"Should I take a gondola ride in Venice?" Here's an inside look at the pros and cons of every Venetian mode of transportation.
Have you ever seen a news report about a ferry that tragically capsizes, unable to bear the burden of its oversized load of passengers and parcels? Thankfully, I've never faced a travel crisis that dangerous but I did have a moment of genuine fear and intense claustrophobia in the most unlikely of boating destinations: Venice!
We emerged from the train station and approached the water bus 'stations' with enthusiasm and confidence. Not only would we ride to our hotel in comfort, we'd also have a classic Venetian sightseeing experience for a fraction of the price of a gondola! Brilliant plan, right?
Alas, our brilliant plan wasn't as unique as we imagined - everyone else had the exact same idea! It was peak time (early afternoon) in peak season (a weekend in August) - and those boats were PACKED. We let the first water bus pass, alarmed by the amount of passengers bursting its seams, certain the next boat would be better. Ha!
The pictures in no way do justice to the situation. As we boarded that second boat, I already felt like we were making a mistake. There was no way it could fit more people. And yet 20 more crammed in. With every stop, more people got on but virtually none disembarked. With every station, the boat sank visibly lower and lower into the canal. Every instinct I had was screaming at me to get off that boat - but how? With each stop, we were pushed and packed tighter and tighter into the center of the vessel. This was one crazy ride! I couldn't believe that people actually recommeded this experience!
When we safely arrived at our destination and successfully wrestled and wrangled our way off the boat, my knees were weak with relief. What were we thinking? But as you'll see below, my water bus, or vaporetto, experience was the exception to the rule - most people really do enjoy it. So where had I gone wrong? I called on some travel writing friends to weigh in with their advice on surviving and thriving with Venetian transportation and had them address some pressing travel questions, like should you hire a gondola ride in Venice and can you take you children on a gondola and vaporetto.
Rocky start aside, we LOVED Venice - and I think you will too! Here's some fanastic insider's advice on making the most of your time.
Option 1: Traghetti, the ferry of the Grand Canal
The secret discount gondola
"Venice can be a very pricey city, and a gondola tour is something all tourists want to have. However, not many know that the best way to get a gondola experience on the cheap is hopping on a traghetto, essentially a larger gondola which functions as a ferry, crossing the Grand Canal in specific spots. These traghetti fit approximately 20 people and the crossing takes a few minutes, but it only costs 2 euro each way!"
Margherita, http://www.thecrowdedplanet.com/ Read more about her experience here.
PS: This article has fantastic detailed information on the traghetto experience, including different piers, how to stand on the gondola, and more!
Even locals love the traghetto!
"If you don't want to spend 80 Euros per person for a ride in the typical Venetian ship, the gondola, you have always the possibility to cross the Canal Grande for 2 euros."
Option 2: Vaporetto, the water bus.
Miracle on the water bus!
"I spent two days in Venice, but there was just no way we could afford the gondola ride, so we stuck with the water buses for visiting a couple of islands around. They are actually quite affordable. I do have a nice memory with them - I forgot my camera on the boat once, and realized it only after it left back for the main island. Thankfully, they had kept it safe in the lost-and-found room and my day was saved :)"
Sid, http://www.sid-thewanderer.com. Learn more about their experiences here.
Another vote for water buses.
"When backpacking Europe in my early 20's, I was way too broke to hop into a gondola. Instead we did the vaporetti (water buses) which cost something like 15 euro for the day. We got to get out on the water, which was such a must-do for Venice, but we also were able to explore the other islands. It made the whole trip much more special!"
And another vote for water buses!
"While visiting Venice recently, we knew we had to get onto the water and see the real Venice, away from the hoards of tourists. Being on a strict budget, it was important we didn't blow our budget! So how did we do this without breaking the bank? By vaporetto, or water bus. Sure, it was still relatively expensive and we could only eat cheap pizza slices for the rest of the day, but seeing Venice from the water was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and totally worth it. We can't recommend it highly enough!"
No gondola? No worries!
"We never went on a gondola and don't regret it. So much to see on the vaparetto and a lot cheaper!"
Vaporetto for kids!
"I've been to Venice 3 times. Once with my husband, once with my then 10-year-old daughter and once with both of them. Each time, we used the vaporetto. We love the convenience and meeting tourists and locals alike while on the ride. In the evenings, these rides are simply magical."
Vaporetto passes to see further afield.
"While visiting Venice for two days, I decided to purchase a two day vaporetto pass. This is perfect for going to the outer islands and using unlimited water buses all around Venice during a one or two day stay. I would recommend doing this especially if you want to visit the outer islands like Murano, Burano or even the amazing cemetery called Isola di San Michele.
Noel, http://travelphotodiscovery.com/. Read more about his experience here.
PS: Here's a great article detailing how to buy vaporetto tickets and passes.
Option 3: Gondolas by group tour.
Glorious gondola group tours!
"When we visited Venice we managed to score a 30 minute gondola tour of the Grand canal for just 1 Euro!
