine. Fall in love with her buildings, the magic quality of light and her gorgeous ambience. Just please don’t come on a cruise….

Sustainable Travel: How To Be Part Of The Solution In 10 Simple Steps

Mass tourism is completely untenable.

Beautiful cities like Venice are being destroyed by mass tourism.

If one good thing comes from the world being shut down due to the pandemic it could be the realigning of how we travel so that when the world does reopen, maybe this time we can get it right.

Mass tourism causes irreparable damage on many levels but the three most pervasive are: environmental damage, social and cultural damage and economic damage. As much as you may think several thousand people dismbarking from a cruise ship boosts a local economy, guess what – it doesn’t. In fact it does the exact opposite.

This post is the final in a series about sustainable travel, what it is and why we need to be part of the solution.

What Is Sustainable Travel?

Before you start thinking Sustainable tourism is about driving a Prius and eating vegan food let’s look at what it really means. Sustainable travel means developing ways to travel that don’t harm the natural and cultural environments, that minimize the negative impact of tourism and ideally are beneficial to the places we are traveling to. The idea is to keep everything in good condition for future generations to enjoy.

10 Ways You Can Become A Sustainable Traveler

We can make a huge difference by just making a few simple changes in the way we travel. Here are 10 simple things you can do that will make you part of the solution rather thn part of the problem.

1. DON’T Book A Cruise!

The cruise industry is one of the worst offenders in the mass tourism game. Cruises have a massive negative impact on the oceans and the ports they arrive into.

Cruise ship leaving Venice. During the tourist season there will be 5 ships per day in port in Venice. That’s 20,000 extra people decending into a very small town that is extremely environmentally fragile.

The influx of multiple thousands of passengers is bad for the environment, bad for local culture and bad for the local economy.

Here are eight places being completely ruined by the cruise industry:

  • Venice
  • Barcelona
  • Dubrovnik
  • Santorini
  • Mallorca
  • The Great Barrier Reef
  • The Galapagos Islands
  • Bali

You can read more about cruise ships damaging impact on the environment here

RELATED POST: 15 Things You MUST Do In Venice

2. Be Aware Of The Trash You Create

When thinking about the impact you have on any place you travel to, any city, town, village, beach, national park, at all times be aware of the amount of trash you are generating and leaving behind. Even if you are putting it in a trash can or dumpster.

The worst offenders are single use plastics, like bottles of water. Choosing to use refillable bottles or refilling the one bottle can make a huge difference.

Crowds on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. Imagine if each of these people purchased 2 or 3 bottles of water. Where does all that single use plastic go?

Also think about the amount of trash your food choices create. Making an effort to only eat sitting down in a restaurant/café/food bar can eliminate the trash created by the packaging for fast foods. Try keeping all your trash for two days – you will be amazed at how much you generate! Try imagining that volume of refuse multiplied out by the number of tourists in that town that day. For example if you are in Venice and buy 3 bottles of water you may not think that’s much waste created, but multiply that out by the 20,000 passengers from the 5 cruise ships in port that day and you start seeing what a huge deal that really is.

Beach litter in Hawaii.

3. Avoid Major Chains

Outside of your home country or traveling to the U.S or U.K avoid staying at major chain hotels. When you book with a major international chain approximately 16% of your nightly hotel fee won’t go to the local economy, it will go to the conglomerate. Booking a local hotel keeps the money in that specific town.

The same applies to your dining choices. Avoid the major U.S fast food chains – you didn’t travel across the world to eat McDonald’s and drink Starbucks. Eat at local cafes and restaurants where the food is locally sourced and prepared by locals and where all your dollars are going back into the local economy.

4. Book Direct

When you book a hotel reservation (or any reservation) through a third party booking service like Booking.com or Hotels.com 25% of the value of your booking doesn’t make it to the local economy. Find out what the price is with the consolidator then call the hotel and ask them to match it. 9 times out of 10 they will, and now once again you are putting all the money back into the local economy.

5. Choose Less Traveled Locations.

The Greek island of Paros is much less touristed than islands such as Santorini and Mykonos.

