Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.
– Truman Capote
The streets are water and the cars are boats. Ancient buildings stand as a grand backdrop for an endless array of little shops selling modern touristy knick-knacks. People are everywhere. Even knowing this, knowing exactly why Venice is so stunningly unique, when I finally came face to face with it, it still left me completely speechless.
My Venetian experience was planned to take place right in the middle of summer when the days are long and sticky, and the nights are made for exploration. Not only does the sun bake you from above, but the ancient cobblestone walkways and brick buildings also absorb the heat of the day, and radiate it back at you long into the night.
Getting good travel photos in Venice is not hard, especially if you employ some tips from this post. Arriving in the height of tourist season, I realised that the most challenging aspect of this time of year is avoiding the crowds.
Pro Tip # Book accommodation on the main island of Venice
Venice seems to wake late in comparison to other cities in which I’ve stayed. This means that even in the height of tourist season you can wander the streets between 7-9am with minimal competition from other tourists. More interestingly, early rising affords you the ability to capture a few of the locals working in Venice, like the garbage men. Rubbish collection is done on foot and then loaded onto boats, a tedious and time-consuming process. Additionally, if you want to photograph the ever-popular St Mark’s Square or the Rialto Bridge it’s easiest before 8am and after midnight. Air B & B accommodation can be sourced at very reasonable prices, particularly if you a willing to walk an extra 15-20 mins to reach these major landmarks. The key word here is ‘walk’: at some point in the evening the trains and the ferries stop running. Don’t get lost in the glittery magic of Venice at night and miss your last ride home! For more tips on staying within a tight budget, check out this Lonely Planet article.
I hope one day to be able to come back in a different season – like at the end of winter, when the icy air chills you to the bone and everyone is kitted out with the warmest clothes they can find. The locals tell me to not let the cold weather scare me off (although they then proceed to spend three hours lecturing me on the precise types of boots, coat, gloves, and other accessories that are necessary to survive outdoors). They’re right though. There are tons of amazing things to see here in winter, like the Christmas markets with their festive stalls scattered throughout the piazze. Here they tell me you can shop for cute decorations and gifts while contentedly sipping spiced hot wine or thick, gooey hot chocolate to warm your bones.
Or what about visiting in February to experience the extravagant magic of Carnival? For a couple of crazy weeks, the streets are crammed with people that have come to experience the sight of Venetians parading around in their hand-made and elaborate costumes. The festival is famous for its masks, but I think the truly remarkable sight would be turning around an insignificant corner, and coming face to face with what looks to be an 18th century aristocrat or royal, strolling regally around after apparently having been magically whisked away to our modern world.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself immensely in the hot, sticky atmosphere of Venice in full summer swing. The city is alive with the hustle and bustle of both tourists and locals taking advantage of the long days and warm nights.
It’s a pretty sweaty time though, especially if you’re lugging around camera gear over a million little bridges and uneven cobblestones! A cool drink of water becomes almost a sensual experience after an hour or two exploring in the midday sun.
In many big Italian cities, clean drinking water is provided to the public free of charge – a truly genius move especially in the stifling heat of August. Locals and tourists alike drink deeply from these fountains, splashing their faces and filling their water bottles before continuing on down the road. Just look for a spout in a wall (or a random pillar like the one below) with a small stream flowing out of it, and enjoy!
The main tourist trail in Venice is well signposted, with yellow signs stuck up high on building walls, helping you find your way towards major locations, like Piazza San Marco, Rialto bridge, and the train station (signposted as ferrovia). There’s a mountain of information about these locations in popular guidebooks, so I won’t dwell on them too much here.
Pro Tip # Get a birds-eye view of all of Venice by climbing the Campanile, the tall tower in St. Mark’s Square
From a photographer’s point of view, these major landmarks are both a delight and a pain in the backside. I loved capturing the grandiose beauty of the Basilica, the clock tower, and Campanile of St. Marks church in piazza San Marco. It’s an absolutely stunning location, and one that just screams ‘Italy’. The hoards of other tourists can make a good photograph difficult to attain, so either come early, come very late, or get up high by climbing the Campanile.
When taken head height, this photo is cluttered with people and distracting elements.
When taken at ground level the distracting background is minimised.
Pro Tip # Low vantage points can yield surprisingly good results when trying to gain images at popular landmarks
The funky old lampposts in piazza San Marco are wonderful – they cast a warm glow into the night, reflecting off the water and illuminating the way for late-night adventures.
