Over three million tourists stay in Venice each year. Then there’s an average of 34,000 visitors just dropping by for a look every day. Note: that’s an average. At some times of the year, the flood shrinks to a trickle; at others, the city is inundated. If you want to avoid the worst of the crush, timing is crucial.
Lack of crowds isn’t the only reason for forward planning. The city’s venezia unica website – an essential pre-booking tool – offers discounts on travel passes and museum tickets at times of the year when visitor numbers tail off: deepest winter, just before Carnevale kicks off in February, mid-week even at times when you’d expect the city to be brimming. Moreover, the city’s hotels bow to the law of supply and demand. Room prices plunge dramatically in the off-season: a three-star hotel charging €320 a night in July may slash its rates to €110 or less in mid-November (see more hotel tips on my Venice Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Venice page).
From the week before Easter, as milder weather arrives, the tourist invasion begins in earnest. School groups, coach tours and cruise ships all descend on the city, though it is often only the big-name sights – St Mark’s Square and the Rialto – and the streets linking them to the rail station, that get really packed.
So e Zo per i Ponti in April (10 April in 2011; see www.tgseurogroup.it) is a alcohol-fuelled sponsored run (well, crawl, at least in its final stages) around the centro storico. The Vogalonga race in May (12 June 2011; see www.vogalonga.it) is a joyous free-for-all in which not only racing gondolas but a panoply of improbable craft-with-oars make their raucous way across the lagoon and down the Grand Canal.
In June, air-kissing hordes of lovies fill the city as the Biennale dell'Arte (odd years - next one is 4 June-27 November 2011; see below for Biennale dell’Architettura, held in even years) contemporary art fest gets under way.
Venice’s climate is one of extremes. In July and August, it’s not only hot but very very sticky; don’t, whatever you do, forget the mosquito repellent. If you don’t mind the heat (and the slight whiff from the canals) however, the dog-days of August are relatively uncrowded and prices dip a little. Until, that is, the annual film festival opens – in late August or early September – and runs for 11 days (in 2011 it runs from 31 Aug). It is concentrated on the Lido, but many punters opt to stay in Venice proper, pushing hotel prices sky-high. In 2010 the onslaught was double, as the Biennale dell’Architettura jamboree opened on 29 August.
The firework extravaganza at the end of the Redentore festivities (third weekend of July - 16/17 July in 2011), when a bridge of boats is built across the Giudecca Canal, is pure magic.
September and October are perhaps the loveliest months in Venice, when the sunshine mellows and the great marble facades of the Grand Canal palazzi reflect most perfectly in the shimmering water. But don’t expect it to be crowd-free. This is peak season, and the crowds don’t start to ease until the end of October. The hordes descending on the lagoon city for the Regata Storica rowing race/pageant on the first Sunday in September (4 September in 2011) are immense; and the Biennale dell'Architettura continues well into November (odd years only).
Visit from November until Carnevale swings into bewigged and masked action in February, and – bar a glitch around Christmas and New Year – you’ll have the place almost to yourself. While winter days can be mild and sunny, be prepared for cold weather too. In November-February, the wind off the nearby snow-covered Dolomite mountains sometimes whistles down Venice’s alleyways and chills to the marrow. Acqua alta (flooding) is a distinct possibility any time between October and April, and quite a spectacle in itself. It is a phenomenon which will maroon you for only a couple of hours a day when the tide hits its highest point: a siren sounds throughout the city to warn you that you’re about to get your feet wet.
There are some big winter festivities too. The pomp and circumstance of the Feast of Santa Maria della Salute (November 21) – when the patriarch (cardinal) processes across the Bacino di San Marco on a pontoon bridge – recall paintings of Renaissance ceremonies in the Accademia gallery. In February Carnevale – the ten days in the run-up to Lent, see www.carnevale.venezia.it – sees the city’s calli (streets) and campi (squares) filling with costumed revellers. In 2011 it runs from February 26-March 8. The 2011 edition of the utterly extravagant Cavalchina ball at the La Fenice opera house is scheduled for March 5.
Read Laura Millar’s guide Venice-bound to find out why she recommends visiting the city in winter.