Earlier this year I wrote about how to do a road trip from Paris to Venice. That got me thinking about how wonderful Venice can be if you do it right, or how overcrowded and unpleasant it is if you spend all your time in a giant mob of tourists. So I’m sharing my tips, gleaned from multiple visits over multiple years, on how to avoid mistakes and maximize a visit to one of the greatest cities on earth.
1. Spending too much time in and around St. Mark’s Square
St. Mark’s Square is bounded by St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, and a bunch of charming-but-touristy cafes that have live music. It’s a wonderful place — so wonderful, in fact, that it’s often completely swamped with people.
The last time I visited Venice in the summer it was so crowded that the surrounding alleyways felt more like Disneyland lines than actual city streets. Which is a shame; perpetually quiet lanes, hidden squares, and shimmering canals — all with almost no people around — are always nearby in Venice.
If you’re visiting Venice during the off season, or during the rain, St. Mark’s Square can still be charming and fun. But if you’re going on a sunny, summer day, spend as little time there as possible. Check it off the list if you must, but quickly move on to just about anywhere else.
Relatedly, never stay in a hotel near St. Mark’s Square. The entire city is easily walkable and you can get anywhere on foot in a reasonable amount of time. Staying further from St. Mark’s means better rates, less noise, and an all around more authentic experience.
2. Bringing too much luggage, and the wrong type of luggage.
Everyone who goes to Venice ends up walking a lot. That’s doubly true if you’re not rich and don’t want to fork over a hefty sum to pay a water taxi. As a result, visiting Venice means walking around and carrying your luggage with you. Hence, you want to bring as little with you as possible.
Relatedly, Venice is really not a good place to have a roller bag because all the streets eventually lead to stairs. Roller bags are a pain to carry up any stairs, but in Venice they also destroy the stone cladding and make noise that perturbs the locals. (The city has flirted with banning roller bags, but thus far hasn’t actually outlawed them).
Damaging local infrastructure and imposing on locals is literally the opposite of what travel should accomplish. So when visiting Venice, bring a small bag that you can easily carry (eg a backpack).
3. Skipping the Jewish ghetto.
It took me a few visits to Venice to make it to the Jewish ghetto, and when I finally did go I wished I had made it a higher priority. For starters, it dates to the 1500s and is the place from whence the English word “ghetto” originates. It may come from the word for “foundry,” or from Yiddish, but either way that one spot survives linguistically all these years later.
The area also sports architectural typology that is distinct from the rest of Venice. Hundreds of years ago, Venice’s Jews were once forced to live in this part of town and at night the gates were actually locked. As a result, buildings became tightly packed.
Today, you can still see synagogues and people going to use them. There’s also a museum, and the area offers numerous history lessons on the (often horrible) way Jews were treated over the centuries in Europe.
The ghetto also offers a comparatively low key, un-touristy (as much as possible in Venice) alternative to the rest of the city.
(Related reading: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is about, among other things, a Jewish moneylender in Venice.)
4. Planning too many “activities.”
The most important thing to do in Venice is just wander. Personally, I could do it — and have done it — for days and days. And best of all, it’s free, you can do it for as long as you want, and it’s a great activity for both day and night. You can also wander the streets of Venice with friends, family, or alone.
There are a lot of cool things to do and see in Venice, but anyone who doesn’t set aside a good chunck of time simply for exploring is missing out on the very best part of Venice.
— Jim Dalrymple II