To avoid tourists in Venice, Italy is hard but not impossible. The natural beauty of Venice is overwhelming with medieval streets, painted houses, and over 118 islands connected by hundreds of bridges crossing turquoise blue water. The island city was a wonderful place to launch my 9-day trip in Italy.
I’m a passionate traveler seriously dedicated to experiencing the most authentic aspects of a city–which includes spending the night and giving back to the local economy. Once I figured out ways to avoid the crowds of tourists and tacky souvenir shops in Venice, I quickly fell in love with the City of Bridges and Canals. Here is a summary of the highlights (and tourist avoiding tricks!) from our time in Venice.
Is avoiding tourists in Venice really that big of an issue?
Yes, the city is in the midst of a tourism crisis. At times it feels like it’s impossible to avoid tourists in Venice. I’ve never been to a place so overrun by tourism, although Dubrovnik is a close second. About 55,000 Venetians live on the island and they serve between 20-30 million tourists a year. Quick math tells you that the city population doubles (or triples!) during peak travel season. Older generations live on the islands as younger people prefer the mainland with the convenience of cars and avoiding tourists.
The city is currently regulating the number of cruise ships that can dock. Venice is also promoting a campaign for #EnjoyRespectVenezia to cut down on the pollution, littering, and acceleration of city wear and tear. If you want to avoid tourists in Venice, it’s difficult but not impossible.
Day 1 – Immersed in Venice History
Morning – Avoid Tourists at St. Mark’s Square
We quickly discovered that waking up early is one of the best ways to avoid the tourists in Venice. During the summer, the sun rises early so it’s easy to take advantage of the long days. Heading out before the cruise ships and trains from the mainland arrived enabled us to experience the city in a very quiet state. Plus taking pictures was much easier! My first impression of Venice was that the whole city needs a good power wash (many buildings date back to the 1200s) and it’s cheaper than Paris. And the water didn’t smell.
We stayed at the AC Marriott near the train station — which was a perfect location for arriving to the city via airport bus and departing via train. We didn’t have to lug our suitcases through crowds over bridges or cobblestone. Plus, with our delayed train (a seemingly common thing in Italy ), we spent time in the air conditioning while we waited.
Near our hotel, we found delightful breakfast on our first morning at a small bakery. The Italian way of eating breakfast is ordering an espresso and a croissant and standing at the counter to eat. Although they’re not “breakfast” items, my favorite thing to try in each Italian city was their olive bread and focaccia.
First thing on anyone’s list of exploring Venice is a visit to St. Mark’s Square. It’s home to many iconic Venice destinations — the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, the Bridge of Sighs, and the Campanile. The Square is also a short walk to the Rialto Bridge and stripped shirted gondola men.
As we walked towards the square, the price of Aperol Sprtiz increased as did the density of tourists. Luckily, by going early we were able to jump on one of the first elevator rides up the Campanile and see incredible views of the city with fairly few crowds. Gazing out over the city, I quickly fell in love with the colors of Venice buildings–sepia, ochre, ombré orange, yellow and burnt red–that contrasted with deep teal water. We were at the top of the bell tower at 9am, and it was so cool (and loud!) to hear the bells ring.
A short walk away from the Campanile is the Doge’s Palace, where we bought the “St. Mark’s Square Museum” tickets. The tickets gave us access to the palace where the government and the doge grounds and several other museums throughout the city. The Doge’s Palace was gorgeous with it’s cavernous halls, massive frescos, decadent staircases and rooftop views of the city. One highlight was walking across the Bridge of Sighs and seeing the jails. Legend states that the prisoners gazed out from the bridge and sighed one last time before execution. Casanova famously escaped from this prison.
Afternoon – Eat Like the Locals
Finding excellent places to eat in Italy became somewhat of an obsession for me throughout the trip. I read lots of blogs and got tons of recommendations and then was often heartbroken to arrive at the place in Venice and have it crowded with tourists, menus in five languages–or worse with pictures!
