Venice: Half Fairy Tale, Half Tourist Trap

Venice Tourist Trap

“There is no way a gondola ride costs $100 per hour,” I declared. My coworker was trying to tell me how expensive it was to visit Venice, and I wasn’t having it.

“No way,” I argued. “That just isn’t possible.”

A few days later I picked up a National Geographic and read an article that confirmed he was correct, that Venice has extortionate prices. Moreover, I learned that 22 million visitors per year go to Venice.

I will never go there, I decided. And I should probably apologize to Dane, I thought.

But strange things happen when you get married. You lose a certain amount of control over your life; you can no longer just toss your shoes off anywhere you want; you have to immediately clean up the sink after trimming your beard and you have to take your wife to Venice when she wants to go.

Venice is a Fairy Tale

View from Acadamia Bridge.

And so last fall we went to Venice and I must say that I am glad we did. Venice is a masterpiece. No wonder so many movies have been shot there; no wonder it has captured the imagination of artists and poets for ages.

Venice Quote Gob SmackedVenice assaults you with charm from the moment of arrival and never stops; it is a constant barrage of idyll. We walked out of the train station only to be greeted by a beautiful green copper dome, blue sky and a bustling canal. Normally when I emerge from a train station I see hobos and touts, hookers and hustlers, trash and scurrying commuters. I have never walked out of a train station and been so gob smacked. I’d seen Venice on TV hundreds of times, but never thought I’d be there.

As a photography enthusiast, I’ve rarely been someplace so perfectly photogenic and yet so hard to capture. It was difficult to convey the magic through my camera lens, impossible to sum up the juxtaposition of charm and grandeur in megapixels. I could spend a year photographing the city every day and not get tired of it.

Venice is a Tourist Trap

Venice Tourist Trap

But visiting even in late November, there were tourists everywhere. Outside St. Marks Cathedral, there was a huge and ever-growing line of impatient tourists. It looked like the midnight premier of a Harry Potter movie.

St. Marks Square and cathedral form the beating tourist heart of the city, with veins and arteries of narrow alleyways shooting off in all directions, pumping tourists out all through the city. Tourists coagulate atop every little bridge to gaze or photograph every charming little canal. Walking anywhere is an exercise in patience and I often found myself going upstream, against a current of humanity, feeling like one of those salmon leaping unluckily into the mouth of a bear.

When people run out of patience, feelings get hurt. On two occasions, different elderly Venetian ladies elbowed me in the kidneys,Pull Quote about Venice once when I’d come to a stop in front of a grocery store, and another when I’d paused on a bridge to admire the beauty of yet another stunning canal. I was offended and saddened at first, but now that I’ve had time to reflect, I’m not taking it personally. Ok, maybe a little.

And again, we were there in November! Imagine going to Venice in mid-summer, mid-tourist season and dealing with the 80,000+ tourists that can be in the compact city in any one day. I just broke out in hives thinking about it.

On our first morning, we woke up before dawn and watched a sunrise behind the San Giorgio Church. St. Marks square was totally empty save a few workers sweeping up trash from yesterday’s barrage of tourists – a never-ending struggle.

Venice Sunrise

We watched the sunrise over the water, with gondolas in the foreground, the church in the back and shared it with just a few likeminded photographers. It was gloriously beautiful and perfect, sort of like my 2-year-old niece when she is sleeping, before she wakes up and raises hell.

Where you have tourists, you have crap to sell tourists. It seems like every other shop is selling cheap Carnival masks and costumes, made in China. And those that were not selling tacky souvenirs were selling $20,000 purses. I did not realize that Louis Vitton, Prada, Versace and Fendi sold purses that cost more than a practical, fuel-efficient Honda Civic.

Venice, in the end, wasn’t as expensive as advertised. We got a good deal on our room and ate pizza almost every meal (not sitting down as they charge for that). We didn’t ride the gondola. At $135 for a 40-minute ride at night, it was just a little too expensive for us.

