17 July 2017

How to be a 'good' tourist in Venice (and enjoy the city without infuriating the locals)

Every year Venice begs tourists to behave themselves and respect the city. This year's campaign is #EnjoyRespectVenezia and includes helpful advice for visiting.

Unfortunately the Bad Tourists are usually day-trippers thinking themselves in a Disneyland, who will not do any research, won't have a clue about the real city, and whom these messages will never reach. Life in Venice for locals, workers, and longer-term visitors can become utterly hellish in the summer months when coaches, ferries and cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of trippers daily. Bins overflow, routes are blocked, boats are overcrowded and the heart of the city becomes a place to be avoided at any cost. There is talk of extra charges for visitors, of turnstiles and of restricting numbers. Locals are given discounts, and priority waterbus boarding, just to make it possible to live here.

Throughout the summer local Venetian newspapers and local conversations feature all the latest tourist misdemeanors: from swimming in the Grand Canal to riding a bicycle through the city. Tolerance gets worn away when residents can no longer go about their everyday lives without obstruction. Low-cost mass tourism is increasing and is seen as the biggest threat to the city's fabric and character. And every year Venice despairs of its future faced with this 'assault'.

There are simple rules which will stop you infuriating Venetians:

1. Walk on the right, and treat the lanes like roads: single file, no stopping, do allow overtaking. Absolutely no bicycles, scooters, roller-skates etc.

2. Leave as little behind as possible. Minimise rubbish, and leave it in bins. Drink from water fountains instead of using and discarding multiple plastic bottles. Do not even think of leaving padlocks on bridges or graffiti on walls (you would be amazed what some tourists think is 'cute').

3. Don't block bridges. Your selfie isn't more important than someone else's right to get to work. Sitting on a bridge with a picnic is the ultimate tourist crime in Venice.

4. No swimwear, no toplessness (both sexes), no stripping off, no bathing in canals.

Venice at night after the day-trippers leave

Going further: 'respecting' the city

The 'respect' which Venice requests is a cultural concept which isn't always obvious to foreign visitors, even the most well-meaning ones. In Italy local residents feel a very profound sense of identification with, and ownership of, their hometown. It isn't just 'a place where they live', and the town centre isn't just a set of streets they visit - it is something much more fundamentally 'theirs'.  Complimenting an Italian's hometown is a guaranteed way to make friends. Conversely, treating their town with disrespect is like entering their home, sticking two fingers up at them, and chucking your rubbish on their carpet. I've rarely encountered the same proprietorial feeling in the UK, except perhaps in a small village. In a city like Venice, which was once a powerful empire, this sense of local pride and partisanship is particularly strong.

It's a different way of thinking to that of many tourists. A visitor might feel they are paying to visit a destination and 'use' it for their pleasure, and that this makes them equal to residents - or even more important. I've heard tourists declare that as 'paying customers' a they can therefore enjoy a destination in any way they choose. But to Italians, visitors are guests. Most Italians don't benefit directly from your visit and may in fact suffer from the consequences of tourism. Again, this is particularly true in Venice.

If you want to feel welcome and avoid giving offence in Italy, you could imagine yourself as a guest in someone's 'drawing room' (it's no chance that many Italian piazzas, including St Mark's Square, have been described as drawing rooms), and act accordingly.

How to show respect to a place, Italian-style

Although I'm writing about Venice, the same basic concepts apply throughout Italy. You'll be more welcome if you remember you're a guest, and that  Venetians feel the city 'belongs' to them (there is some room for debate here, but that's for another time).

Many Venetians have lived among these lanes and canals for their whole lives, and their ancestors for centuries before that. They shopped at these local shops, possibly from the same family of shopkeepers, they may drink at the same cafe their grandfather did. Their families have worshipped at the local church, celebrated weddings and funerals, and joined in the religious feasts to honour historic events like the city's liberation from plague. Venetians live in apartments and the city's network of lanes, canals and campi, grouped into parishes, are like a shared living space for its people: this is where they meet, pass each other daily, hang out, interact and work. When you see the streets in that light, it becomes clearer how irritated and disrespected residents feel when tourists treat Venice as though it is a theme park to amble through. The key to a 'respected' Venice is for all visitors, even day-trippers, to be aware it is a living, historic, proud city, and not to treat it like as though it exists for their entertainment or convenience.

Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio, one of the most 'local' squares in Venice, where toddlers play, schoolchildren grow vegetables, and adults meet to catch up


Italy is still a very conventional country, with rules of 'appropriate' dress and behaviour which are partly a result of the historical dominance of the Catholic Church, and partly a result of taste. Although it won't occur to most tourists, their choice of clothes can give offence in a variety of ways. Wearing swimwear, really skimpy clothes, or men going topless is simply unacceptable anywhere in Italy other than on a beach or building site. In some archaeological sites you'll hear custodians blowing whistles to alert male tourists to put their shirts back on. Walking around Venice as though you are just pottering around  a water park is deeply offensive to Venetians. Occasionally locals will remonstrate with tourists when they strip to bikinis to sunbathe on city benches. In Capri, which also has pedestrian lanes, there was talk of banning wood-soled shoes because of the noise they made; Venice has similarly talked of banning wheeled suitcases.

Visiting a church you must go further and cover your chest, shoulders and legs above the knee. Don't take photos of worshippers, or anywhere you are asked not to (it is safer to ask if it's allowed), or treat a church purely as a casual tourist sight. And absolutely no snogging or other excessive displays of affection (I have actually seen this). Historical sites and museums have less severe codes of conduct, but any with a religious or monumental importance are also treated with additional decorum.

