Walking Venice without the Crowds

Venice is only about 3 hours away from our house in Pisa but it took us 15 months of living in Italy before we finally visited. We waited over a year because we’ve heard many mixed reviews on the city. From “It’s my favorite city in Italy” to “Avoid it! It’s crowded, stinky, and expensive with bad food”. Sadly many people online also echoed the latter review. However, when it comes to searching online about Venice, you quickly come across articles and videos about how mass tourism is ruining the city. We strive to be tourists who help the economy, not ones who create a problem. Our typical travel style is off the beaten path a bit, trying to enjoy the local restaurants and avoid the crowds. Maybe we could find a good, responsible way to see Venice. Maybe we could find a way to see the charm without being overrun by crowds. Maybe we could actually fall in love with Venice.

Spoiler alert: we did!  

The quiet (and non stinky at all) canals of Venice in March

The quiet (and non stinky at all) canals of Venice in March

I credit the Venezia Autentica website with giving us the right information to enjoy our time in this magical city. Check them out here . Their mission states the following:

“Venezia Autentica™ is on a mission to save the Venetians by changing the way we see and impact Venice.
Venezia Autentica™ proposes an alternative to mass tourism in Venice, making it easy for travellers to enjoy a more meaningful & authentic experience of the city while making a positive impact on the local environment, community and economy.”

This is exactly the type of thing we needed and really spoke to our intentions for our trip. Before our stay, I looked at their website religiously. I loved it! I got a bit obsessed. I read every page. Every post. I followed them on facebook. I supported their mission by joining the “Friends of Venezia Autentica” and donated a bit of money. I took their tips on how to enjoy Venice responsibly at heart. Since we were traveling with 3 adults and 2 kids, an apartment really was the best way to stay in the city, but I hated that I could be contributing to the high rents and lack of space for locals. Trying again to be responsible with it, I took their advice and made sure the apartment was legally registered with the city and paid the appropriate taxes. Next time we travel I’ll try to find a family run hotel instead, but this is what worked for us at this time. I stayed as far away from St. Mark’s Square as I could find (the old Jewish ghetto neighborhood). We stayed two nights to guarantee we’d have a different experience than the day trip reviews I read. (Honestly staying overnight in any city gives a different view of the city and the most authentic experience, in my opinion!). And finally, we booked a private walking tour through the website.

I sent a message to the company first, explaining we would have 3 adults and 2 kids, ages 2 and 4, and that we wanted a walking tour that avoided the crowds. I told them that our friend was traveling from the US so we needed the tour to be in English and also mentioned I was worried about the length of the tour being too long with small kids. They responded promptly and recommended I sign up for the “Off the Beaten Path” tour and select 2 hours. We were able to pick our time and chose 10am to take advantage of good morning moods and to finish up before lunch. We were ensured a bilingual local guide and that we could move at our kids’ pace. We’ve never spent money on a private tour like this before, but the hourly price seemed in line with what we could expect based on some guide book recommendations of other tour companies. I also knew the money was supporting locals (and the mission I supported too) so we booked it.

They delivered!

Most of our paths on our tour were empty like this, perfect for the kids to have some independence and walk at their own pace. 

Most of our paths on our tour were empty like this, perfect for the kids to have some independence and walk at their own pace. 

I told them where we would be staying and our guide, Barnaba, met us at an easy to find meeting place nearby (Ponte delle Guglie). He was young, perhaps a bit younger than my husband and mine 33 years old, and spoke wonderful English. We quickly learned that he was born in Venice and still lived in the area and most importantly, has a strong love for his city. Our tour brought us all around Cannaregio, a lesser toured area of Venice (an exception being the main pathway from the train station to the Rialto bridge...the tour avoided that path completely aside from the meeting point). We learned about how the city was built, its history as a republic, how local venetians handle stuff like taking out their trash and apartment renovations, the challenges of mass tourism on the locals, and of course, where to get some good gelato. We listened to some stories about the surrounding islands, the history of gondolas and the significance of their elaborate designs, history of a few churches and other buildings as we passed them, and about how Barnaba adopted a rescue dog and how dog friendly Venice is. The tour was totally done at our pace and our guide answered all of our questions but also directed our attention to points of interest to locals and things he thought we’d appreciate.

We ended the tour at the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, where we picked up some fresh fruit from a stall as a snack. We also happened upon a wonderful tiny gondola pickup point on Rio di S.M. Formosa with a friendly and passionate gondalier (he sang, entertained the children, and stayed off his cell phone!) so we rewarded the kids patience with the walking tour with their promised gondola ride. It was the perfect ending to the best morning we could’ve asked for in Venice.

The simple things about Venice are still picture worthy, like this laundry hanging over the still canal 

The simple things about Venice are still picture worthy, like this laundry hanging over the still canal 

So how’d the kids do? Well, we tried to prep them for the trip with a few episodes of Justin Time and Little Einsteins that take place in Venice, and also bought our awesome Pimpa city guide so we could point out the area and buildings we saw. Since the tour avoided the busy areas of Venice, the kids could walk easily without crowds or worry of them being pushed into a canal. Barnaba was patient when we needed to stop, didn’t seem to judge us during a nice meltdown, and took us for a gelato break when we knew the kids needed something for them. He showed them where some cats were sitting in the sun on the grounds of an old gondola making spot and included them in on some of the conversation as well. Though our 4 year old complained that “all we are doing is walking around!” (yes sweetie, it’s a walking tour) it really was the best possible way for us to have learned so much about the city with the kids.

"All we are doing is walking...." the dramatics of a 4 year old. Two minutes later she had gelato and all was right in the world again. 

"All we are doing is walking...." the dramatics of a 4 year old. Two minutes later she had gelato and all was right in the world again. 

We still had a full afternoon and evening in Venice, so yes, we went to the Rialto Bridge and Saint Marks square. We battled the crowds because those locations are pretty cool and worth seeing. We saw the mass of tourists. The cheap shops. The giant cruise boats that look so out of place. But thanks to Venezia Autentica and our tour, we also had bridges and walkways completely to ourselves. We went to restaurants owned by locals and had amazing food and found shops with items made in Venice. 

And in the end, we did indeed fall in love with Venice.

One of the many signs we saw protesting the cruise boats

One of the many signs we saw protesting the cruise boats

The Aqua Alta book shop, you need a boat to see the rear of the shop, which is partly underwater! 

The Aqua Alta book shop, you need a boat to see the rear of the shop, which is partly underwater! 

This was NOT our gondola experience. Our gondalier was present, singing, laughing, smiling, taught us the traditional calls when he went around corners, and we saw the quiet canals where we were often the only gondola around. It was perfect. 

This was NOT our gondola experience. Our gondalier was present, singing, laughing, smiling, taught us the traditional calls when he went around corners, and we saw the quiet canals where we were often the only gondola around. It was perfect. 

Our guide using a decorative gondola in a store window to teach us the significance of their design- which we then saw up close during our gondola ride later. 

Our guide using a decorative gondola in a store window to teach us the significance of their design- which we then saw up close during our gondola ride later.