One afternoon just to say we did, we got Dal Moro to-go pasta. You’ll see similar take-out pasta places around every corner in Venice, but apparently Dal Moro is the OG. We snapped a pic of our take-out containers on a bridge, but the quality of the pasta and the sauce underwhelmed us. Plus, Venice is pretty strict about where you can sit outside (they fine you if you sit on a bridge), so we spent a good amount of time wandering around looking for a spot to actually eat it.
However, a hands-down highlight from our trip was discovering Cantionone Gia’ Schiavi and eating cicchetti with the locals. Cicchetti is the Venetian version of tapas (small plates). Best time to enjoy cicchetti is at meal time because they’re making the food fresh behind the counter as you’re eating. Each piece of cicchetti is usually 1-2 euro.
To order, we picked out our favorites (by pointing) and stood at the counter to enjoy our bite-sized feast. We tried just about everything vegetarian in the glass case and loved it all. Our favorite pieces were the glazed pear with blue cheese and balsamic on bread. Another was a ricotta and pumpkin spread and artichoke hearts. We washed down our meal with a glass of ombré — the house wine– for only 1 euro per glass!
After lunch, it’s a good time to return to the museums. Despite all the time I spent avoiding tourists in Venice, I still want to come back to see museums I didn’t get to (looking at you Guggenhiem and the Venice Biennale).
With the St. Marks Square Museum pass, we were also able to get into the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. The luxurious apartments overlooking the plaza did not disappoint. They reminded me of the decadent af lifestyles of the royalty from Vienna, Germany, and France. I LOVE IT.
Another highlight was stumbling into a small (free!) exhibit from the Louis Vuitton Foundation. I am obsessed with their Paris museum, so naturally I fell in love with the modern art showcased in their Venice store. I also loved looking at the shop Danghyra for ceramics and several of the modern art galleries nearby.
Evening – Celebrate the Venetian Holidays
The least touristy neighborhoods in Venice are away from the Grand Canal in Castello and Cannaregio . Exploring those parts of town is a peaceful reprise from the chaos of the day. Plus, since we arrived on the weekend, we stumbled upon several local Venetian eateries and celebrations.
As serious foodie, one of the highlights of my trip was getting a walk-in table at Zucca–renowned for it’s creative vegetable cooking. The zucchini lasagna I ate there was heaven on earth and the house wine (just 5 euro for a half liter) was everything I wanted and more. Seriously, house wine in Italy (which is never more than like 10 euro for a LITER) is the best thing to grace the face of the earth. I almost didn’t leave. Another place that caught our eye was Paradiso Perduto where they apparently cook your pasta in a wheel of cheese.
Pro tip: if you see a good place you want to eat for dinner, stop in during the lunch hour and make a reservation for that evening. Locals tend to eat late 8:30pm or 9:00pm, so we were often able to squeeze in and get a table when places first opened at 7pm. If the restaurant is open straight from lunch to dinner or has someone outside hustling to get you in, it’s probably catered toward tourists–not locals.
After dinner, we rallied and went back to St. Mark’s Basin because Venice was celebrating Festa del Renentore. Every year on the third weekend of July, Venice celebrates the end of the 1577 plague with a massive fireworks show and a boat regatta. For the fireworks show, everyone in Venice heads out onto the water via boat with a picnic. We found a spot on the marina and enjoyed the fireworks show on land. I highly recommend planning your visit to Venice around their local celebrations to see a piece of their authentic culture!
Side note: It reminded me of the awesome Festa de San Joan celebration I went to in the small town of Menorca, Spain in June. Read here!
Day 2 – Spend Time on the Water
Morning – Gondola Ride
We enjoyed a tasty breakfast at Aea Canevassa. They made me a vegetarian sandwich to order and offered hearty egg dishes made to order. The fresh cheese was amazing, but after eyeing the counter I wish I yolo’d and tried the cicchetti (even though it wasn’t lunch time) in the glass case.
