Gondola Rides in Venice: The 2019 Essential Guide
Venice is the epitome of romance and old-world charm. The Floating City is filled with iconic scenes; rich marble palaces that line the canals and the ornate bridges that span them, narrow lanes that seemingly take you back in time, the majestic St. Mark’s Square brimming with tourists, and it’s the birthplace of Marco Polo. But, nothing represents the spirit of Venice quite like that of the gondola.
What is the Significance of Taking a Gondola Ride in Venice?
Venice is unlike any other city in the world, so it’s no surprise that it would have a mode of transportation all its own. These emblematic vessels have long been part of Venice’s history and culture and no Venetian experience is complete without a traditional gondola ride.
The exact date of the inception of the gondola is unknown, but these shiny, black, flat-bottomed boats have been operational in Venice since at least the end of the 11th century. They reached the height of their popularity in the 1600s when the Venetian nobility flooded Venice’s canals with over 10,000 opulent gondolas.
Today only about 500 remain in operation. So, if you want to float in the exclusive footsteps of Venice’s finest, indulge yourself in a gondola ride.
Why Should I Take a Gondola Ride in Venice?
A gondola ride in Venice is as iconic as throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain or eating a baguette in front of the Eiffel Tower.
While modern gondola rides are mainly reserved for tourists, taking a gondola ride is a Venetian tradition you don’t want to miss out on. The romance of a gondola ride is undeniable. To make it even more romantic, bring along a bottle of wine or prosecco, your gondolier won’t mind. You’ll get the chance to see the city’s palazzi, churches, and bridges from a unique perspective. You’ll also get to participate in Venetian history and be a part of a tradition, like the rest of the city, that is increasingly at risk.
At the rate Venice is sinking, and the rate that Venetians are leaving the city, gondolas may not be around forever, so take advantage of them now.
What to Expect
A gondola is a traditional Venetian wooden, flat-bottomed boat. All gondolas are built to the same standard of 11 meters long and 600 kilograms in special woodworking shops called squeri, and they are all finished with a shiny, black varnish. While they all have the same general specifications, decorations and comforts, like pillows and blankets, vary by boat, so shop around a little and find one that catches your eye.
The gondola drivers are called gondoliers and each owns and maintains their own boat. Gondoliers wear a traditional uniform of black pants, a striped shirt, and sometimes a banded straw hat. Most gondoliers speak some English and you may find ones that speak a little French or German as well. Experience varies by gondolier. They don’t all sing, but some do and they may only indulge you if the moment is right. Some gondoliers will provide sightseeing tidbits along your cruise, while others will remain stoic for the entire ride.
How Much Does a Gondola Ride Cost?
How to Make It More Affordable
Although the rates are set, there are a few ways to lessen the blow of the cost of a Venetian gondola ride.
1. Share a ride- gondolas can seat up to 6 people.
If you are doing it just for the experience, split the cost with 1 or 2 other couples. You’ll still get the great experience but it won’t break the bank. You’ll also have someone who can take pictures of you and your significant other and get the gondolier in the photo. Split 6 ways, it makes it just over €13 a person for a daytime ride. Not too bad.
2. Tour rates- book a guided tour that includes a gondola ride as part of the experience.
Many tour companies offer a walking tour that includes a gondola ride at the end. If you take a private tour, you will be the only ones in your gondola. If you take a group tour, you might end up with up to 6 people on the gondola. But, you will have spent the last few hours with them on the tour, so at least you don’t have to ask strangers to split the cost of a ride with you.
3. Take the Traghetto
If you’re looking for a really inexpensive gondola ride, the traghetto is the way to go. The traghetti ferry passengers from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. There are 7 points along the Grand Canal from St. Mark’s to the train station where you can hop in a traghetto. These boats are a bit larger and more utilitarian than the regular gondolas and have two oarsmen. The short journey across the Grand Canal will only set you back €2 per person. This way you can say you have been on the Grand Canal in a gondola, but keep the other €78 for a rainy day.
Where Should I Take a Gondola Ride?
The first, and most obvious choice, is on the Grand Canal. While a ride down the Grand Canal is not a bad idea, keep in mind that it can get very crowded. It is however a spectacular sight to be right in the middle of the heart of Venice, and floating under the Rialto Bridge is an experience like no other.
If you choose to take a gondola ride on the Grand Canal, it will probably be noisy, slow-moving, and cut short. Cut short? Yes, gondola rides on the Grand Canal can sometimes last less than the standard 40 minutes, but rest assured you will still pay the full €80. Your gondolier’s watch runs a little faster on the Grand Canal where there are boatloads of tourists waiting in line for their turn in a gondola. Be sure to make sure you agree upon the time with your gondolier and keep time by your own watch.
