Venice is a city unlike anywhere in the world. Famous for its canals, gondolas, architecture, glass, and romance, there are so many reasons to visit this magical city in Italy. But what many travelers may not know is that Venice has long been home to a thriving LGBTQ+ community, with a rich queer history that goes back centuries. To get a better sense of what makes Venice so special, and so especially queer and welcoming to LGBTQ+ travelers from around the globe, we caught up with Venetian LGBTQ+ local guide Manuel, who you can find giving “Untold History” tours around Venice with Quiiky.com – a travel agency specializing Italian LGBTQ+ tourism.
Hear what Manuel had to say about Venice’s LGBTQ+ history, his favorite – and most romantic – places to visit around the city, and what makes the destination so welcoming to queer travelers below.
Queervadis: Manuel, what first brought you to Venice, Italy, and how did you fall in love with the city?
Manuel: I was born in a small town near Venice, in the mainland, and therefore the city has been a familiar place since childhood. Growing up, I started coming to Venice even more often. Here I studied violin at the Conservatory, which is housed in a stunning historical palace, and architecture at the University. When you are surrounded by so much beauty you can get used to it, or keep wondering: “Why?” For me it was the latter case. The love for the city has therefore grown over time and it has also been nourished by the awareness that only a study of its history, art, and architecture can give.
Queervadis: Do you feel that Venice is welcoming to LGBTQ+ travelers?
Manuel: Of course, Venice has a centuries-old tradition of LGBTQ+ tourism. Going around Venice seeing gay couples hand in hand is a daily experience. It is not only due to tourism, but also due to the University. Venice has an important community of young University students, I am convinced that this has contributed a lot to creating that climate of acceptance and normality that you feel in the city.
Queervadis: Many people may not know this, but Venice has a lengthy history for being inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community for generations. Can you share some of the biggest moments in Venice’s history as it relates to the LGBTQ+ community?
Manuel: This is very complex but also fascinating. The Republic of Venice once had very strict legislation against sodomy. Until the 16th century, homosexuality was punishable with death, and later with prison. Yet, this had not prevented the birth of a cultural gay community. It is no coincidence that in the 17th century, the Alcibiade fanciullo a scuola was written and printed in Venice, which is one of the most scandalous books ever, of course, with gay themes throughout.
The history of the city is full of interesting episodes: in the Middle Ages we have the sad story of Rolandina, the first known transgender person of the modern era. In the baroque period we had a crossdresser who scandalized the city by going to the church in women’s clothes accompanied by his rich lover… But it is necessary to wait until the 19th century for Venice (and Italy in general) to become that welcoming place where many gays of Victorian England found a breath of fresh air… and much more. The English writer Frederick Rolfe lived in the city in the last years of his life, accompanied by beautiful and young gondoliers.
Queervadis: Amazing. For queer travelers interested in art and architecture, what are some can’t miss destinations they should visit in Venice?
Manuel: Obviously all the great monuments and museums of the city leave you speechless, first of all the Doge’s Palace or the Basilica of San Marco. But there is a sophisticated museum in which you can trace the fascination of the Renaissance for classical erotic themes, including homosexuality. I’m talking about Museo Palazzo Grimani and its collection of ancient statues and Renaissance paintings. Here the queer themes are sometimes more evident, sometimes hidden behind the mythology, you have to know how to find them … and identify them. It’s like being an investigator!
For this reason my advice is to visit it accompanied by an expert guide in these symbols.
Queervadis: For queer travelers interested in food and wine, what are some can’t miss restaurants or markets they should visit in Venice?
Manuel: Food in Venice is an experience that can be expressed in many ways. There are the traditional bacari, where you can drink a glass of wine accompanied by cicchetti (similar to tapas). It is a very traditional and enjoyable experience, but obviously different from sitting in a restaurant and being pampered with Venetian cuisine.
But if you’re asking me what my favorite restaurants are, this is a secret that I only share with my guests who are true food lovers! For those who stay in an apartment and have a kitchen at their disposal (and love to cook), a wonderful experience is shopping in Rialto, at the ancient fish market. Obviously you have to go there in the morning, the best day is Saturday! You will find excellent fresh fish to cook perhaps following a Venetian recipe, the fishmonger will be happy to advise you! For example I love to cook Risotto di Go (a fish from the lagoon) and Spaghetti alla Busara (with scampi, tomato and chilli). Venice has also a important tradition in vegetarian food, there is a restaurant (ok, I’ll share its name: Zucca) which is one of my favorites.
Some islands around Venice have specialized for centuries in the cultivation of vegetables, like the famous artichokes from Sant’Erasmo, and you can find all this delights at the Rialto Market.
Queervadis: Venice is quite famous for its annual Carnevale. Can you describe this experience, and what LGBTQ+ travelers might expect when visiting during that time?
Manuel: Imagine entering another epoch, not a specific epoch, but an epoch with many epochs in itself, and you can choose yours. This is the Venice carnival, a place where you don’t hide behind a mask, but the mask reveals who you are (or who you pretend to be). The best way to enjoy this festival is not to come to Venice to see the carnival with thousands and thousands of other tourists, but to take part in it!
Many carnival lovers start designing next year’s costume in the spring, but in the city there are some excellent ateliers that sell or rent historical costumes. My tip is to treat yourself to this luxury: take the costume and mask that most reflects you and sit at Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco, the oldest café in the world, surrounded by other masks in the most queer atmosphere that Venice can give. Not infrequently, it also happens that you might make friends and receive an invitation to a party in a palace. Okay, maybe now you’re thinking about Cadinot’s “Carnival in Venice” plot … that’s not what I mean… but never say never!
Queervadis: Venice is known as one of the most romantic cities in the world. What are some of your favorite spots in the city that are perfect for queer romance?
Manuel: Many Venetians gave their first kiss under the lamppost of the Punta della Dogana, near the Basilica della Salute. I have chosen (or it happened to me) a bench on the shore of Sant’Elena, which embraces the whole basin of San Marco. But if you are looking for a little privacy without moving so far, the area of the Madonna dell’Orto in Cannaregio will make your romantic moment unforgettable.
Queervadis: How can our Queervadis readers find you to take one of your LGBTQ+ tours throughout Venice and beyond?
Manuel: I collaborate with Quiiky, an agency specialized in LGBTQ+ tourism all over Italy, with trips specifically in and around Venice. In addition to booking a tour with me, you will find Quiiky to be a competent and professional agency with which you can plan your stay in Venice.
Learn more about Quiiky’s Italian LGBTQ+ tours, including “Untold History” tours of Venice and beyond, and book your next trip at Quiiky.com.