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I keep getting told that Venice smells pretty bad as a reason not to go (a lot of people say it's pretty crowded too but that's another matter). Apparently it's the canals in summer.

Is this true? Does Venice have a problem with it's aroma or is this a bit of an old wives tale?

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NOOOO !! Which buffoon told you so ? I just came back from Venice. Except for the smell of the lagoon and the sweaty people on the vaporetto, I couldn't smell anything else. –  DumbCoder Sep 1 at 12:16
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It might depend on algae activity. When I was there, in July some years back, it didn't smell at all. Of course there was the smell of sea water... but that was it. And indeed, it WAS crowded! –  CodeAngry Sep 1 at 14:55
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When I read the title, I actually wondered if this was a serious question!! –  George H Sep 1 at 18:46
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Quite simply, it USED TO, but they completely fixed the sewage problem like 20 years ago. Just a myth now. –  Joe Blow Sep 1 at 20:21
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snarky answer: "no, it doesn't have an olfactory sense" :P –  warren Sep 2 at 17:27

7 Answers 7

up vote 73 down vote accepted

I was in Venice in summer 2013. It didn't smell bad, even though it was hot. We asked some locals (who we were staying with) about the legendary smell.

Historically, raw sewage was simply dumped into the canals and (eventually) washed out to sea. This had been the status quo for centuries, with some improvement over the years but there was still lots of old plumbing. With increasing population and increasing tourism, the smell problem got steadily worse as the years went by. It was particularly bad on hot summer days.

A while ago (maybe 10-20 years ago), the city recognised the smell as a problem and started a programme to clean it up. They did a few key things:

  • Cleaned out the sludge and gunk from the canals, scrubbing and dredging
  • Required that new plumbing comply with strict new standards
  • Started a plumbing remediation effort to fix all the old plumbing

Our hosts had to replace their former home plumbing system with a triple septic tank system a few years earlier. The overall result has been a dramatic improvement in the smell throughout the city.

So, my experience (on hot summer days) is that Venice smells just fine now. But it wasn't always this way.

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So the myth is Plausible (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MythBusters#Plausible)! –  Prometheus Sep 1 at 20:25
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Hmm, I don't see any connection to 'plausible'? It was completely true; and is now completely not true, due to a specific change. Is the tower of pisa falling over? It was; but not now. –  Joe Blow Sep 1 at 20:33
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"...results can only be replicated by expanding some parameters of the myth by a realistic and reasonable margin." - start dumping sewage again to replicate the original smell. –  Prometheus Sep 1 at 20:37
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I visited Venice in 1997, and while the main canals had no discernible odors (aside from being seawater), many of the smaller canals did have a noticeable stink (especially the farther back you got from the main ones). Seems in the mid 1990s they started to step up the canal cleaning, and I believe they planned to keep it up as well. –  techturtle Sep 2 at 6:48

I have heard this "fact" many times. Another version states that this is especially true in the summer.

I was on a trip to Italy only last month and visited Venice as part of it. I spent three days there, took vaporettos (ferries) and walked most of the time. The water ways and canals do host a wide variety of algae and water-weeds and it is indeed true that you occasionally get a whiff of "algae-odor" when the wind's right and you happen to be on the side of some particular water-ways or canals.

It smelt different to me but not bad. However, stating this as a reason for not going to Venice is almost laughable.

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Venice has a very clearly 'salty' or 'sea-side' smell, but as said in the answer not generally a bad or even only unpleasant smell. If there's a particularly hot summer with little rain, no winds and little water exchange between the Mediterranean and the lagune of Venice some bad smell may built, but that usually a very temporary matter. –  greyshade Sep 1 at 14:09

Yes. I went there in September and there was a consistent whiff of stagnant water more or less everywhere. It wasn't exactly oppressive, but I didn't get used to it either and I noticed it regularly. I was however only there for two stints of two days each which I accept isn't a large amount of acclimatisation.

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Every city smells, and every city smells differently from any other city.
If you're there long enough you no longer notice, to a new arrival it's quite distinct.

Venice, being a city with a lot of salt water in a warm climate, no doubt smells rather distinctly compared to many landlocked cities.
And that's all there is to it.

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It's true, every water, with exception of distilled one, smells. For many people that smell (if the water is not contaminated) is pleasant, but some who are not used to water may find it unpleasant as well. –  Donaudampfschifffreizeitfahrt Sep 4 at 9:36

I'm Italian, born near Venice and I even lived in the city for one year recently. My experience is that Venice used to smell bad when the weather was really hot, and kind of still does sometimes, but not as bad as in the past. Of course it's relative, some people just hate the smell of the sea, I'm just refering to that kind of sewage/dumpster smell.
I also remember that in my childhod (twenty years ago) I was astonished by how much rubbish was left in the street, while nowadays they're doing a pretty good job keeping it clean (I mean, as clean as a city with that much turist flow can be with daily sweepings). Even in the past the smell was not that bad, annoying but bearable - IMHO some of Shanghai streets smell a lot worse, for example -, but local people were often complaining or joking about it. So, I think there's a partial truth in this word of mouth, but it's far from the hell they're describing, and it's probably referring to the past.
Anyway, my advice would still be to avoid the warmest days if you want to visit; and not because of the smell, but because all the walking and bridge crossing you have to do to get anywhere becomes really exhausting. And it's overcrowded, yes. But still, it's Venice, you'll really miss something unique if you decide to skip it.

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I was in Venice about 6 weeks ago, and heard the same thing beforehand! As it turns out, in the summer it does have a distinct smell of its own, but it's certainly not oppressive. I'm a Londoner, and it's similar to what you might smell by the Thames embankment on a warm day; brackish saltwater is always going to whiff a bit, but not particularly unpleasantly, and I can't say there was a noticeable sewage smell at all.

That's probably partly down to the programme of canal cleaning @techturtle mentions above - there's some really quite interesting stuff on Venicepedia about the city's sewage system and how they regularly service the canals, draining sections entirely. If you like that kind of thing...

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It does smell a bit, and it's not a nice smell, but at the same time it's not so disgusting that it should put you off going.

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