Millions of visitors land in Venice every year to explore the streets of what some people claim to be the most beautiful city in the world (and I firmly believe it is!).
However, it’s no secret that there are some tourists that have reported smelling a strong odour in Venice, and as it happens, it wasn’t pleasant for them at all.
So, if you’re here in search of answers you’ll probably be asking yourself, does Venice smell? And if so, what are the reasons behind this bad smell?
Let’s get straight to the point: Venice doesn’t smell bad, even though there are some parts of the city that based on the time of the year and weather conditions, can smell bad. Just like any other city where you may encounter a whiff of something.
This is likely to be only temporary, and for a couple of reasons I’ll explain below. As a disclaimer, I would say be aware of who’s telling you that Venice smells bad, and don’t let that stop you from visiting this city, if that’s something you plan to do.
Does Venice smell?
Quick Answer: No, Venice as a whole does not smell bad! However, you may catch a whiff in certain parts of the city, especially when walking near the canals, and sometimes you can sense a relatively strong odour during the summer months. As soon as you move from that particular spot, you’ll no longer smell any odour.
Where does Venice sewage go?
Venice relies on a unique sewage system made up of a network of masonry tunnels called ‘gatoli’. This old system dates back to the XVI century and consists of a network of sewage collectors that gathered both wastewater and rainwater.
Once waters are collected, they will then flow into the rii (smaller canals) of the city canals or in the lagoon. The ‘gatoli’ were periodically washed by the tides which were cleaning and disinfecting the ducts.
By the 20th century, many of these ‘gatoli’ were clogged, and to solve the issue, it was made mandatory for some people, the use of a septic tank before discharging the waters into the canal.
Why does Venice smell in summer?
In Venice during summer there are two different situations that can be the cause of bad smell. First, the drainage of the canals to clean their floors or undergo fondamenta’s (canal’s sides) maintenance.
When canals are being drained, the silt and mud are exposed (with all the other things that sit on the floor of a canal!) and with the summer heat, it’s easy to understand why the smell is so pungent. This is limited to the area where workers are draining the canals only.
The second situation is related to Venice’s tides. During the summer months, when there’s low tide (bassa marea), which is usually happening more frequently than in winter, the silt and mud are exposed and it smells.
Throughout this site you’ll see where I’ve actually noted the summer season as the worst time to visit Venice and these are unfortunately part of the reason why.
So while I have clarified that, YES it can smell in certain places…
Why does Venice smell bad?
Let’s take a closer look at each reason that’s behind the bad smell in Venice, which does affect limited areas of the city and periods of the year.
Rubbish / Garbage
There are two reasons behind the current exaggerated production of garbage in Venice that didn’t exist in the early days of the city and centuries to follow.
Since the economic boom in the 60s, the city, like the rest of the world, experienced a constant growth in population. Only recently stopped growing, as more and more people moved or decided to move to the mainland.
The other reason is the enormous flow of tourists all year long. Because of this, Venice produces more than double the average waste per capita of the other main cities in the Veneto.
The historic city centre welcomes around 30 million tourists a year (counting both daytrippers and those who stay for more days).
Such a high number of tourists in a city occupying an area that is not big enough is not environmentally sustainable. It basically means that during the busiest days, such as during festivities or summer holidays, the municipality normally dedicates resources to waste collection that are not sufficient to keep it clean.
If garbage is not collected for some hours, especially during those hot summer days, you might notice a bad smell in some parts of the city.
The Venice sewage system relied for a long time on an ingenious system that made use of the ‘gàtoli’. The ‘gatoli’ are masonry tunnels with the function of transporting all the waste directly into the canals. How does the gatoli work?
The tunnels were conveyed into a collector, generally lined with bricks and with a rectangular section, which collected both wastewater and rainwater. The height at which the gatoli were laid was such that the tides periodically cleaned and partly disinfected the ducts.
By the second half of the 20th century, the state of the gatoli was quite negative as they were partially or totally obstructed.
The first solution was the one to move the gatoli’s mouth higher with the result that during low tide they remained uncovered with unpleasant consequences like bad smell, rats proliferation and insects and bad hygienic conditions.
