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Venice is Not Disneyland

Shannon Essa (Shannon)

Why do some people call Venice "Disneyland?" As someone who loves the city and has visited many times, it always makes me cringe when someone compares the two. I don't really understand it and would like to try to get to the root of the comparisons, and show the reader how Venice is, in no way, shape, or form, Disneyland!

What is it that is making people draw this comparison? Could be the crowds, could be the prices. Could be something else entirely. I'm going to tackle them one at a time and hopefully enable the reader to avoid some of the Disneyland-esque qualities of Venice and instead, see the lively city I experience when I go.

Those Pesky Crowds!

Crowds are not a recent problem in Venice. The city used to have well over twice as many inhabitants as it does now, and one has got to wonder how crowded the streets were before the invention of the vaporetti, the water buses that now carry locals and visitors all over the lagoon. One of the first scenes from the 1955 film "Summertime" is actress Katharine Hepburn walking out of the crowded train station onto an obscenely packed vaporetto. "I didn't like the crowds," so many people say upon their return. But crowds ARE Venice. It's just the way it is when you try to pack a lot of people into a small space.

Vernazza has crowds, so does Assisi, and Florence. So do the Spanish Steps. Yet people don't call these places Disneyland. I don't understand how someone could walk into the bustling Rialto Market, where there are dozens of stalls of fish and vegetables and stores selling horsemeat and cheese and towels and leather gloves, and see Disneyland. Or how, even in crowded San Marco, you could be on a busy street and look in a bar and see local shop owners and businessmen having their morning aperitif or a third coffee, and think yourself in a theme park?

So how do you avoid the crowds? First of all, don't stay around Piazza San Marco. In fact, don't even go near Piazza San Marco or the Riva degli Schiavoni unless it is early morning, evening or night, or you are there between October and March. There are so many great places to stay elsewhere in the city, areas where the locals live, work and eat, where all you'll hear from your apartment window is the occasional purr of a motorboat or the click-clack of pair of heels in the street. Time your visits to the Piazza with an after-dinner stroll, or if you are an early riser, go and have your coffee near there. Believe me, the Bridge of Sighs looks way cooler at night, when you are looking at it alone.

There are other areas where the crowds can be brutal and that can easily be avoided during the worst hours, and discovered later. The main drag from Piazza San Marco to Accademia, from Rialto to the train station, on both sides of the Grand Canal, Salizzada San Lio, Calle Fabbri and the streets running from the fish and vegetable market back to Accademia can all be rough. Obviously, you can't totally avoid all these areas if you want to do any serious sightseeing, but with the help of a good map you can skirt around much of it.

Then there are areas to see that are so devoid of tourists that, even in the high season, you will be completely blown away. The Ghetto and the long, colorful calli around it. Via Garibaldi and the back streets of eastern Castello.

Crowd-less Venice is so easy to find that if you haven't found it, you just haven't done your homework.

Wine Boat in Cannaregio

Wine Boat in Cannaregio

The Vaporetto is not the Jungle Ride!

Then there are the vaporetti. I've seen the lines, I've seen the bulging boats, I understand why people get annoyed. That little old lady with the shopping cart pushed you out of the way so she could get on - because she HAD to. Can you imagine being the crew member who has to move about the boat all day, pushing through the people, to open the gates at each stop? It's not easy to get around Venice this way, and the water taxis are too expensive to use on any kind of a regular basis.

There is one really great way to avoid all this. Don't take the vaporetto during the busy hours, and definitely not during rush hour. You don't need it, unless you are really exhausted or have trouble walking, and even then, with a little planning, you can avoid those hectic lines and feeling like a sardine. Have your Grand Canal ride, but have it in the evening. Go to Murano, but get out there early. It is very easy to traverse the city without the vaporetto, and it can be much, much faster. Use the traghetti (commuter gondolas) to get across the Grand Canal to avoid the crowded bridges. Get a good map, and walk, walk, walk. It's way worse for the locals who have to be somewhere. You are a traveler - you can take your time.

The High Price of Sleeping and Eating

If I hear one more person talking about how much more expensive it is to sleep and eat in Venice than it is in other areas of Italy, I am going to scream about the injustice of it all! There are lots and lots of reasonable and wonderful places to stay, and it is easy to eat well and inexpensively in Venice, just with the tradition of cichetti (snacks served up in bars) alone.

Venice is a fantastic city to rent an apartment in, and by doing so you will have much more room at a lesser price, you'll be able to have your coffee or an occasional meal at home, and you'll have the added bonus of living like a local. It's fun to go shopping for fresh pasta and shellfish and throw it all together in your apartment, then go to Piazza San Marco and sip wine poured into plastic cups while sitting on the ledge of the Campanile. Believe me, I know.

If you are not into renting an apartment, there are plenty of decently priced hotels and pensiones scattered throughout Venice. To book them, however, you have to plan well ahead.

Surreal Beauty VS. Mickey Mouse

I think the final reason people think Venice is like Disneyland is because of it's unique and almost unreal beauty. It is kind that people think of Venice like this, but it is so not true.

Venice is an incredible city that has been around for well over a thousand years. And next time you are looking down on the Grand Canal from the top of the Rialto Bridge, thinking, "ah, just like Disneyland," take a good hard look. There's a guy unloading cases of Beck's beer onto the riva. A police boat pulls up, and ties up next to the beer boat, but only because they need to get ashore. A taxi driver has yelling match with a gondolier.

They are living their day-to-day lives in this place you are, hopefully, NOT calling Disneyland. That is an insult to the city and it's inhabitants, and I hope on the next trip to Venice, you'll do everything you can to avoid living this cliché.

And I am willing to dispense advice to anyone who thinks it can't be done. Post your questions on the message board.

Daily Life on the Grand Canal

Daily Life on the Grand Canal


Shannon Essa Articles: Essays on Slow Travel.

Shannon Essa is a traveler through life who resides in San Diego. She co-wrote the guidebook Chow! Venice about eating and drinking in Venice, Italy. Shannon also owns and operates GrapeHops, Small Group Wine & Beer Tours to Europe and Beyond. Read Shannon's blog Poptarticus and see her SlowTrav Member Page.

© Shannon Essa, 2005

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