All Articles How to handle the floods in Venice

How to handle the floods in Venice

What times of year to avoid, how to plan, and where to stay.

Erica Firpo
By Erica Firpo22 May 2024 3 minutes read
Basilica in San Marco square in Venice with reflection on high tide night
Image: anyaivanova/Getty Images

Venice is gorgeous any time of the year, but when it’s the rainy season or there are exceptionally high tides that raise water levels, the city can be a dangerous beauty.

Locals refer to Venice’s intermittent flooding as acqua alta. It’s a fact of life that Venetians have been living with for more than 1,400 years. It’s not picturesque, charming or fun and it is a stressful event for locals that can make planning a trip difficult for tourists. When tide surges come, their unpredictable nature can wreak havoc on the city, but not every acqua alta ends up being a city-wide flood. There are varying degrees of flooding and it is still possible to enjoy your Venetian adventure during a flood.

Here’s what to know and what to do to plan for potential flooding:

What is acqua alta (high water)?

Acqua alta, by definition, is simply high water, or higher than usual water. But the phrase also includes potentially catastrophic flooding that happens in Venice’s low-lying areas when the lagoon levels swell thanks to a combo of rising tides, strong south winds, and sea water movement. So whenever it rains, city officials monitor water levels at the Zero Mark of Punta della Salute ZMPS, a veritable hydro-yardstick near the Church of Santa Maria della Salute in the Dorsoduro neighborhood. If waters rise above the 100 cm (39.6 in) mark, the city is on alert. Dangerous tide surges are signaled by sirens benchmarked at 110 cm (43.3 in), 120 cm (47.2 in), 130 cm (51.1 in) and 140+ cm (55 in).

Every few years, there is the freak and horrific occurrence of “exceptional acqua alta”, i.e. when the tide level exceeds 140 (55 in) which has the potential to flood 59% of the city. On November 19, 2019, water levels rose to 194 cm (76.4 in). Measure that on a yardstick, and we are talking about three and half feet of water flooding Saint Mark’s Square, months of devastation and over a billion dollars in damages.

When is acqua alta?

High water traditionally occurs between the months of October and March, but more recently, we’ve experienced acqua alta in later Spring and even in summer, like August 2023 when the flood tide peaked at 115 cm (45.3 in).

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Does flooding happen all over the city?

Doges Palace and St Marks square flooded with acqua alta (high tide)
Saint Mark's Square
Image: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Some areas of Venice are significantly lower than others, like Piazza San Marco which, at 82 cm (32.3 in), is very susceptible to flooding. Likewise Dorsoduro is also one of the lower lying areas, whereas the Rialto bridge area sits at 105 cm (41.3 in), Santa Lucia train station at 135 cm (53.1 in), and other areas are even higher.

How will I know if there is acqua alta?

You can check online at Venice’s acqua alta forecast website. Hours prior to a flood event, the city warns residents via SMS as well as broadcast sirens. When acqua alta is forecast, the city sounds off four siren variations each signaling a high tide level from one prolonged single-frequency tone indicating a 110 cm tide, and increasing in quantity for higher tides.

What do I do if I am in Venice during acqua alta?

First of all, you should absolutely never travel to Venice in search of acqua alta. Disaster tourism is not just a bad idea and bad practice, but it is incredibly disrespectful to the Venetian community. It is a serious threat that calls for serious preparation, safety and protection.

If you’re in Venice when acqua alta is forecast, prevention and protection measures will be implemented. Passerelle (elevated walkways) are set up and can withstand up to nearly two feet of water. Shops and businesses begin to close. Venice’s public transport service ACTV will run modified vaporetti (water bus) programs. If there is exceptional acqua alta, the city may come to a full stop.

Tips

  • Focus on higher areas like Canareggio, Santa Croce and Castello and avoid the lower lying areas like Piazza San Marco.
  • Pack waterproof shoes and a portable umbrella, they’ll be your best friends.
  • Do not wade, swim, walk barefoot or kayak during the flooding. It’s disrespectful, unhygienic and, in some cases, punishable by a fine.

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Erica Firpo
Erica Firpo is an experienced travel and lifestyle journalist and podcaster based in Rome. She loves Italy and covers its amazing nuances in travel, lifestyle, art, and hospitality as a regular contributor to The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, The Guardian, and Forbes Travel. Erica is the creative force behind Ciaobella.co digital magazine and podcast where she shares authentic stories and amazing people. Additionally, she has penned over a dozen travel books for Fodor’s, Insight Guides, and Lonely Planet. You can catch Erica in Italy on Instagram @ericafirpo, Twitter @moscerina, and TikTok @ericainrome