Ten Steps to a Non-Touristy Venetian Vacation
1. Commit to it.
A lot of people do Venice as a day-trip from the mainland. That’s fine if you’re short on time, but to really experience all that Venice has to offer you need to overnight there. Venice is well-suited to a long weekend – a weeklong trip, on the other end of the spectrum, might be pushing it.
2. Pick your (seasonal) poison.
Winter, of course, will be when the fewest tourists around. However, winter does tend to be colder (duh) and rainier, less well-suited to walking around and more prone to fog and flooding. Summer redeems itself with gelato-binges and clear skies, but be prepared to jostle and queue with the estimated 18 million tourists who visit every year. Fall or spring could be the perfect balance between good weather and breathing room you’re looking for.
3. Think outside the main island.
Now that you’ve committed to Venice and picked a season to seal the deal, it’s time to give it the cold shoulder – at least for the time being. When searching for a place to stay, bypass Venice proper entirely and opt for the quieter nearby islands of Burano or Murano (Torcello is the third of this trio of islands, but is almost entirely deserted but for daily tour groups). There are a few hotels on Murano, such as the widely well-reviewed LaGare Hotel and none on Burano. This is where AirBnB comes in handy, allowing you to rent a room in a typical Venetian flat at a pretty reasonable rate. As always, book early and study the listing carefully. I personally highly recommend this adorable flat on Murano. The space was tiny but perfectly comfortable, mere steps away from a water taxi stop and across the street from a gorgeous historic church. Our host gave us details instructions and even picked us up from the water taxi stop on the other side of the island in her husband’s boat, giving us a quick tour of the island and pointing out good restaurants and breakfast spots. No, this isn’t a paid endorsement – we were just that thrilled with our room and time on the island!
4. Get a map. Love your map.
Ok, this tip will definitely mark you as a tourist, but the water ways in Venice are confusing and you just plain need a map. Study it. Get familiar with the concept of the water taxi, or vaporetto. On Venice there are hand-lettered signs on buildings that direct tourists from the major taxi stops to St. Marks’ Square and other landmarks. They help, but occasionally they disappear, so you still need some concept of where you’re going. Try not to be that tourist standing in the middle of a narrow, busy alley trying to get GPS service on their cell phone.
5. Take on an island each day.
With its winding sidewalks, crowded public spaces and zooming boats, it’s easy to feel like you need to rush around Venice. But the Venetian islands are a great place to balance your typical tourist business with relaxing and taking in the atmosphere. An easy way to do this is to target one island per day. On Murano, explore the glass blowing shops; on Burano, squeal over the exquisite lace and colorful rows of houses. Torcello will only take a couple hours, but the deserted ruins are a fascinating contrast to the other bustling islands. Venice island itself can take up two days of your trip – tackle one side of the island each day, urging yourself to relax and explore rather than feeling like you need to see every square inch of the labyrinthine island (you won’t.)
6. Just say no to St. Mark’s Square.
Unless one of these major tourist sites surrounding St. Mark’s is on your can’t-miss bucket list, it’s best to avoid these spots as during peak tourist seasons they are uncomfortably busy. My one attempt at walking across the square midday during the summer left me wanting to spend the remainder of the day as far away from the rest of humanity as possible, preferably with a fan and a cold drink. Instead of queuing in line for ages and progressively becoming grumpier and grumpier, try visiting these spots early in the morning or towards sunset when crowds are a bit thinner, and focus on the grand beauty of the palace and basilica exteriors. Then, try to visit some slightly less frequented but highly impressive spots like the Venice Glass Museum on Murano, the Ca’Rezzonico, the Jewish Ghetto, or the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
7. Be prepared for construction.
Venice is, well, old, and when things get old they fall apart. Hopefully, someone is willing to restore them for future generations, which is great – unless that restoration is happening during your visit. The famous Rialto bridge, for example, has been undergoing restoration for the past year, and during my visit was completely covered in advertising, which boded nicely with the street vendors hawking goods in every direction but didn’t exactly make for a great experience. Try to look-up construction dates beforehand, and don’t let the success of your trip hinge on seeing one particular site.
8. Become a regular.
I love trying new restaurants on vacation, but in Venice I quickly fell into a habit: pick up a coffee and pastry for breakfast, explore all day, and return to the comfortable restaurant right next door to our flat for dinner. I managed to embarrass myself with some language gaff or another each night, but by the end of my stay the restaurant staff had at least developed an affable acceptance of me. By all means – save some nights for fancy dinners out and about, but don’t overlook the comfort of having a reasonably-priced, convenient spot to recover after a day of walking.
9. Don’t get scammed.
You probably know the basics – hang onto your personal belongings, don’t pull out wads of money, avoid sketchy street performers, etc. But in Venice I ran into some more unique scam tactics. At busy transportation centers folks may generously “offer” to help you figure out how to buy your tickets and find your way – only to slip a hand into your purse or demand a tip afterwards. And while it’s customary for historic churches to charge a small entrance fee to explore the inside or set out a donation box, these policies will always be written down and prominently displayed. If anyone demands money from you at a church, be wary – even if they dressed as a fake nun. I realize this sounds rather paranoid, but just wait until an angry woman in a ragged habit demands money from you because she assumes the American tourist couldn’t read the sign outside the church saying“No fees charged here. It is not permitted to ask visitors for money.” Be sure you know some general Italian words so you can recognize these policies if they aren’t in English.
10. Don't be...that guy.
Don't take a gondola (unless you really want to shell out a couple hundred euro to sit in a tourist-mobile). Don't ask anyone if they've had the plague recently. Don't wear a masquerade mask to lunch. Don't try to hold a conversation in Italian if the only words you actually know are "spaghetti" and "ciao bella." Come on, guys.