As I was preparing for this podcast, I had this flood of memories. Or, Acqua Alta of memories I guess you could say. I have never fallen in love with a city quite like I have with Venice. It is one of those places that I never want to leave, and I have to believe I’ll come back. Perhaps it is the idea that it is sinking (whether by water or tourism), that makes it seem so precious. We appreciate life because it has a deadline, maybe I feel the same way about Venice. I’m not the only one that has experienced that magic. If you look online for quotations about Venice you will find a plethora of people who were inspired by the city. One of my favorites was said by poet Arthur Symons: “A realist, in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him.” So, how can you make sure you experience this Venice?
Let’s start with some basics. Venice suffers from hordes and hordes of tourists being dropped off each day. ABout 55,000 a day to be more specific. I recommend you try to steer clear of them the best you can. I try to achieve this by avoiding the most popular spots during peak hours. I also prefer going in the spring versus the summer. You are probably thinking, Melissa, you are a tourist too. I don’t quite see it like that. These people that I’m referring to show no respect for the place or people around them. They are the kind of people that are there to say they’ve been there. They bring a picnic to the city, and they don’t visit any museums. We want to try to experience the people of Venice, not so much of its visitors.
The last thing you probably need to know before we take off is how the city is set up. Venice is made up of many islands. That means no cars. That means a lot of walking and steps to cross bridges. The city is organized into six neighborhoods called sestieri. They are Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo, and Santa Croce. I’ve never really been successful following a map in Venice since the calle (streets) are very winding and not very north/south, east/west. I will give you some tips to help you get around in the list.
And, without further ado, I bring you the list. The Venice list is comprised of 17 items to help you make the best of your time in the city shaped like a fish (that’s Venice).
Ride the vaporetto.
- This is my favorite way to get acquainted with the city. The vaporetto is basically the public transportation of Venice. Once you get settled into the place you are staying, and you freshen up, visit the biglietteria by the Rialto bridge to take a boat trip down the Grand Canal. Make sure you watch your step getting on, otherwise you may have an unexpected bath. Usually this is the first moment I realize I’m actually in Venice. I’m on the water, feeling the breeze, and seeing the unique architecture. If you get a chance to ride at night, take a look into the lit up windows of the Palazzos and be amazed by the elegance. And don’t forget to look up at the moon if you can see it. Venice under moonlight surpasses all of the cliche expectations. On a side note, I’d like to say your stay in Venice will be magical, but it probably won’t sink in right away. My first impression was actually kind of harsh because of the chaos and exhausting trek dragging my luggage on the cobblestone and climbing up the stairs for the dozen bridges to get to our apartment. The less you carry, the happier you will be. I just wanted to warn you that you may have to give Venice a second chance once you are settled and are a little less jet lagged.
Get lost winding through the canals.
- You will get lost. I often find not having a destination provides great opportunities to stumble onto something unexpected. My first time I was in Venice was during the spring. On Palm Sunday, I woke up early, grabbed my camera, and set off for a mini-adventure. I had no plans for where I was going, I just pointed in a direction I hadn’t gone yet. I ended up by a church called Santa Maria Formosa where an acoustic guitar concert guided my ears. The people were walking out with their palms, gathering around to listen. I felt so fortunate to be given this peek into Venice life. Essentially, I want you to know that getting lost in Venice is not a bad thing. Remember, you are on an island. How far off track can you get? If you are trying to reach an endpoint at a certain time, I would recommend leaving early. This will help you enjoy that time getting lost rather than being frustrated about missing an important event.
Figure out how to get around Venice.
- Although getting lost can lead to unforgettable memories, learning how to get around is also very rewarding. Take the vaporetto to get to different areas in Venice, but then walk to find your destination. The streets are very curvy and lead to piazzas with other streets branching off. I recommend using the signs on the buildings to help you get around. Two common signs are “Per Rialto” and “Per S Marco.” Before you go, study your map and determine what your sight is near. For example, if I want to go to the Bridge of Sighs, I see that it is near San Marco Square. So, when I leave my apartment I will look for signs that say Per S Marco, then look at my map one more time to see which Calle I should take from there. I find that using this method takes away the frustration and stress of getting to the next place. You can also ask for directions. Mi scuzi is a phrase you should know to say excuse me, and then dove means where is it.
See acqua alta.
- Sometimes when we travel, we need to experience the struggles a place is going through. This can help bring awareness and it allows us to gain a better understanding for others’ lives. Venice suffers from flooding called acqua alta. The rising water levels are caused by a combination of elements such as high tides, low pressure, and a type of wind called scirocco. People often attribute this flooding to the city sinking, but this is not the case. The city typically sinks less than a millimeter a year. Acqua alta is a growing problem, and it will continue to plague the city as our climate changes. So, how will you know that acqua alta is happening? Other than the obvious visible signs, you will also hear a siren to warn you. Have a listen. PLAY AUDIO. It can be a bit alarming, but it is just a warning. Certain places in the city suffer greater than others. San Marco Square is one of those places. I have visited Venice twice, and each time we experienced acqua alta. My first introduction to it reminded me of a scene from Titanic. We were walking under the arcades to escape the rain, and as the water rose below our feet, the winds howled, and the torrential downpour washed the city. Besides the sound of the makeshift waterfall, we heard classical music playing in the background. As we followed the sound, we saw a string quartet playing as it appeared the city was sinking. Life goes on during acqua alta, and the Venetians have learned to adapt. If you hear the sirens, go out and see what this phenomenon does, and reflect on changes we need to make on our planet to protect the places we love.
