Venice can be a polarizing destination. Some travelers have it sworn off their list. "It's too crowded," they've heard. Or, "It's too dirty." There's truth to these complaints. Mass tourism is sinking the city and the region's notoriously corrupt politicians don't appear motivated to stymie the flow of tourist dollars in favor of longevity. Hygenic complaints come in during the "acqua alta" when streets and piazzas are flooded with what you already know is highly polluted water.
On the other hand -- it's Venice. This is inarguably one of the most romantic, stunning cities in the world. A travel writer could vomit adjectives all day when thinking about Venice. It's unusual in its design and therefore unique to so many other destinations that are increasingly riddled with bland, conformist architecture surrounded by lung-irritating motorways. There are some cities, destinations that are popular for a reason. Venice is one of those destinations. There's simply nothing quite like it and therefore warrants a visit, especially if you're already in Italy anyway.
The key to doing Venice right is research. Don't just go whenever or by any means possible (read: Do not travel by large cruise ship). Travel in late fall when tourist crowds have thinned out (at least in Venetian terms) and hotels become a bit more affordable. Average hotel prices for 2017 drop from $248 in October to $170 in November, according to trivago, which is when I went in 2016. (The lowest price is $130 in January with May having the highest average price at $271.)
Whenever you travel to Venice, arrive on the island by train or bus. The large cruise ships are despised by many of the Venetian locals and an observant eye will notice protest signs hanging from residential windows.
WHERE TO GO
Cannaregio on the northern side of the main island and Grand Canal is where you're going to want to spend most of your time if you're someone who prefers getting off the tourist trek. Of course, this is Venice, so it's nearly impossible to be completely rid of your fellow travelers. In Cannaregio it's at least possible to walk long stretches without a soul in sight or perhaps just a handful of locals passing by. It's a photographer's dream here because you can get a sense of what Venice would look like without mass tourism.
Parts of Cannaregio are still firmly on the tourist trek, namely Strada Nova, but head towards Campo del Ghetto Novo (an old Jewish ghetto) and you'll see the crowds thin out very quickly. Head even further north in the neighborhood toward Chiesa di Sant'Alvise and you'll hear the echo of your feet stamping along the street.
When it comes to wining and dining, you're simply going to be stuck with at least some crowds and tourists. Again, it's much more manageable in Cannaregio than, say, San Marco. Start with Vino Vero where you can get a glass of wine and tasty snacks. There will be tourists, but you'll hear predominantly Italian spoken, which at least hints that the locals like it, too.
This neighborhood, along with San Marco, is really when you start to get into the thick of the crowds. The best time to do busy neighborhoods like San Polo is early in the morning before the hordes of tourists start their own treks across the city. You can use San Polo as the bridge between Cannaregio, San Marco and Dorsoduro, so you certainly won't be light on reasons to at least make a jaunt through the area. Mercato di Rialto is also at the edge of San Polo along the Grand Canal, so arrive early if you want to see it in relative comfort because there's a water ferry (vaporetto) station here bringing people in.
This is your second option for getting some walking in off the tourist trek. My preference for Cannaregio lies mostly in the fact that I spent more time there, but Dorsoduro appeared to be similarly less-trafficked among the tourist crowd. Really get the feel of this neighborhood by walking south and taking a sharp turn east toward Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Crowds will begin to thicken again as you get closer to the basilica, but it doesn’t compare to the multitude you’ll see in San Marco across the mouth of the Grand Canal.
Be prepared. You might be looking to get off the tourist trek in the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods like Cannaregio, but San Marco and its famous piazza anchored by St. Mark's Basilica is at the top of most tourist itineraries. What's nice is that it is on the way to an important vaporetto hub to get to, for instance, Lido, but the piazza is worse than a crowded bar if you go in the afternoon.
