Updated: Dec 30, 2019
It’s not often someone tells you get lost and isn’t being rude, but that’s the case in this instance, because I think that’s exactly what you should do when in Venice: Get lost!!
For centuries, Venice has been one of the most alluring cities in the world. If you’ve been, you’ll know why; if you haven’t, you’re - at the very least - curious. The reality is that Venice is a unique city; built initially as a refuge from marauding hordes, then expanded over generations by wealthy merchants to become one of the world’s most popular – and romantic - places to visit.
In recent years, its attraction has grown to such a point that it is estimated that 25 million people visit every year…. If you do the maths, that’s around 70,000 people on average every day. And that’s in addition to the tens of thousands who call Venice home. Venice can get very busy.
Like some other highly popular destinations in Europe, moves are underfoot to reduce the impacts of excessive tourism but, on a positive note, the main impact is felt on the pedestrian-only streets that wind along from the railway station to Rialto Bridge, then on to St Mark’s Square, where the bulk of the daily influx tends to congregate.
Fortunately, it is possible to largely avoid being caught in this crush by actually staying in the city for a few days (or more, if you’re lucky enough). You see, the majority of the 25 million visitors are day-trippers: arriving either by train or bus, or from one of the cruise ships that sail into port daily. And, these day trippers tend to start arriving around 9 in the morning and are gone by 5 or 6 in the evening. If you stay in the centre, each morning and evening the whole place settles down – not completely, but quite significantly. And as it does so, La Serenissima (as Venice is nicknamed) takes on a less crazy character. You may not have St Mark’s to yourself, but you won’t be caught in the human tide that flows through the piazza all day long.
But even during the day you don’t need to be beholden to the flood of tourists because, whilst Venice isn’t huge, it is big enough to offer plenty of places to roam off the beaten track through its lovely neighbourhoods or ‘sestiere’, like San Marco (the centre of Venice), Cannaregio (the northern district), Castello (the eastern district), Dorsoduro (western district), San Polo and Santa Croce (in the north west) and Giudecca (an island across from Dorsoduro).
It’s unlikely you’ll be completely alone, but each of these sestiere comprises countless little lanes, canals, bridges, piazzas, and other points of interest that provide endless photo opportunities and allow you an experience a little closer to what visitors to Venice would have enjoyed in days gone by. And one of the joys of a visit to Venice is to simply head out and explore.
Mind you, Venice wasn’t designed to make life easy for the casual wanderer. You won’t find straight streets set out in a Roman grid-plan; rather, it's a maze of winding medieval streets, where buildings and lanes have been fitted in around ancient islands with canals thrown in for good measure. It is a city whose residents got around by boat, so the streets weren’t designed as the main transport routes. They are narrow - some barely wide enough for one person to use at a time - because there wasn’t much space, and because they were only used by horses (thankfully long gone) and pedestrians.
Water is a constant obstacle. The Grand Canal divides the city in two and can only be crossed by using one of four bridges, or by taking a vaporetto (the local waterbus) or traghetto (like a big gondola that is used like a ferry). Hundreds of other smaller canals wind all around the many little islands of Venice, and sometimes it is quite a detour to find a bridge to cross.
This means finding your way around is not easy and is made more challenging because the city is all pretty much at sea level, so there are no hills to help with navigating; just the occasional glimpse of a campanile (bell tower) to help guide you. All the normal logic of street planning is non-existent. Many streets simply provide access for local residents or businesses. Few lanes continue for a significant distance, and signposting is often given just lip-service.
If I’ve now made it all sound as though you are bound to get lost if you go away from the main streets, you are correct – at least in part – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the best days we’ve had in Venice have been when we’ve been aimlessly roaming. A church containing unknown but beautiful artworks, a Biennale display and we’re the only visitors, a café that only the locals frequent and which sells the best cornetti we’ve ever tried…. Like Forrest said, you never know what you’re going to get….
And importantly, whilst it’s easy to get lost in Venice, it’s also easy to find your way home. Sound cryptic? Let me explain.
Firstly, Venice isn’t that big. You could walk its length in an hour at a pinch. Whichever way you go, eventually you arrive at the lagoon.
And the locals have at least made an attempt to help you to navigate through the maze. As you walk you will come across signs painted on the walls indicating the way to the main landmarks. If you wander far enough, you will come upon any number of signs for ‘Per Rialto’, ‘Per S Marco’, ‘Ferrovia’ or ‘Stazione’ (the railway station) or ‘Per Academia’. And if you know where your hotel is in relation to one of these places, you can largely find your way around Venice with no other assistance.
Now, generally these signs are reliable and can help you to head in the right direction but they are sometimes a little less than perfect. The ones to San Marco are the most suspect, as some signposted lanes can take you the long way round (something to do with shopkeepers wanting passing trade, perhaps?).
At the same time, it can help if you also take a bit of time to identify some landmarks to help guide you home as those signs aren’t everywhere. I usually take note of where we are staying in relation to the Grand Canal, for example. Or perhaps you are near St Mark’s, or a bell-tower. I try to take note of a bar or a restaurant as we pass, but don’t make the mistake my wife and daughter did one year and try to remember your way home by only paying attention to the shops you pass, as these start to close around 8pm and often pull down shutters so you can’t tell one from the other, let alone use these as a kind of Hansel and Gretel stone path. They arrived home a little late that night….
You can, of course, ask for help – although the odds are you’ll be asking a fellow tourist who is as bewildered as you are. You could try asking for directions in a shop or bar, but you may get a sharp ‘No’ as a response or be told they don’t speak English. Don’t be too offended by this. Because of the tens of thousands of visitors to Venice each day, they’re probably asked the same question a hundred times a day and that would wear thin for anyone. (I'm getting cranky just thinking about it....) At least one shop has actually put a sign on its doors refusing to help with directions. But in any case, any directions you receive will probably only point you the first step of your way; it would be almost impossible to describe an entire winding route, such as that you’re likely to be faced with.
So one thing you should carry when you head out is a map of Venice. Don’t pay for one – any hotel will have these in the foyer, and even if you’re staying in an apartment there are a number of tourist offices in Venice where you can pick one up.
Following the map isn’t that easy as some aren’t complete and sometimes the streets are difficult to read, but it’s a useful aide.
But the number one piece of advice I’d offer is to download one of the free map programs available out there to your phone. We use one called maps.me (we have no connection to the company) and it works a treat. You simply download the app, then download the maps for the place you are in. All for free. Once you are out and about, it will track you by GPS – even without your data being turned on or being connected by WiFi. No matter where you are, you’ll see a little dot that follows you wherever you go. Even if you are completely lost, you can search for your hotel (or other destination) and it will plot a course for you that you can follow all the way home.
So there’s no need to be worried about getting lost in Venice…. You can always find your way home…. But here’s the thing…. If you want to have a great day in Venice, put your map away, put your phone in your pocket and just set out. You never know where you’ll end up, but then you’ll never be too far from home and you never know what you might discover on your journey.
We visit Venice on our Best of Italy tour. Please don't hesitate to ask us any questions about this tour!