Go for a gondola ride.
- It seems very cliche to go on gondola in the canals of Venice, but you should. Gondolas originated in Venice, Italy hundreds of years ago as a way to navigate the narrow canals with just one oarsmen. They are expensive, but well worth the cost. To make the most of your ride, talk to the gondoliers and find one you like. If you want to hear singing or narration, ask about it. I recommend trying to escape the grand canal and take the opportunity to visit the quieter canals. I have gone during the day and at night. Although I enjoyed both rides, I did find the evening experience to be more romantic. When I returned to Venice a second time, I was planning on skipping the gondola ride because it was expensive and I had already done it. My friends talked me into joining, and I am so thankful they did because it was a different kind of experience. That was definitely a time I learned to go with the flow and be open to doing something more than once. I almost missed out on a liberated travel moment because I thought, “I’ve done this already.” If you have an opportunity to go to Venice, go on the gondola.
Meet the people of Venice.
- Unfortunately, there are not many native Venetians left. Tourists and the rising cost of living in Venice are the major causes of this. If you can, try to talk with the locals. If you like to go on walking tours, do some research and try to find a guide. Elizabetta was my guide and it was a great opportunity to have a conversation with a local and ask questions about the history and culture of Venice. I also got a sneak peek into current life in Venice. If this is not for you, then make sure you put yourself out there in other ways to meet the Venetians.
Wake up and smell the roses, or fish, at the markets.
- I always try to seek out markets when traveling. I enjoy visiting the Rialto market to take a gander at the seafood. Markets can be kind of intimidating if you want to buy something, but give it a try. We just mentioned meeting the locals, and this is another way to talk to them. If you are looking for an al fresco dining option, visit the market to pick up some lunch essentials and then find a spot along the canals to enjoy your fresh bites.
Admire the architecture.
- The architectural style is unique to Venice, and it looks quite different than other major Italian cities. It is known as Venetian Gothic. This style has a Byzantine and Moorish influence. One of the beauties of this architecture is the way it is able to bridge the styles of the east with the west. Everywhere you look you will be impressed. If you are looking to learn more about the architecture and history, I recommend taking a guided walk. Besides the architecture, Venice also has some interesting engineering feats. It all started with wood pylons being driven into the ground. Since then, they have also worked on other projects to protect the city such as MOSE which is essentially flood gates. Does that name sound familiar to you? It isn’t a coincidence. There is a lot that can be learned by studying the structures of this city.
Take a class.
- I love to learn, and sometimes it is nice to learn something from another person in a natural setting. If you look online, you will find an abundance of options. During my first visit to Venice, I took a photography class. I’ve taken other photography classes, but taking one in the field taught me so much more than any classroom. I’ve also participated in a mask making demonstration. When trying to select a class, pick something that is interesting to you, but also consider what the place is known for.
Explore the Venetian Lagoon.
- There is plenty to see in Venice, but the surrounding islands are also worth a visit. There is Giudecca, Lido, Murano, Burano, Torcello, and San Michele. With a simple vaporetto ticket, you can hop islands and see the unique character of each. My favorite island is Burano. The buildings are very colorful so the fishermen would be able to see land if it was foggy. It is a photographer’s dream, and a great place to escape the craziness of Venice. Murano is also well known for its glass. The Lido is where you’ll find the beach scene and a place to lay out. Giudecca is more of the working man’s Venice. Torcello is a quiet island that is a pleasure to stroll. San Michele is the quietest island of them all because it houses a cemetary. If you have enough time, consider venturing to the Venetian lagoon.
Wander around San Marco Piazza in the late evening.
- San Marco Square is mad during the day. You can’t skip it, but you can try to visit when it is a little less hectic. My favorite time is the late evening. Visit the basilica, strain your neck to look up at the Campanile, check out the gondola parking lot, and admire the architecture of the Doge’s palace. As darkness starts to blanket the city, the lights come on and the music begins to play. Find a bar and treat yourself to a bellini which was one of Hemingway’s favorite drinks. I think if you visit during this time, you will see the true ambiance of the big piazza.
Step up to a cichetti bar.
