If you’re looking for alternative Venice – a way to escape the crowds and make the most of this over-visited city, read on…
I hated Venice the first time I visited. I felt cheated, hustled, robbed (some of Venice’s prices should be criminal) and utterly underwhelmed. I couldn’t get close to the sights I wanted to see thanks to the crowds and at €16 for a Bellini in Venice’s most famous cocktail bar, I’d have expected fresh peaches. As I packed up my bag, I vowed never to go back. Venice wasn’t the Italy I loved. It was an anomaly to be written off to bad experience, not to be encountered again.
But the thing is, every city deserves a second chance so 5 years later with a fresh set of eyes and a lot more experience at getting under the skin of places, I tried I again and although I didn’t become spellbound by the city (and I probably won’t be visiting a third time…probably…) I definitely had a more enjoyable experience this time because I chose to see Venice a different way.
Alternative Venice: 10 Things NOT To Do (and 10 To Do Instead)
In this article I’ll share with you what to do in Venice but it won’t include your standard itinerary – that’s where I failed last time. Instead I’ll be sharing 10 alternative ways to see the city while still enjoying the main sights and experiences. Here goes…
1. Don’t attempt to see all the sights – pick a few and see them well
I’m all for cramming as many sights into as short a visit as possible (Florence: 72 hours, 72 museums and the €72 museum pass: GO!). Venice is an exception to that rule. Why? The crowds. Even in shoulder season (late April/May), the crowds in Venice are so vast that it’s impossible to speed around the city – a pace that’s required for maximum sightseeing. Do yourself a favour: take the pressure off, pick a couple of must-sees and see them properly.
A word on the crowds in Venice
If there was a point in time when crowds were invented, I’m convinced that event occurred in Venice, and the tradition rages on. I get it – show me any bucket list and I’d be highly surprised if Venice isn’t on there. It’s definitely on the list of the 60,000 to 80,000 people who swarm onto Venice’s shores each day.
Sure, other cities get the same and even more footfall but the problem with Venice is that canals and narrow bridges were never built for the masses, at least not the volume the city sees today.
But worse still, Venice has sadly passed the point where it has more tourism than it has native Venetians. Today the historic centre is home to only 58,000 locals – that’s half what it was in the 1980s, most locals either got tired of the crowds or have been pushed out by the prices (because who can compete with the rich folk who want to own a vacation home in Venice).
St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge Palace were top of my sightseeing list and although it would have been nice to cram in a bunch of museums, I opted to take a locally guided tour of my top choices and see them properly.
A good decision, it turned out because instead of queuing to get into the sights, the guide had pre-ordered priority access (part of the ticket) and took the group straight up to the terrace in St Mark’s Basilica (usually €5 but included in the tour cost). Up there, I got to see the gold mosaic basilica pretty damn close (it’s a mosaic because Venice is too humid for plaster and frescoes), but, above all else, I got a thick slathering of history. So many times I’ve stood in a place of significance, looked up at something quite clearly of interest and thought, “what the hell is it?”
Venice has history in spades and it’s best explored with an insider to take you through the stories that make up city’s history. For example, did you know that the copper horses at the top of St mark’s Basilica are replicas? The real ones, which are thought to be the oldest on earth at about 2,000 years old, are located inside the terrace. Life size, it’s hard to imagine how these four horses have moved over the centuries from Constantinople to Rome and Paris (where they sat on top of the Arc de Triomph after Napoleon stole them). You can read more here.
How to do it: I took a 3 hour walking tour (Legendary Venice, €64). The tour included a guided tour of St Mark’s Basilica, the terrace at the top of the Basilica and the Doge Palace.
Pro Travel Tip: If you want to plan your trip to collide with as few Cruise ships as possible, check out this Cruise Ship Calendar.
2. Don’t stare across at the Bridge of Sighs – Go INSIDE the bridge and stare out
If only Venice could triple the size of the bridge opposite the famous Bridge of Sighs, the congestion along the waterfront in Venice would ease around 50%* (*random guestimate). But clearly, that’s never going to happen and in order to get a good look at the Bridge of Sighs you’re going to need to battle with the tour groups, selfie-stick wielding couples and people who are otherwise simply trying to squeeze by.
