When I visited Venice in 2019, the city was hit with some of the worst flooding it’s ever seen. A lot of the things I expected as a first-time visitor were, well…different. Places closed, plans changed, and my feet ended up getting pretty soggy. But I ended up having a good time anyway in Italy’s so-called Floating City, which makes the whole thing a bit weird to write about. Though I don’t exactly recommend it, here’s what I can tell you about visiting Venice when there’s acqua alta.
You need good information.
I was lucky to visit Venice with a group tour. Things would have been zero fun without the good advice of our tour guide and detailed information from hotel and restaurant staff.
The first information I got was the weather forecast: lots of rain and maybe flooding. Not great, and it raised a lot of questions. Would we still be able to go sightseeing? Was it even safe to visit? What should we do?
On the train from Milan to Venice, our guide explained how acqua alta (“high water”) works. Venice is a series of islands that sit only a few feet above sea level, so the rise and fall of the tides is a normal everyday thing. Sometimes, usually in winter, the Adriatic Sea rises to an exceptionally high tide because of the timing and weather systems blowing in from the south. The tide comes up for a few hours, it gets a little bit too high (whoops!), and then goes back down, all of this in about 6 hours. The tides follow a set schedule, but it’s tricky to predict exactly how much the sea will rise. Since some parts of the island are slightly higher above (normal) sea level than others, and exactly how high makes a big difference. Centimeters matter.
Our hotel was on the highest part of the island, so that seemed safe enough. Our guide ran through some possible options for what we could do for the next couple of days.
The tides are on a schedule.
We went out to dinner that night, and it was our first test of navigating acqua alta. After consulting with the restaurant staff, we expected the streets to stay dry long enough for dinner and a walk home. We walked along the canals, street lights shimmering in the water and playing off the old buildings. Dinner was a delicious spread of local seafood—scallops, octopus, cod with polenta. I definitely recommend getting seafood in Venice! As we left the restaurant, we could see water much closer to the street level, almost reaching the tables and chairs outside along the canal. A strange scene, but we stayed dry.
Looking at the tide forecast, we knew there would be acqua alta in the next morning and the sea would go back down in the afternoon. This gave us a rough framework to plan our day. Piazza San Marco, the main square of Venice, is at the lowest part of the island. It would certainly be underwater in the morning, as would the lower areas near the Rialto Bridge.
Slogging through these main tourist areas was not a great plan. Instead, we would attempt a trip to the nearby island of Murano, hoping the sea would cooperate enough for the vaporetto water taxi to get us there. Then we would return to a hopefully dry central Venice in the afternoon.
Proper footwear is required.
For this plan, we were prepared to walk through a least a bit of water. Our guide was the hero of the day– she borrowed a pair of rubber boots from the hotel and ran out to buy enough plastic boot covers for our whole group. If you’ve never seen such things (I definitely hadn’t), they are basically raincoat material shaped like an oversized boot and attached to a flexible plastic sole. You can get them from almost any shop. It was fun gearing up to splash through the streets, but it’s worth noting that these boot covers are disposable and, we would soon learn, don’t stand up to a ton of walking around.
As we headed out for the day, I was nervous but excited to see the city. We started walking to the nearest vaporetto station and saw the water right away. It was starting to come up through the drains in the street and collect in shallow pools. When we reached the canal, the water was just above sidewalk level, almost like the whole city was sinking into the sea. Was this really a good idea?. Undeterred, we took our boat to the Rialto stop, where the water looked even deeper.
Luckily, it was a couple inches lower than our boot covers!
I will never forget that moment, stepping into a foot of water beside the elegant arches of the bridge and all the many-colored buildings along the Grand Canal. People huddled beneath their umbrellas and stepped awkwardly through the water in their bright colored boots. A police officer stood by, waving everyone away from the side of the overflowing canal.
We waded carefully through the water toward higher ground. From there, we walked along the passarelle, the risers set up in parts of the city to form narrow walkways above the water level. We passed touristy shops with flood gates set up across their front doors, many with several inches of water inside. We squeezed by other walkers, trying not to fall off the path and into water of unknown depth. Before long, we made it to dry land and to the ferry that would bring us to Murano.
Lots of things stay open.
Despite all the water, we ended up having a great day of sightseeing. The rain stopped by the time we got to Murano. We watched glass blowers in one of the traditional workshops there, twisting multicolored glass into elaborate shapes. We went back to Rialto Bridge for some shopping (not really my idea of fun, but there was a great chocolate shop).
Eventually, we even made it to Piazza San Marco, where I got to see the magnificent basilica. It’s almost like a palace: the roof of the church is covered in gold mosaics, and the floors are all intricate patterns of marble. Looking out from the balcony to the colonnaded piazza and the sea beyond, it felt like being in some place from a fantasy novel. (Or a D&D campaign, but I’m not sure that’s as relatable.)
I was surprised at how normal everything seemed that afternoon. People were out for a walk, parts of the passarelle walkways removed so everyone could move freely through the square. They roped off the waterlogged sections of the basilica and allowed visitors in as usual. I felt a bit silly still wearing my boot covers.
But I noticed all the cafes kept their chairs stacked up. Everyone knew high water would return with the tide that night.
Acqua alta is serious for the locals.
We decided to play it safe and have dinner at a pizza place only a few minutes from the hotel. The proprietor was ready to go when we arrived, but he seemed anxious. The rain had started again. We were in a race against the tide to eat our pizzas and get back. Towards the end of the meal, I remember looking out the front windows and seeing the water spill over the edge of the canal, flooding the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Time to go!
The walk back to the hotel that night is another scene I will never forget. This time, the high water was much worse than we expected. In the dark and the rain, it was hard to see anything. We walked through the narrow passages and murky water (smelly too!). I used my cell phone as a flashlight, as we tried to tread carefully but also move quickly. And of course, at some point, my trusty boot covers finally started to leak.
When we got back to the hotel, the staff were in a rush too. Water was almost up to the front step. They had already rolled up the rugs and moved some furniture in the lobby. They told us to hurry inside so they could put up the gate across the front door. The water was rising fast.
Our hotel flooded that night, as did most of Venice. In fact, that night saw howling winds and pouring rain that made for some of the worst acqua alta in history. The next day, we learned that lots of businesses were damaged, their ground floors completely flooded with water and debris washed in from the street. Many people lost power and were stranded in their homes. Boats were washed away from their docks and wrecked. What seemed like a fun adventure the day before turned out to be a lot more serious.
Visiting Venice during acqua alta was a reminder that good travel is usually the result of a good attitude. The weather turns bad, plans change, and sometimes the trip you plan isn’t exactly the one you get. That’s ok, as long as you’re open to those changes. Equip yourself with good information (and possibly boot covers) and plan accordingly for your new adventure. For me, a flooded Venice was still a wonderful place to visit.
“Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something is not to your liking, change your liking.”― Rick Steves
I feel there is another lesson, though. A reminder to travel with a sense of empathy and respect. When you go to a popular destination like Venice, it’s easy to stay on the surface level of gondolas and beautiful buildings without a thought for the people who actually live there. During my visit, I saw that the high water is a huge strain on locals. Shopkeepers, restaurateurs, everyone worked tirelessly to clean up so they would be ready to welcome people the next day. I don’t have any profound insights here. Just recognize that traveling in a faraway land is an incredible privilege, and no matter how bad the weather, everyone you meet deserves kindness.
If you visit Venice, chances are you’ll have better weather than I did. But if you find yourself traveling in a flooded city, real or metaphorical, I hope you can make the best of it too.