- Food is good. Food in Italy is divine. This seems to be as true as the sun setting and rising. Cicchetti is the tapas of the Italian world. Savor samples of the freshest dishes by hand selecting your personal desires. Suppress your hunger or make it a meal; cicchetti is an affordable way to sample several local dishes in one place. Since returning home from Venice I have experienced symptoms of withdrawal. I cannot find seafood so fresh where I live, and the produce has limited taste. I know where I will be eating the next time I visit Venice. Perhaps I’ll go on a cicchetti crawl.
Visit the churches.
- There are numerous churches I would recommend visiting while in Venice. Some of the most popular churches are the San Marco Basilica, Frari, Salute, and Miracoli. One of my favorite memories happened at San Giorgio Maggiore. We had read that at certain times, we could hear Gregorian chants, so we went to check it out. Compared to the grandness of the church, the door we were supposed to visit felt a little less sufficient. Maybe this was the door Alice went through after chasing the rabbit. We rang the doorbell as if we were ready to be welcomed into someone’s house. I guess it is someone’s house after all, the house of God. A kind monk appeared, and quietly guided us to the room where the mass was being held. We didn’t end up hearing Gregorian chants, but we did meet a monk named Dona Andrew. He asked us to join him for coffee and a lemon pastry. He shared with us that he was from Scotland. When he turned 30, he found himself becoming very selfish. He looked at his possessions and the life he was living, and he knew that he could not stay on this path. That was how he became a monk. There are so many times during travel that the unplanned moments end up becoming your favorite. There are numerous times that these have happened at a church for me, so I recommend finding at least one you’d like to see and take some time to get to know it.
- There are an abundance of shopping opportunities in Venice. I avoid the luxury shops like Dior or Prada, but instead I seek out local artists and boutique style shops. My favorite souvenirs to pick up are art prints and posters. They are usually not too pricey, and with a tube, they can be safely stored. One of my favorite shops is Acqua Alta Library, It is a store with piles and piles of books. On the floor you will find footsteps that lead to Casanova according to the owner. It actually leads to a canal. I guess Casanova got away. There are also some great true-to-Venice souvenirs you can pick up such as a mask or Murano glass. If you can get away from the streets where the tourists are dropped off, you will find yourself enjoying your retail therapy.
Stay in an apartment.
- I’m actually struggling with this concept right now. Staying in an apartment has provided me with so many fantastic opportunities to be part of the place I’m visiting. During my first trip we stayed in a wonderful apartment in a neighborhood we wanted to be part of. We found a local bar downstairs that we visited each night. It smelled of tulips, and that is a smell that still triggers those memories to this day. I even have a Da Vinici print hanging in my bedroom because there was one in the bedroom I stayed in and I just loved looking up at her. But, here is where my struggle comes. I recently read that someone is putting up posters around Venice claiming that we are ruining Venice. Because of companies like Airbnb, people are buying up real estate causing the cost to rise and landlords to kick out their tenets. People have been leaving Venice for many years now for numerous reasons, but this poster claims that Venice will become an “empty shell” because sites like this are pushing out its residents. I feel conflicted because this has been a core part of my travel, but of course I don’t want to contribute to the desertification of the city. Japan’s government recently cancelled 80% of the Airbnb reservations for this same reason. The hosts will now have to be approved by the government and they can only let out their place for up to 180 days during the year. I wonder if this will be a trend we see. I suppose this provides an opportunity to be reflective and think about how our traveling impacts the places we visit.
Watch a futbol game in the piazza.
- Soccer is much more popular in other countries compared to the United States. If you are in Venice during the soccer season, find a bar showing a game. You may need to stock up on some gear such as a blue Italia shirt or some face paint because this is serious. For one of the games that I saw, Italy was going up against Spain, so they placed some screens at the bar entrance, and people spilled out into the piazza. At one point I was standing up front and I turned around to find a sea of faces amongst the blue. This is one of my favorite photos. If you are hoping to find more experiences with the locals, this is a great opportunity to step up next to a fan and cheer on their team.
Try to use some Italian.
- Speaking a foreign language is both exciting and intimidating. You will find that they typically speak at least some English, but it is not only polite to try in Italian first, but also part of the fun. Before I leave, I usually pick up some CDs at the library and try to learn some basics. My go to phrases I try to learn are: hello, goodbye, excuse me, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian, where is, bathroom, and cheers. I also like to be able to recognize items on a menu and on signs, so I study those terms as well.
Foods to Eat and Drinks to Sip On
- Sarde in Saor (Marinated Sardines)
- Cuttlefish Ink
- Wine (Prosecco)
- Aperol Spritz
Sights to See
- San Marco Piazza and Basilica
- Doge’s Palace
- Rialto Bridge
- San Giorgio Maggiore
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection
- Venetian Gothic Architecture
- As many canals as you can
Experiences to Have
- Ride a gondola.
- Go for an early morning walk.
- Ride the Vaporetto
- Take advantage of cicchetti
- Visit San Marco Piazza in the late evening.
- Take a class.
I’d love to hear about your experiences in Venice. Please visit my website liberatedtraveler.com to leave a comment. I hope you join me next week. Thank you for listening.