But what bemuses me most about the fracas to get a shot in front of the Bridge of Sighs is that the whole significance of the bridge is the views it gives out over Venice. In case you didn’t know, the bridge is so named because prisoners inside the Doge Palace would walk through the interior of the bridge on the way to their execution in St Mark’s Square. The bridge and the tiny lattice gaps gave prisoners their very last view out over Venice before they died. And that last view is thought to have induced a final sigh at Venice’s beauty, hence the name: Bridge of Sights.
So, dear tourists – YOU’RE LOOKING THE WRONG WAY!
Instead of sticking with the crowds, take a tour of the Doge Palace and the prisons. Wander through the Bridge of Sights, take a look out over Venice (ignoring the crowds gawking in), sigh and be grateful you’re not off to be beheaded!
How to do it: A visit to the prisons and a walk inside the Bridge of Sighs is included in the 3 hour Legendary Venice walking tour (see above).
How not to be beheaded in Venice
Prisoners were once executed between the two columns crowned with St Mark’s lion and St Theodore in St Mark’s Square and superstitious locals won’t walk between the two columns through fear it will lead to an ugly death.
3. Don’t pay tourist prices (+$5) for coffee – spend under $1.50, like the locals
A friend warned me about the coffee and drinks prices in St Mark’s Square before I visited. “You have to pay for the music.” I laughed. She was joking, right? She wasn’t.
Sit yourself down for a mid-sightseeing coffee at Cafe Florian overlooking St Mark’s Square and you’ll be charged €6 for the music. I’m not talking about a collection hat that comes around. I’m talking about an actual €6 cover charge. That’s in addition to your coffee price (€3 for an espresso, €5 for a cappuccino and €7 for filter coffee). Sure, it might be the oldest café in Venice, but nearly €10 for a hit of caffeine and some accompanying music? When you consider it costs only €20 to see an entire recital in Lucca, home of Puccini, that doesn’t feel like a great deal.
Walk a few paces to the right of Cafe Florian and the coffee price plummets to €1.20 for an espresso. You have to shuffle in among the locals and drink your coffee standing (which is how the Italians do it anyway) but for a quick caffeine fix while still enjoying being in the square, this is a much better option.
How to do it: ask for a caffe (espresso) at Ai Do Leono just to the right of St Marks Clock Tower, €1.20.
Travel Tip: there is a whole etiquette around coffee in Italy – if you’re confused about what to order and when, you can read more here.
4. Don’t take a Gondola ride – take a boat tour instead
Read almost any article about Venice and it will tell you to take a Gondola ride. I get it. They’re iconic and compelling and some people feel entirely unable to go to Venice and not get in one – so do it, fulfil the dream and enjoy. But don’t think that’s where the waterways of Venice start and end.
One of the biggest appeals of the City of Canals is the water and how everything is conducted on it. Deliveries are made, commutes occur, children travel to school and even ambulances take the form of a boat. Once upon a time, Gondola’s used to be nothing more than a reality of Venetian life. These days, with more tourists than locals, the gondolas exist largely for tourist purposes. What’s more, unless you spend big, you’re going to be sharing a small boat space with a lot of strangers for a very short (30 minute stint) on the water.
Instead, take a 2-hour board ride down the Grand Canal, under the Rialto bridge and out towards the smaller islands. Let the guide point out the old custom house that used to tax every boat coming in to trade with the Merchants of Venice; see where the house of Prada sits; and sail past the hotel where George Clooney got married.
And all of this without the bumps and jolts felt by the much smaller Gondolas.
How to Do it: I took the Venice Cruise by Luxury Motor Boat: Grand Canal and Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiori, 2hrs, €98.
Planning your trip: I used the Italy Lonely Planet Guidebook. Although it’s not filled with pictures, it’s got all the details you need including train and bus routes and times as well as city maps. You can find it here. If you’re looking for a Venice specific Lonely Planet guidebook, you can find it here.
