If what everyone says is true, there is only one truth about Venice: You either love it or hate it.
Rumor has it Venice can be ungodly crowded, hot, and smelly. I don’t know about you, but that is definitely not a place I want to visit.
Luckily, on our recent visit to the city, I fell squarely into the “love it” category.
We did three things that, I believe, made all the difference in transforming this potentially unpleasant destination into a truly magical experience.
Game changer #1: We visited in the off-season.
Because Cory’s school embraces both the Roman and Orthodox calendars, he gets three weeks off for his holiday break — and we take full advantage! Our train rolled into Venice just days into the new year. It was the last stop on our holiday travels, but it was post-Christmas and post-new year celebrations, so all the other tourists were already gone by the time we arrived.
I’m beginning to understand the power of this sacred bubble of time between the first full week of January to mid-March, when most people take a spring break. This last week of our winter holiday and our week off in February are often the most serene, in large part due to the fact it is off-season.
This is particularly true in Venice.
The city was still in the throes of winter, so our winter coats and scarves came in handy. But bridges were clear of snow, and the sun shone overhead.
Walking side-by-side, we met other people winding through the maze of alleyways, but we rarely encountered significant crowds. With fewer tourists, gondoliers had to actively peddle their services. I even spotted a few snoozing or resting in their boats down side canals.
We had no problems finding a place to sit in restaurants. We spent no more than ten minutes waiting in a line. St. Mark’s Square, while still busy and bustling with pigeons, didn’t feel stifling, unmanageable, or ugly.
Game changer #2: We chose accommodations in an out-of-the-way neighborhood.
When we arrived in Venice by train, we had a long walk to reach our Airbnb. It was located on the outskirts of the island in the Jewish quarter, and several bridge crossings and wrong turns down alleyways later, we finally found it. The decision to stay such a significant distance away from St. Mark’s and the usual haunts was well worth it.
Our Airbnb host left a list of his favorite local dining spots (as many hosts often do). The very first night, we popped into a busy hole-in-the-wall pizza joint serving up neighborhood locals, and every other suggestion he left for us was equally non-touristy.
In fact, the entire neighborhood we stayed in was very quiet. We saw a few folks out walking their dogs, a handful of kids out playing in a courtyard. Women dragging their wheeled baskets packed with produce up and over the bridges and down the cobblestone walkways to their apartments.
Walking to and from our accommodations, we popped into cafes and shops and were the only people anywhere in sight. We watched a mask maker sculpting paper mache, and he invited us into an adjoining room where two women meticulously painted finished ones. People pay good money for these experiences — or are at least jockeying for a good spot to watch the action.
Because we stayed and wandered far from other travelers, we had these moments all to ourselves.
This was our Venice.
Game changer #3: Take a tour with a local.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Always take the free city tour.
Our Venetian guide was born and raised in the city. She knew every bridge and storefront, pointed out her favorite cafes and offered insider tips.
Strangers to us were neighbors to her.
We spent much of our time in Venice getting lost, as I’m sure most people do. We turned blindly down walkways, walked away from people, crossed bridges to unknown areas. These free tours vary in quality but are always worth our time. In Venice, this opened our eyes to even more parts of the city we hadn’t yet explored but were able to return to over our remaining days in the city.
As a side note to taking a tour with a local, Cory and I have become big fans of Rick Steves’ audio guides (a topic I hope to write about soon). Rick combines the best of well-traveled American with his off-the-beaten path mentality, and every single one of his tours and podcasts we’ve listened to has been worthwhile.
He has a few guided audio tours for Venice, and we listened to them all. I found the one for St. Mark’s Cathedral to be a bit disappointing because so many of the church’s areas require an additional fee. However, his tours of St. Mark’s Square and, especially, the Venice water taxi route, were stellar enhancements to our trip.
Getting a historical background and suggestions from someone who knows the city beyond the touristy areas well — and someone else who can offer context within and make those touristy areas more tolerable — made a huge difference in our enjoyment of the city.