If there’s one destination that doesn’t need more tourists, it’s Venice. The Italian city is like no other, a maze of canals and winding streets packed with history, fine art, good food and luxury hotels.
But it has long been a victim of its own popularity. All but around 50,000 of its residents have fled, driven out by rising rents and heaving crowds. Those that remain are resentful that their home exists only to serve the 70,000 or more tourists that arrive each day, many on cruise ships or coach tours.
Measures have been put in place to tackle the issue, and others mooted. Police have started taking a stricter line with unsuitable conduct, there’s a three-year moratorium on new bars and takeaways, and decisions on new hotel openings must now be approved by the city council rather than rubber-stamped by a backroom bureaucrat. A crackdown on Airbnb-style rentals has also begun. But the city is as crowded as ever. “There’s a lot of talk, and very little action,” Dario Pellizzon, head of research at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari university, told Telegraph Travel last week.
Pellizzon says there has been an explosion of new takeaways as holders of licenses granted prior to the ban rush to open before any further restrictions are put in place. “Takeaway restaurants simply mean that we have more people sitting on bridges picnicking. Apart from the pedestrian traffic congestion this causes, their litter ends up on the streets or in the canals.”
Some Venice residents have also expressed concern about the massive expansion of cheaper hotels in Mestre, on the mainland. “Sure, in the long term it might mean less new accommodation in Venice proper,” one told us, “but the pressure on public transport to and from the city is immense.”
So how can travellers help?
If you’ve never been, we can’t tell you to skip Venice entirely. It’s a unique place that everyone should see at some point in their lives. But why not go out of season? “Venice in winter is a marvellously eerie place of footsteps echoing along misty alleyways,” says Anne Hanley, our expert to the city. “It can be bitingly chilly when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, and damp — sometimes very damp indeed as acqua alta blurs the edges between pavement and canal. But it is also far less packed, blessed with magic days of blue skies, and less expensive than in high season. St Mark’s Basilica, packed and full of unseemly noise in high season, in winter is a wondrous, silent cave of shimmering gold: come early enough and you might get these acres of mosaics to yourself. La Fenice opera house still offers a packed schedule.”
Visitors should also behave appropriately. “I’d like to see visitors showing Venice a little more respect,” says Paola Mar, who holds the tourism portfolio on the city council. “Less selfie-tourism, more real experiences.” Other ways to be a more considerate tourist include staying in locally-owned accommodation, learning a bit of the language, buying from Venetian vendors, and reducing plastic waste.
If you have been before, why not try one of these unsung alternatives, elsewhere in Italy or just beyond its borders?
Four options in Italy
Just over an hour to the west of Venice lies Verona, a scandalously unappreciated alternative.
“Summer means opera in Verona, where spectacles in the Arena – the city’s Roman amphitheatre – showcase one of the most remarkable ancient buildings still surviving,” says Anne Hanley. This year’s programme began on June 21 and includes Carmen and La Traviata. In fact, Verona claims to have more Roman ruins than any Italian city other than Rome (that’s because the ancients considered it an ideal place to rest before crossing the Alps).
You’ll also find medieval churches, Renaissance art, designer shops and fine wines – the surrounding Valpolicella region rivals Chianti.
Even closer to Venice is Treviso. Indeed, some no-frills flights to Venice actually land at this city, around 20 miles away. But there’s good reason to delay, or cancel, the onward trip, reckons Lee Langley. It even has canals.
He explains: “Every year, tourists in their thousands come streaming off the plane and on to the shuttle buses. But Treviso is not just an airport. Two miles down the road from the terminal is a historic town with a beguiling charm all its own: Renaissance squares, palaces, richly frescoed churches, streets threaded with ancient waterways. It’s not another Venice, of course; it has no Grand Canal or San Marco. It also has no camera-clicking crowds, no tourist traps, no crazy prices, no stress.
“The centre of Treviso is a little walled city, with medieval gates, narrow, cobbled streets of arcaded rose-red brick and stone that twist and turn like dried-out water courses – which is what some of them originally were. Tiny canals run past handkerchief-sized gardens, glide beneath houses, appear at street corners. Gushing millstreams, some with black water-wheels that once had a commercial purpose, now turn lazily, playing a purely decorative role. The city once belonged to Venice, and it shows. The colonnaded Buranelli district was built for fishermen from Burano. Nearby, nudging the elegant palazzi, the covered fish market occupies its own little island, floating like a ship, filling the morning air with seafood aromas and pandemonium.”