For a quieter, and more romantic experience, head to the smaller side canals. The side canals are far less congested; you don’t want to be in bumper-to-bumper gondola traffic while you are trying to enjoy a romantic moment with your significant other. Recommended areas away from the Grand Canal to find gondolas are the Campo San Barnaba, Accademia, and San Polo areas as well as the Jewish Ghetto. Choose a gondola location based on an area you want to visit. Choose one that’s near a restaurant or gelato shop you have your eye on.
When Should I Take a Gondola Ride?
The canals are generally less crowded in the evenings, however the cost increased to €100 after 19:00. If you’re not sure about forking over that much for a gondola ride, consider taking one early in the morning. In the summer, you won’t be sweltering under the blazing Venetian sun. Neither will your gondolier, which means you might increase your odds of getting serenaded.
If you are in Venice on an Italian holiday, take advantage of it! Most workers will be off for the holiday and the canals will be less crowded by delivery boats and trash boats. If you have your heart set on taking a gondola ride down the Grand Canal, a holiday would be the perfect day to do it.
Don’t take a gondola ride if it’s raining. They are not covered and you will get wet. Don’t take a gondola ride if it’s just finished raining as you will get wet upon sitting down.
Do All Gondoliers Sing?
Contrary to what’s portrayed in the movies, no, they don’t. But some do. Shop around and find a gondolier that you like. If you have your heart set on being serenaded, ask the gondolier if he’s willing to sing.
Can I Pre-Book?
Technically, you can, but it’s not recommended. It’s best to be a little flexible and take a gondola ride when it best fits into your day. If you pre-book and it happens to be raining that day (not unheard of in Venice), you’d be stuck taking a sopping-wet, non-refundable ride. It’s also incredibly easy to get lost in Venice, so you could very well end up missing your appointment. Wait until you get there, check out some of the different neighborhoods and pick the gondolier and location that are right for you, something you can’t accomplish when pre-booking. Unlike many other attractions in Venice, there is no discount for pre-booking.
How to Avoid Scams
You might see signs at the gondola stops along the Grand Canal advertising lower rates than the official rate. Don’t be fooled. This is a classic instance of, “you get what you pay for.” While you think you’re getting a bargain, you will almost definitely end up sharing your gondola ride with other passengers for a much shorter amount of time, and your gondolier will be less than attentive.
The other most common way to get scammed is to get short-changed on the length of your ride. Make sure both you and your gondolier are clear on the expected duration. Is your tour for 35 or 40 minutes? Both are acceptable at the €80 rate. Keep track of the time on your watch, and let your gondolier know that you are doing so. Not every gondolier will intentionally try to cut your ride short, but be wary that it does happen sometimes.
Should I Tip?
If you think that a gondola ride is too expensive, not worth the cost, or simply not for you, there are a few other related activities in Venice that might be better suited to you.
1. Row Your Own Venetian Gondola
For the experience of a lifetime, learn how to row your very own gondola on Venice’s charming canals. Lessons last 90 minutes and cost €85 for 1 or 2 people, €120 for 3 people, and €140 for 4 people. You’ll technically be learning in a batellina, a Venetian hand-crafted wooden boat that’s a bit wider than the traditional gondola, but perfect for learning the art of Venetian-style rowing, standing up and facing forward. You’ll learn all about the history of the gondoliers and even get some great info on the city itself.
2. Take a Vaporetto Ride
For a great way to see Venice from the water, take a ride on a vaporetto, Venice’s water-based public transportation. An adult one-way ticket will run you about €7,50 so riding the vaporetto is a great way to see the city and not break the bank. It’s also practical and can get you from one point to another, whereas a gondola ride will return you to the same location where it picked you up.
Another fantastic, and often overlooked, way to see Venice is by kayak. Paddle your way through Venice’s waterways yourself. Kayaking has been restricted by the city, but it is still possible to enter the waterways on a kayak after 3pm on weekdays and Saturdays, and on Sundays and Italian holidays. Don’t let the time restrictions deter you, kayaking through the Venice is an amazing experience. You’re set even lower than the gondolas A guided tour is the best way to kayak through Venice so you don’t end up lost in the labyrinth of canals or in restricted areas. Kayaks are not permitted on the Grand Canal.
For more things to do in Venice check out our bucket list guide for 25 things to see and do
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