Getting your feet wet can be lots of fun.
The fall is upon us, and so is acqua alta season. Venice’s floods, caused by the moon’s gravitational pull mixed with winds and rains, are certainly a nuisance for Venetians, but whether or not your trip will be ruined by the water depends on how you choose to experience this natural event. You can run for your life and leave town as soon as you hear the sirens, lock yourself in your hotel room until the tide goes back down, or you can just enjoy this special moment and take it as an opportunity to see Venice from a different perspective. Here’s how.
Know Your Tide
Venice’s high tide is not just a tide. It is a combination of tide and rain, which fill up the lagoon with water, and sirocco winds, blowing northwards from the Adriatic sea against the lagoon’s outlets and preventing the water from flowing back into the sea. This is all made worse by climate change, which exaggerates sea-level fluctuations, and by the fact that Venice is slowly sinking—the city now stands 12 centimeters lower than 100 years ago. While acqua alta has always been an issue for Venetians, with first reported floods dating back to 782 AD, it now seems to be more frequent than ever, with some floods occurring even in summer.
Get the Numbers Straight
For it to be considered “alta” or high, the “acqua” levels need to be at least 80 centimeters above normal. This height affects the lowest parts of the city, such as Piazza San Marco and the Dorsoduro neighborhood. When the tide is about to reach 110 centimeters, Venetians get alerted by a siren and a text message. Mobile elevated platforms (passerelle, marked in red in this map) are then placed along the main alleyways. At this stage, 12% of the city (including the Rialto area) is underwater. A hundred and thirty-five centimeters will flood the Santa Lucia station area, while anything higher than 160 centimeters is considered exceptional. Check out the city’s tide forecast for the exact peak times and their heights.
INSIDER TIPAcqua alta has a cycle of twelve hours with a peak after six, so you can always opt-out of the fun by hanging out in a dry spot until the water has gone back down.
Buy the Right Gear
As soon as the tide rises, street vendors and newsstands start offering various types of knee-high shoe covers, similar to plastic bags, which are sold at around €6 a pair. While these are great for crossing a couple of smaller ponds, they break very easily, so your best bet is to buy a pair of actual boots, possibly knee-high, usually sold at about €15-20. Tobacconists, souvenir shops, supermarkets, hardware stores, and market stalls all carry various types of boots in all sizes, and housewares shop Ratti has a particularly wide selection.
INSIDER TIPPrices may get inflated for the occasion, especially in the souvenir shops, so buy wisely.
Do as the Venetians Do
Acqua alta does not stop locals from their daily activities. Ambulances and garbage boats still run, Venetians still go to work or schools or buy vegetables at the market. In order to minimize water damage, some shops install temporary steel floodgates, and many have pumps to expel the water. It is not uncommon to spot shopkeepers as they move around their furniture and goods—even their fridges. For Venetians, acqua alta is a nuisance, so always be respectful, help locals get where they have to get, and try to behave as they would.
INSIDER TIPAlthough it may be tempting, especially if your socks are wet, don’t walk barefoot in acqua alta. The water is dirty and full of bacteria, and you might step on broken glass.
Don’t Miss the Siren
The so-called “acoustic signal” starts with what sounds like a ship siren from the war era, only to turn into a rather creepy electronic melody that lasts for a few minutes, creating a state of silence and a feeling of ominous expectation. It’s an experience in its own right.
INSIDER TIPCount the number of notes played in the electronic melody to get an idea of the tide’s severity. One single note means 110 cm, four notes mean 140 cm and higher.
Know Where to Go
Who hasn’t seen stunning pictures of Piazza San Marco underwater with its gorgeous reflections and the San Marco church in the background? During the floods, however, the area gets crowded, so it’s best to explore the lesser-known campi and alleys for picture-worthy views of the flooded city. Lose yourself in the alleys and canals around Campo Santa Margherita for pretty and unusual views of the city, and beware of flooded fondamenta (canal-side pavements) too. They are pretty, but you may easily fall into a canal. Should you prefer a dry vantage point, climb up to the top of the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, a lesser-known tower offering a spectacular view of Venice’s roofs and waterways.
Coffee With Your Feet in the Water
Many famous restaurants in and around Piazza San Marco, such as Grancaffé Quadri or Harry’s Bar Cipriani, pride themselves on always remaining open during the floods. But while drinking coffee on a flooded Piazza San Marco must be an unforgettable experience, the bill you’ll get is probably just as unforgettable. For a more affordable drink, head to bar Il Caffé Rosso on Campo Santa Margherita. This pleasant café is popular among locals (mainly students and academics from the nearby university) and also serves delicious tramezzini sandwiches. If you are in the mood for some culture, nearby bookstore Libreria Toletta keeps its books on the higher shelves to prevent them from getting wet, and when the tide is high, the flooded shop is a really interesting sight.
Forget Your Trip to Murano
Although most vaporetti and even gondolas will run in extreme tide situations, a trip to the lagoon islands is not recommended. The islands are smaller and more exposed to high winds, and you don’t want to risk being hit by lagoon waves as you get off the vaporetto, or being stuck in Burano for the night. In addition, many of the glass-blowing workshops are closed when there’s acqua alta.
Help Those in Need
That mom who’s trying to cross a pond with a stroller, a toddler, and all the shopping could definitely use some help. Be nice and help others, and remember that not everyone is enjoying this!
Stop and Think
Acqua alta may be a good opportunity to think of global warming and sea-level rise.