Thomas Mann summed it perfectly when he described Venice as “Half tourist trap; half fairy tale.” It is one of those places that must be visited, must be experienced to appreciate. It is a truly great city, but I’d recommend not going in summer.

And if you get a sharp elbow in the kidney by an octogenarian woman, don’t take it personally. Just move over to the side and let her pass.

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Venice is a Tourist Trap Photo Gallery

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Have you ever been to a touristy place and enjoyed it? 

Have you every been to Venice? Did you like it? 

Has an elderly lady every made you cry?

I’d like to hear your comments. 

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37 Comments on “Venice: Half Fairy Tale, Half Tourist Trap

  1. I absolutely loved it. I was there in April 2013 and thankfully the crowd wasn’t half bad. It got worse in the evenings though.

    • It was very busy the first day with the cruise ship but then mellowed out. They are starting to limit the number of cruise ships and eventually cut them out so that will help.

  2. I guess cameras don’t go “Click” anymore as that would be all you would hear when in Venice. Been there and enjoyed everything but the famously overpriced gondola ride. As capitalism goes, it’s supply and demand. If they only charged 15 bucks, they wouldn’t have enough boats to satisfy all the customers. Then everyone would complain about the long lines. The food prices also reflect this principle. Wa-da-ya gonna do, stay at home? Not!

    Also, I know the phrase “Tourist Trap” is used for such places, but I tend to think of Venice as more of a “Tourist Mecca”. A “trap” is a place with no socially redeeming value, like the gimmick stops along Hwy 66. Places where there’s a big sign to get your attention to stop so they can sell you ridiculous crappy souvenirs. Venice is way more than that.

    PS: Jeff, sorry about helping to pollute your blog the other day. I promise, no more “p**p” stories. 🙂

    • I agree that “tourist trap” is maybe a little strong. Dollywood is a tourist trap. Venice is a tourist Mecca. But there is a lot of tourist poop to buy there.

  3. I’ve never been to Venice so thanks for taking me along on your journey.
    The closest I get to a vacation tourist area is Myrtle Beach, and I generally stay away from there.

    • Some people are drawn to places like Myrtle beach like bugs to light. I guess we are just superior to all those people since we don’t like them.

      You should go to Venice someday. You can photos of pelicans in the canals.

  4. Summer is not a bad season for a visit: most people think it will be hot and crowded and differ their trips to the spring and the fall. To enjoy Venice, you need to fight common thinking. Same thing: go to the Academia 1 hour and a half before it closes, it will be empty.

  5. My husband and I went to Rome last year. We were going to Venice for a few days between Paris & Rome but couldn’t manage it. Since then I have seen a travel show and now your blog on Venice. It looks beautiful. I really would love to see it. But thanks for the realistic commentary. Being a tourist can have its drawbacks too.

  6. I lived in Delft, which is a minor touristy town, for several years. Most annoying are groups of tourists crowding on the road and going “oh so cute, he’s ringing his bycicle bell!” Trying to live here, would you mind? I don’t think I’d have the patience to live in Venice.

    Venice, like so many other tourists traps, profits enormously but loses a part of its soul, in some sense its a deal with the devil.

    • Well said, it is a deal with the devil. Venice only has 55,000 residents as most of the town has been turned to hotels. It is a strange modern phenomenon.

  7. I went here with a friend for a couple of days. It really is as beautiful as you say. Magical even. We did miss the hoards of people, I’m not sure how. However, I do believe a couple days here is plenty. See it, experience it, take your pictures and move on.

  8. I loved Venice, as you said very picturesque, wherever you turned. I was there one year at the end of winter so it was less busy and not as smelly, I’ve been told in summer the canals can get a tad smelly. I didn’t do the Gondola ride, a local told us it was a ripoff and waste of money for what was originally the local taxi . Also the “guides”don’t sing!!!! For that price I would want to be entertained.

    I’m going to buy a new camera, I’m thinking Nikkon D7000 or the Olympus OM-D. What is your favourite camera or recommendation?

