I have to be brutally honest here.
We were underwhelmed with Venice.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a stunningly beautiful city. The architecture, the canals…it’s all so dreamy and romantic.
What’s not so romantic, though, is that the vibe we got from the city didn’t reflect its looks at all.
The Gondola rides were reminiscent of Disney World’s “Toon Lagoon.” We witnessed several ‘gondola jams,’ where half a dozen boats would be coming around the same corner at any given time.
And call us crazy, but I wasn’t impressed with the food either. Again, we had just come from Istria which is the gourmet capital of Croatia, but I guess I just expected more from Venice. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it also wasn’t anything I couldn’t get at a good Italian restaurant back home either. Actually, I had Italian in Ireland a few nights ago that was better than most of what I had in Venice. IRELAND (don’t ask, it was late and close to our hotel).
Now, I’m going to play Devil’s advocate since I’m sure some of you are getting ready to furiously type your rebuttals in the comments below:
First of all, yes, we were only in Venice for three days, so no, we obviously didn’t see it all. This is purely a reaction of what we did see, which, unfortunately, was mostly around the San Marco area a definite no-no).
Second, I realize we were there in May, which is coming into peak tourist season (and thus peak season for lots of grumpy Venetians). We will go back closer to winter next time.
Third, I will say once you get off the beaten path in Venice by wandering on foot, it gets a lot better. You’ll actually find some locals and great food!
The biggest caveat of all, though, is we came to Venice after spending several months in Croatia, so I think we were definitely suffering from reverse-culture shock. We went from not hearing any other Americans for several months in Istria, to hearing more English than Italian in Venice.
I know, I AM an American tourist (and proud of it!), so I have no right to be annoyed by my compatriots getting their travel on. And I’m not staking some claim on a city saying that it’s other tourists who are ruining it. (I can’t stand it when travel writers/bloggers talk like they are “above” being tourists…) I was actually thrilled to see so many other Americans getting out and seeing the world…we certainly need as much of that as we can right now.
But when a place gets overrun with tourists, it ruins it for everyone. I’m glad to hear Venice is taking a page out of Barcelona’s book and putting laws in place to curb tourist numbers. With only 60,000 native Venetians left in the city, which is half of what it was just 40 years ago, Venice is on a path of being devoid of any actual residents within the next thirty years (according to the city’s housing chief) if something isn’t done to reverse this trend.
Okay, enough of the negative.
PLEASE hear me when I say, you should still go to Venice.
I am not saying it’s not worth visiting, whatsoever. It is an absolutely breathtaking place with an incredible history, and it’s just one of those bucket-list trips that everyone should do.
And, luckily, there are a few things you can do to get a more authentic experience.
Explore on foot, AWAY from San Marco
The best way to see as much of the real Venice as possible is wandering on foot. If you can get a few streets away from the tourist-thronged Piazza San Marco and waterfront promenade as possible, you’ll even find a few deserted piazzas where you’ll feel like you’re in a totally different city. There are signs for San Marco everywhere. It’s spray-painted in windows, handwritten on taped up signs, and in pretty much every other conceivable form (something tells me the locals were sick of being asked), so whenever you see one of those signs, just turn the other way and keep walking (we walked eight miles our first day there…not on purpose).
When you stop seeing those signs, or any signs in English, you’ll know you’ve reached a real neighborhood.
Walk around in the early morning or at night
Ask any Venetian how to see the “real” city, and they’ll tell you to walk around early in the morning or at night. Since most tourists come for day-trips, it really does become a totally different place in those ‘off-peak’ times. We even CHOSE to go to San Marco on a balmy night to listen to the classical music (along with our $21 glasses of prosecco…can’t win them all). There was plenty of breathing room, and you don’t have to worry about dodging people with their faces buried in their iPhones trying to Google Map their way around the city (it’s impossible).
Eat like a local
Instead of indulging on two-hour, five-course meals, locals tend to eat much more casually at osterie (pub-restaurants) and neighborhood bars, where you either order at the bar or eat standing up. Meals consist of cicchetti (Venetian tapas) which are cheap (comparatively speaking…it IS Venice) and fresh, ranging from snacks like spicy meatballs to more intricate local specialties like pancetta-wrapped lagoon shrimp. Don’t forget to wash it all down with a glass of prosecco!
If you happen to have a kitchen where you’re staying, definitely check out the neighborhood markets and butchers. Specifically, make sure you go to the famous fish and vegetable markets of the Realto along the Grand Canal.
Everything is fresh, so you don’t have to buy anything more than a day or so before you want to eat it, and it’s a great way to save yourself from wasting $35 on a bowl of spaghetti. Seriously.
All things considered, Venice is still magical in a way that you won’t experience in another city, and we absolutely will go back. If you’re planning a trip this summer, just don’t be one of those people shuffling along like machines blindly following a tour guide.
Get up early (or stay up late), don’t have a ‘plan’, stand up at the bar with a local, ask them where to go, and go get lost in the magic of “real” Venice.