Follow the coastline north from Venice and you’ll eventually reach Trieste, an Italian port that bristles with life, has a fascinating history and serves – probably – the finest coffee in the country, according to Helen Pickles. “To discover the secret of a happy life head to Trieste, the Italian port tucked inside the Slovenian border,” she says. “The Triestini embrace life with a passion that is palpable and infectious, if the chatter at evening aperitivo is anything to go by. And at the merest hint of sunshine, Triestini are off to the nearby seaside, Barcola, even in November, and even though it’s a concrete strip.
“This unsquashable humour is no doubt born of being a frontier city, variously owned or occupied by the Romans, Habsburgs, Mussolini’s regime, Germans and Allied Forces, only finally returning to Italy in 1954. The consequence is a glorious jumble of architectural and ethnic influences. In the space of 15 minutes, I came across Serbian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Helvetic Evangelist churches, while the city’s synagogue is one of the largest in Europe.”
Overlooking the Po River, halfway between Venice and the foodie paradise of Bologna, you’ll find Ferrara, a historical jewel of a city which – unlike many in Italy – is not overrun by visitors.
“Ruled for many centuries by the d'Este family, it has a beautifully preserved medieval quarter alongside a superb Renaissance one,” says Sarah Dunant. “Marking the divide is an exceedingly ostentatious half castle/half palazzo. Odd, but so interesting – rather like the city.”
The Emilia-Romagna region has a few other unsung gems, Parma and Ravenna chief among them. Of the former, Sara Evans says: “This genteel northern Italian city known for its art, music and gastronomy, and the streets look as if they've been dipped in honey. Everything one passes appears mellow and muted. Sepia-coloured stucco houses on elegant cobblestoned streets take on a vintage, old-gold feel. In the piazzas, the sun-kissed water in the fountains shimmers softly and feel warm to the touch.”
Of the latter, Anne Hanley writes: “The Unesco-listed Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna are among the wonders of Italy. They’re even more dazzling when illuminated by night. During the Mosaico di Notte season (late June to early September), four of the Adriatic city’s major sixth- to eighth-century monuments, including San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, are open for guided tours on Tuesday and Friday evenings. Time your visit to coincide with the feast of Sant’Apollinare, the city’s patron saint, and you’ll see Ravenna come alive with concerts, street-food stalls, fireworks and sound-and-light shows.”
Largely ignored by travellers in favour of nearby Milan, Bergamo is Lombardy’s finest hill town, according to Janette Griffiths, while its Piazza Vecchia is one of the loveliest in Italy. The journalist and broadcaster Sian Williams is also a fan. She says: “It’s a charming walled city with lovely little winding streets where you can pick up a gelato, and is also the perfect base from which to explore the Lombardy countryside and the Italian lakes. The city and surrounding area are so romantic and just made for a short spring break.”
Mantua is another fine option in the region of Lombardy. Two remarkable buildings – the Palazzo Te and Palazzo Ducale – make it among the most compelling of northern Italy’s mid-sized towns.
And one beyond its borders
Venice of the North? The list of cities that have laid claim to being a milder alternative to La Serenissima is truly remarkable. It includes several beauties, such as Amsterdam, Bruges, Copenhagen, St Petersburg, Stockholm and Strasbourg, but also a fair few that should never be uttered in the same breath as Venice. Birmingham is the most famous example, but Manchester and Skipton are equally optimistic.
Svolvær and Henningsvær, fishing towns in the Lofoten archipelago of Norway, are lovely, but hardly comparable with Venice. Bourton-on-the-Water shares similarities in terms of overwhelming visitor numbers, but that little stream that runs through the Cotswolds village is hardly a match for the Grand Canal.
Other destinations described as the “Venice of the North”, by tourist boards or lazy travel journalists, solely on the basis that they sit beside a little bit of water? Amiens in France, Ålesund and Tromso in Norway, Bydgoszcz and Gdansk in Poland, Hamburg, Passau and Lubeck in Germany, Colmar in France, and... Leeds. London too has its own “Little Venice” – the junction of the Regent's Canal at Paddington.
The best alternative? We’re going with Annecy, a French lakeside city close to the border with Switzerland. Pretty canals, ornate bridges, pastel-coloured buildings: from some angles Annecy could almost pass as Venice. Almost. You’re unlikely to be pining for Italy here, though, because this endearing French city has a charm of its own. One also might be bold enough to say it has a number of advantages over Venice – chiefly its freshwater lake, beautiful mountains and lack of crowds.