Rather than choosing the most touristed places for your vacation, choose a place less traveled. Rather than Santorini choose one of the hundreds of equally beautiful Greek islands that don’t get cruise ships. Instead of Barcelona venture to one of Catalonia’s equally magical smaller coastal towns. Seeking out smaller, less touristy locations helps dilute mass tourism.

If you must go to (a.k.a. don’t want to miss) the most touristed cities and islands try to go during the off season when then are fewer people around. I love Barcelona but only go between November and March when the cruise ships aren’t running.

6. Get Off The Beaten Path

Florence streets
Florence on a super crowded day. There were literally thousands of people about 500 meters away, yet we had the city to ourselves.

This goes with number 5. Even in the big cities you can still get off the beaten path. Avoid the areas that are full of tourists and explore some of the lesser known sights. You’ll have a much more enriching and fulfilling experience. My rule is spend 25% of your time at the big sites and the other 75% at lesser known, lesser visited places, or “off the beaten track”. Of course you have to see the Colosseum in Rome – it would be madness to miss it. But then go explore the less visited sites and you will fall in love with the Eternal City.

RELATED POST: 18 Things You MUST Do In Florence

7. Support Local Artisans

Rather than shop in high street stores which you have at home anyway, or buying junky trinkets in made in China souvenir shops, support local artisans.

In a random little town in Tuscany we found this local artisan with her loom, making beautiful hand designed pashminas, scarves and knitwear.

Apart from helping keep the crafts and cultures alive shopping from local artisans significantly impacts the local economy.

We bought pieces both for ourselves and for gifts to take home. There were six of us and we equalled her entire month in sales. Always support the local economy.

8. Check Your Sunscreen

Believe it or not something as simple as your choice of sunscreen can have an environmental impact. Sunscreen gets into the ocean and other waterways when you swim or shower it off. You don’t need to be vacationing near the coral reefs for your sunscreen to have an impact.

In 2015 scientists estimated that annually 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into the world’s coral reefs.

Coral reefs are being destroyed by pollutants.

Some of the most common sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone, octinoxate, nano zinc oxide and nano titanium dioxide can harm both sea creatures and coral reefs. The damage is significant enough that some places are banning sun tan lotions containing them. In 2018 Hawaii banned the sale of sun tan lotions, sunblocks and suncreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate.

For a list of easily available and affordable reef safe sunscreens click here

9. Travel By Train

italo train Naples

Trains have been shown to be the most environmentally friendly mode of travel. Where possible use trains to travel through Europe rather than cars or planes. Using car only on the days you can’t get places by train has a significant impact on the environment.

RELATED POST: 21 Books That Will Inspire Wanderlust

10. Choose Your Animal Experiences Carefully

Animals shouldn’t be used for entertainment and should be able to live with as little human interference as possible. If you need to see animals in the wild take your tourism dollars to wildlife sanctuaries and refuges and marine conservation projects.

Kim Kardashian with elephant
Kim Kardashian said this was at an elephant sanctuary but sanctuaries don’t ride elephants and don’t use ropes on them. This poor animal was being abused.

Be aware that animals are mistreated and abused in the name of tourism. Don’t take an elephant ride – riding elephants can be extremely harmful to them and the process for getting an elephant ready to be ridden is inhumane. (Rescued elephants go to sanctuaries to escape a life of being ridden and abused.)

Avoid all experiences where animals are not behaving naturally. Also be aware that animals are being torn from the wild to be made available for tourists to take selfies with.

Want to know more? Listen to the Any Given Runway Podcast episode where we talk about sustainable travel and how you can make a huge difference by doing very small things. You can check out the webpage here

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5 Reasons You Need To Go To Carnival In Venice

Have you been to Carnival in Venice? If you had to choose the quintessential Venetian experience it wouldn’t be a gondola ride or a glass blowing demonstration, it would be Carnevale.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Venice was at its greatest. It was the merchant trade capital of the world and as such was dripping in money, grandeur and excess. What better way to show that off than with a weeks and sometimes months long fancy dress party?

Venice Carnival actually dates back to as early as 1162, but it was during the Baroque period in the 17th century that it really took off as a hedonistic expression of wealth and frivolity. Everyone would get dressed up, rich and poor (or maybe rich and non-rich is more correct) alike, don masks and be a part of the never-ending party.

Carnevale gave people the chance to live excessively until Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) after which the 40 days of Lent (and deprivation) began.