The crowds are avoidable, at least by Venice's barometer, by taking side streets around the piazza. Then again, you're in Venice. Even if you loathe being sucked into tourist mobs like I do, being in Venice and not visiting St. Mark's Basilica is like purposefully looking away from the Eifel Tower or perhaps even the Egyptian pyramids when you're there already. You'll be forgiven for taking the side streets if you've already made a point to visit the piazza early in the morning. Things were also reasonable (again, in Venetian terms) during the late evening hours, but you can never beat the tranquility of morning. If you want to see St. Mark's Basilica without grinding up against hundreds of tourists, make a point to go for the sunrise.
Lido has seen better times. This used to be where Venetians of the main island came for a break from the tourism, but the population has been dwindling across the board. Still, Lido is certainly worth the quick vaporetto trip to see a different side of Venice. The difference is immediate with the existence of roads and motor vehicles, though touring the island by foot and/or bike is still the preferable option. The beach is close by and is especially unpopulated during the chilly months save some pedestrians. There's also an abandoned hospital adjacent to the beach that makes for some creepy photography, but it's not advised to go inside the compound as you may stumble upon some squatters.
Some other highlights include grand hotels that are either closed or only seasonally open these days. Lido also remains home to the Venice International Film Festival, but the area surrounding the theater is rather quiet otherwise. Most activity -- restaurants, pedestrian traffic -- is along the main thoroughfare near the vaporetto docks, Granviale Santa Maria Elisabetta.
Murano is the island just north and yet another quick vaporetto ride if you're coming from the Cannaregio docks. The island's claim to fame is its glass and you'll indeed find no shortage of shops ready and willing to sell you their homemade wares. At least they claim they're homemade. Chinese business owners have reportedly been buying up property (like British vacationers rental properties) to cater toward Chinese tourists. This is one of the numerous reasons money from Venetian tourism isn't necessarily always getting to local pockets. So, a good phrase to learn is, "E 'questo fatto a Murano?" to ask if the glass truly was made in Murano.
Besides the glass, Murano feels like a smaller, quieter Venice. There are no roads or cars, like Venice, only narrow streets and some canals. Venice remains the true architectural and atmospheric delight, but a few hours spent in Murano for yet another side of the Venetian area is time well spent.
Train connections from Aeroporto Marco Polo di Venezia to Venice's Piazza Roma are fast and simple for €8 a ticket as of this writing. Tren Italia will also get you there from any major city in the country. Once you're at Piazza Roma, you can walk or hop on the Grand Canal vaporetto -- ferries that act like public transportation buses. Refer to Venezia Unica for up-to-date information on services, including the ability to book your transportation tickets in advance.
Tip: If you know you'll want to travel to another island, such as Murano or Lido, invest in a day-pass.
As mentioned before, pay attention to where your money is going. It's become popular for foreigners from the West to China to buy up real estate and turn the property into something of a hotel, AirBnB or restaurant. That's all well and good until you consider that Venice is bleeding its local population. Reasons abound from not wanting to live in a place where tourists outnumber locals to affordability. A place like Venice deserves extra attention to research when looking for a locally-owned hotel and souvenirs. Ca' Sagredo Hotel might be pricey, but at least we know it's been a Venetian staple for generations. Besides, Venice is already the kind of trip where you're going to have to shell out a few extra coins to do it right.
Plan a sunrise with Basilica di San Marco. If you wait until more reasonable hours, expect the piazza to be far too crowded to really enjoy the architectural spectacle that it is. Check out the green spaces at the eastern end of the main island in the neighborhood of Castello. Spend more time on the mainland in the Veneto region, which stretches from Parco Regionale Veneto del Delta del Po to the south and north into the southern edge of the Dolomites.
There are a number of travel books on Venice, but Jan Morris' take seems to be the agreed upon favorite among travel literature fans. Journalist Elizabeth Becker also discusses mass tourism in Venice in her book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. Finally, Travel With Rick Steves has a number of podcasts on travel to Venice. Most recently he had on Salvatore Settis, author of If Venice Dies.