There has been a lot written recently about the alarming numbers of tourists crowding into some of Europe’s most alluring historic cities, including Barcelona, Florence and Prague.
Venice in particular has been singled out because of the scourge of large cruise ships. On a bad day, five or six cruise ships can be in port, each depositing four or five thousand day-trippers, keen to take a selfie on the Bridge of Sighs, file through St Mark’s Basilica and shop in the Rialto markets. Locals are up in arms, and there is an active protest movement, seeking to restrict tourist numbers and make the city more amenable to an ever-dwindling number of residents. It’s hardly an attractive image of the city for more seasoned travellers, keen to explore in-depth and seeking authentic travel experiences, not theme parks.
Yet Venice remains Venice, a city with 1,500 years’ of history, half of them as the centre of the world’s greatest maritime empire. The aquatic setting is still glorious, the art and architecture incomparable and its unique traditions still discernible amid the mass-tourist hubbub. With thought and careful planning, it’s possible to avoid the crowds and get behind the façade that Venice has carefully created for visitors. Academy Travel has been running long-stay ‘residential’ tours to Venice for more than 10 years. Here are a few of the secrets we have learned to avoid the crowds:
Choose your travel dates carefully
Mass-tourist movements around the world are very predictable. Europeans plan much of their short-haul travel around key dates, including Easter, the May 1 Labour Day, and All Saints and All Souls day at the beginning of November. Venice is always crowded on and around these dates, and they are best avoided. Americans and Italians take annual leave in late July and August, and the city is heaving in these weeks. Venice is also famous for its distinctive local festivals, such as Carnevale in February, the feast of St Mark on April 25, and the feast of the Rendentore in mid-July. Historic regattas, parades and re-enactments attract a large number of visitors, many of them from the surrounding Veneto region. Unless you specifically want to witness one of these festivities, plan to travel on other dates. (Academy Travel’s residential tour to Venice takes place in late March, after Carnevale and before Easter, when visitor numbers are low.)
Watch the weekends
Low-cost air travel in Europe has opened up new routes and made it easy for working couples and families to escape for a long weekend. Small cities such as Venice are particularly attractive as it is possible to see the main sites in just a few days and feel that you have ‘done’ the city. From about 8pm on Friday until Sunday lunchtime you can see Venice fill up with these mainly younger travellers, keen for a good time. They tend to stick to the main sites, and enjoy eating and drinking, so the weekend is not the time to explore St Mark’s square, visit the Doges Palace or share an intimate dinner at a canal-side restaurant. Plan to see these popular sites on Monday or Tuesday and take an excursion out of Venice on the weekend.
Less visited masterpieces
Venice’s history is rich and complex. It is reflected in hundreds of venues around the city, not just the ten or so world-famous sites that everyone wants to see. It’s remarkably easy to experience world class art and architecture in Venice without standing shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. Much of Venice’s art is in situ in palaces, theatres, churches and scuole (confraternity houses). These places are usually much less crowded than the main galleries and museums. Some of our favourites include Carpaccio’s Renaissance painting cycle in the Scuola di San Giorgio, Tintoretto’s 64 jaw-dropping canvasses in the sumptuously decorated Scuola di San Rocco, the remarkable marble damask that covers the interior of the church of the Gesuiti and the interiors of the Ca’ Rezzonico, an aristocratic house that is now a museum of 18th century Venice.
You can only do this as part of a group, or by spending a lot of money, but some of Venice’s most famous and crowded sites are accessible by out-of-hours private visits. Easily the best of these is an evening private visit to St Mark’s Basilica. The 7,000 metres of gold mosaics are beautifully illuminated and the pala d’oro (golden altarpiece), a jewel-encrusted masterpiece of medieval goldsmithing, is on rotated to face the congregation – something that usually happens on high feast days. There are also several sites that are not regularly open to the public but can be visited by special appointment. For instance, the 18th century music room at the Ospedaletto orphanage, just behind the Basilica of St Peter and Paul, is superb but has not been open to the public for over a decade. However private visits can be arranged by phoning several weeks in advance.
Try the islands
There are hundreds of islands in the Venetian lagoon. Murano and Torcello are well known and can be hopelessly overcrowded. But there are many others to visit, with fascinating things to see. The island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, for example, is home to a community of Armenian monks who took refuge there in the 18th century. Lord Byron stayed on the island to learn Armenian. There are frescoes by Tiepolo to see, as well as a remarkable library of rare manuscripts and other precious objects that came to Venice with the monks. If you really hanker for peace and quiet, spend a day on the island of San Francesco del Deserto, home to a tranquil Franciscan monastery and vegetable gardens.
Accommodation – hidden corners
Just like the historic sites, there are many corners of Venice where it is still possible to find small hotels and pensioni in hidden corners of the city, away from the stream of tourists that fill the main thoroughfares. One of our favourites is the family run Al Codega hotel, a 25 room, four-star hotel in a courtyard midway between St Mark’s Square and the Rialto. It’s remarkable to find such a haven in this busy part of the city. The cul-de-sac in front of the hotel is quiet all day, except for the occasional group marched in to see an ‘authentic’ Venetian square. Other places to look include the extreme end of the Giudecca Canal, near the San Basilio ferry stop, and the island of Sant’Elena, beyond the botanic gardens. The island of Giudecca, running along the southern end of the city is also peaceful, though perhaps too remote for some.
Where the locals hang out
With only 55,000 or so residents remaining, it’s increasingly difficult to meet an actual Venetian. Most of the people you encounter in restaurants and shops live on the mainland and commute to Venice each day for work. Some districts, such as Canareggio and Dorsoduro, are touted as being more ‘authentic’ than the busy axis of St Mark’s to the Rialto, but in truth tourists have long outnumbered locals, and there are very few signs of everyday life. However, the streets around Via Garibaldi in the district of Castello, not far from the Biennale and public gardens, still has a sizable local population, daily markets and ‘normal’ shops, and is a good place to stay for an extended period. On Campo Santa Margherita in the south east corner of the city, it is still possible to see young children playing on the large square, watched over by doting grandparents. There are simple cafes and restaurants from which to enjoy the sights and sounds.
If you are in Venice for an extended period in Spring or Autumn, and want to avoid tourists, consider staying on the Lido, the thin island that separates the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic. It’s not part of Venice proper, but is connected by a 15-minute ferry ride that runs every 10 minutes. You’ll find yourself in a prosperous Italian town that just happens to be a stone’s throw from one of the world’s great historic cities. And it’s actually populated by Venetians, not tourists.
Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.