5. Don’t climb San Marco Campanile – ascend San Giorgio Maggiore for the best views in Venice
A bit like looking towards the Bridge of Sighs instead of out towards Venice, the best views of the San Marco Campanile aren’t from the top of the San Marco tower they’re from across the water, looking at the campanile.
Instead of climbing up the San Marco campanile, head over to the small island of San Giorigo Maggiore and climb the bell tower there instead (I say climb – it’s actually a lift/elevator and there is no climbing option). By ascending the bell tower across the way, you get panoramic views across the whole of Venice island, including the famous campanile.
How to do it: a visit to San Giorgio Maggiore island is included in Venice Cruise by Luxury Motor Boat: Grand Canal and Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiori (see above).
Got a few days in Venice? Why not visit Prosecco?
Most of us are familiar with Prosecco, the Champagne of Italy, but did you know that the Prosecco region is just over an hour away from Venice? If you have a day or night to spare, why not spend it tasting a glass (or two) while enjoying views over the rolling vineyards. In my article How to Plan Your Own Prosecco Tour you’ll find a complete itinerary for visiting the region including which vineyards to try as well as bonus tips on finding an osteria (inn) where you help yourself to cheese and bread on an honesty basis and, best of all, a hidden Prosecco vending machine with some of the best views in Italy (picture above). You might also be interested in my Cheat’s Guide to Sparkling Wine.
6. Don’t linger around San Marco – head to Canareggio for crowd-free Venice
The few locals left in Venice’s historic centre tend to spend most of their time in the Canareggio district and if you make the effort to head away from the water and the highlights of San Marco, where most of the day trippers tend to linger, you’ll see the crowds thin significantly. As though another part of Venice has opened up, with a modern shopping street but also the history of the Jewish Ghetto, in Canareggio you can spend a few hours getting to know real Venice without the crowds.
How to do it: Take a vaporetto to Ca’ d’Oro and head to Strada Nova (New Street). Continue on to Via Emanuele and ultimately onto Rio Tera S. Leonardo (it’s all the same street but the names change as you cross the bridges). Look out for a tiny sign above an alley written in Hebrew, which will take you into the Jewish Ghetto. You can loop back via Misericordia. Canareggio is a great option for food and drinks without the tourist uplift.
7. Don’t play Russian Roulette with the food – take a food tour by a local
One of the reasons I didn’t get along with Venice the first time was because of the food – over priced, hit and miss (at best) and served without much care (because, let’s face it, tourists don’t offer much by way of repeat-business).
This time round, I promised my stomach I would do things better and I booked straight on to a food tour. I didn’t want to waste countless attempts (and euros), trying to pick out what might be the best places for chicchetti (small pieces of bread topped with fish, meat, cheese or vegetables and eaten as a snack with an aperitivo), tracking down the best market to buy fresh produce (especially helpful if you’re staying in a rental apartment) or scouring the warren of streets for a memorable dinner.
For nearly 3 hours, I followed a local lady through the streets of Venice as she told stories, pointed out places of interest and, of course, shared all her inside info on the best places to eat in the city.
With all the research in the world, I doubt I would have found the tiny chicchetti bar where gondola riders choose to snack and slurp their way through a quick bit of sustenance and a glass of wine on their breaks. Nor would I have taken myself down the narrow backstreets of old Venice, many of which are abandoned and I definitely wouldn’t have ended up at the perfect local dinner spot.
How to do it: I took the Rialto Market & Chicchetti & Wine Venice Food Tour, 2.5hrs, €64. The guide was so knowledgable on Venice food stops, she’s due to feature in Rick Stein’s upcoming TV show as Mr Stein’s personal Venice food guide. How’s that for being in expert hands?
To explore a greater range of tours, check out the Venice tours on the Ceetiz website: A booking place for activities all over the world.
If the tours above don’t tickle your fancy, check out Urban Adventures. Sister company to Intrepid Travel, but with a focus on day tours, expect small groups, good value and and an itinerary that will get you under the skin of the city.
And if you’re looking for a more planned trip to Italy, my favourite tour company is Intrepid travel – above all else, they’ll take you places where you’re going to get those photo moments you won’t get on most other tours. You can see Intrepid’s Italy tours here.
