Not to be overly negative, but.
Traveling to Venice? Be a good visitor: Here’s a shortlist of recommendations for how not to spend your time, money, energy, and dignity — while not further tourist-ing this delicate island city to death.
Updated 10/19 to include a bonus #10 on how *not* to contribute to the closure of locally-owned businesses.
- Do NOT go to Harry’s Bar.
I once met a barman at the Paris Ritz Hemingway Bar who had a theory about how this well-known Venice spot (an Italian national landmark, even) serves such reliably disappointing drinks for such absurd prices: He speculated that Mr. Cip’s unique business plan for Harry’s Bar inspired the use of the cheapest ingredients and the minimal viable expenditure of time per cocktail, as that would put the most money in each bartender’s pocket. In fact, he went so far as to claim that if you order a martini “very dry” at Harry’s, your barman will put a literal shot of gin in front you, with your astronomical check and no remorse. Some who are just dying to believe in the place might call this “idiosyncratic appeal.” That’s a generous euphemism.
If you truly, deeply wish to spend $30 USD on a single cocktail: Rather than subject yourself to the humiliation of being served a sad, poor, imitation of the drink you ordered by an indifferent, zero-charisma bartender at a once-respected tourist trap, politely go to the four-seat bar at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani on Guidecca and allow master of cocktail ceremonies Walter Bolzonella, or one of his qualified colleagues, serve you up something equally expensive but thoughtful and artful in a comfortable room. If spending $30 USD is not a criterion for your happiness, be seated at the next café table you pass and order a spritz. You willl enjoy it more.
- Do NOT touch the canals.
Do you know how Katherine Hepburn got her lifelong eye infection? Just… don’t.
- Do NOT get in the gondola.
No judgment if you were considering it, but honestly, it’s a pretty grim scene. Pause to observe and you’ll start to catch on to a shared baseline of disgruntlement across the approximately 400 remaining gondoliers in Venice (down from close to 10,000 in the 1800s). If this could be credited to how the tourism industry has exploited and Disneyfied a once-respected occupation that dates back to the 1500s, or how much energy per day these guys expend just trying not to get whacked in the face by an oblivious passenger’s selfie stick, could you blame them?
And beyond that, there’s the whole “your gondola ride may be feeding into a gruesome mafia money-laundering crime ring.”
And beyond that, it’ll cost you a fortune that you should be reserving for wine and pasta. I’ve read an hour in the boat will run you €120, and that’s just the daytime rate. Once, though, I did see a couple pile four tweens into a boat, hand the be-striped gondolier a wad of bills, and grab the first table they saw at the nearest canal-side café to enjoy a peaceful bottle of wine together for as much time as they could steal before their offspring were returned to them. If one must engage a gondola, I thought that was genius.
- Do NOT bother with Murano and Borano.
The transportation is cumbersome, the touted fried fish snacks are nearly inedibly bad (in a city where food is a religion, that’s sacrilege), and most importantly, it’s punch-in-the-gut depressing to even glimpse in passing the death grip that gentrification and the din of commercial tourism sameness have wrapped around this once vibrant enclave. The buildings are Instagrammable, but so are the buildings on Venice proper. If you are dying to off-road to one of the surrounding islands, try the San Michele Cemetery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It’s very pretty. It’s very peaceful. The city’s first first Renaissance church, Chiesa di San Michele (1469), houses a poignant weeping angel relief that still haunts me. And, you’ll find the graves of Nobel Prize-winning Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, influential Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and antisemitic, Hitler-sympathizing modernist poet Ezra Pound, all within a few steps of one another. As always, remember not to indiscriminately confuse a hallowed resting place for the dead with your selfie backdrop.
- Do NOT get attached to the idea of breakfast as you know it.
God bless you if you can find a single legit place on this island serving eggs and bacon (and God save you if that’s what you’re craving in a place where you can have handmade gnocchi three meals a day). The best spots for cicchetti (tapas, often in the form of crostini) and spritzes swing their doors open by 11am. Stave off your appetite by mopping up an espresso with a croissant while standing up at a café counter somewhere, and around 11:00 make a beeline for Cantione gia Schiavi or similar to do the first “meal” of the day the Venetian way. (Then, be sure to block out half the afternoon for the requisite ensuing nap, because I still haven’t mastered an understanding of how to get through the day on a caffeine/carb/sugar-crash rollercoaster like that.)
