Photographing Venice during the pandemic – traveling back in time

I remember vividly a thought I had when in Venice in the summer of 2017. San Marco was flooded with sightseers. I thought, “wow, going back in time and seeing this place without all the tourists and just the locals living ordinary lives would be surreal”.

That thought stuck with me. But I would never have believed that three years later, thanks to the infamous pandemic of 2020, this would pretty much become possible.

From July 1st to August 1st 2020, I stayed in the heart of Venice and it really did feel like traveling back in time.

I don’t think I'll ever have that chance again. Being able to see and photograph Venice as a regular town rather than one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world is something I’ll never, ever forget.

It was so quiet on Burano Island that I waited around 25 minutes for someone to walk by this alleyway (to the left of the central house)

Venice during the pandemic – a photographer’s dream

With most tourists unable to get to Venice (and block my view everywhere I go), I’d head out in the morning and take in my surroundings. Kids playing in the streets, shop owners getting ready for the day, and local teens sailing the canals and eating picnics on their boats. It was so laid back and a completely different place to the one I’d seen during my previous stays in Venice.

As a photographer, it was paradise. Ordinary Venetian life sprawled throughout the vibrant streets of the lagoon, and I had freedom to capture scenes I never would have dreamt of seeing in 21st century Venice.

An aptly colourful local of Burano Island, Venice

Even Piazza San Marco, which is usually so full of tourists in the summer that you can barely walk, was virtually empty. I didn’t manage to get any photos I liked there though and spent most of my time walking the streets of Castello instead.

Castello is at the quieter end of Venice. Even during a usual summer (the busiest time of year), you can normally get away from the crowds by walking over to Castello, which is only a 5-10 minute walk from San Marco.

Out-of-service boat taxis in Piazza San Marco

So in July 2020, Castello was so free of tourists that it literally felt like stepping into the past – to a time when Venice wasn’t known by the outside world and only the local people walked the streets. 

How to photograph a quieter Venice, even now

But although this felt like a once in a lifetime experience, I have to make clear it’s only because of the season. This was Venice in summer, which is usually when Venice suffers from overtourism. And for my style of photography at least, that makes pulling off decent photos very difficult.

People wearing compulsory masks in Venice – July 2020

However, in winter, even now or before the pandemic, tourism in Venice is much more manageable. You can walk around quite comfortably most days in Piazza San Marco, and areas like Castello and Lido are pleasantly quiet. Plus, although it’s as cold as -1c in the winter, there is often an atmospheric fog floating around the lagoon, which allows you take photos of Venice in a lesser known light.

So if you’d like to visit and photograph a gloomier Venice with less tourists and travel back in time, consider visiting in winter (Dec-Feb). Bonus tip: avoid the Christmas holidays if possible as they’re quite a bit busier.


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