    • I use a Canon T3i, which is the base model DSLR Canon. I really like Canon lenses and the lens is the most important part.

      I’d heard the same thing about smelly canals but they were okay when we were there. And yes, they ought to sing for that price!

  9. Pingback: The Venetian Blue Hour | Planet Bell

  10. Hey Jeff Bell!! My best friends are getting married and honeymooning in Italy…any specific places they should think about visiting? Any must sees? They want to do something off the beaten path but only have 2 weeks…thoughts?!

    • Hey Jess – Italy is one of the most romantic places in the world, so they will have a great honeymoon there.

      Rome is a must. We spent a week there and never got bored. The Cinque Terra is really beautiful and a great place to go on a hike during the day and chill out at night. Of course Venice is beautiful and grand. The tourist hordes can be avoided by walking the backstreets and finding the out of the way places. Trains link everywhere in the north and getting around it easy. I hope this helps!

  11. Part fairy-tale, part tourist trap – prefect description. We *loved* Venice. The whole city is a museum. We did a daytime gondola ride in the back canals. I can’t remember how much it was but less than $135 for sure, and worth it. I wouldn’t go on a gondola on the Grand Canal, but gliding silently around the small hidden back canals was magical. Your photos are superb Jeff – especially the blue light one and the sunrise with gondolas. Beautiful.
    We’ve been to and enjoyed dozen’s of touristy places. There’s always a reason places are touristy – because they’re worth seeing. I’m suddenly thinking of Monet’s garden a Giverny. Glorious. It was definitely worth the lining up.
    Alison

    • Agreed that places are touristy for a reason. All you have to do to avoid the crowds is to move off the main areas and eat with the locals to get a more authentic experience. I’m glad I went to Venice – it is a really special place. Glad you enjoyed it too.

      • I agree – get off the main streets and you’ll have a less touristy experience. It still amazes me how few people do this. In the blue light photo I notice the boats are blurred – I’m guessing they were moving and you used a low shutter speed yes. Looking at your photo here and the one on FB has reminded me that I know how to shoot manual and that I’ve been very lazy lately and not used it! Must get back to that!
        Alison

      • Yes, I think I used like a 2 or 3 second exposure for that. We had grey skies during the day, but during the blue hour we had rich, blue skies that mingled beautifully with the city lights.

        I too, have been lazy with photos. I need to break out the tripod and do some more creative shots!

  12. I stopped there for about 5 hours on the way to a festival in Croatia. It was at the end of August and so was peak time. As mentioned, it is a beautiful city and the sight you see walking out of the train station is spectacular. But the amount of tourists there was incredible and not to my liking at all.
    I too saw the price of the Gondolas and that in itself confirmed to me how expensive it would be to be a proper tourist in Venice.

    We soon learned to walk off the beaten path to the quiet residential areas, this was a nice reprieve, with lots of sneaky clearings to relax away from the fray, also got to try the most delicious Gelato ever!

    Yes Venice is beautiful, but I wouldn’t recommend staying in the centre for too long, I’m no photographer by the traditional means of the word – I have a decent compact camera, all of its functions of which I still do not fully understand……the point I’m trying to make is that Venice inspired me to take a lot of photos.

    • I can’t imagine it during peak season – that had to have been insane. I think my expectations were so low that I ended up really enjoying it. It is every bit as beautiful as in the movies and more crowded than you can imagine. Thanks for your comments!

  13. When I think of Venice, I think of a moment of pure panic and fright. In the masses of tourists, squeezing their way through the narrow paths, my 6 year old son’s hand was suddenly torn from mine. Within a few seconds, I was pushed in the crowd away from his hot little hand, while screaming his name. I pushed back against the crowd, and to my greatest relief spotted him plastered against a store window crying. Venice is not a city to go with children.

    • Ah, that is too bad! I can imagine that during the summer especially it would be easily to lose traveling companions. We were there in November and it was still crowded!

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