It’s high season and the crowds in major cities in Europe are swarming. Venice is always a popular attraction for visitors. While the steaming mass of tourists come and go, frustrated locals feel the pressure of crowding every day. As with any cross section of humanity, there are thoughtful travelers and…not so thoughtful travelers in the mix. This city is a jewel of world heritage, so the question looms: how can one be a good tourist in Venice?

Tourism pressure happens worldwide. I’m a tour guide all over the world, but Venice is near and dear to my heart. I spend weeks there every year and am sort of a quasi-local, or at least my Venetian friends think so. I feel a deep sympathy and connection to this creaky place and its residents. Help me help my city.

Not Always A Fan

My first few visits to Venice were not so great. I was a poor student. Existing on $20 per day was tough even in the dark ages. I stayed on the Giudecca and drank 1000 lira wine (50 cents a bottle). I was scandalized by the prices and the crowds. The city seemed like a big, hollow stage set with no life inside. It seemed like an elaborate seashell, abandoned by its hermit crab and left to be tossed about by the ocean.

Guiding tours in Italy required me to dutifully return again and again. Eventually I met some locals who became friends. Looking at the city through their eyes changed the way I felt about the city. As with any place, finding the soul lies in the people who live there.

What I found was a city that has a glorious past that few really understand beyond gondolas and Carnevale masks. A city with secret pleasures, traditional culture, modern life and salty old sea dogs, all mixed together. It has been a great gift to find the soul of a city as complicated as Venice.

Love/Hate Tourism

As much as locals may grouse about tourism, they secretly all know that they cannot live without it. The city was massively powerful and controlled trade from 1200-1400. After the fall of Constantinople in the 1400’s and the discovery of the New World, Venice slowly declined. Their dominance of the trading world slipped away.

To compensate, Venetians did what they did best, entertained international guests. Venice has been an international hub for more than 900 years. A natural outgrowth of hosting the international community became hospitality, and not just a place to sleep. Entertainment, in the form of music, theater, parties, gambling, and, um, female companionship, grew to be their business in the 1600’s.

I tell you all of this simply to point out one thing: tourism is nothing new. Anyone who complains about the number of foreigners in Venice just needs to take a visit to the Accademia painting gallery and check out some of the scenes from Venice in the early 1400’s. The faces and commotion would look current if you changed the elaborate clothing for jeans and tennis shoes.

International visitors are integral to the long history of the city. You should not feel an ounce of guilt for visiting, or let any locals make you feel unwelcome. Visitors make the city as they always have.

What to Do in 12 Thoughts

Some people will visit Venice and feel turned off by the mass tourism and tacky-tacky shops. Others will fall in love at first sight. No matter how you feel about the city, we as visitors need to learn to live alongside the locals in a healthier way. I have a few simple things you can do to achieve this goal.

  1. Keep to the right. The streets of Venice are tight, barely two people wide in many spots. If you’re ambling along, stay close to the right and let others pass you. If you see delivery people, move out of their way as quickly as you can. Just like the freeway at home, if you’re on the wrong side of the road, driving too slow, or blocking lanes,  you’ll get some colorful hand gestures.
  2. Make eye contact, smile and greet the locals. You are a guest in their city. You’re in their house. Pretend like every local is your grandma. Smile and say “Salve”, an all purpose greeting in Italian. They will be shocked…and may smile back.
  3. Dress for success. Locals have complained to me that tourists tend to dress like they are going to the beach when they come to Venice, with short shorts and bikini tops. The local culture is actually very conservative. I tend to dress up in Venice, wearing a nice dress and styling my hair for once. The city inspires me to be my best self, let it speak to you that way too.
  4. Don’t block bridges. This is the most crazy-making habit I see. I realize that the best photos are on a bridge, overlooking a canal. But don’t forget, those bridges are arterials. When you block traffic to take that Christmas card photo, you’re holding up a bunch of folks who just need to get to the grocery store. Be a thoughtful photographer. Early mornings are better anyway.
  5. Sleep in Venice. I know it is ridiculously expensive. But you’ll never really feel the magic of this city if you are tucked away on the mainland, or even worse, on a cruiseship, after the sun sets. Do yourself and the local economy a favor and sleep in this magical place. You’re worth it.
  6. Eat local. The Venetians are cracking down on chain restaurants and take-away shops for a reason. Venetian food has good choices at every price level, you just have to look for it and be willing to go local. Cheapskates can eat Venetian Tapas–cicchetti– and those with more money can splash out for a sit-down meal. Walk a few minutes out of center and you’ll find some good local restaurants. Supporting quality restaurants will encourage more quality places to develop.
  7. Shop thoughtfully. I know that plaster model of the Bridge of Sighs looks tempting, but it wasn’t made in Venice, probably not in Italy. There are plenty of shops that sell handmade souvenirs that are good quality from local artists. Jewelry, masks, art prints, you name it, you can find it if you ask around. Getting into the back streets of the city can help.
  8. Don’t feed or touch the pigeons. They may look romantic but the locals call them the flying rats. I am so disgusted when people feed and hold them, it’s unsanitary. Yuck, but also, they poop on buildings, which destroys them. Feeding pigeons helps them thrive. Don’t do it.
  9. Get away from the Piazza. Everyone lingers in San Marco, but there is plenty more to see in Venice. Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, Santa Croce are all lovely districts with hardly any people in them. See the main square at off hours.
  10. Be courteous and patient on transit. Using the vaporetto  can be frustrating. The locals depend on it to get around their city. Can you imagine how complicated everyday tasks must be? Give them space, offer your seat. Try to get on and off quickly, and stay out of the way.
  11. Carry your bags over the bridges. All of us who love the city cringe when visitors drag their bags up and down the steps. The wheels on the bags are chipping and damaging the steps. They actually outlawed wheeled bags in Venice…for about five minutes.
  12. Garbage is a problem. The garbage cans in busy areas can overflow. Be thoughtful about your garbage and don’t heap it on top of a full can. And please don’t toss things in the canals, including yourself! (Ewwww)

