It may not be surprising to learn that Venice floods on a regular basis. The city is built on the water and it’s sinking – if it didn’t flood regularly, that would be the shocking piece of news. Venetians are prepared for the periodic influx of water, and when Venice floods then you’ll need to be prepared to deal with it, too. After all, life in Venice doesn’t stop because things get a little wet.
Venice’s lowest point is in the center of St. Mark’s Square, so the square and the area around it is the first to flood whenever the city experiences the “acqua alta,” as it’s called (that’s Italian for “high water”). Should you be there when the flooding is just starting, you’ll see water burbling up through the grate at the center of the piazza.
The worst flooding in Venice tends to occur in the winter, when the normal tidal activity can be exacerbated by heavy wind and rain. In minor flooding episodes, the “acqua alta” may not extend far beyond St. Mark’s Square, or the water level will just be a couple of inches. But sometimes in the winter the entire city can flood, with nearly every sidewalk and piazza under several feet of water. Many residents have tall rubber boots in their closets (and have hip-waders, just in case) and shopkeepers all have flood gates they insert into doorways to keep out the bulk of the water. Of course in some cases the water levels get so high that even those methods don’t work, but more often than not Venetians go about their daily lives with only a few minor changes to their attire or routine.
If you’re visiting Venice during a flood, you probably won’t have your hip-waders in your suitcase. Ask at the front desk of your hotel – some hotels stock rubber boots for guests, and others will be able to tell you where you can buy some. Some travelers make do with large plastic garbage bags slipped over their feet and legs and tied to their thighs, but these have a tendency to not be sturdy enough to keep one’s feet completely dry during a day of sightseeing.
Some parts of the city get fitted with temporary raised walkways. As you can imagine, these get incredibly crowded, so don’t be in a hurry to get anywhere. When you’re walking through water on a sidewalk beside a canal, pay particular attention to where the sidewalk ends and the canal begins – you don’t want to accidentally walk off the edge of the sidewalk into much deeper water. Also, no matter how fun and/or funny it might look in photographs, it’s probably not a good idea to go swimming in the flood water. It’s not exactly toxic, but it’s not exactly “just” lagoon water, either. It’s lagoon water that’s been mixed with all the detritus from the city’s streets, not to mention the sewers that always overflow during a flood. Best to stay as dry as you can, and follow the lead of the Venetians.
For a look at what the city looks like (and how locals deal with it) during some of the worst flooding in Venice in years, take a look at this incredible photo collection from The Atlantic.