by: Heather Jane Johnson
Perhaps more than any other place on earth, Venice, Italy is the poster child for overtourism. From crowded piazzas to sweaty throngs jamming through narrow streets, the sheer number of people who can fit into this fish-shaped city can be hard to comprehend unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. Some….actually, many, especially Italians, have chosen to avoid the place altogether.
As a once frequent visitor to Venice myself, not long ago I would have agreed with all of the above. Recently, however, it became my home, and I can better see now the real problem is not too many tourists, but the wrong kind of tourist. What I like to refer to as the, ‘It’s my God-given right to travel in comfort cheaply’ tourist. More on that plague at another time, but for now, I address those who have long harboured a dream in their heart to visit one of the most enchanting cities in the world….responsibly. Below you’ll find 4 suggestions from a local for experiencing Venice on her terms.
1. Stay in a hotel, hostel or monastery in the Laguna
Perhaps the thing that most negatively affects Venice are day-trippers, people who travel in from nearby, or stay on the mainland to save money, visiting the city for just one or two days, but sleeping elsewhere.
What are the repercussions of this trend, especially when not hundreds, but thousands of people are doing it year after year? Well, most importantly, it robs the city of the higher taxes that are imposed upon lodging within the lagoon (Venice, the Lido, Murano, Burano, etc). Those taxes, around 3 to 5 euros per night, help pay for the maintenance and upkeep of this 1,600 year old landmark, and trust me, she requires an intense amount of upkeep. It’s difficult to walk more than 5 minutes here, for example, and not see a bridge, building or street that is undergoing some sort of maintenance. Tragically, on my daily walks with my dog I have also begun to notice and catalogue abandoned palazzi, whose needs eclipse a simple tourist rental investment, their renovation or demise having been left to fate and rodents of unusual size. And while day-tripping has not only become a sore spot with authorities for the loss of sorely needed revenue, it is also a major issue with locals for the increased human traffic jams and theme-park like atmosphere.
Because of this, in 2022 those tourists coming in just for the day will have to make a reservation to enter and pay a tourist tax. Being Italy, when exactly, and what specificrules and exceptions will be applied, probably won’t be in place until moments before things take effect, but one can refer to the following webpage for timely updates and info: allaboutvenice.com.
Lastly on this topic, some of you may then ask, well why not an Airbnb location within the lagoon? Here’s why not, and this is a problem not only affecting Venice but major cities throughout Europe: property owners make more money on consistently renting an apartment through Airbnb than they do through renting that apartment to a resident. Due to this, many have had to flee the city not because they don’t want to stay here, but simply because they can’t afford to rent or buy in a place in which housing prices have been so dramatically affected by tourist rentals.
If you follow only one rule on this list, please, let it be this one.
2. Come October to May, Stay Monday through Thursday
Off-season vacation suggestions are not new, but in recent years I have seen a trend confirmed in Italy which travellers really need to take into consideration — climate change. The past two summers the July and August heat waves have been so unbearable that I now tell my family to not even consider travelling here during those months anymore. It doesn’t matter if you have air conditioning in your hotel room, what matters is that walking around in the heat between noon and 8 p.m. has become, in my opinion, dangerous. Keeping this in mind, not only would better spaced out trips provide tourist destinations like Venice with more evenly distributed crowd flows and revenue throughout the year, it could also have a great bearing on the enjoyment of your trip overall. Weather wise, of course, nothing is guaranteed, but better to be bundled and comfortable rather than scantily clad and miserable.
For Venice in particular during the off-season, one can enjoy a peaceful evening stroll – Monday through Thursday – with often so few people around it’s eerie. On the other hand, pass by the train station on a Saturday at any moment of the day and it’s as if the poor thing is vomiting day-trippers.
If you decide to book your trip for this time frame, check the Carnevale dates (usually in February). In pre-pandemic days the number of tourists pouring in for the festivities was also becoming problematic, but my suspicion is day- tripping would once again be the culprit. Simply follow the advice in number 1 and you can participate guilt-free.
3. Less checklist, better food.
Here’s how I see it — the only musts in Venice are the Rialto Bridge, Saint Mark’s Square, and if you can stomach the line, the interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica. The first two are free. Based on my own stays here as a tourist, but now confirmed as a resident, my advice is this: save both time and money by keeping your itinerary light, and instead funnel those savings towards slow-travel activities that should help you remember you’re on a vacation, not on a bucket-list-kill-11-birds-with- one-stone trip. Slow. Down. Put away the phone (more on this in number 4). Stop at the first bar that says “Spritz -2.50 euros” (or anything under 4 euros).
Drink a spritz. Or go to a bacaro, a bar that has traditional Venetian finger foods (cicchetti) and economical glasses of regional wine (ask for “un ombra” and then specify rosso for red, or bianco for white). Have lunch or dinner at a sit down restaurant and order the squid ink pasta, another Venetian specialty. I won’t even give specific suggestions as there are hundreds of options. Just keep your eye out for a restaurant that looks nice, in whatever part of town you might find yourself wandering around in. Relax.
4. Do you really need to take a picture on that bridge?
Venice is a wandering wonder- land. That is her real magic, her true gift. It is a city meant to be explored and discovered, not Google-Mapped and rushed th- rough. Which brings us to the photo problem…
Many tourists are so immediately overwhelmed by the unique beauty, and the amazingly endless selfie-ops, that their phones come out within the first 5 seconds and don’t re-enter their pockets until they get back on the train to leave. The downside of this phenomenon is that frequently thousands of visitors are walking around like Marlo Thomas in That Girl, with a dazed expression and their fifth-limb extended in perpetuity, regardless of the number of people they may be blocking who are actually trying to get somewhere within a particular time frame.
As a local I’m going to make a radical request. Don’t be that person on that bridge (meaning any bridge with a lot of foot traffic). Put your phone away at least 80% of the time you’re here. It’s a big ask, but I promise you no photo will ever take the place of how you will feel here, if you actually allow yourself to really be here.
— Heather Johnson is a teacher, dancer, baker and writer living in Venice, Italy. Her novel ‘1500’, a YA, historical fiction thriller about an orphan living in Venice during the Renaissance, came out in August of 2020. For more on Venice and the Veneto, save this space. *Photos provided by the author.