I was lucky to be able to visit Venice in July 2020, just after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. The inner borders of Europe had been re-opened and there were no contaminations in Venice at that time. After going through a lockdown in Belgium, I really craved after some time away from home. I booked a ticket on an impulse and left the next day. I didn’t realize how different my trip would be compared to my previous visits. In this post, I will share my experiences and pictures of visiting an almost empty Venice.
Preparation will only help you partially
The first difference I encountered was (not) preparing my trip. I usually know what is going on and I plan upfront what I want to do (see my post ‘How I prepare my trips to Venice as a frequent visitor’). Obviously, the fact that I decided only 24 hours before leaving, gave me little time to prepare. However, more importantly, the situation in Venice changes continuously, in line with the evolution of the COVID-19 situation in the region. To give you an example, Palazzo Ducale and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection were only open 2 or 3 days a week. Since then, the opening hours have gradually been extended and they are now operating their normal schedule. A similar situation was the case for hotels and restaurants. Many were closed or only opened during the weekend.
It was, and still is, an uncertain situation where you must be flexible and take it as it comes. Hence, if you are visiting in the coming months, I suggest to check a few days before and follow the local news while you are there if you don’t want to be standing in front of a closed door. It is impossible to predict how the situation, and the precautionary measures, will evolve. While writing this post, the Italian government is for instance discussing a return to the highest emergency state and stricter safety rules.
Pros and cons of an empty city
I visited Venice during the Redentore weekend, which is usually one of the busiest weekends in the high season, and one of my favourite moments to spend time in the city. Due to the closed (outer) European borders, the fear of traveling and all the safety measures, I got Venice almost to myself.
The positive side, for me as a visitor, was the empty city which I could admire at ease. I found Piazza San Marco almost deserted on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I could cross the Rialto bridge without bumping into people. Streets were empty and perfect to photograph. I discovered a statue on Palazzo Ducale which I never noticed as it is usually too crowded to stand still there. No one was taking pictures and blocking the Bridge of Sighs. There were no street vendors in front of the luxury shops in Calle Larga 22 Marzo. I could continue with more examples, but the pictures do tell the story.
On the other hand, the 2020 Architecture Biennale had been cancelled, as well as all the national pavilions and temporary exhibitions that coincide with it. I really missed the Biennale and the opportunities to enter palazzos or galleries with temporary exhibitions as I love these unexpected discoveries. However, it left me plenty of time to wander around the city. I did for instance visit the San Pantalon church for the first time and I loved it.
The exhibition ‘Le muse inquiete (The Disquieted Muses). When La Biennale di Venezia Meets History’ had not started yet when I was there. It opened on August 28 and runs until December 8. Several other exhibitions have been opened in the meantime as well.
COVID-19 safety and sanitary measures
Overall, I felt quite safe during my entire trip. The only time I felt some discomfort was in the plane which was completely full. The airports (both in Brussels and Venice) were practically empty, so it is easy to keep a safe social distance. There were also plenty of hand sanitizing stations. Face masks are obliged in the airports and planes, so make sure to wear a comfortable one as you will have to wear it hours on end.
Once in Venice, the rules were relatively easy to follow as they were quite similar to the ones I was applying in Belgium. A social distance of 1 m is considered safe. Face masks were mandatory inside (hotels, restaurants, shops, museums, churches, …) and could only be taken off when seated at a table. They were also mandatory on the vaporetti. It was at that moment no longer required to wear a face mask outside. However, the area around the Redentore church was quite crowded and social distance was not possible, so I put mine on as a precaution. Hands also need to be sanitized before entering a building. Finally, some places (e.g. airports, hotels, museums) might check your body temperature before allowing you access.
When you stay at a hotel, you have to wear your face mask in all public areas, such as the lobby and corridors. You can only take it off in your room or seated in the bar or restaurant. At the Sina Centurion Palace (see my post ‘Sina Centurion Palace: A luxury hotel with a splendid view’), breakfast was no longer served at a buffet but at the table, but I don’t know if this is a general rule in Venice or not. Even though a hotel feels a bit less like home these days, I enjoyed a wonderful stay and felt safe with the sanitary measures taken by the hotel.
Make sure to check, and apply, the measures in vigour when you are visiting Venice. These rules might differ between countries (e.g. social distance is 1 m in Italy, whereas it’s 1.5 m in Belgium) and they can change overnight. The locals follow the rules very strictly and take the entire COVID-19 situation to heart.
An economic disaster
The downside of the empty Venice is of course the economic impact on the small businesses in the city: restaurants, bars, tourist guides, shops, … Seeing shops on Rialto closed before 6 PM or restaurants who only open during the weekend or offer a limited menu indicates it’s a very challenging time. No/less visitors also means no/less income. If you cannot come to Venice, you can still support those who offer virtual experiences or sell online (see for instance ‘How to enjoy Venice during lockdown’ or ‘How to help Venice and the Venetians after the acqua alta’).
It is a delicate balance between a quiet Venice which can be enjoyed by visitors and residents, and an economic situation which is viable for the local businesses. Let’s hope we can evolve into a sustainable city in the future. But first, let’s get through this terrible pandemic and stay safe.