Since this system didn’t work out, it was decided to make use of septic tanks. On top of that, regular maintenance of the ‘gatoli’ and canal excavation became imperative to keep the city’s canals as clean as possible.
From the 70s onwards, the newer urban areas got equipped with a better sewage system, with pipes instead of the classic gutters.
This system has already revealed its faults, because the tides that invade the pipes cause condensation that reduces their diameter.
You can read more about how Venice was built on this blog, but at the moment, most of the city still relies on the ‘gatoli’ sewage system and businesses are required to use the septic tanks, while private houses don’t have to.
The reason why sometimes Venice smells can also be found in the excessive number of people (increase in population and mass tourism) relying on its unique sewage system of the ‘gatoli’.
The tides can have a dual role in Venice’s smell. The high tide helps to clean and disinfect the ‘gatoli’ sewage system ducts regularly and as a consequence, to keep the bad smell away.
Very low tide is the main cause behind the bad smell that comes from the canals. The last episode was in February 2023 when Venice was in the shoal.
When there’s very low tide, the canals get drained from the water, transforming them into muddy ditches that smell bad. The smell comes from the deposits on their floors.
The Venetian Canals
As explained above, the majority of waste water produced by Venetians is emptied directly into the canals. Cleaning the canals is effective in reducing the bad smell due to sewage and deposits that settle on the bottom over the years.
So when taking your Gondola ride in Venice it is not unheard of to catch the backend of an offensive smell as you glide around the lagoon. That’s normal.
This is why its important to drain the water of the canals regularly to clean them, because if not their floors get covered with deposits that smell bad over time.
With an excessive accumulation of garbage and sediments, not even the natural washing mechanism of the tides can do much.
Drained for Repairs
Until the late 19th century, the canals were cyclically drained, on average once every ten years. When the canals are drained to undergo regular cleaning or maintenance of their sides (fondamenta), their floors sometimes stink.
This is where sediments, garbage and mud have settled over the months. The excavation operations are managed by Insula, the operational arm of the municipality of Venice for urban maintenance, infrastructure and construction.
Before 2016, garbage was simply left outside people’s houses, on the street, causing unpleasant odours and low-quality waste sorting.
Waste collection has always been difficult in the lagoon area, due to the unusual way in which the city was built with its canals and narrow streets.
The problem became almost unsustainable for two reasons: the presence of 30 million tourists a year and the numerous colonies of seagulls that aggravate the spread of waste and the proliferation of rats.
At the end of 2016, Veritas, the in-house multiutility company of the Municipality of Venice, launched a new waste collection method: both door-to-door and the one that allows citizens to independently dispose of waste on boats equipped with waste compactors.
By looking at this specific page on the Veritas website you can find out how to recycle in Venice and if you’re serious about this cause, you can even download the ‘Scoasse’ app (in Venetian it means ‘garbage’) to learn more about it.
It’s a fact that Venice is affected by mass tourism. Whereas there are tourists that respect the city and its people, and that do their part in keeping the city’s streets and canals clean, there are people who don’t respect it.
They throw garbage around the city or do even worse (and I leave you to imagine the rest). In the most touristic areas of Venice, when hoards of people invade the city’s streets, you might spot garbage left out and even though it gets cleared at some point, in the summer, with the high temperatures, it rots much faster.
Tips for Dealing with bad smells in Venice
See below some of my best tips to help you deal with the bad smell in Venice, and prevent this from happening.
I will also share some best practices designed by the City of Venice with the awareness campaign #EnjoyRespectVenezia that will give you more insights.
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Does Venice smell?
So, to conclude this peculiar question asked by my readers, Venice’s bad smell is due to a number of factors and they all contribute in a more or less large way.
The unique sewage system, the canals’ stagnant waters and resident and tourists’ garbage are the main reasons behind Venice’s bad smell.
This happens in very limited areas of the city, during some times of the year and based on the weather conditions.
In any case, the bad smell is usually never too bad and you can easily move from that specific location and not smell it anymore.
For this reason, the bad smell should not affect your visit to Venice. Always check the best time to visit Venice to avoid large crowds which is one of the causes.
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