Venice, Italy. Perhaps the most picturesque city I’ve explored to date. Its many islands make it a unique and favorable city to roam as a tourist. I traveled to Venice for the first time in the spring of 2022 for the 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. The prestigious event takes place every two years and exhibits artist installations from all over the globe. I was going to work at the exhibition and was elated at the opportunity to spend an entire month on the historic islands.
I had no expectations of Venice. It was one of those famous cities you knew about, but one I never thought to add to my travel list. It would be my second Italian city. I had only previously been to Milan, which had already given me mixed feelings about traveling to Italy. My experience in the northern city of Milan included disgusted gazes from many older Italian women and constant honking and whistling from passing car windows. My own experience as a Black American made me no stranger to a certain level of open racism, and extensive international travel experience had given me enough reference to understand the layers of pure fascination, colonialism, and cultural differences. But this I found excessive in a way I had not yet encountered in my travels. Not to mention Milan didn’t live up to the Italy I had envisioned. It was cold and more urban than I had anticipated. I kept feeling I could have been in any old American concrete jungle. I did not understand the hype.
But Venice was different. Venice gave me that charming, scenic Italian vision I had drafted in my imagination. From the second I arrived, I was taken by its beauty. The blue waters of the lagoon, the majestic architecture, and the breathtaking sunsets captured my heart and had me falling in love. And as a lifelong fan of Italian food, the cuisine was unmatched. Pasta, pizza, cheese, meat, and wine filled me with the best kind of sustenance. I learned that an Aperol Spritz a day keeps the dark clouds away and that walking can be just as exhausting as any other form of exercise (there are no cars on the main island). Nothing beat the mist of the water on my face as I road the Vaporetto (water taxi), passing gondolas, fancy private water taxis, and teens bouncing on waves to loud beats on their family motor boats. Venice had quickly risen to the top of my favorite places in the world.
I noticed visible Blackness in Venice was scarce. I experienced very few Black faces in the local and tourist communities. Most Black interactions I had were with tourists coming to the Art Exhibition (mostly speaking English and French) and those working the event as custodial or pavilion staff. During my time there, I only heard three Black people speaking Italian. I was a bit shocked there were so few of us. From my time in Milan, I had seen far more of us present. I soon realized this was specific to Venice when I took the train to Bergamo for an overnight trip. The second the train left Venice, the number of Black faces I saw increased. Dark-skinned men and women speaking broken English with African accents boarded the train throughout my journey. Once in Bergamo, the Black community was far more visible. I wondered what made Venice so different.
But the limited volume of Black presence also meant the moments where I did see others seemed to have more impact. I went out of my way to interact with the Black people I did see, and vice versa. I had many smiles, head nods, and a “hey sis” or two, which I personally loved. I met Black folk from all over the world at the Bienalle and enjoyed connecting with them and hearing more about where they were from and why they had traveled to Venice. Even with the limited number of Black people I encountered in Venice, I felt very comfortable. I didn’t notice many stares, and people didn’t seem surprised I was there in the way they did in other places in the world. Perhaps it is because so few locals even live in Venice anymore. It is said that the number of tourists in the city every day far outnumbers the total number of Venice residents (Livesay, 2016). And even still, those residents and other visitors alike are surely used to seeing all types of faces. My insecurities were mostly in my Americanness and the fact I could not speak the language. However, with Venice being such a heavy tourist destination, the local Italians seemed to be far more forgiving and friendly about this than I expected.
For me, Venice was one of the best travel experiences of my life so far. I’ve been back again since then and fell in love all over again. I would recommend it to anyone looking to explore both land and sea. It is easy to navigate once you understand the transportation system, and I always felt safe walking in most areas during the day and after dark. If you are planning a trip to Venice, I recommend downloading the AVM Venezia App and purchasing transportation passes. While the app is far from sophisticated, and can be difficult to navigate at first, it is by far the simplest way to buy and store your tickets for transportation around Venice. Day/week passes are the most cost-effective way to get around and cover the water taxis, buses, and trams on the islands and mainland Venice. No matter what, make sure you always have an active ticket or pass and do not test the transportation police. They do regular random checks and will fine you.
Venice is easy enough to experience as a solo traveler, however, I would recommend traveling with a companion or two if only to have someone to split the expensive gondola ride with. Be sure to have cash, as most places will require it, and beware of tourist traps throughout the city. I recommend staying on the island of Lido. This long thin island off the main island of Venice was the ideal place to stay during my time there. It was quieter and much less touristy than the main island. An easy 15 min ride to San Marco square and water taxis to Burano, Murano, and both Venice airports, make it a perfect place to stay. Not to mention walking access to the beach and tons of local restaurants.
Speaking of restaurants, the food in Venice is fantastic, with the seafood being super fresh and the pasta always perfectly al dente. I recommend the local restaurant Nevodi for lunch or dinner. It is located on the widest street in Venice, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi. It was the best food I had by far in the month I was there. It is a little pricey, but you will not regret it. I highly recommend making a reservation, as this spot stays busy all day. Locals and tourists alike frequent this hot spot making it almost impossible to get a table just by walking in. And of course, you have to indulge in some gelato. Gelato di Natura on Lido had what I considered the best gelato in Venice. It is located right off the main Vaporetto station on the corner of Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta, in the Hotel Riviera.
All in all, Italy is high on my recommendation list. Outside of Venice, I’ve now been to Milan, Bergamo, Bologna, Rome, and Tivoli. The train system is extensive and easy to access, making it simple to see more than one city in a short period of time. You can get to other major cities within hours for reasonable prices and it is a great way to see more of the country. If you’re considering heading to the famous boot-shaped peninsula, simply find the cheapest city to fly into and then plan your route based on the cheapest train tickets you can find from there. I cannot wait to head back and see, eat and drink my way through more of the country. Been to Italy as well? Share your unique experience with us by submitting a guest blog post here. We’d love to hear your perspective of Italy based on your experience there!
British Council (2022). Explore the 2022 exhibition at the British Pavilion: Feeling Her Way. Available at: https://venicebiennale.britishcouncil.org/feeling-her-way. Accessed on 5 June 2022.
Livesay, C. (2016). As Tourists Crowd Out Locals, Venice Faces ‘Endangered’ List. NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/11/25/503038911/as-tourists-crowd-out-locals-venice-faces-endangered-list. Accessed on 7 June 2022.