Preparation and getting off the beaten track

Knowing about Venice is the key to really appreciating the city. Most summer day-trippers look at the Rialto bridge, look at St. Mark's, eat a picnic or an ice cream, leave some litter and go away again. You will have a much more rewarding visit if you stay longer, explore off the beaten track, and have an idea of the context of what you're seeing. This kind of tourism is also much more acceptable locally. Most Venetians (I hope) wouldn't want to bar all visitors from their city. They know it is wonderful and would like to share it. They'd like you to appreciate the riches of the city beyond St. Mark's - and also for the burden of tourism to be spread out a bit more over the city's area. We all get grumpy when constantly asked directions to St Mark's or the railway station. Ask for a less-visited destination and you might be surprised what a different reception you get.

Accommodation and services - think twice before you save

Airbnb and equivalents have had a very damaging effect on cities like Venice.  I never stay in them for both ethical and safety reasons, but many travellers are happy to save a bit of money and feel as though they're 'living like a local'. Naturally, many property-owners are keen to make a quick tax-free buck, so in the last few years huge numbers of residential flats have been converted to holiday lets which make far more money than longer-term rentals. Locals and would-be residents are priced out of the city, while those remaining have to share buildings with constantly arriving holidaymakers, with all the extra noise, disruption and security issues that involves. Holiday lets very rarely follow the local rules about recycling and reducing waste. They often don't pay any or enough tax to cover the expense they cause, aren't registered and aren't subject to the laws followed by 'official' hotels and B&Bs. To cater for these Airbnbers, local businesses have closed down to be replaced by tourist-friendly supermarkets. It is really much better for Venice, for legitimate business-owners, and for travellers themselves, to stay in mainstream, regulated accommodation which encroaches as little as possible on local housing stock and living conditions.

Shop local and keep the city sustainable

Over the years I've lived in and visited Venice I've seen scores of useful local shops and services disappear. A popular local toy shop now sells the usual masks and handbags. A bakery becomes another Chinese glass and mask shop. A cinema becomes a supermarket. Bookshops are replaced by clothes outlets. Nice food shops become noisy bars, or kebab shops. Antique shops have closed down as the demographic of visitors has shifted. The demand from tourists is making the city harder and harder to live in. As visitors, you can help by avoiding the cheap made-in-China tat. Finances permitting, seek out local artisan craft shops and authentic Murano glass (not always that expensive), patronise small local bakeries and food shops, spend your money in quiet authentic local bars and cafes instead of the flashy tourist traps, visit some of the smaller museums, and when you buy a coffee in an out-of-the-way bar, or eat in a local restaurant, see it as a contribution to a sustainable city as well as an enjoyable meal. In my guidebook I suggest good-value shops, restaurants, bars and cafes which aren't tourist traps and are mostly locally-run.

In Castello, an area which still has a large resident population.

Not a theme park

What not to do

I can't say it enough, Venice isn't yet a theme park, and all lovers of Venice are desperate to save it from that fate. Tourists who treat it like a theme park:
- potter through the lanes, walking on the left, blocking routes and stopping on bridges, without ever being aware that other people might have actual lives to lead
- stop to sunbathe in the city, to dangle feet into dirty canals, or even to swim in the canals - both unhygienic and a hazard to boats
 - drink alcohol in public places and/or get drunk and loud outside people's homes (everywhere in Venice is outside someone's home)
- buy take-away food, thereby contributing little to Venice except the proliferation of smelly fast-food joints
 - eat picnics or take-aways while blocking lanes and bridges or sitting indecorously on the ground (this is actually banned around St Mark's)
 - set up 'camp' in the city to save money
- feed pigeons and seagulls which will remain to plague residents long after the tourists have gone.
- leave litter, graffiti or padlocks.

What to do

- Take time to learn about Venice, and follow the simple rules above and on the council's webpages. Year-round, the majority of tourists behave well, but the unprepared and the careless exceptions give a very bad impression - which could be easily avoided.
- Get off the beaten track and explore remoter areas.
- Remember Venice and its public spaces are home to 60,000 residents.
- As a responsible traveller, consider the local impact of your spending choices.
- Always bear in mind that Venice is not a pretty backdrop to your summer holiday, it is an amazing, complicated, fascinating city which allows you to visit it, under sufferance.
- If you're reading this, you're probably already a perfectly-behaved visitor to Venice. But consider spreading the word among other travellers. Gentle advice to walk on the right could make a very positive difference to a tourist and to everyone they encounter.

Most of all, enjoy and appreciate the city. Even after centuries of tourism, most Venetians are still pleased and proud when they find one or two tourists, guidebook in hand, gazing in admiration at their own obscure parish church or favourite painting. When appreciation, understanding and respect go together then everyone is happy.

> Venice - the Venice section of Italy Heaven, with advice, recommendations and information
> The Italy Heaven Guide to Venice (for Kindle), with detailed information, insider tips, walks to explore the different districts, holiday-planning advice, restaurant recommendations and more.

Venice is watching you
Breaking all the rules of St Mark's Square in one go: picnicking, lying down AND feeding pigeons
Spotted attempting to enter a church: what not to wear
Taking a break on the busiest bridge in Venice
The police stop a man with a bike in St Mark's Square
Blocking a residents' short-cut while eating a take-away - another no-no

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