As I was writing my end of year travel review, I realized it has taken me awhile to write about Venice. I traveled there in September as the last leg of my five city European train journey. It was not on the way, it was not convenient, I was not even in the same country, but I HAD TO GET TO VENICE. Why? Well partially because it is sinking and who knows how much longer this unique gem of a city will be around to visit. The other reason was that Venice fit all my qualifications for a city I would love. Culture? Check. History? Check. Good food? Check. Close to the water? Check check check.
I had fallen in love with Italy over five years ago, but Venice had escaped me and I knew I needed to go back and experience the uniqueness of this Italian city. I convinced my traveling partner to scrap our initial ending point of Budapest and add an additional two trains (one of them overnight) to get to my bucket list/ must-see / please-take-me-there -now destination.
I had a sense of satisfaction once it was booked. Finally, I was going to Venice. I would tell anyone who would listen. Then, a funny thing happened. I started hearing and reading bad things about Venice. What?! I thought it was perfect there. As a result, I did something interesting (and unusual for me) – I tempered my expectations. I started to downplay Venice in my head, tone my excitement down a notch, prepare for the negative aspects and plan around them. I no longer knew what to expect.
What was the outcome? Here are the top five things I was told about Venice and here is how the city lived up.
1. Venice is touristy.
Actual: Every big and popular city is touristy in some respect. I am a firm believer that you can still have a good time in a touristy city if you properly balance the touristy with the authentic. Is St. Mark’s Square touristy? Yes. Are there more authentic places in Venice to see? Yes. See St Mark’s Cathedral for its exquisite beauty, take the Secret Itinerary Tour at Doge’s Palace and climb to the top of the Campanile for great views and then get out of St. Mark’s Square! There are so many beautiful, hidden, and non-touristy parts of Venice. Explore what truly makes this city unique – the history, architecture and waterways. If you break away from the main touristy sites you will find that you can have parts of Venice all to yourself.
2. Do not expect to eat well. The food in Venice is not like the rest of Italy – it is all tourist traps.
Actual: In a city where the tourists outnumber the residents, there will be plenty of tourist traps posing as restaurants. It comes with the territory of having a large quantity of tourists in a concentrated area. Should you be aware of this in Venice? Absolutely. However, once I was aware of it, I avoided eating in any main plazas, avoided “tourist menus,” and did my research on where I wanted to eat ahead of time. The result was the best meal of my European trip at the famed Alle Tiestre by making a reservation in advance as well as pizza I still dream about at well-researched and authentic establishments. There may be a lot of tourist traps, but you just need to know how to handle them. You CAN still get delicious food in Venice, especially seafood.
3. Gondola rides are not worth the expense.
Actual: Venice and gondola rides go hand in hand for me. In a city dominated by waterways, part of my exploration was experiencing the hidden canals that give Venice its charm. The gondola rides can show you a side of Venice that you cannot see via vaporetto or even by walking. Some travelers dismiss them as being too touristy and expensive, and I will admit that I was blown away by an hour long line for a 20 minute gondola ride that was going for 80 euro; however, what I found is that there is a way to make it less touristy and less expensive. Do not wait in line for an hour (or more!) to take a ride out of one of the main squares. Instead, find a gondolier out of one of the smaller bridges. I did that and the gondolier offered to drop the price by 20 euro for less time on the Grand Canal. Perfect! I was more interested in seeing the less frequented canals anyways as well as the Venice that I could not get a glimpse of on foot.
4. Venice is expensive.
Actual: Okay, I will give in here. Venice is more expensive than most other cities in Europe and coming from much cheaper Eastern European countries, I could notice the difference immediately. Venice is fancy and romantic and it makes you pay for it. The only advice I really have is to decide ahead of time what you want to spend your money on. For me it was one nice dinner and a few of the museums and attractions. I walked the whole time and did not take the vaporetto once, choosing to eliminate that cost.
5. Venice is crowded.
Actual: People were not lying on this one either. Venice is incredibly crowded with tourists outnumbering the Venetian residents. This means that the main attractions will be congested during the high season and there will be long lines for museums and restaurants. I thought by booking in September, I would be slightly outside the high season and more in the “shoulder season.” Boy was I wrong! Unfortunately, it was still packed, but I eliminated its impact on me in three main ways and here is how you can do the same.
1) Make restaurant reservations in advance. The good restaurants will be crowded during high season and you will end up waiting to eat at them or not getting in at all if you do not make reservations.
2) Book key attractions in advance. St. Mark’s Cathedral, Doge’s Palace, the Campanile and Gallerie dell’ Accademia all had long lines when we were visiting, but they also all allow you to buy tickets ahead of time. Take advantage of this as it will allow you to spend less of your precious time in line and more time doing what you want to do.
3) Get out of the main squares. While the city felt crowded and a little overwhelming when I was in the main plazas, I saw a whole different side of the city when I branched out from these congested areas. Get a good map and go explore Venice off the beaten path. Many of the tourists do not bother to do that and the further away from the squares you get, the less crowded Venice becomes.
The truth is, I fell in love with Venice. Every city has positives and negatives and for me the good outweighed the bad in Venice. Never have I been to a city so dominated by canals and waterways, where taxis and cars do not clutter the roads. The aged buildings and architecture were mesmerizing and the museums were filled with meaningful history and art. Was it crowded? Yes. Can it be touristy? Yes. But to be perfectly honest, it did not ruin my experience. Knowing what to expect ahead of time helped me plan accordingly. As I was leaving, I found myself disappointed I had not stayed longer. Hopefully I will be back someday Venice. And next time, maybe in the offseason…
Have you been to Venice? What are your thoughts about the city?