1. Skip the Cruise Ships
This should go without saying, but Venice’s cruise industry is incredibly problematic. From creating waves that destroy heritage buildings to dropping off hundreds of tourists in the same spot, creating chaos in the city center, and contributing to tourism leakage, these ships and their clientele bring many problems. Locals have been standing up, demanding action by the government to regulate cruises. Venice finally banned cruise ships from docking in the Lagoon, but cruise passengers will still visit other regional docks. Cruise passengers don’t stay long or add much to the local economy. So, the most meaningful impact you can make is visiting on an independent itinerary or working with local tour companies.
2. Slow Travel Venice
If your itinerary in Venice is any less than two full days, your visit is unlikely to be sustainable. I recommend staying at least 3 – 4 nights. While most cruise visitors only stay in Venice for less than 20 hours, they only see a couple of touristy highlights in San Marco square. Why is slow travel in Venice critical? Enjoying a slower-paced itinerary allows you to help diffuse mass tourism by visiting local neighborhoods and less touristy islands while allowing time to see the iconic sights. Plus, with most tourists only stopping to visit Piazza San Marco, it loses its cultural authenticity as mass crowds are bombarded by cheap souvenirs. It degrades the overall charm of Venice for you, other tourists, and locals. It is essential to take the time to connect with locals to learn about the culture and history of Venice, along with the modern-day struggles. Following my sustainable itinerary to Venice, you’ll have plenty of time to do and see it all more mindfully.
3. When Visiting the Main Tourist Sights, Consider…
Many people ask me if visiting the main tourist sights is sustainable. In my opinion, yes, it can be! In fact, it can add important context to your stay, but as always, there are a few things to consider.
- Seeing the touristy highlights should be part of a longer multi-day itinerary. That way, you don’t feel like you have to cram them all in one day.
- You should also hire a local guide to tour St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace. This will give you so much living context to the history and give you a local perspective.
- Have a plan B. There is so much to see and do in Venice that it is not the end of the world if you miss out on Doge’s Palace and San Marco square. They are amazing, but if you only see them by waiting in line for hours in the heat of summer, you’ll have a much better time skipping them and heading into local neighborhoods.
- Dress modestly if visiting St. Mark’s Basilica. Otherwise, you must buy an imported, over-priced scarf before entering.
4. Hire a Local Guide Committed to Sustainable Tourism
Venice is a complicated place, with a rich past of great historical and cultural prominence and an uncertain future as locals grapple with the harmful behaviors of cruise lines and irresponsible tourists. To understand the nuances and ensure you’re engaging in sustainable tourism in Venice, you must book a guide committed to sustainable tourism. We found Matteo from When in Venice listed on Venice Guides for Sustainable Tourism. This network of guides has come together and taken an oath to only engage in responsible practices during their tours. Beyond running sustainable tours, many work with the local and national governments fighting for a better system to prevent the further loss of Venice’s identity. We hired Matteo as a private guide, and he was 10000% worth every penny we spent. For 3+ hours, we enjoyed casual conversation, learning about history, culture, modern life, recycling, the impact of unsustainable tourism, and asking questions of free will. It was clear that Matteo, a lifelong Venice resident, was committed to showing the best side of his city. We hired him for the off-the-beaten-path tour, which suited our tastes. Together we wandered local neighborhoods away from the touristy sights and fell in love with the city’s charm without crowds.
If you want a hassle-free way to find a local guide, check out the platform Withlocals. Withlocals is an easy way to find and book experiences with local guides. This is a great way to engage in cultural exchange as they share their perspective and take you to the local hidden gems, all while delivering an authentic travel experience. Venice has a great network of local guides excited to share their city with you. The best part is they are a B Corp and have a strong passion and commitment to sustainability!
When we visited St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace, we booked a small group tour in English with a local guide. The tour was fantastic, and our guide was incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about Venice. Make sure to cover your legs and shoulders before starting this tour!
5. Budget to Support Sustainability
There are ways to be sustainable on a budget, from homestays to taking a shared bus, but I’m not sure Venice is the best place for budget sustainability. While espresso and certified campsites allow for more affordable options, sustainable travel in Venice will likely cost you. Cheap accommodation outside the city might contribute to out-pricing locals. Cheap imported food takes away from the local agricultural and fishing industry. Buying cheap souvenirs takes away from decades of cultural artisan work. Not hiring local tour guides contributes to tourism leakage. Overall, sustainability in Venice is more expensive, and if you visit, I would argue you should build this into your budget so that you can do it right. Pay the right price for certified accommodation, and quality handcrafted souvenirs, and hire local guides. Not only will your experience be more memorable, but your money will go a long way in helping Venice transition away from an industry reliant on cruise ships and pave the way for sustainable development.
6. Support Local Authentic Artisans
If you’ve read my sustainable ecotourism guide, you’ll know that buying cheap souvenirs such as magnets and bottle caps from vendors is problematic, contributing to the decline of a region’s cultural and historical authenticity. Over time, Venice, known for generations of glass-blowing and artisan skills only a few can master, is diminished to nothing more than a cheap fridge magnet. Not only does this take away from your experience, as locals hassle you to buy cheap trinkets, but locals that spend their entire life perfecting a craft are not supported and either have to move or find a different trade.
Venice artisans are often certified in their trade, and you can look for this seal to know your money will support a local crafter. However, not all artisans pay for this certification, and I always say to trust your gut – if you’re like me, you can spot a cheap souvenir a mile away. You’ll find hidden gems along the narrow alleys between Calle San Bernardo and Calle Cappeller.
