“This place is weird,” my daughter said as we sped into Venice from the airport on our water taxi, a hair-raising ride for me as the driver had propped my bag of camera equipment at the very top of a Seussian stack of luggage at the front of the boat. My younger daughter had not been enthusiastic about this trip, but in a feeble attempt to invoke some excitement I talked it up as being like the city in “Pokémon Heroes.” We do what we have to. Yes, Venice is “weird.” Rather, it is unique — a mixture of decaying beauty mixed with a melancholy undercurrent of eventual loss. Even in the heat of August there are reminders — water bubbling up from the streets — that the city is sinking. There’s a sense that you may be standing in a future Atlantis, and you can imagine the city being visited by underwater archaeologists of the future, swimming past the famous columns, recovering ancient artifacts like cheap parasols and selfie sticks.
48.3 million visitors visited Venice in 2017, which is why there were protests by locals that same summer,[footnote]World Population Review places the number of actual residents of Venice at 270,884…I also note they estimated annual tourism at 20 million visitors, far less that reported by Federalberghi. Anecdotally, a Venice resident told us that there were only 35,000 actual residents, and that more are leaving each year. The latter part is true — 2000 residents leave annually according to the Guardian article, but I’m not sure where he got his statistics.[/footnote]and why Venice ended up in CNN Travel’s 12 Destinations Travelers Might Want to avoid. But Venice remains a “bucket list” destination for many travelers. So, if you decide to not heed their advice and visit anyway, here are some things you might want to think about when planning a trip to Venice.
Time of Year
In August the heat and humidity is intense and the streets and boats are crowded. We asked our gondolier what his advice was for the best time to visit. His reply? “April, maybe…it gets busy around Easter weekend but the weather is more mild, or October. Don’t come in February. In February there is carnival and the tourists come and they get drunk and it is no good.
Location of Your Lodging
Trudging through the streets with your heavy suitcases a significant distance to your hotel or AirBNB may not be what you want to do right when you get off the boat at your stop (hey, pack less). If not, look at that map in advance and think about where you are going to stay and what getting there will look like when you arrive.
“Oh, our hotel is right here. This is where we always stay,” the smiling Australian couple told us as we descended from our shared water taxi and searched the map to plan the walk to our hotel which, fortunately, was only a few streets away. Travel envy is a real thing. I wanted a hotel right there. I wanted to be able to smile and say, “Oh, this is where we always stay…”
We saw plenty of other bewildered tourists toting around luggage farther than we did. You don’t have to be one of them.[footnote]Unless your sense of adventure includes just showing up and figuring it out when you get there.[/footnote]
And, when you’re planning your lodging, think about the area. The San Marco area started to seem like a crowded maze of shops from which there was no escape and I started to get the urge to jump on a boat just to get out. But, there is an advantage in staying there if shopping is your goal or if you want to go to the area around St. Mark’s frequently. Other parts of the island seemed more quiet and less commercial.
I’m an Occupational Therapist by background. The layout of Venice re-activated my therapist brain. How might I navigate this city of stairs, bridges, and canals if I had mobility limitations? I watched the delivery men run through the streets in the morning transporting hand carts full of items for the restaurants up and down small flights of stairs and over bridges and wondered how someone in a wheelchair might navigate this city. There seemed to be a ramp here and there: near the canal, at the train station, at the vaporetto stop. I suspected that, for someone with mobility limitations staying by the canal or visiting by cruise ship might be options, but that only covers a small portion of the city. However, this website states that 70% of Venice is accessible for people with mobility limitations.
Water taxis may also be difficult to ascend and descend, even for those of us who are in relatively good shape. As the water level changes the level (and the gap) between boat and dock can vary considerably. I took a flying leap off the boat, though the driver extended his arm in support. It would have been difficult to get off even with his help if I had even an arthritic knee.[footnote]Though I’m on my way there.[/footnote]
As usual, there are are many online resources specifically related to navigating Venice for people with disabilities:
Once you’re in Venice your transport choices are twofold: foot or boat. Take care of those feet; if you wear a tracker you’ll likely be going far beyond your step goal (unless you ride a boat all day). Your boat options are several:[note]And you’ll notice I don’t mention the gondola here…its nice to slowly see the canal by gondola, but I don’t consider it a transportation option like the historical Venetians did…its more of a tourist thing…see below).[/note]
This is Venice’s public transportation system, and your least expensive option for getting around Venice by boat. But, especially during peak times, these boats can be packed — which may be an issue for the more “crowd sensitive.” When I lusted for travel, but didn’t think it was actually an option for me, one of my favorite forms of travel porn was watching Rick Steves on public television.[note]My husband’s current favorite travel porn star is Anthony Bourdain because he’s all about the food.[/note] “Oh Rick!”. My daughter faked a swoon as I explained that Rick had said that the vaporetto was one of the best ways to see the whole of the Grand Canal [note]vs gondola or vs renting a private water taxi.[/note] My husband did not agree with Rick on this one; it took coaxing to get him back on the boat after that first crowded trip. If you go earlier in the day and start at a less crowded stop you may be one of the fortunate ones to get a seat right up at the front of the boat. This did turn out to be a good way to see the canal if you have the patience to wait while the boat makes its frequent passenger stops.
