Dos and Don’ts

Henry James famously said “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” With 20 million visitors to their city every year, not all on their best behavior, Venetians can be forgiven for occasionally agreeing with him. In 2007, the city launched yet another tourist-education campaign, complete with posters outlining behavior expectations, a corps of decorum enforcers, and fines from about $35-725 for scofflaws. But not all etiquette is legislated. Here’s how to stay in good graces with the locals:

Simple Courtesies: “Venice is a small town with sweet, small town manners. In spite of all the anti-tourist talk, they take to their hearts anyone who exhibits simple politeness.”—Judith Martin, “Miss Manners” columnist and author of No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice. Greet shopkeepers when entering a store (“buon giorno” is fine) and say goodbye or thank you when you leave. Excuse yourself if you bump into someone, or stop passersby to ask for directions.

Appropriate Dress: In years past, no Venetian would consider entering St. Mark’s Square in shorts; attitudes have relaxed, but the concept of respect and decorum remains. Don’t wear beachwear in the city. Church visitors should cover their shoulders and remove hats. Men who doff shirts in the city center risk fines.

Picnic Spots: Resist the temptation to picnic near monuments, church steps, doorways, and on bridges. Picnickers in St. Mark’s Square will quickly attract the decorum patrols and attendant fines. If you must brown bag it, find a bench (sitting on the ground or on bridges is frowned upon) and don’t litter. Tip: There are a number of benches along the waterfront as you walk away from St. Mark’s Square.

Canal Protocol: Don’t treat the canals like a beach. Kicking off your shoes and dangling your feet in the water is considered distasteful—and if you think about what’s in that water, you’d agree.

Pedestrian Etiquette: Hone your spatial awareness. Venetians tend to walk very quickly, so walk on the right and always leave enough room for people to pass you on the left. When you stop, make sure you’re not blocking the entire street or bridge—it’s easier to do than you might imagine, and a source of endless frustration for residents.

Water Bus Basics: On the vaporetto, don’t stop as soon as you board, or in front of the cabin doors, or you’ll bring boarding to standstill for everyone. Put luggage in the designated spot by the driver’s cabin and take off your backpack so you don’t smack fellow passengers with it.

Phrase Book

Ciao: Hello or goodbye. Travelers like to toss the word around, but in Venice, it’s reserved for friends or at least people you know, not strangers or shopkeepers. Pronounced CHAow.

Foresto: You; this is the Venetian word for foreigner. It’s not an epithet, and applies to any non-Venetian, whether from Florence or Florida. Pronounced for-ESS-toe.

Ponte: Bridge. With more than 400 bridges in the city, inevitably directions will include “fare il ponte,” cross the bridge. Pronounced FAR-ay il PONE-tay.

Cicchetti: Small portions of food served in bars; typical cicchetti include baccalà (salt cod), folpeti (baby octopus), polpette (meatballs) and castruare (baby artichokes). Pronounced chee-KET-ee.

Ombra: A small glass of wine; to be imbibed standing at the bar.

Spritz: Popular Venetian cocktail made with white wine or prosecco, sparkling water, and Campari or Aperol. Pronounced SPREEts.

Calle: A narrow street. Pronounced CAH-lay.

Fondamenta: A walkway that runs along a canal or the lagoon. Pronounced fone-da-MEN-tah.

Riva: Like a fondamenta, but wider. Pronounced REE-va.

Rio Terà: Filled-in canal, now a walkway. Pronounced REE-oh teh-RAH.

Sotoportego: Passageway with buildings above (sometimes appearing as sottoportico, the Italian word). Pronounced soh-toe-POR-tay-goh.

Piazza: Square; unlike elsewhere in Italy, this word is reserved to describe St. Mark’s Square. Every other square is called a campo, or campiello if it’s small. Pronounced pee-AH-zah.

Pagare in contanti: Pay in cash. Many shops and restaurants don’t accept credit cards, or offer a discount (sconto) if you pay in cash. Pronounced pah-GA-ray in con-TAHN-tee.


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