I got married this spring! Oh, what joy! And for our honeymoon, we planned on going on holiday to Venice. This had always been my greatest dream—to float down the canals on a gondola and dip my fingers in the waters of history.
So imagine my surprise when I read that the water in the Venetian canals stink! I began to wonder, does Venice, Italy, smell?
Not wanting to give up on my dreams, I began to research the city of romance that I had set my heart on as my honeymoon destination, and this is what I discovered.
Does Venice Italy Smell?
Venice does smell sometimes. Venice is an old historic city, and it is built entirely on water. The city was built on thousands of wooden stakes nailed into the silt shores of the lagoon that it floats on. At the time of its construction, there were no modern ablution practices, so there is no sewage system or correct plumbing facilities in Venice. This means that sewage is flushed directly into the canals, and this is carried out with the tide. Due to this sewage system, the city does have a watery smell of algae and urine that is most noticeable in summer.
The Truth of Venice and Her Smells
If you’re expecting the scent of warm pizza and sweet wines while walking the streets of Venice, then you won’t be disappointed.
I ended up booking my honeymoon to Venice, despite my initial misgivings, and I don’t regret it. What I can say is: Don’t go in summer.
In ancient times, Venetians would commute to their place of work by foot or by gondola, and the canals were constructed to move in between the over 400 islands that make up Venice.
I discovered that the canals, which weave between the buildings, also doubled as Venice’s latrine system.
When someone flushes a toilet in Venice, the waste is deposited into the nearest canal via a brick funnel that is built into each of the ancient houses.
The human urine and excrement are, therefore, carried via the canal water to the ocean.
While this may have been a great and easy way to deal with utility services in the olden days, it has become somewhat of a nightmare today, especially when thousands of tourists descend on the floating city in summer.
With the additional human bodily functions being added to the canal, and with the heat of summer, the waters bloom with algae growth that begins to create quite the swamp-like smell.
The Algae of the Canals
If you’ve never been in a swamp, you wouldn’t believe the smell that can originate from the bog or marshes due to algae growth and plant matter decomposition.
In Venice, the tides are supposed to work like a huge “flush” that removes the waste and human build-up with each high tide.
While I was in Venice, I discovered from Niccolo, our tour guide, that Venice is slowly sinking. As an attempt to save the city from damage, large barriers have been constructed to stop the tidal waves that have been flooding the city.
This has resulted in the city not being flushed as it should be with each tide, and now, some canals have become particularly pungent as algae growth takes over.
I asked the tour guide why nobody thought to modernize Venice and build modern plumbing lines or sewage management systems, but he just laughed and babbled away in Italian.
It seems that the thought of “digging up” Venice is quite a joke to the locals. Hence, the smell remains when there are fewer rains or tides to flush the canals.
When the water levels drop, the smell intensifies.
So, while Venice won’t be getting a reliable modern sewage system any time soon, the ancient cleansing by the tides and extra waters of the acqua alta (flood season) effectively removes the sewage build-up.
The more sewage there is being produced, such as during peak tourist season (in summer), the more the stink.
The tides of Venice are both cleansing and destroying the ancient city.
Yet, the marvel of Venice’s construction is being influenced by human interventions like sandbars and tide barriers meant to stop flooding, and the increasing smelliness is becoming a side effect of these changes.
Dos and Don’ts of Venice
Aside from the beauty of the city and its tourist destinations, Venice is a completely different world to visit.
On my trip there, I was very careful to avoid certain things and I also discovered other things that help with the smell of Venice.
- Do visit Venice during the spring, winter, and early fall, but avoid it during summer if you can.
- Do pack comfortable shoes as you will be walking a lot and don’t worry about getting your feet wet in the (sometimes) smelly waters of the canals when there are floods as there are Wellington boots being sold all over Venice.
- Don’t swim in the canal waters as it is not hygienic to enter the water.
- Do take gondola rides on the canals, but be sure to ask your guide which canals are clear and have recently been flushed as the locals will know where the smelly areas are and how to avoid them.
- Do find out when low tide is and plan indoor activities or visit the Italian countryside during those times as that is when the smell will be worst.
- Don’t take advantage of “month-long leases” that locals may offer as these are usually in summer during the height of the smelly season when the locals take a month-long holiday away from Venice.
Frequently Asked Questions About Venice Italy And Smell
Does Venice smell like sewage?
During summer, Venice can have algae smell that is unpleasant when it is low tide. While it is less a stink than a sea smell that has a mildly pungent reek to it, you may want to avoid Venice during the warmest month of August.
Can you swim in the Venice canals?
You can’t and shouldn’t swim in the canals as these are part of the city’s waste management system.
I loved my honeymoon in Venice. We were there in early spring, the canals were full, the city was quiet, and we got a truly authentic experience. The city doesn’t really stink, at least not all year round.
Avoid the canals at low tide, stay out of the water, and book your trip during the off-season, and you will experience Venice without the watery smells of history and humanity all flushed down the watery passages of the floating city.
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