- Do NOT arrive by cruise ship.
If I’m going to boldly make one potentially offensive-to-some statement, here: Cruises to Venice are for jerks. After years of backlash from residents, not to mention warnings of the damage being sustained to the canal infrastructure from experts, late last year, Venice laid out a plan that would re-route cruise ships of more than 55 tons away from the Guidecca Canal by 2021 — one small step in the right direction toward banning all cruise ships of any size entirely, which is what literally 99% of Venetians prefer. In the meantime, cruise ships under 105,000 tons can still sail, causing perilously excessive wake, marring the view, and spilling thousands of additional tourists per day into the clogged arteries of this small city. As of now, cruise ships in an already overcrowded Venice increase the daily population by one third.
More generally, cruises are often for those who think experiencing a city — which, in this case, is already at risk of literally sinking into the ever-rising seas — means stints of lounging on a floating shopping mall punctuated by brief and shallow consumption-driven forays into the streets of a different “exotic” destination. If you visit this endangered paradise, earn it. Go directly there, take it in, and step lightly. After all, you’re walking on a work of art.
- Do NOT visit in the summer.
Very intense things happen to Venice in the summer, like sewage smells, and crowdsurfing down the alleys on the shoulders of the aforementioned cruise ship patrons. Plus, off-peak hotel prices do exist, the weather’s never bad except during Acqua Alta (if you consider cold, blinding fog and knee-high winter flooding “bad,” which, actually, I and Joseph Brodsky both do not), and at some point in April, you can catch the wisteria in bloom.
- Do NOT bring a roll-aboard.
This could be a tough concession, even for light travelers, but, you’ll want to develop that upper body strength and at least pick up a wheeled suitcase by the handle while you walk: If you imagined above the pitter-patter sound of your gentle footsteps echoing through the streets, now imagine the obtrusive cacophony of a rolling bag in the amphitheater-like acoustics of stone on stone.
Beyond this being a courteous measure for a visitor to take, I should also mention it’s now illegal (not stringently enforced, but indeed illegal last I checked) to roll your bag. Somehow, in a city that green-lit cruise ships, the powers that be ruled for the residents and against the tourists on this one and managed, after years of effort, to successfully ban luggage with hard wheels, along with a €500 fine on anyone caught rolling.
- Do NOT bring a map.
At least for a day or two, spare yourself the fruitless hilarity of trying to plot your way through the tangle of arms-length-wide alleys that stand in for streets in Venice. Instead, wander around without having to be anywhere in particular and any particular time. I promise you’ll discover just as many mind-blowing, lovely things, and each will be all the more gratifying, because they were true discoveries.
I especially recommend such an aimless walk at night, when the streets are empty (two thirds of Venice is in bed, the other third is back in their cruise ship bunkers), and the sounds of your footsteps on stone and the lapping of water against the canal walls are the only sounds. In a peninsula neighborhood like Dorsoduro, the land available to you for wandering is so scant and narrow, it’s nearly impossible to get too lost. But do mind the vampires.
- UPDATE (10/19): It’s been a minute since I published this—it’s time to add one more “Don’t”:
Do NOT spend your money in ways that hurt local businesses.
In Venice—as with many tourism-stricken cities around the globe—foreign-owned shops sell cheap crap imported from other places, foreign-owned restaurants crowd out the authentic old guard, and foreign-built tourism infrastructure sucks up your Euros and directs them elsewhere. Accordingly, the community and culture that make Venice Venice (as opposed to, say, Epcot Center) is on the brink of, frankly, going extinct.
But, with the right info, you can be a different kind of visitor—one whose tourist spend benefits locals—instead of inadvertently contributing to the Venexodus. Stick to the list of great stores, restaurants and services on Venezia Autentica’s website to ensure you’re shopping, eating, and hiring local. By making sure the money you spend in Venice stays with locally-owned businesses and orgs, you’ll be part of helping transform the big impact of tourism into a positive one.