Likewise, I loved the maze-like alleyways around this giant piazza, filled with random shops selling masks, Murano glass, and assorted Venetian knick-knacks.
Taking a short walk to the waters edge near piazza San Marco brings you to the classically Venetian sight of bobbing gondole waiting patiently for their next trip along the canals. The gondoliere (the Venetians that drive the gondole) mill around nearby, in their charming striped outfits, waiting to collect eager tourists and take them for a ride around the canals. It’s expensive though, and I’ve been told by my contacts that the best way to enjoy these rides is to follow three simple rules: 1. Determine your price beforehand, 2. Bring a bottle of bubbly, and 3. Make sure your gondolier can both sing and provide historical commentary.
There’s a good reason for the popularity of the main tourist trail. It’s full of awe-inspiring sights! I adored the ancient beauty of the Rialto bridge, with its stunning view of the wide and bustling Grand Canal. From the apex you can settle in and gaze across the water, checking out the people on the boats as they float along underneath.
But the hordes of chattering, zig-zagging tourists get tiresome after a while. Below is a shot taken from the path that runs up and over Rialto. Each side is lined with shops, and the middle is so chock-full of people that it’s sometimes hard to think.
This is when midnight adventures are a photographer’s best friend. Nocturnal Venice is astonishingly beautiful, and one of the reasons I wanted to say right in the centre of town.
A midnight stroll will let you experience a side of this city that you’ll honestly never forget. The crowds die down. The stores close up and the boats are tucked in for the night. The restless chatter of tourists gives way to the sound of the water lapping against the side of old stones. All the urgency of the day leaves your body, and life becomes slow.
Pro Tip # No consumer flash will illuminate a building, so instead, think about opening up your aperture and/or increasing ISO when trying to get night landscape images in places where a tripod is not practical or possible
Tripods can be bulky to travel through the narrow, tourist laden streets during the peak summer period. Therefore slow shutter speeds are simply not possible. In many places at night it may only be possible to handhold your camera utilising a high ISO to achieve a good final image. If you want to take photos at night on a moving boat, an ISO of 2500-12800 can make an otherwise impossible photo possible. The image below is taken from a slow moving vaporetto at twilight. To achieve a sharp image a high ISO and fast shutter speed was used to freeze the picture.
Pro Tip # Bring a camera that has a high ISO capability
While exploring back through the smaller alleyways that seem to follow no logical plan whatsoever, I suddenly realised that my meandering had taken me almost to the doorstep of my hotel. Venice seems like magic sometimes, as if the old stone corridors have a mind of their own and like to spit you out in random locations far from where you might have expected to be.
After a solid inspection of the major Venetian sights, I decided it was time to abandon the land and explore along the iconic waterways of Venice. From this viewpoint you can leisurely gaze at the buildings along the waters edge as you gently float along the canals.
Depending on your budget, you can go from a pricey water taxi or gondola ride, or you can take the vaporetto, the local ferry, which loudly chugs its way around the bigger canals.
Pro Tip # Get on the water for an alternative vantage point
From the vaporetto the views are wonderful as you travel slowly under the impressive bridges spanning the Grand Canal, while nearby colourful buildings and palazzi proudly display their ancient beauty. Some of these buildings are centuries old, and many, like the palazzo Venier dei Leoni (which was built in the 18th century and currently home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection), are open to the public.
To ensure your images are in focus whilst on a fast moving vaporetto, you’ll need to increase your shutter speed to compensate for the movement of the boat. Shutter speeds should be at least 1/400th sec to guarantee a sharp image. This may mean using a wide open aperture or increasing your ISO to achieve this goal. If you’re not comfortable using your camera in manual or shutter priority you can move the dial on a DSLR to the sport mode. Obviously, tripods are completely useless once you get onto a boat of any sort, since the platform that you place it on is rocking side to side.
I rode around in the vaporetto, enjoying the views and the leisurely pace on my trip out to the nearby island of Burano.
Pro Tip # Take a trip to the islands. Catch the ferry early to avoid the crowds that start to appear from around 11am
The island of Burano is a photographer’s paradise with its bright and colourful buildings. Likewise, the island of Murano is delightful and offers the chance to watch some of the classic Venetian glassblowers at work.
Eventually I retuned back to the main island, and went in search of the quieter, more gentle heart of Venice. Using the same technique as I did with Will and Jordan in my previous post, I simply meandered along, choosing my path based solely on alley width (the smaller the better!) and the number of people around me (goal: zero).