After breakfast we stalked out the gondolas and found one that we liked. Yes, I realize this is the most touristy thing I could possibly do in Venice, but we rationalized that since we actually are tourists we might as well lean into that and take the damn gondola. Where else in the world will we get the chance to do this? Plus being on the water is so Venetian (1 in 2 families own a boat!), we easily justified it. Not to mention, morning and late evening light is the best for taking pictures inside the canals (less harsh shadows).
Gondolas can be found just about everywhere in Venice and are highly regulated. They have somewhat set routes and 100% fixed pricing depending on the time of day you go. It was a bit of relief to not have to negotiate on pricing. We caught one on a side canal and he gave us a 30 minute ride past Casanova’s house, the Rialto Bridge, and a few other landmarks. The time on the boat went by SO FAST, but it was worth it despite how cheesy it initially seemed.
Afternoon – Explore Burano
Our second day in town we made a day trip out to Burano, which is known for it’s colorful houses and lace making. We heard Burano was less touristy than Venice (not true), and was a photographers dream (true!). So we decided to go. (Nearby islands that we also considered incuded Murano and Torcello).
We bought tickets for the vaporetto– water bus –which acts just like a city’s metro system with a set route. The water transportation (like the gondola!) proved to be one of our favorite activities on the trip. Locals use the vaporettos daily to commute to work on the different islands.
Waiting for our boat, we enjoyed an Aperol spritz on the water. You’ll find Aperol spritz (Aperol, prosecco, seltzer) at every restaurant and bar and even bottled at street vendors. Prices average around €5-7 for a spritz, although we saw as low as €2.50 by our hotel and high as €14 in St. Mark’s Square. Discovering half-sized to-go Aperol spritzes for €2 walking home was delightful. Campari is another common choice for spritz in Italy. But after much tasting (for science), we decided Aperol was our favorite.
Burano itself was a very small island that we circumferenced quickly. It had a few main streets and canals, albeit smaller than Venice, but equally as touristy packed with restaurants serving identical food, souvenir shops and lace displays. We were warned not to buy the lace though because although the island has a history of producing it, most of the items in the shops are now made in China. We ate pasta and seafood at Trattoria da Primo, a standard (overpriced) restaurant with good people watching.
Then we went out to take zillion pictures of the colorful buildings. The town felt like a life-sized crayola crayon box! One authentic bit was tasting the essi cookies–typical of the island–from a small bakery.
Evening – Live Music at the Local Festival
Returning to Venice via the vaporetto which ran every 20 minutes, we headed back to our favorite neighborhood of Cannaregio. The day before, we stumbled upon the Festa di San Giacomo da l’Orio on our way to Zucca and resolved to return.
Every year Venice celebrates numerous summer holidays including the Feast of Sant’Antonio, the Feast of San Giovanni in Bragora and the Festa de San Piero de Castéo. Venice celebrates the Feast of San Giacomo da l’Orio every year in mid-July during 10 event-rich days that commorate St. James the Apostle.
At the festival, we snacked on cicchetti (fried eggplant balls, grilled vegetables) and ribs and listed to live music from Italian bands and DJs. My personal highlight was the liter of prosecco we got for €8 and how easy it was to avoid tourists in Venice there. We felt like the only people speaking English!
We quickly discovered ways to avoid the tourists in Venice and craft an authentic Venetian experience. The more I travel, the more I realize how much I haven’t seen. Venice is no exception. It still has plenty of museums left to see, cicchetti to taste, and house wine to sip. I would certainly be down to returning!
General Venice Travel Tips
- If you need an ATM, go to an actual bank, not EuroNet –the exchange rates are terrible!
- Don’t spend your time looking for the “best” gelato. It’s street food and pretty decent everywhere you go.
- Carry cash for small transactions
- Download Google Maps offline and tag the places you want to go. Give yourself extra time to get places because the streets and canals are confusing to navigate
- Avoid tourists in Venice by eating local — don’t go to places with 11,000 reviews on Trip Adviser