8. Don’t go for a Bellini at Harry’s Bar – have a spritz with the locals
Having a Bellini at Harry’s bar in Venice is a bit like taking a Gondola ride – for some people, they just have to do it and, if that’s you, I won’t waste a second talking you out of it. But do be prepared.
If you didn’t know, the Bellini was invented in Venice by the owner of Harry’s bar. Sadly, the 1930s charm of the bar has long gone and as tourist queue up to hand over €16.50 per Bellini, it’s no surprise the process has turned into a conveyor belt. I sat at the bar and watched peach puree squeezed from a foil pack into glasses while Prosecco was squirted from a soda-style tap. No blending of peaches. No popping of corks. Not even a full 125ml champagne glass.
If you don’t want to set yourself up for an expensive disappointment, ditch the Bellini and get on the Aperol Spritz train instead. Perhaps the most popular aperitivo you will see in Venice (and the rest of Italy) the Aperol spritz is a cocktail made with a large measure of Apersol (similar to Campari but much sweeter), topped with Prosecco, chilled with ice and served with a slice of orange. Be warned, it’s hard to tell how potent this all-booze drink is and it has a tendency to evaporate (from your glass into your mouth).
How to do it: skip the waterfront (unless you want the view and are prepared to pay for it) and instead head deeper into the historic centre to look for a local’s bar. My favourite was Bacaro Risorto where they also sell very tasty chicchetti for €1.50 a piece.
Did you know: the owner of Harry’s bar is actually called Giuseppe Cipriani, not Harry and there’s a warm and fuzzy story behind the naming of the bar?
Top tip: if you do visit Harry’s bar, try to go when white peaches are in season (summer) so you stand a chance of fresh fruit in your drink, not preserved puree.
9. Don’t order pizza – have risotto or seafood instead
Did you know that there’s a law in Venice prohibiting wood-fired ovens? The rule makes sense given so much of the city is made of wood and we hardly want to see the Venice catch alight. What also made sense, after learning about the law, is why the few pizzas I tried during my first trip to the city just didn’t pass muster.
Of course, the other reason to skip pizza in Venice is that pizza’s not from there. In a country where food is highly regional, you’ll do your taste buds a favour if you stick to what’s local. So, head to Naples if you’re really in Italy for good pizza, but when in Venice, look out for risotto, polenta, seafood and tiramisu. If you’re brave enough, try the sepe al nero – cuttlefish served with ink. It comes second place (after tripe) on my list of least favourite Italian foods but, hey, at least I tried it.
How to do it: taking a food tour (see above) will give you a great introduction to the city’s food scene and you can ask your guide for food recommendations. Otherwise, wander through the back streets and follow your nose!
10. Don’t sweat away your day in crowds – see Venice at night
Finally, if all the day crowds want to make you jump into the lagoon, take some solace in the fact that once the night arrives, the city quietens considerably. St Mark’s Square seems to expand back to its grand size; the bridges are passable and the narrow streets are near empty and inviting.
After a few nights wandering through Venice after dark, I came to a strong realisation about the city. It’s not that I hate Venice – how could I? It’s beautiful, majestic and riddled with history – it’s just that I want to have it all to myself.
Where to Stay in Venice
Giudecca island is an excellent choice away from the bustle of Venice. A few minutes away by vaparetto, with a good handful of restaurants to feed you at night and excellent views across towards San Marco, the island had everything you need plus a more peaceful fee.
On a budget: Generator Hostel is very clean and has a great value happy hour (Apreol Spritz for only €2.50). Dorms and private rooms are available.
Spending some cash: the Hilton Molino Stucky is as far removed from the boxy airport Hilton hotels you might otherwise be imagining. The building was once a flour mill and was integral to the city’s pasta production. Today, the building has been converted into a luxury space and the roof top terrace is reason enough to stay.
The best of the best: If neither of those take your fancy, you can find a list of the 10 best hotels in Venice (according to Trip Advisor) here with The Gritti Palace and Hotel Moresco winning Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards. The Gritti Palace is on my list!
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My tours were courtesy of Walks of Italy.