It’s high season and the crowds in major cities in Europe are swarming. Venice is always a popular attraction for visitors. While the steaming mass of tourists come and go, frustrated locals feel the pressure of crowding every day. As with any cross section of humanity, there are thoughtful travelers and…not so thoughtful travelers in the mix. This city is a jewel of world heritage, so the question looms: how can one be a good tourist in Venice?
Tourism pressure happens worldwide. I’m a tour guide all over the world, but Venice is near and dear to my heart. I spend weeks there every year and am sort of a quasi-local, or at least my Venetian friends think so. I feel a deep sympathy and connection to this creaky place and its residents. Help me help my city.
Not Always A Fan
My first few visits to Venice were not so great. I was a poor student. Existing on $20 per day was tough even in the dark ages. I stayed on the Giudecca and drank 1000 lira wine (50 cents a bottle). I was scandalized by the prices and the crowds. The city seemed like a big, hollow stage set with no life inside. It seemed like an elaborate seashell, abandoned by its hermit crab and left to be tossed about by the ocean.
Guiding tours in Italy required me to dutifully return again and again. Eventually I met some locals who became friends. Looking at the city through their eyes changed the way I felt about the city. As with any place, finding the soul lies in the people who live there.
What I found was a city that has a glorious past that few really understand beyond gondolas and Carnevale masks. A city with secret pleasures, traditional culture, modern life and salty old sea dogs, all mixed together. It has been a great gift to find the soul of a city as complicated as Venice.
As much as locals may grouse about tourism, they secretly all know that they cannot live without it. The city was massively powerful and controlled trade from 1200-1400. After the fall of Constantinople in the 1400’s and the discovery of the New World, Venice slowly declined. Their dominance of the trading world slipped away.
To compensate, Venetians did what they did best, entertained international guests. Venice has been an international hub for more than 900 years. A natural outgrowth of hosting the international community became hospitality, and not just a place to sleep. Entertainment, in the form of music, theater, parties, gambling, and, um, female companionship, grew to be their business in the 1600’s.
I tell you all of this simply to point out one thing: tourism is nothing new. Anyone who complains about the number of foreigners in Venice just needs to take a visit to the Accademia painting gallery and check out some of the scenes from Venice in the early 1400’s. The faces and commotion would look current if you changed the elaborate clothing for jeans and tennis shoes.
International visitors are integral to the long history of the city. You should not feel an ounce of guilt for visiting, or let any locals make you feel unwelcome. Visitors make the city as they always have.
What to Do in 12 Thoughts
Some people will visit Venice and feel turned off by the mass tourism and tacky-tacky shops. Others will fall in love at first sight. No matter how you feel about the city, we as visitors need to learn to live alongside the locals in a healthier way. I have a few simple things you can do to achieve this goal.
- Keep to the right. The streets of Venice are tight, barely two people wide in many spots. If you’re ambling along, stay close to the right and let others pass you. If you see delivery people, move out of their way as quickly as you can. Just like the freeway at home, if you’re on the wrong side of the road, driving too slow, or blocking lanes, you’ll get some colorful hand gestures.
- Make eye contact, smile and greet the locals. You are a guest in their city. You’re in their house. Pretend like every local is your grandma. Smile and say “Salve”, an all purpose greeting in Italian. They will be shocked…and may smile back.
- Dress for success. Locals have complained to me that tourists tend to dress like they are going to the beach when they come to Venice, with short shorts and bikini tops. The local culture is actually very conservative. I tend to dress up in Venice, wearing a nice dress and styling my hair for once. The city inspires me to be my best self, let it speak to you that way too.
- Don’t block bridges. This is the most crazy-making habit I see. I realize that the best photos are on a bridge, overlooking a canal. But don’t forget, those bridges are arterials. When you block traffic to take that Christmas card photo, you’re holding up a bunch of folks who just need to get to the grocery store. Be a thoughtful photographer. Early mornings are better anyway.
- Sleep in Venice. I know it is ridiculously expensive. But you’ll never really feel the magic of this city if you are tucked away on the mainland, or even worse, on a cruiseship, after the sun sets. Do yourself and the local economy a favor and sleep in this magical place. You’re worth it.
- Eat local. The Venetians are cracking down on chain restaurants and take-away shops for a reason. Venetian food has good choices at every price level, you just have to look for it and be willing to go local. Cheapskates can eat Venetian Tapas–cicchetti– and those with more money can splash out for a sit-down meal. Walk a few minutes out of center and you’ll find some good local restaurants. Supporting quality restaurants will encourage more quality places to develop.
- Shop thoughtfully. I know that plaster model of the Bridge of Sighs looks tempting, but it wasn’t made in Venice, probably not in Italy. There are plenty of shops that sell handmade souvenirs that are good quality from local artists. Jewelry, masks, art prints, you name it, you can find it if you ask around. Getting into the back streets of the city can help.
- Don’t feed or touch the pigeons. They may look romantic but the locals call them the flying rats. I am so disgusted when people feed and hold them, it’s unsanitary. Yuck, but also, they poop on buildings, which destroys them. Feeding pigeons helps them thrive. Don’t do it.
- Get away from the Piazza. Everyone lingers in San Marco, but there is plenty more to see in Venice. Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, Santa Croce are all lovely districts with hardly any people in them. See the main square at off hours.
- Be courteous and patient on transit. Using the vaporetto can be frustrating. The locals depend on it to get around their city. Can you imagine how complicated everyday tasks must be? Give them space, offer your seat. Try to get on and off quickly, and stay out of the way.
- Carry your bags over the bridges. All of us who love the city cringe when visitors drag their bags up and down the steps. The wheels on the bags are chipping and damaging the steps. They actually outlawed wheeled bags in Venice…for about five minutes.
- Garbage is a problem. The garbage cans in busy areas can overflow. Be thoughtful about your garbage and don’t heap it on top of a full can. And please don’t toss things in the canals, including yourself! (Ewwww)
All in all, the bottom line is this: buy local, stay local, be cool and make an effort to try and understand the city. Thoughtful tourists are welcomed with open arms, and usually find a deeper connection and appreciation for this lovely place. Take care of this place and it will love you back.
Been to Venice? What would you like to see visitors do to be the best sort of guests?