A gondola ride through the Venetian canals is an experience not to be missed — yes, even though it is shamelessly touristy! Gliding along the maze of twists and curves is one of the best ways to truly see Venice and get a perspective on places where your feet cannot lead you. Plus, you will be witnessing a little piece of authentic history.
Gondolas have been in Venice since the 11th century, though the first ones were only used as ferries to shuttle people back and forth across the canals. Of course, this mode of transportation soon became highly useful in a city with no cars, and by the 16th century, more than 10,000 gondolas sailed Venice’s canals. Today — though it seems that gondolas are everywhere in Venice — there are actually only a few hundred left in the city.
How to take a gondola in Venice: Riding a gondola along the canals in Venice is on many bucket-lists. However, given the exorbitant cost for this short-lived treat, it is easy to shy away from the experience. Gondola fares are officially set at 80 euros for a 40 minute ride. Fares are even higher in the evening at 100 Euros (after 7 p.m.) – Yikes! Luckily, gondola rides can be split between up to six people. So consider making friends with the strangers beside you who are also hemming and hawing about the price!
The next step is finding a gondola and gondolier that suits your fancy. This isn’t difficult. Find a canal and, most likely, there will be a gondola moored along the wall. However, deciding where to hop on a gondola, or which route to request requires a bit more thought. After all, taking these time-honored water taxis for a spin only happens once in a lifetime (maybe twice) so it is essential to make the experience as fulfilling as possible.
By all means, do not ride along the Grand Canal. This is the most well-trodden route for gondola tours. Gondolas in this area are always lined up bumper to bumper, packed with cruise ship passengers and selfie-stick holding tourist groups. I certainly did not want to be one of fifteen boats crowding together in a narrow canal. Not the intimate, quiet and atmospheric experience that we were looking for in Venice.
Instead, my mom and I meandered away from the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge. Since Venice is built on 118 islands and connected by 400 bridges, there are many other options for gondola gliding routes. We eventually came upon a circle of cigar-smoking gondoliers resting in their bobbing gondolas. A couple nearby was also gazing wistfully at the boats so we approached and asked if they would like to share a boat ride. Obviously, splitting the cost between four is much more affordable than two. And unless you are a honeymooning couple wanting to snuggle, it doesn’t really affect your experience that much.
We asked our guide, Marco, to please carry us through the quieter, lesser traveled canals off of the main drag, i.e. the Grand Canal. Marco guided us through a labyrinth where we hardly saw other boats and very, very few people. We got up close and personal to the crumbling, colorful walls of the canals, breathed in the mildew, ducked under tiny bridges and saw a side of Venice only accessible by water. If only these canals could talk! I’m sure the centuries of stories, affairs and struggles they witnessed would be fascinating.
Our gondola finally emerged from the atmospheric canals onto the busy Canal Grande, with the Rialto bridge behind us. Marco promised it was only for a brief moment and he then pointed out several famous buildings, including one featured in a James Bond movie. We snapped a photo of said famous building and then sighed with relief as Marco steered around a corner and, once again, brought us deep into the quieter canals.
A bit of gondola trivia: Did you know that gondoliers must be officially licensed, speak English, attend over 400 hours of instruction and pass an examination that tests physical endurance, navigation and knowledge of Venice’s history and sights?
They also must wear black pants, a striped shirt and a special straw boater hat. This is one of the most sought after jobs in Venice with some wages amounting to a staggering USD150,000 per year. Our young stud of a gondolier was probably just over 18 years old.
Singing is not a requirement for a gondolier, but, of course, the tourists seem to like it. We asked Marco if he was so inclined, and he was happy to sing a short tune for us – a very brief one at that! Marco was keen to talk instead and provided interesting information and historical facts about the city.
All in all, our gondola ride was a lovely experience! A new check for my very own bucket-list!
If taking a gondola isn’t for you, try the much cheaper alternative and ride in a traghetto. A traghetto is a special boat that crisscrosses seven designated points of the Grand Canal. These short rides only cost a few Euros, and though short and sweet, they do provide an introduction into riding the waters of Venice. Best of luck on your gondola adventure!