You can book a group water taxi ride, or you can hire your own private water taxi — but that can be prohibitively expensive. A short trip from our hotel to the train station cost us about 65 €. Longer trips will cost even more.
“Prepare to get lost.”. If you watch any travel show or YouTuber, they always say the same thing, because it’s true. GPS technology, however, has changed navigating around Venice as much as it has everywhere else. As our gondolier put it, “There is Google Maps. Everyone uses Google Maps.”. Unless, of course, you are one of the (perhaps sensible) few who has not come into the modern age and doesn’t carry a device every second of the day. The streets of Venice aren’t well marked. I found myself navigating toward big landmarks like Rialto or San Marco and then navigating from there or navigating by that piece of art or this building. . Philosophies differ as to whether getting lost is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing. Getting lost can be wonderful; sometimes you find the unexpected. Put away the iPhone or even the map for a little while and just wander.
My daughter and I wandered across the city and found ourselves…in the hospital. But not because we fell off a bridge! “This is like no hospital I’ve ever seen,” she remarked. We saw signs indicating there were, in fact, actual hospital departments off to the side of the main corridor where there might actually be patients. But the columned and marble halls were silent and seemed to us like…art, rather than our usual aseptic hospital halls.
My husband Ted, lost in the mid afternoon heat of Venice for two and a half hours, had a different experience. He described it as the “worst experience of [his] life,”[footnote]Really? I know some of the experiences you’ve had, and this was the worst?[/footnote]finally finding his way back after working through the language barrier to ask a local man for directions. But do you know what he has in exchange for his suffering? Stories.
“Keep your knees and shoulders covered,” was the advice I read about visiting churches in Italy. And, while that is the dress code, my experience was that it is not as strictly enforced as I expected. I saw some women walking into some of the smaller churches to look around for quick visits sporting tank tops and shorts. Don’t do this — follow the dress code out of respect for customs and not just because you might get turned away at the door if you don’t. But if you are wearing that tank dress because of the daytime heat and forget your cover up, don’t panic. I noticed they were selling inexpensive scarves at St. Mark’s.
Getting that Gondola
Yes, it’s touristy. And, yes, it’s still a must-do at least on your first visit to Venice. Know that you don’t need to pre-book your Gondola ride (unless you want a singing gondola ride…then you might want to prearrange). There are many many gondoliers waiting around with boats available all the time. Some will have prices pre-posted, some you will need to walk up to and negotiate a price. It can be pricey, and prices can vary.
We did a daytime group ride with our children, but then at night we spontaneously hired a private gondola. Our gondolier on that trip spoke English well and was significantly more chatty than our daytime gondolier. This gave us the chance to ply him with questions like mad kindergartners. Why does the gondola track straight so well with one paddle? How does a gondolier tolerate operating a boat all day in the heat and humidity?[footnote]Go slow and drink a tremendous amount of water[/footnote]. Had Venice changed significantly since he was a child there?[footnote]Yes![/footnote]Can a person operate their own boat anywhere in Venice?[note]Yes, you can! But even if I could bring my own kayak I don’t think I would venture out into the crowded canals[/note]He seemed to be a movie buff and gave us unsolicited restaurant advice I wish I’d received when I got to Venice (where Clooney eats!), and talked up various filming locations.
We also found that he lives on one of the outlying islands. His perspective? “It’s nice because the tourists come during the day, but go home around 5 or 6 and then it’s quiet and you can have a beer.”
And a couple of other things:
If you decide to visit, as with anywhere else, be respectful. I don’t know if some of the litter and graffiti I saw there was from locals or tourists
— possibly a combination of both. I saw tourists feeding (and handling) pigeons[footnote]Another post on this later[/footnote] despite the signs everywhere asking them not to do this. I’d like to think that we weren’t one of the “bad” tourists that our gondolier referred to…but then, there was that incident with the street performer and the beer. We don’t talk about that.[footnote]Though my daughter noted: “Now THAT was magical!”[/footnote] We just post it on YouTube.
And as always: Take your time
Venice will be a “go back again sometime” destination for me because I made the typical tourist mistake of not scheduling enough time there. I would recommend at least a week, more if you have it. Taking more time will give you the chance to relax and explore Venice and the surrounding islands as they should be enjoyed. We have friends who lived in Italy for two years. On returning, they said their young son was, “walking like an old Italian man,” : slow paced, head slightly bowed, hands behind back. This is the pace you want to take visiting Venice.[footnote]And early morning is a great time to slowly stroll around the streets of Venice, as I noted in this post.[/footnote]
Hey…and here’s a medley of some singing gondoliers I saw when I was strolling around…