Visiting Venice: Sinking or Stinking?
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Venice is one of a kind. The location, geography, history, art, culture, and architecture are unmatched in mainland Italy. The number of tourists are also unmatched. Despite the influx of visitors there are many charms and worthwhile sites to see.
Four Reasons to See Venice
Experience the two-mile-long Grand Canal, a visually rich journey of palaces, bridges, churches, and San Marco.
A city constructed on dozens of small islands made up of sand, silt and clay, in spite of salty corrosive air, is enough justification to visit.
Well over one hundred churches with art and sculpture.
Unique art and architecture, inspired by Eastern trade.
Piazza San Marco, Venice. The manageable crowds are more typical in fall; this photo was taken during an early September visit.
The Tourist Surge
Tourism is nothing new for Venice. Venice has always been full of foreigners with its lucrative trade routes as well as holding a special charm for Europeans. Venice was a stopping off point for pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land or on Crusade in the Middle Ages. The sixteenth century produced the first guidebooks to Venice. Venice’s art and architecture blended many characteristics with its location at the intersection of Northern European and Eastern trade routes. It is this distinctive style that brings visitors to experience Venice. By the 18th century Venice was a must-see city on the Grand Tour for wealthy Europeans, particularly the British, in a kind of a gap year to travel and explore Europe.
Venice has always held a fascination with visitors, an exotic appeal exploited by the Venetians after their maritime influence waned. The Venetians knew how to showcase spectacles: carnival lasted from early January to the beginning of Lent. Lechery, gambling, and masquerades ensued. As the economy waned and relied less on trade, Venice became an entertainment hub.
Venice became more accessible when the causeway was built in the 1830s connecting Venice to the mainland first by rail and later by car, bus, and taxi. Currently, Venice has about 20-30 million tourists a year. Compare that to Rome with about 10 million and Venice has some unique challenges to manage. Roughly half of the tourists stay overnight in Venice. The others are cruise ship day trippers or stay off the islands in nearby Mestre or other cities. Visitors are primarily American, Chinese, and European. Venice needs tourism for the economy but there are trade-offs.
Left: Tourist knick knacks; Venice canal; modern art from the Biennale
Modern Venice is in crisis
Flying into Marco Polo airport, just a few miles from Venice, puts the scope of the problem into focus. From the air, Venice appears as a tiny mass of islands amid a very large lagoon. The mainland is densely populated. The bell tower of San Marco is visible from a distance. Venice looks like a small cluster in the sea. Up close, on land, the sheer numbers of humans gathered on such a small space is daunting. Venice seems bigger on land that it really is, thanks to the meandering streets and alleys.
Mega cruise ships, the impact of tourists, and declining population of Venetians who live on the islands, ecosystem, all contribute to management problems unique to the lagoon and city. An old Venetian structure is converted into a new hotel almost every year to accommodate visitors. The hospitality industry has eclipsed other trades, craftspeople or small businesses.
The city has only about 50,000 full time inhabitants. 65,695 Venetians lived on the islands in 2001. Many Italians who work in Venice can’t afford to live there. This makes it challenging for the visitor to find authentic cultural experiences and see the full scope of the treasures. The rewards can be great, but visitors have to seek them out.
Salvatore Settis, Italian art historian and cultural critic, asks us to address some difficult questions: To whom does Venice belong? What is Venice worth? I encourage you to visit and contemplate these questions in your travels. Experience Venice on your own terms with an understanding of its history and current challenges.
Rialto bridge from the Grand Canal
Visitors have logistical and common-sense questions about the city. Here are the questions I hear most often.
When is the best time to go?
July and August are definitely to be avoided. All large Italian cities should be avoided in August due to the heat, tourists, and that is the time when locals go on vacation, especially the last two weeks of August. September and October are ideal. April, May and early June are also good months. Winter is damp, chilly, rainy, and often cloudy. I always recommend the “shoulder” seasons of spring and fall to visit Italy. Crowds are more manageable Mondays-Thursdays.
I only have one day in Venice, what should I see?
Take the vaporetto (water taxi) through the Grand Canal from the train station to San Marco. Go inside San Marco, enjoy, then get lost. Wander. Explore a neighborhood. Try to visit one other museum or palace. Don’t just hang out in San Marco or the Rialto bridge.
Does Venice smell bad?
Sometimes, but only in the heat of summer. Sewage is dumped directly into the canals as it has been for centuries. The tide flushes the effluence out to sea. Gross, but don’t let that deter you from visiting. Most hotels have septic tanks and the outer islands have more modern sewage systems. My bad smell experience has occurred only once in seven visits.
Does Venice flood often?
The “acqua alta” or high water occurs with high tides, and more frequently in the winter. Rising sea levels have also contributed to the problem, especially in San Marco square. Check the web for high tides. The City of Venice has a FAQ on high water. If the water is exceptionally high, audible warnings are broadcast. It usually happens about four times a year and only parts of the city are flooded. Only on one visit did I experience acqua alta and the high water was mainly around San Marco.
Is Venice sinking?
It is more accurate that the sea is rising rather than Venice sinking. Climate scientists estimate the sea might immerse Venice in five feet of sea water by 2100. What was once a remote, protected series of islands are now sometimes overcrowded with one-day tourists and large cruise ships damaging the fragile lagoon environment. Managing tourism while enjoying the economic benefits is a difficult and contentious political, economic and social problem.
The Grand Canal is the main transportation route.
Everything is delivered by boat, including balloons.
Is Venice a tourist trap?
Of course. It’s tempting to see only the Grand Canal, Rialto bridge, and San Marco. Try at the minimum to explore some side streets and residential areas. You will know you are in more residential areas when there aren’t stores selling masks and glassware and the foot traffic is lessened. Stay a few nights and see Venice after most tourists leave. Venice is so different at night! You’ll also get a reprieve from the crowds by paying an entrance fee to a museum, palace or San Marco. It is well worth it. There are some fantastic small restaurants away from the main tourist sites that are real gems. The City of Venice publishes “fuorirotta” (off-course) detourism information encouraging sustainable and slow tourism.
Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Penguin. 2012.
Settis, Salvatore. If Venice Dies. New Vessel Press. 2016.