"Tourists destroy what they are looking for by finding it," wrote German writer Hans-Magnus Enzensberger — and that applies to Venice today. Still, DW reporter Juan Martinez has found ways to avoid the crowds.
"Prossima fermata Venezia Santa Lucia," says the train driver through the speaker minutes before arriving in Venice. I stare out of the window, waiting for the train to cross the "Ponte della Liberta," the railway bridge connecting the Venetian islands to the Italian mainland – a sign that I'm almost there and that at the other side of that bridge I will encounter one of the most romantic and iconic places in the world. It's a city that unfortunately many call overcrowded and overrated, but in my eyes is still a destination where you can find new spots every time you visit and feel that sense of magic and romanticism many poets talk about.
Dodge into quieter neighborhoods
Venice in summer is crowded, and every tourist arriving in this city should know this in advance. A walk around Piazza San Marco can turn into a nightmare, with flocks of tourists getting out their cameras and selfie sticks to take pictures. The canals are filled with couples and families in gondolas, to the point that it looks more like a traffic jam than a quiet and romantic journey. And getting a reservation in a restaurant in the districts of San Marco or San Polo can take hours of your time.
It's not that Venice is a city you can't visit during summer, but it's definitely a destination you have to view with different eyes and where some spots should simply be avoided at certain times or be visited on a different trip. It's no wonder this is happening. Venice attracts more than 20 million visitors a year looking to enjoy the city's best spots just as you and I are looking forward to it.
"Water taxi! Do you want a water taxi?" asks a vendor right after we leave the Santa Lucia train station, a situation that can quickly overshadow that first view of Venice you get when you step outside. We take out our map and try to find out how to get to the districts of Castello and Cannaregio, the two places we want to get to know during our stay in Venice.
Castello and Cannaregio are not only the two largest "sestieri" or districts in Venice, but also the two areas that can still show you what daily life in Venice really looks like. People with grocery bags on their way back home, children playing football in a small open courtyard and women hanging up clothes on a washing line – images almost impossible to find in San Marco. Days can be quiet in these districts, and we spend our afternoons drinking wine next to the canals or reading a book in one of the many cafés around the area.
If you're spending a longer time in Venice, a day trip to Murano should be on your list, too. This series of tiny islands north of Cannaregio can be easily reached by vaporetto, one of Venice's water buses, and will offer you a less touristy side of Venice with colorful streets and charming shops. Burano can also be an alternative if you want to find quiet lanes, good restaurants and nice cafés.
Enjoy like the Venetians
Winter is the ideal season to see Venice's main attractions. No long waiting lines, no masses of tourists and no vendors all over you while you walk around. Prices also tend to be lower, and finding a nice restaurant in San Marco for a romantic dinner with your partner shouldn’t be a problem. Even the city council of Venice is promoting the hashtag #enjoyrespectvenezia, trying to encourage tourists to be more responsible in the way they treat Venice and Venetians, and recommends that tourists visit the city during low season.
San Marco, San Polo and Dorsoduro are simply beautiful at this time of the year, as you can walk around the main attractions without worrying about stepping on people's toes or involuntarily becoming part of someone’s snapshot. With colder weather and shorter days, Venice also shifts into a more passive state where everything moves more slowly and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Bars become quieter and there are no masses of tourists invading the city from their cruise ships each morning. A morning espresso actually turns into that sacred experience you expected it to be and not a competition to get a spot at the bar.
Traveling at this time of the year is also a way to get more involved in local life, as most Venetians completely avoid Venice during summer and feel that winter is the time when they can also enjoy their city without feeling like strangers in their own home. "We had over 170,000 residents some years ago," says a Venetian while drinking a pint in a local pub in San Marco. "Now we are fewer than 50,000," he concludes. Tourism is affecting Venice more than we think, and the way we travel now might affect the way Venice will behave towards tourists in the future.
UNESCO is threatening to put Venice on a list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, and somehow I can understand why. My recommendation is not to avoid this magical city as a whole, but simply to be more open towards adjustments in our travel plans and feel more responsible about the way we travel in Venice – something that might at the same time save us money, let us experience a more local side of this destination and help soften the impact of mass tourism, which I'm sure not only locals hate.