Perla Madre Designs is a women-owned glass bead shop putting a new twist on traditional Venetian glass. Ca’Macana sells hand-crafted authentic Venetian masks. If you prefer to support social impact causes, stop at Process Collettivo, a store selling work from women at the local prison to help them develop trade skills.
My all-time favorite store was Lunardelli Venice. The artist up-cycles the wooden poles in the water, fusing them with recycled glass residue from the glassblowers on Murano, and every piece tells a story. I bought the wooden art piece that had the roughest life – chewed away by clams and left adrift.
Is it sustainable to visit the glass shops in Murano? Yes, it can be, but take the time to support authentic artists. Over time, even the island of Murano has become a hot tourist spot. If you visit Murano, ensure you support authentic local crafters, be aware of tourist traps, and use your best judgment.
7. Find Sustainable Accommodation
Where you stay in Venice matters, I’ll start with the easiest tip to avoid – do not rent AirBnB in Venice. Unregulated AirBnB rentals displace locals with no affordable housing and empty the historical centers of local businesses and historic charm. As part of Venice’s ten commandments for sustainable tourism, locals demand better management of Air Bnb. Until that happens, your best bet is to avoid Airbnb.
Ok, so where do you stay? Local hotels, such as Corte di Gabriela, committed to sustainability and preserving Venice’s cultural authenticity, are a great place to start. Ultimately as you search for a hotel, you’ll want to read the hotel’s page and look for hotels with certifications, have a statement committing to sustainability, or are locally owned. Since we we visited with a campervan, we stayed at a camper van parked outside the city, certified by Slow Venice.
Is it more ethical to stay outside the city center? I got asked this question on Instagram. The logical answer seems like yes, staying away from the mass tourism epicenter is more sustainable – however, there are many things to consider before booking outside of Venice. It can be problematic if you stay outside the city at one of the budget hotels popping up. Locals outpriced from Venice’s city center have moved to San Giuliano, where they are now being out-priced as cheap hotels and Airbnb continue to displace them from San Giuliano.
On top of that, locals displaced to San Giuliano have to commute into Venice, and as more tourists stay outside the main island, the public transportation is quite crowded (something to be mindful of). If you stay inside the city, support a local, sustainable hotel. If you stay outside the city, be mindful of your choices, and opt for something certified by Slow Venice that doesn’t contribute to gentrification. So, the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter where you stay as long as you stay in an ethical hotel committed to sustainable development in Venice.
8. Yes, You Should Take a Gondola Ride
If you know me, you know I typically stay away from touristy activities, especially in major tourist spots like Venice. I know it’s a shock I even went to Venice, but I’m SO glad I did! So one of the main questions I got about my time in Venice is, “is it ok to take a gondola ride in Venice?” The short answer is YES! You absolutely should take a gondola ride. Our local tour guide put this into perspective when he said Venice was designed to be seen from the water. You do the grand city a disservice by entering from the landlocked train station and only wandering the streets. Only when you see the grandeur from the water will you genuinely appreciate Venice’s beauty.
So, take that gondola ride and enjoy every minute taking in the intricate details from the water. However, instead of hopping on the gondolas near the main attractions, headfirst into more local neighborhoods and book a gondola there. You’ll get a unique experience helping diffuse mass tourism and help diversify tourism dollars to various gondoliers.
And while you should take photos to capture the memory of your gondola ride, practice a few minutes of mindful travel. Put the camera and phone down and soak in the architecture, sights, smells, and all the details that make Venice so unique.
9. Enjoy Sustainable Food and Drink
Find food you like within your budget, eat, drink, and be happy – seems simple enough, right? Unfortunately, food is an incredibly complex matter in Venice. Where and what you eat matters more than you might think. We came across a fish market during our guided sustainable tour of Venice. A few stalls stood in the husk of a once-grand market building.
“This used to be full, you know. Full of local fishers selling their goods for the day,” Matteo said.
Over time, restaurants started serving cheap imported seafood and produce appealing to cruise tourists’ price points and convenience. Local fishers, farmers, and suppliers lost jobs, pushing the economy to rely only on unsustainable tourism. Eat local food. Ask for fresh local seafood and regional, seasonal produce from Sant’erasmo. Find restaurants committed to sustainable eating even if they are more expensive.
I can recommend Local Venice for local seafood, Bar All’Arco or Cantina Schiavi for an authentic Cicchetti and spritz experience, Ai Mercanti for seafood and limited vegetarian options, and this guide about slow, sustainable food in Venice, for more tips on places serving local seafood and produce. If you’re looking for vegan and bio food, I suggest La Tecia Vegana. Our guide suggested we eat at the locally-owned Bacaro Risorto Cannaregio for craft beer and a quick lunch with some vegetarian options.
When in Venice, do as the Venetians do. You can always spot the tourists at restaurants because they will be crammed into tables eating low-quality food. Part of sustainable tourism means engaging in cultural exchanges, which also means picking up a thing or two from your destination. Seek out those local spots serving traditional spritz and Cicchetti with standing room only and enjoy the unique experience. We tried this once for the experience, but after days of hitting 20-30k steps, we wanted to sit down and rest, and that’s ok too. Cicchetti is a traditional Venetian-style tapas. There are usually dozens of types to try, but be careful; the vegetarian ones are hard to identify. Grab a set of 3-6 different ones, order an Aperól spritz, which was created in Venice, and enjoy slow eating in Venice.
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