There are places that seem to generate only strong feelings from people who visit – usually either in the “love” or “hate” categories only. It’s rare, for instance, that I hear anyone who’s just lukewarm on their feelings toward Venice – it’s a city that seems to only have critics or admirers.
You’ll find me firmly in the “admirers” camp – those of you who have been poking around this site don’t need to be reminded of that, most likely – and whenever I hear someone say they hate Venice, it makes me a little sad.
Yes, this sinking city can generate sinking feelings if you don’t do your homework before you arrive, but a few simple steps is all it takes to turn hatred of Venice into a city-based love affair. Will everyone who follows my guidelines fall in love with Venice? Certainly not. And if we all loved the exact same places, what a boring world it would be.
But if you’re looking for the romantic side of Venice – whether you’ve been there before and it left a bad taste in your mouth, or you’re going for the first time and you want to make sure to see the city at its best – here are my tips for finding romantic Venice.
1. Get Lost
Venice is home to my very favorite church on earth (at least so far), and I don’t let a stop in Venice go by without a stroll through St. Mark’s Basilica. But if your visit to Venice is only a day trip and you want to get the most out of your time, I honestly think getting lost in the city is a higher priority than seeing my beloved basilica.
You’ll no doubt have read and heard how over-crowded Venice is pretty much year-round, and there’s absolutely truth to that statement. But it takes almost no effort to get away from the bulk of the crowds, and getting lost in Venice is the best way to experience what makes so many people call the city romantic in the first place.
The well-worn path from the train station to St. Mark’s Square (by way of the Rialto Bridge) is so crammed with people that you’d almost be forgiven for thinking the entire city of Venice – as small as it is – must be the same way. But turn your back to the crowd and walk a few streets in any direction (being careful not to walk headlong into a canal, of course) and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can leave the mob behind.
Sure, if you’ve got your heart set on seeing the Basilica di San Marco and you’re only in Venice on a day-trip, then high-tail it over to the onion-domed church ASAP to get in line. It’s worth the time in line, as far as I’m concerned. But the experience of waiting in line for any amount of time on your too-short visit to Venice should be enough to make you schedule more time in the city on your next trip.
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It’s only by strolling through the city, walking away from every tourist crowd you see and wandering without the assistance of a map, that you’ll find the peaceful corners of Venice. You’ll stumble upon a gondola workshop. You’ll find a quiet piazza where residents sit and chat. And you’ll find that elusive good food Venice hides from most visitors. The further you get from the crowds, the better off you’ll be. So go ahead and get yourself good and lost. I mean, you can’t get too far off-course – you are on an island, after all.
2. Spend the Night
The Venice of day trippers isn’t romantic Venice. In fact, it might just be the opposite of romantic Venice. Even if you do get yourself lost, having only a few hours in the city and leaving before the sun sets means you won’t see Venice when it’s at its most peaceful.
Do yourself a favor and spend at least one night in Venice so you can savor the sleepy city not only late at night but also early in the morning when Venice’s maintenance workers are sweeping the Piazza di San Marco clean of the previous day’s detritus, when the market boats come in with the day’s catch to sell to locals and restaurants, and when Venetians can move about unhindered by sauntering visitors.
Yes, Venice is an expensive city to visit, and even more expensive to stay overnight in – even the hostels in Venice are more costly per night than hostels in other parts of Italy and Europe. Even travelers on a tight budget would be well-advised to try to spend at least one night in the city, on the islands proper. If you’re staying longer and can only afford one night in a Venice hotel, then move to the Mestre (the mainland) for the rest of your visit – but enjoy one overnight on the islands to give Venice the best chance of showing off her most romantic side.
3. Don’t Expect Too Much
Even I’ll admit that Venice isn’t perfect. I’m head-over-heels in love with the city, but I haven’t been brainwashed. I get why people don’t like it, I really do. And I also think that by effectively managing one’s expectations of this legendary city it’s possible for even the nay-sayers to understand why the rest of us wouldn’t kick Venice out of bed for eating crackers.
I’ve said before that I think Venice is like the “impossibly gorgeous” bad boy we’re all told not to fall for in high school, but we do in spite of ourselves. But Venice can also easily be likened to the most popular girl in school – the one who knows how pretty she is. Venice, like that girl, doesn’t have to try to be loved. People will flock to Venice in droves regardless of the fact that it’s notorious for high prices and bad food. It makes sense, too – what incentive do restaurateurs have for turning out exceptional dishes if tourist hordes will come in anyway? Still, if you’re following steps one and two listed above, you’re more apt to find the places where locals go to eat – and they’re certainly not going to tolerate sub-par food. And at the same time if you’re not expecting to be blown away gastronomically speaking, you’re also not setting yourself up for disappointment.
Another situation where the expectation and reality tend to be too far apart is one of the most quintessential items on a visitor’s to-do list – taking a gondola ride in Venice. It might sound like it’s supremely romantic, and photos of lovers smooching as they glide under a tiny bridge on a Venetian canal might make your heart flutter, but think about the view from the gondola for a second. There’s page after page of pictures online of people on gondola rides. Why? Because it makes a great photo. But it also means that the supposedly-romantic and seemingly intimate moment you might want with your sweetie in a gondola is essentially a spectator sport in Venice. You’ll be photographed, video-taped, and stared at from every bridge and balcony as you drift around the city in the back of a gondola.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t make an effort to find good food in Venice or that you should skip the gondola ride that you’ve got your heart set on. I just want you to be realistic about your expectations of Venice from the start.
4. Don’t Go During Carnevale
This step is a bit more specific than the other three, but I think it’s an important one. As mentioned several times, Venice is crowded year-round. There’s very little in the way of a “low season” here, as you’ll find the main arteries in the city jam-packed no matter what month it is. But during the even-busier Carnevale period, it becomes a bigger challenge to find those quiet corners of Venice that are oh-so-critical to seeing the romantic side of the city.
Yes, seeing the shiny, white masks and ornate costumes of Venice’s annual Carnival celebrations in person rather than just in photographs is appealing. Cities come alive during festivals, and Venice is no exception. But the already-expensive hotel room rates go through the roof, the crowds spread far beyond the usual paths, and the good restaurants and bars in the city are nigh-unto-impossible to get into.
If you already love Venice and have “go to Carnevale in Venice” on your lifetime to-do list, then by all means book your trip to Venice during this world-famous event. But if your idea of “romantic Venice” is more like mine (involving more peace and quiet than anything else), then avoid Carnevale at all costs.
More Than One Kind of “Romance”
Throughout this article I’ve used the word “romantic” – and I’ve even used photographs of couples in Venice to drive the point home. But in reality what I find most romantic and alluring about Venice doesn’t even require being with a lover. The romantic Venice I seek out when I’m there is simply the quiet side of the city. It’s the side of Venice that’s almost brooding, a little chilly in its disposition (even in the summer), and yet vaguely come-hither.
Of course, the addition of someone to cuddle with as you’re strolling alongside Venice’s canals doesn’t hurt.
I realize, however, that the word “romantic” is completely subjective, and that one person’s idea of romantic is another person’s nightmare – I haven’t fooled myself into thinking that if everyone just followed my four simple rules they’d fall hopelessly in love with Venice and never recover. I do think, however, that if people took a little time to explore more than the main tourist points in the city they wouldn’t be so quick to “hate” Venice. So all I’m asking is that you give Venice a fair shake before passing judgment.
And if you still don’t like it, that’s fine – that just means there’s more room for me.