What I am about to say is difficult to write. I had outrageously high expectations of Venezia, the city of canals. I had always wanted to visit La Serenissima because of its legendary Carnival and the world’s most glamorous film festival. I had seen movies such as Casino Royale and The Wings of the Dove filmed in Venice and enjoyed one of the most famous operas — Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda — also set in the sumptuous city. But sometimes there is a disconnect between our expectations and what we experience in travel.
Don’t get me wrong, Venezia is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It is truly one of the world’s unique cities due to the fact that it is largely car free and transport is almost completely via boats or walking. Venice will blow you away with some of Europe’s most captivating art, intricate sculptures and awe-inspiring Renaissance buildings. And even after you leave, its grandeur and history will burn an unforgettable impression in your mind. But something else entirely different will drive you out of your mind and crush your dreams of what Venice should be like while you visit.
You may have heard that Venice has a huge tourist problem. Each day in the spring and summer, huge visitor hordes descend on the city of canals. Unfortunately this problem is much more severe than I ever imagined. If you want to take a portrait in front of Piazza San Marco without another person in your photo, that is as much of a fantasy as putting on a Venetian mask and transforming into Casanova. You will be deluged by selfie sticks and pushy crowds of tourists that seem to come from nowhere. Instead of classical views of the Grand Canal, huge cruise ships clutter up the backdrop of the lagoon and their accompanying legions of tourists overwhelm the city.
Consider this fact. Venice only has a population of a little over 52,000 residents, but the weekend I visited, there were more than 300,000 tourists. I didn’t hear much Italian spoken because six times the local population was made up of visitors speaking English, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, German, Spanish, Hindi and other languages. If it weren’t for the unique character of the city, you could have sworn for a moment with the crowds of international visitors that you were at Disney World.
I first began traveling in Europe more than 20 years ago and have since visited more 28 countries on the continent. But as crazy as this might seem, I had never been to Italy. The reason I avoided Italy in the past was I felt there was just too much to see. I heard from Italian friends you could spend a full year in Rome and not see everything you would want to experience. So for two decades, the overwhelming scale of Italy had alway kept me away. But thanks to an amazing airfare from my friends at Lufthansa, I decided to take my first visit to Italy to visit Venezia. And let me say the first impression of the Venetian lagoon from the air flying into Venezia Marco Polo airport is mesmerizing.
I figured that most foreign tourists would be in Rome for Easter, but Venice wasn’t spared from the crowds. It’s simply an amount of people the city cannot manage effectively. The bridges become bottlenecks, ferries are packed like sardine cans, restaurants become overwhelmed at lunchtime and walking can be as difficult as, say, trying to navigate against a crowd at Lollapalooza. Lines to enter popular sites such as the Basilica de San Marco snake around the Piazza and can take up to an hour simply to enter.
The thing that makes this most depressing is that Venice is such a beautiful and truly unique destination. The city is not only close to losing its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, but it may also become listed on the “In-Danger” list. That list is usually reserved for histories sites in underdeveloped countries impacted by the stress of war.
Thankfully, the people of Venice are beginning to fight back to take control of their city. They are beginning to put limits on the number of large cruise ship visitors to the lagoon. The city is now installing people-counters in popular sites such as the Ponte di Calatrava, the Ponte degli Scalzi and in Piazza San Marco. A new tax targets tourists staying in the historic city center. Fines will be levied for those creating their own picnic grounds and eating food on the steps of historic structures such as churches.
There is a careful balance here with regulation. Some of the fines seem to be a little bit out of control. For example, there is a ban on sitting down in crowded tourist spots, where sitting in Piazza San Marco could land you a fine of €200. Another fine can hit you in the wallet for €100 for riding a bicycle or simply wheeling one through the city. But others do seem reasonable such as €450 for swimming or diving in the canals, obviously a huge safety risk.
However, I applaud the efforts of the city and the Venetians. Just a couple of decades ago it was thought that the biggest threat to Venice was rising water from climate change. Little did they know then another man-caused problem would deliver a one-two punch even faster. Let’s hope Venice can solve this problem soon because the city is majestic and deserves to be enjoyed by generations to come. In the meanwhile, if you want to visit a less congested city of canals, I recommend you travel further north to the Flemish city of Bruges in Belgium.