Alone In Venice… Even During Peak Season

When and how one visits Venice, Italy makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the trip. Consider the following: the population of Venice—including Mestre—is about 250,000-ish people, but most people who vacation stay in the historic center… the islands, let’s say… which has a population of about 55,000 people. During peak season—that’s generally the summer months—up to 110,000 tourists descend on the historical center per day. The majority of those tourists are day trippers: the estimate is four-fifths are there just for a single day.

Now, the historic center is not that big—the Grand Canal is only two miles long, and the whole surface area is really about three square miles. Most day trippers to Venice congregate in a very specific area of Venice: Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge area. They see the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, they take a gondola ride, and they wander around the little streets around the area that are filled mostly with tourist schlock and high-end shopping. Maaaaaybe they take the vaporetto out to Burano or Murano, but they’re mainly crammed into a very tiny area. It should come as no surprise that in that particular section (San Marco/Rialto), it smells like sweat, it’s pickpocket paradise, and the canals start to smell like pee because there aren’t a lot of publicly-available restrooms, not to mention the restaurants are typically crap and ridiculously overpriced.

Not exactly a recipe for a great trip to Venice, you know?

I was reminded of this during my most recent trip to Venice (late May/early June 2023) because I had to walk through San Marco Square to get to the perfume workshop I took. It was a Friday afternoon, and the entire area was a sea of tour groups and be-fannypacked tourists, jostling for the best photo. It was hot, and it was miserable. I hated every second of it. But I’ve been to Venice four or five times now, and that was the first time I saw that side of the city. It’s not that I haven’t been to San Marco Square before but generally not that time of day and with all those people. Even as someone who doesn’t daytrip into Venice, I’ve never even stayed anywhere near the area. I’ve stayed in the Castello down near the Arsenale a few times, in Cannaregio in the Jewish Ghetto section, and most recently in Santa Croce, right off the San Stae vaporetto stop. All of these areas are quiet and laid back, where you can sort of blend in with Venetians a bit easier and find restaurants that aren’t complete tourist traps. Yeah, there are going to be other tourists… but not crowds of tourists.

Avoiding crowds is my specialty, it seems, which is really the whole point of this blog post: how to avoid crowds in Venice, even during peak season (I know: it took me long enough to get here, right?!). Despite Piazza San Marco and the surrounding streets being absolutely mobbed with people on a recent trip, I had several museums almost entirely to myself:

  • I visited the Mocenigo Palace-Museum after my perfume workshop, which makes sense when you know it’s devoted to the history of textiles, costumes, and perfume. It also has sort of a neat history: the palazzo belonged to an important family of Venetian nobles, starting in the seventeenth century. The last blood relative died in the 1940s, willing the building to the city to be used as an art museum, and when his widow died in the 1970s, the city moved to carry out the blood relative’s wishes. No lie: when I was there the number of museum staff outnumbered the number of visitors. My absolute favorite part was the gorgeous collection of waistcoats… the manikins throughout the palazzo are pretty creepy (yet inspiring!) when you’re all alone, though. I was told that the museum used to have a series of scented rooms, which were discontinued during the pandemic. I mean, I get it: huffing the air can be a little dangerous these days!
  • Look, I get that people generally don’t come to Venice to see modern art unless you’re attending the Venice Art Biennale, but Ca’ Pesaro is worth a visit for a few reasons. To start with, it doesn’t get a lot of traffic, so if you need to cool down you can sit at the top of one of their beautiful marble staircases and just… be. Secondly, aside from the works by Italian artists, you’ll see work by Klimt, Rodin, and Warhol. But thirdly—and maybe most importantly—Ca’Pesaro has a cafe with an outdoor terrace, and the terrace is right on the Grand Canal. Because the museum is largely empty most of the time, so is the cafe… which means you can sit at a table outside on the Grand Canal for hours, contemplating your navel, people watching, and imagining things.
  • I’m not sure if you can properly call Scuola Grande di San Rocco a museum. In truth, it’s an historical building that housed the Confraternity of St. Roch, a group of wealthy Venetian citizens who allegedly were devoted to doing good things in the name of the Catholic church… that also just happens to have a ton of art commissioned from Tintoretto. It’s commonly referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Venice, if that gives you some hint about what you might find. There are also works inside by Titian and Palma il Giovane, not to mention a series of seriously gorgeous wooden panels/figures carved by Francesco Pianta. Here’s another place to sit and relax if you need to get off your feet for a minute: the Sala Superiore is lined with chairs, and at least when I was there there were rows of seats set up in the middle of the space… all the better to study the paintings on the ceiling, I guess. As an added bonus, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is very nearby to the Church of Saint Roch, where you can check out St. Roch’s relics and few other Tintoretto paintings, and to the Gelateria il Doge, which in my mind is the best gelato in Venice.

All this to say: seek out museums and churches outside the popular tourist areas of Venice. You’ll be richly rewarded in most cases with space and quiet!

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