All in all, the bottom line is this: buy local, stay local, be cool and make an effort to try and understand the city. Thoughtful tourists are welcomed with open arms, and usually find a deeper connection and appreciation for this lovely place. Take care of this place and it will love you back.
Been to Venice? What would you like to see visitors do to be the best sort of guests?

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

12 replies on “12 Ways to be a Good Tourist in Venice”

  1. Venice was the first place I went and I fell in love.
    If September is the high season, when is a quieter time to visit?

    I also took WAY too much luggage and now that I’ve found your blog I will never travel the same. Thanks for all that you share and teach us

  2. We just got back from Venice, my favorite place in the world. We now stay away from the busy areas but our first trip we stayed in the brick hotel on the right of your photo above on the Bridge of Sighs canal. There was a delightful sitting area where you could enjoy a glass of wine and watch the gondolas going past. We try to eat in restaurants away from the beaten track and one of these days would love to go and stay in an apartment there.

  3. Thanks for the comments about Venice, looks like just common sense, but sometimes that is lacking also. Looking forward to
    a return trip to Italy next year and going to Venice, Milan and other places my first tour did not visit. Great report and happy travels.

  4. Ah, Sarah-your love for this beautiful city shines all through your post. Into, love Venice. Thank you for all the great advice!

  5. Wonderful article Sarah! We had a nice experience in Venice a few years ago. We stayed in Dorsoduro, walked a lot, took the water taxis and soaked up the ambiance. You’re right about watching people drag their bags across bridges–that is cringeworthy. Ciao Bella !

  6. Thanks Sarah.
    I’m leaving tomorrow after 10 days in Venice, this being my 5th visit here.
    I would say: rent an apartment for your stay.(Anywhere in Europe, not just here.)
    Support local food shops and cafes. Live like a local for a while.
    Get to know a neighbour or two (esp. in a power cut when the lady upstairs is throwing down candles to those that need them!)
    If someone helps you with directions, say thank you and smile!
    Also: please say hello and goodbye when entering and leaving a business, you’ll get much better service.
    Don’t wash your hands in the canals!
    I was on a vaporetto today, and we passed a man who stepped away from his walking tour who had stopped for a minute; then he crouched down and washed his hands, then his face , in the Grand Canal!
    Can you say fecal face Wash!! I nearly fell overboard.😱

  7. You did a wonderful job of guiding our group through Venice last year. Many thanks from Mary Ann and David Amos

  8. Well said! We are wrapping up a six-night stay, our tenth visit to Venezia. We seldom come in high season, but this was the timing we had. It is so busy! Five cruise ships in yesterday! Today it rained and the abundance of umbrellas made it hard to do anything. Walking on the right would have helped. If people had moved along it would have helped.

    Other ideas:
    Stopping in the middle of a calle to check directions is not a good idea, either. Like when driving, pull off to the side to confer with your partner, to simply gawk, or to check your map or GPS.

    Get away not only from San Marco and Rialto. On a beautiful day we slipped into Castello about 10 minutes from the Arsenale stop and ate a magnificent lunch at a little restaurant. We were the only non-locals there.

    You are right: the locals put up with a lot. I feel for those simply trying to run their errands and get the kids to school.

    BTW, we had not been here for a couple of years. It seems cleaner than I recall: bridges are whiter, stairs on the main tourist area bridges have been replaced with new edging, etc. Nice to see the emphasis on keeping Venice clean (“Tieni Venezia pulita” is the slogan, I believe.)

  9. Funny you should say that you weren’t enamoured your first time to Venice. That’s how I was. I was on a cruise ship in 2002, silently gliding into the city in early morning. All passengers were quiet, just looking. I was next to a woman who brought me to tears when she wistfully told me that her husband had just passed away and this was their favorite place. She was returning in his honor, to soak up the magic.

    After a few days there, I just didn’t get it. I kept wondering what it was she thought was so special. It was only on my third visit when we slept in Venice and spent several days that I began to understand how Venice can captivate one. I’ve never forgotten that woman.

    Very good tips, Sarah, and perhaps add one? No selfie sticks?

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