Venice is a city which seems to dazzle everyone who enters. It glows. It sparkles. It surprises. But behind all that shimmer and shine, there are all those same dark corners and less than perfect experiences to be had. Avoid all the following things to ensure you have the best vacation in this magical floating city.
1. Don't Ride the Gondolas
Gondolas are one of the most iconic images of Venice, and watching the black and white striped Gondoliers cruise up and down the canals inside their red velvet lined gondolas is something not to be missed. What you can miss, is riding inside of them. While the dream of riding inside a gondola might seem the ultimate Venetian bucket list item, the reality is much less dreamy. Gondolas costs at least €80 ($90 USD) for 30 minutes and the price only goes up after 7 pm. Sure, you can cram up to six people inside the gondolas and try to split it with another two couples on the search for romance in Venice, but trust me, the awkward 30 minutes, packed inside a small gondola with strangers isn't as romantic as you think. And it costs even more if you want a gondolier who will do all that beautiful singing you've heard so much about. In the end, those euros could be spent so much better on a romantic dinner along with a quaint canal, where you'll listen to gondoliers singing, not for their customers, but just for themselves.
Instead: Jump on one of the local vaporettos. This water buses are great for exploring all the beauty of the grand canal, and costs €30 for two full days of travel, so you can see it all! If you're dead set on taking a gondola ride to check it off your bucket list, try one of a 'traghetto'. A 'Traghetto' is Italian for 'ferry', and these small, quaint black gondolas ferry passengers across the Grand Canal at seven different points. Just from one side, to the other. These were used for generations before the construction of the Grand Canal bridges. They cost only €2 and are still used to this day by locals who don't want to waste their time walking all the way to a bridge to get across. Although the ride might be short, it's a great way to experience riding inside a gondola without the enormous price tag.
2. Don't Limit Yourself to Just the Island of Venice
Many people arrive by cruise ship onto the island of Venice and never leave its shores. More people pour in from the train station and don't think of heading outside the Grand Canal once they arrive. While there are a multitude of beautiful things to do in Venice, it's a great shame to make it down here and not visit at least some of the islands which surrounds Venice.
Instead: Take the vaporetto out and explore the islands of Burano and Murano. The trip takes about 45 minutes but is a lovely way to see the ocean and the surrounding scenery. The islands are both so crucial to the art, food, history and culture of Venice. Each has their distinctive flair and feeling, vastly different from the glamour and grandiosity of Venice, and your trip won't be the same without making it out here.
3. Don't Expect (free) Public Washrooms
Public washrooms aren't a thing in Venice. The city, which is now one of the most popular tourist cities in Europe, just wasn't built to be. And as such, there is a significant shortage of public washrooms. The one only truly 'public' washrooms aren't free of charge, sometimes they can cost up to €2. And while you can usually spare this the odd time, this costs can add up.
Instead: Head into a local coffee or gelato shop and spend that €2 on getting a delicious espresso or refreshing gelato. After making your purchase, ask to use their restroom, and they'll be more than accommodating since you've already purchased something. Visiting these local restaurants is a much better use of your money than literally flushing it down the toilet.
4. Don't Pack Heavy Luggage
Many travellers will have heard this saying again and again when travelling to small European cities, but it is never more valid than in Venice. Packing those heavy, rolling suitcases are going to prove to be a nightmare in Venice. There are no cars which you can throw your bags into to make their way to your hotel quickly. You're either walking down cobblestone walkways (which if you have a rolling suitcase, makes an enormous amount of noise which the locals are not a fan of) or taking a boat. The public water boat takes luggage no problem but most likely you'll still have to walk a fair ways from the nearest boat dock to your hotel. If you want to be dropped off right at your hotel, expect to take a private water taxi which can cost €13 up front, plus another €1.80 for each minute of travel. Often, less reputable boats drivers will even charge you for your luggage, and if those are the only boats available, you're stuck paying that costs.
Instead: Use a knapsack or small travel bag. Now I'm not a light packer by any means, but I know when it needs to be done! And choosing to pack light made all the difference in the world when visiting Venice. BUT there is another solution for those of us who are excited to bring back boatloads of souvenirs but don't want to be limited to a small backpack. You can always store your large suitcase in the luggage lockers in the train station when you arrive in Venice. Before leaving the large suitcase, grab a smaller travel bag which you packed with you and transfer a few days of clothes and necessities into that. Leave the rest inside the large suitcase in the train station locker. This will allow you to shop to your heart's desire but will give you the freedom of getting to and from your destination without a vast upheaval.
5. Don't Worry About Getting Lost
Following maps, either on paper or via google maps is near impossible in Venice. Sometimes the pathways are quite literally underwater. It's true, during the wet season in Vence, often vast portions of the city fall underwater and raised paths are used to get around the more popular tourist areas, but the less busy side streets are merely closed. Other times the map might route you one way and just twists and turns and ends up right where you started. But don't stress. Venice is a small island. Walking from one end to the other only takes about an hour, so you're never that far away from where you want to end up.
Instead: Embrace getting lost. As long as you're wondering in the right general direction, you'll make it there eventually. Learn to love exploring and find new things around hidden passageways. These are the little treats about Venice which make it so unique. I would even challenge you to spend an entire day without your phone guiding you. Use that simple paper map you get at tourist information and see how far that gets you. When you get "lost" ask a local. While you're at it, ask them for a dinner or food recommendation and see if you can start up a conversation. Locals might bristle at tourists initially (they are after all overrun with them) but they LOVE their city, and when they see someone genuinely trying to engage they are incredibly giving and kind.