RELATED POST: 15 THINGS YOU MUST DO IN VENICE

In an interesting play on numbers the church snuffed out the celebrations in 1797, and they all but disappeared until 1979 when the government decided to use carnival to help bring back interest in the history and culture of Venice. During the interim the church forbade the use of masks. In the 19th century the carnival started reappearing, but only for short periods and for private events.

Now Venice’s carnival has become a huge international festival drawing people from all over the world.

Several years ago when I was teaching a pro makeup artistry program I had a student who had been to Carnival in Venice. She loved it so much that she decided to learn how to do makeup and go back each year, paying her way by doing makeup for carnival. She ended up doing it for years! She would work for book days on end getting ladies ready for the parties and balls.

I was always so proud of her but also a little envious (although in a nice way). I wished I could do it too, but I had a young child at home and at that time in my life it wouldn’t have worked.

5 Reasons why (at least once in your life) you should go to carnival in Venice

1. It’s The Original

This is the original carnival and nobody does it quite like Venice. With the backdrop of this exquisitely beautiful city, the baroque architecture, the canals, the little bridges everywhere and the midnight mist rolling in off the lagoon there is no place better in the world to celebrate carnival, and in full costume no less!

Mist rolling in at Venice carnival. Costumes at venice carnival
The mist rolling in at Venice Carnival

RELATED POST: DON’T BE A TOURIST IN VENICE!

2. You get To Wear A Mask

man in mask at Venice carnival at night on the grand canal
Mystery man behind the mask.

Not only do you get to wear a mask, but everyone else does too! You can be anyone you want to be when you have a mask hiding your identity. Not many cities have traditions so glamorous and alluring. Although it is quite possibly just Bob from accounting, behind that mask the man you are dancing with in the street or at a ball could be a prince. A little mystery adds no end of spice to life!

3. You get To Wear A Costume

costumes at Venice's Carnival

The costumes are spectacular. We don’t have anything like this at home. Not only do you get to  dress up in costume but everybody else does too. The streets (calle) and bridges and campos are full of people in baroque costumes, gondolas glide across the canals carrying elaborated gowned and masked women, men in capes and hats with masks hiding their faces. Night after night this goes on and it is incredible.

RELATED POST: DAY TRIPS FROM VENICE ~ TORCELLO

4. It’s The Biggest Party Of The Year

If you are going to visit Venice, why not come when Venetians are celebrating the biggest party of the year? You will never, ever forget the experience. The amount of time, effort and money that venetians put into their costumes make this so much more than just a fancy dress party.

5. See Venice As It Used To Be

Venice carnival costumes at a masquerade ball
Costumes at a masquerade ball at Venice carnival

If you have been to Venice during the high tourist summer months then you have no doubt witnessed the horror of the endless cruise ships. They not only block the view as they go by, but vomit off thousands of people at a time. Cruise passengers choke up the walkways, making the bridges so congested they are hard to pass over. They take up all the space and use up all the oxygen. Unless you know where to go to escape them you lose sight of Venice itself. Try walking through St Mark’s Square or across the Rialto Bridge when a cruise ship is in and you will know what I mean.

Between 470 and 529 cruise ships come to Venice each year, each carrying thousands of passengers. When multiple ships are docked the volume of tourists is just overwhelming.

But during Carnival they are fewer and further between. Not only do you get to really see Venice and be able to walk around freely, but everyone is in costume! It is magnificent.

Venice Carnival courtesy of RAI

Venice is the most unique city on earth. Why not visit during its most unique celebration?

RELATED POST: FABULOUS BOOKS SET IN VENICE

Bonus Information

Although the most famous, Venice is not the only place in Italy to celebrate Carnevale. Across the country there are several festivals leading up to the 40 days of Lent, each special in its own way. I have made a PDF of my top 5 Festivals In February. It not only tells you about each one but also gives you the dates they happen.

If you are on my newsletter list this information will be on its way to your inbox, so you don’t need to download it here. If you are not on my private member newsletter list you can get your copy of the PDF here.

If you would like to get all the secret sauce info sent to you as I publish it, you can join the private member newsletter here.

This year the Venice Carnival runs from Saturday February 16th to Tuesday March 5th