We have wanted to visit Venice for many years, and last week we finally were able to do that. Our reaction: highly mixed. It’s an amazingly beautiful city and we loved walking along the canals, but we also saw what tourism is doing to this ancient city, and it ain’t pretty.
Much of Venice looks as it has for years: beautiful houses on quiet canals. But the main areas of interest are a nightmare of crowds; a friend describes Venice’s Piazza St Marco as “heaving with people.” I did some digging around and learned that during the five days we were in Venice, it’s likely that some 50,000 tourists were with us in the city each day. This is a small city and those 50,000 people were in a small part of this small city. The number of daily tourists nearly out-numbers the residents (about 58,000, and declining every year). During June and July, the tourist flood daily exceeds 60,000 people (one weekend this summer, tourist ships alone added 35,000 to the inundation).
Where the Tourists Are: It’s a Mess.
Honestly, I’m not sure why all these people are here. Venice has a spectacular collection of Renaissance art, but when we visited one of the best – the amazing paintings of Tintoretto at Scola San Rocco – we were almost alone; there were no more than a dozen people in the building besides us . So most of these folks aren’t here to see the art. The most beautiful places were away from Piazza San Marcos, and they were deserted (see below). I don’t get it, actually.
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal is the “Main Street” of Venice, making a large ‘S’ through the city.
Venice Away from the Tourists: It’s Beautiful
Okay, I’ve ranted about the ugliness of tourism in Venice. It’s also true that Venice is beautiful and contains many wonderful surprises. You just have to get off the tourist path.
The restaurant in the picture below is known for its chichettas (Italian tapas, essentially); it has room for about a dozen people and standing room outside for six or eight more. The street you see in the background is a main tourist route and was always jammed. Yet fifty feet away, here sits this restaurant with nothing but local people (and us).
Laurie and I walked and walked and walked and learned that around any corner can be a breathtakingly beautiful scene – Renaissance pallazos, colorful homes, quiet canals. So to give Venice its due, here are some of those scenes. This part of Venice we loved.
We spent the better part of two days walking the “back streets” (though there really aren’t any streets) of Venice. We loved this aspect of the city.
No cars here, so everything is done on the water. Need an ambulance? An ambulance boat will show up.
We just happened to be in Venice for the Regatta Storica – the Historical Regatta. As it turned out, the Venice authorities realized that September 6 was Laurie’s birthday and scheduled the Regatta that day just for her and 50,000 people turned out to celebrate with her.
The Regatta included some beautiful historic gondolas followed by gondola races. The historic gondolas – complete with gondoliers and passengers in costumes of past times – were beautiful. The gondola races…well, we watched the boats race down the Grand Canal and then twenty minutes later race back up to the finish line. Not so interesting for us, but we loved the historic boats.
Another Seattle-ite was there.
Beautiful at Night, Too.
Now we’ve fulfilled our desire to visit Venice. Did we enjoy it? Yes, definitely, as long as we stayed away from the main tourist areas. Will we return? I doubt it. We’ve seen what we want to see and we don’t want to fight the crowds to see the rest. Do we worry about the future of this ancient beautiful city? Definitely – we can’t see a way that it returns to a slower, less tourist-oriented existence.