6. Don't Visit on the Weekends or in Summer
If you have the option of when you can visit the city, try not to visit on the weekends. This is not only because there will be a massive influx of tourists but because many of the main tourist's sights (like churches and cathedrals) are closed for local services. Hotels will also be much more expensive during the weekends (as more Italians travel during this time for their mini-break getaways) so you'll save a lot of money by avoiding this as well. The summers are incredibly muggy in seaside Venice. The crowds make the temperatures seem ten times hotter than it is. Cruise ships are in and out of the ports all the time, and the weight of these daytrippers can not only be felt on the ground but in the local's attitudes as well.
Instead: Visit Venice in its offseason. Pack warmly and visit in the winter and you'll be shocked to see how different the city is compared to stories of those who attended in the summer. One of the comments I hear all the time about Venice is the smell. And yes, in the heat of the summer, those old swampy canals can smell. Just it's like any other busy city. New York is no picnic in 40-degree weather either. But Venice in the winter is a strangely magical place. The city's locals seem to come alive, despite the colder weather. The silent, side canals and ancient architecture shuddering in the brisk wind is hauntingly beautiful and well worth checking out. The spring and fall are also equally stunning, but you're better off to come in the fall when you can better avoid the flooding.
7. Don't Eat in St. Mark's Square
Restaurants in any big city, especially near those HUGE tourist attractions are rife with scams and ways in which to overcharge customers for the littlest thing. Those beautiful cafes in St. Mark's square which makes for lovely photographs, should be avoided at all costs, mainly due to those costs. These cafes are not only overpriced but also tack on a "sitting" surcharge simply because of the location. Anytime you enter a cafe, ask if there is a "cover charge". They have to fess up to this if you ask, so never be embarrassed to do so. If the cover charge isn't too bad and you feel like the overpriced drinks are worth the view than absolutely go right ahead, but to save yourself a surprisingly large bill, always be sure to check before sitting down.
Instead: Head down any small side street adjacent to St. Mark's. It's always incredible to me the fantastic places you can find just steps away from the crowded, tourist traps. Look for locals migrating, and you're heading in the right direction. If you do want to eat at one of those picturesque restaurants, ask for their “al banco” or bar menu compared to their “al tavolo” or table menu. Sometimes the difference between just sipping your espresso at the bar with a similar view, compared to a table can be a lot of money, especially in touristy areas.
8. Don't Dine using a 'Tourist Menu'
Venice was perhaps the city in Europe where I saw the most prominent use of "tourist menus". It is no secret that Venice isn't the place to come for the best of Italian cuisine, but there are incredible meals to be had. Tourist menus are truly the worst ways to experience Venetian cuisine. They are built up of easy to please, faux-Italian cuisine. It's watered down Italy and mediocre at best. Avoid menus printed in various languages, although this is very inclusive, and it does often denote the fact that it's not a traditional or local restaurant. Also, be wary of anything that comes for "free". Venice has been notorious in the past for putting platters of oysters down in front of customers who didn't order any, without saying a thing and then at the end of the meal the tourists face a huge, unexpected bill. If anything arrives at your table which you didn't order, question it immediately and if they bring up some unspecific cost say, "no thank you" and send it back!
Instead: Head to restaurants off the beaten path which provide only Italian menus. Even if you don't speak Italian, there are always a few words you can learn to identify what different dishes contain. As you tour around Venice, check out what the locals are eating and be sure to order that. A few local specialities in Venice are deeply rooted in their proximity to the sea. Try any seafood-based risotto, moleche ( small green crabs) in the springtime, creamed dried cod spread across fresh bread and 'Bigoli in salsa' (an appetiser pasta made using only three ingredients).
9. Don't Take a "Free Glass Factory Tour" from Venice
Venetian glass is renown all over the world. But with popularity comes those trying to take advantage of just that. Throughout San Marco, you'll see hawkers advertising "free trips" to Murano to visit various glass factories. Remember: nothing in this world is free. These dodgy companies will take you to some glass factories in Murano but often they are less reputable, and once you arrive the salespeople will put immense amounts of pressure on you to prepurchase some of their glass. Often guilting you into it since they provided you with a 45-minute trip to Murano for "free". This is not only really stressful but also prevents you from buying a piece of glasswork you genuinely fall in love with. These places are also known for purchasing much of their glassworks from China and the artisans you see working on pieces in the factory are often just there for show. The best way to be sure what you're buying is real is to check the price, too good to be true is often just that.
Instead: Take the public ferry over to Murano from one of the many stations in Venice. This might cost a small amount, but you'll free yourself from feeling pressured into buying anything, and you'll also free yourself up to exploring the island on your own. There are dozens and dozens of shops in Murano, and each artisan has their style, unique to their heritage of glasswork, sometimes passed down from generations. If you think you can't afford it, I'm here to tell you there is something for anyone. Yes, there are chandeliers which cost upwards of $100,000, but there are also gorgeous glass earrings which cost less than €10. I bought a few pairs, and they were my favourite souvenir of the entire trip. I even got to pick the colours and watch them make the earrings right in front of my eyes. A real memory to bring back with me!
10. Don't Forget to Book your Tickets for BIG Attractions in Advance
Venice is a small, but busy city. Tourism is booming in this historic place and no matter when you arrive, there will always be a lot of people. If there are one or two attractions you have your heart set on, don't be shy about booking these tickets in advance. St. Mark's Basilica had a line around the square every day and spending all that time lined up means less time to explore the rest of the city. The museums often face the same issue during peak season and sometimes even sell out of admission tickets for certain days.
Instead: Book your tickets online in advance. Despite the city feeling like a place trapped in the past, the Venetian tourism industry is smack dab in the 21st century and all the big attractions and museums offer advance purchase of tickets online from anywhere in the world. This will not only secure the fact you'll be able to visit a particular place when in town, but also means you'll be able to bypass the huge lines. Yes, you can always wake up early in the morning to be the first ones at the gate but it's your vacation, and you deserve to sleep in and relax!