I loved living in Italy and I had wondered whether or not I’d ever want to return home. Eventually I did return, but I left a good bit of myself behind in the northern part of this ‘art, architecture, wine, and good-life lovers’ paradise. I get back as often as possible, but for this last trip it had been an excruciatingly long wait.
I had assumed that not much could change in a measly 12 years, but I was wrong.
This time my husband, Eddie was making his first ‘voyage across the pond’, and we were having a great time as we rode the rails through France, Belgium, Germany and Austria. I’d saved Italy for last and we were exploring everything that time allowed from the Dolomite Mountains to Rome.
As we approached the Venetian Lagoon I was noticeably excited. I had lived only 45 minutes from Venice and it’s a homecoming of sorts for me each time I return. My anticipation bubbled as I described to Eddie what we were about to see. Eddie usually drifts off when I go into ‘tour-guide mode’, but this time I realized the reason for his distraction. Exiting the train I was dumbfounded. I’d never seen so many people at the Santa Lucia Railway Station! I stood frozen for a moment, my mind trying to accept what I was seeing. Four cruise ships had docked that morning, and with the normal amount of locals, day-trippers and those staying on the island, the crowd was overwhelming.
I ducked my head as I plowed forward toward the ticket booth to purchase our vaporetto tickets, and I chose to believe that things would be better at San Marco Square. The vaporettos are the small boats that provide public transport around the Venetian Islands, and due to the weight of the massive number of tourists, they were sitting lower in the waters of the Grand Canal than I had ever seen before. I was however, undeterred.
I think I left Eddie standing dazed on the train track, hesitant at the prospect of diving into that rushing river of humanity, but after a 45 minute wait for our tickets, I gathered him and we were off to stand in another line for the boat.
As we stepped onto our vaporetto, I bulldozed my way into the bow of the boat using my suitcase as both a shield and a battering ram, and secured a spot at the very front. We needed to use our luggage as makeshift seats, but I was satisfied. I nestled in with my camera tied to one wrist and my Rick Steves ‘Joyride thru the Grand Canal’ info in the other hand. I was determined to both photograph and learn the history of some of the more significant buildings and palaces of the Grand Canal.
My plan worked – but only for 2 stops. The boat then dumped us all off to catch a connecting one on to San Marco. Already full when we boarded, I found myself smashed between bodies, hanging on to Eddie and hoping that my camera wouldn’t be flung overboard.
“I hope you got some good shots”, I hollered at Eddie who was protecting his camera at the risk of losing an arm.
“I might have gotten one of the back of that guy’s head”, he sarcastically responded with a, ‘you’ve got be kidding’ sideways glance. Needless to say, my ‘joyride’ was not going to happen.
We arrived at the San Marco stop near the Square, took one look at the expansive sea of tourists all frantically searching for the flag of their particular tour group, and promptly made a beeline for our hotel. We managed to arrive at the hotel where we picked up the key to our apartment, with only minor scrapes, a few bruises and our luggage amazingly intact.
“I don’t think I can go back out there Eddie”, I whispered fighting back tears.
Seeing the sympathetic but helpless face of my husband, the receptionist stepped out from behind the counter, gently put her arm around my shoulder, and with her best English said, “It be OK honey. I tell you what to do. You do what I tell to you.”
She then pulled out a map and highlighted a path (through the wonderful maze that is Venice) to the far side of the island. She circled a great place to eat lunch, told us to go see the glass-blowing on Murano or just enjoy one of the outer islands. Then she told us to return to San Marco Square in the evening.
We followed her instructions to the letter. We enjoyed the outer islands, the glass-blowing demonstration, and a long lunch that included good conversation with a lovely newly-engaged couple from Chicago. On the expedition to the island’s far side we saw many things that we might never have seen otherwise, made plans to see some things the next day (during midday when the tourists were in full numbers), and adjusted not only our itinerary but our attitudes.
By the time we found ourselves back at San Marco Square in the evening enjoying the lovely crimson sunset light, the orchestras serenading those dancing amongst the pigeons, and the lack of tourists, we had realized that this was not only going to be the beautiful and special place that I had promised Eddie would be, but a place that we could still enjoy the history and culture in. All it takes is a little pre-planning and the ability to make adjustments on the fly.
Here are my 4 best tips for making the most of travel while dealing with the ‘new norm’ of massive crowds and visiting some of the world’s more popular tourist spots:
1). Try to travel in off-season.
Yes, next time we head to Europe it will probably be in March, April or November. While it’s true that the crowds are likely exchanged for cold and rainy weather, I think it might be worth it. If that isn’t right for you and you are still determined to sit in outdoor cafes with nice weather and enjoy sunny photos, then read on to #2.
2). Lay low in the middle of the day.
Choose fewer ‘sites’ and schedule them (with pre-purchased and preferably timed tickets) for the moment they open and / or just before closing. In the middle of the day venture off the beaten path and explore. Enjoy some minor sights that you might not see otherwise, have a long lunch with some locals, drink wine or maybe simply escape the heat and take a nap! Spend the evening at the tourist spots when there’s less people, prettier photos and a much more enjoyable time spent.
3). Understand that the ‘skip-the-line’ tickets that you pre-purchased from home are well, kind of a fib.
Unless you’re on an organized tour, here’s how we discovered that these tickets work:
First, you’ll stand in line with the ‘vouchers’ that you printed and brought from home. You’ll need to exchange them for actual tickets (your printed receipt will tell you if it’s a ticket or voucher). This can take 30-45 minutes.
Second, you’ll take the tickets and proceed to the ‘skip-the-line’ line. This can take another 30-45 minutes.
Third, go through the security line.
Fourth, follow the tourists to the entrance point, present your tickets to the validating person who stamps your ticket and allows you in.
If you plan to visit your sites early or late in the day, this process goes rather quickly. Just be early, prepared and have a good attitude!
4). Don’t play in the streets!
Wanting to spend a day enjoying Lake Garda in Italy, I found a little town on the eastern shore that boasted a funicular that provided a great bird’s-eye view of the lake, and the ruins of a small castle. That would be perfect place to enjoy the lake! At least I thought so until we discovered that thousands of other people thought so too. Completely enveloping the little town of Malcesine were the now all-too-familiar droves of tourists. The wait to ride the funicular up the hill was 3 hours long, and the restaurants were packed. So we boarded a public transit ship, complete with top-side seating and ended up spending the day visiting with a lovely couple from Great Britain and seeing the lake by ship. It was a hop-on-hop-off ship, so we stopped off for lunch, lemon grove viewing and anything else that looked interesting. We saw the whole lake and never fought the crowds of tourists! We made similar choices in Italy’s Cinque Terre and Germany’s Rhine Valley. We learned that if there was water, we could see and enjoy what we came for from the water without dealing with crowds!
There you have my top 4 ways to manage the crowds at the world’s top tourist destinations. Above all, keep a great attitude. Anything can be overcome with the right frame of mind and a positive attitude!