Pro Tip # Get lost deliberately in the maze of alleyways throughout Venice
Regularly my chosen path dead-ended in a sheer drop to the canal, leaving me to simply laugh and backtrack in search of a new route down my Venetian rabbit-hole. If you’re someone that worries about being lost forever, trust me, there’s no reason to stress. Once you’re ready to go home, simply flip my ‘how-to-get-lost’ rule around: keep choosing the bigger and more populated path, and follow the crowd. Eventually you’ll get back to the main tourist trail, and from there you simply need to follow the big yellow signs stuck up high on the buildings. They direct you to the major spots – Rialto bridge, Piazza San Marco, and the main station (ferrovia in Italian). Easy!
I simply can’t get enough of these little alleyways, and I can’t help but think I’ve only just scratched the surface, that I’ve only seen a fraction of the genuine heart of Venice.
I was in need of some insider knowledge. Fortunately, through my European contacts, I was put in touch with a quirky Italian guy named Tommaso, who jumped at the chance to organise a group excursion. Tommaso has an insatiable fondness for the unique little Venetian watering holes called bacari, and promised to regale us with a little Venetian history over a drink or two.
Pro Tip # Source a local tour guide to see a more authentic side to Venice
A bacari tour is something I highly recommend if you want to experience a bit more of the ‘real’ side of Venice. These quaint but often packed little bars are something akin to ancient happy hour spots – many of them have been there since the 18th century, and the locals absolutely love them.
We were joined by a group of expats who live in the nearby town of Padua, including Will and Jordan, whom I’d previously met for ‘A European Love Story’ photo shoot.
Everyone was keen for an afternoon of Venetian fun, and we roamed around as a cheerful and spirited group. Most of these bacari only open at about 5pm or 6pm, giving us plenty of time to amble around, exchanging stories while we investigated the narrow, winding corridors that extend in maze-like chaos all over Venice.
Once it was time for the bars to open, Tommaso’s tour took us to secret corners and alleyways that I probably wouldn’t have ever found on my own.
Some of these bars are just a street or two away from the main tourist strip. It was a surreal experience, periodically flitting onto the main path, being jostled by hundreds of bustling tourists, then abruptly turning down into the quiet of a hidden alleyway. In the busy areas we followed Tommaso in a line, like baby ducklings following their mother, eager to discover the delights of our next bacaro.
Sometimes we ended up snaking alongside crumbling walls and dusty cobblestones, turning this way and that, before magically appearing at the corner of an ancient yet bustling bar. Locals know these places, and love them for their delicious local snacks and dark, intimate décor.
Pro Tip # Bring a wide angle lens to capture Venice even in the smallest of places
In the bacari, you often have a selection of local bar snacks called cicchetti (pronounced chee-KET-tea). For only one euro or so each, you can easily experience a smorgasbord of delicious Venetian food, without breaking the bank. You definitely can’t go past specialities like baccalà – dried and salted codfish whipped into a creamy goo. I know, I know, it sounds pretty gross but trust me, it’s incredibly good! If fish isn’t your thing, the meatballs in thick tomato sauce are also a must-taste experience.
Eaten standing by the bar or outside in the alleyway, washed down with a glass of local vino, cicchetti are the perfect pick-me-up to fuel further adventures.
We finished our tour by heading towards Fondamenta Misericordia in Cannaregio, the northernmost of the six districts of Venice. Here the bacari are more obvious, found out in the open and close together, and the streets fill with locals and tourists enjoying a drink and a chat by the waterside.
Sitting on the warm stones with our feet dangling over the edge of the canal, we relax and enjoy feeling the heat of the afternoon sun soaking into our bodies while we sip our drinks and chat about anything and everything.
As the day grew later, more and more locals came out for a pre-dinner aperitivo. The streets became packed and nearby moored boats filled with chattering people. We stayed in this area for an hour or two, periodically moving a few feet down the canal to the next bar, simply relaxing and enjoying time spent in the company of friends.
Tommaso’s bacari tour was an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m really grateful that he shared his local knowledge and love of this eclectic town with us. Thanks Tommaso!
All too quickly my time in Venice was over, and it was time to move on to the next adventure. I adored my time in this city. If I close my eyes I can still feel the warmth from the sun beating down on the cobblestone pavements, the sound the boats make as glide through the turquoise green water. If you get close enough to a bar, the smell of a fresh espresso wafts through the air. I would go back in a heartbeat just to experience it once again.
Story by Samantha Ohlsen and Lauren Wright
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