We had decided before we arrived that we would take advantage of the vaparetto to explore the waterways rather than pay the excessive fee for a gondola. However Venice had other ideas!
On our second day we were happily wandering round exploring a when we joined a queue in a little side street. We wondered what everyone was waiting for – as there was nothing on the map in that area – and decided we could wait a few minutes and see what all of the fuss was about. Two minutes we were led to the waiting gondolas where we even got put in the 'love seat' beneath the gondolier! Turns out we had unwittingly ended up in the middle of a tour group! Nobody questioned us or said anything, and when we got back to the landing point there was a hat for tips. The other guests were only putting in Euro coins and wary of blowing our cover but putting in a higher amount, we only put a Euro in too! It was an awesome experience and I wouldn't change it for the world!"
Vicki, http://maketimetoseetheworld.com/ Read more about her experience here.
PS: Looking to (legitimately) join a group tour experience that includes a gondola ride? This can be a great compromise, as you get a taste of the gondola experience, plus other included activities, all for the price of a single private gondola tour. But remember that all group experiences have pros and cons - this is an affordable way to try gondola riding but it's not exactly going to be the quaint, quiet, romantic boat ride you've seen in the movies!
Option 4: Gondolas for private rides.
Gondolas are family friendly!
"We took a gondola ride with our children in Venice. I know it's seen as being a romantic thing to do but I think it is such a great family activity. Of course it's touristy but you can't beat seeing Venice by water and our children thought it was one of the best things we did when we were in Italy, they thought it was really special. The great thing about travelling with a family as well is the gondolas charge per boat not by passenger so it's the same price for the five of us as a couple."
Nichola, Globalmouse Travels. Read more about their experience here.
Romance and realism
"The last time we were in Venice we decided to splurge on a gondola ride and were so pleased we did. It's true it's a rather pricey and over-romanticized thing to do but it was the chat we had with with our Gondolier that made it so special. We learned so much about the history of this profession and also some very interesting facts about Venice that aren't listed in the usual travel articles. For us it was money well spent, just don't expect a scene out of the movies."
Go early or late for the best experience.
"If you're not on a strict budget, I would highly recommend a private gondola ride. While in Venice with my boyfriend, we splurged on an evening ride. We set off around sunset which meant the canals were less busy and the atmosphere more romantic. If a romantic ride is not for you and you are on a budget, you might enjoy taking the Vaporetto. Get up early and beat the crowds, because during the day, these water buses get extremely busy. We took the Vaporetto at 7am, and had the whole boat to ourselves with plenty of opportunities to take stunning sunrise photos from the water."
Option 5: Row yourself around town.
Why not take control of the gondola yourself?
"Forget the overpriced and Disney-esque gondola ride. It's overrated, with one exception: on Festa del Redentore. (see below!) But for any other day of the year, the absolute best way to experience Venice's most famous boat is to take the canals while learning to row one yourself. Row Venice is an incredibly affordable way to spend a few hours in a gondola and you'll go home with the ultimate memories and experience to regale your friends with."
Jennifer, http://luxeadventuretraveler.com. Read more about ithere.
Another vote for Row Venice
Suzanne, from Phila Travel Girl, also did a 90 minute gondola rowing lesson with Row Venice (which is a woman run, non-profit organization). Key take aways from Sue's experience: No one has ever fallen in, you don't have to be an Olympic rower to do this, and being a proper Venetian gondolier is a bit of a political position. Read more about her fantastic experience here.
Option 6: Hail a water taxi.
Watch your words: Often you'll hear people use the terms 'bus' 'ferry' and 'taxi' interchangeably but in Venice you will want to be careful about requesting a "taxi". The only taxis here are water taxis and - just like their automobile counterparts elsewhere - they'll pick you up at your hotel and take you anywhere you want to go, from the airport to the train station and more. And just like regular taxis, this convenience comes at a price. A steep one! Airport transfers can cost over 100 Euros and even short trips within Venice can be 40 Euros or more. It helps to think of a water taxi like hiring a private limousine service, not just a car ride.
I think a water taxi would be a good idea if you were already planning a splurge on a gondola but decided to redirect that money instead to do double duty and pick you up at the airport. I also think it's a good idea if you have a large number of people with you, as the cost is per trip, not per person. And if you're arriving in peak season and the vaporetto is bursting at the seams and you're willing to consider the cost an investment in your Venice experience, take a water taxi to your hotel. Just do you research first. It really pays to know what kind of fare to experience and what services official providers offer. Here'sa good summary of what you need to know.
A personal look at taxi pros and cons
"We did the water taxi to the airport because it was an early morning flight - completely worth it. We also did a ‘complimentary’ water taxi to Burano. That was fun especially for the kids (but not so much for our wallets. It was sponsored by the glass factory - we got suckered in because the kids were so excited when the concierge mentioned it but then once you get there it’s hard to get out without buying something. We bought the smallest vase we could.) Our preferred choice to get around Venice though is the water bus. My kids think it is completely entertaining to watch the buildings go by and people get on and off."
PS.... Really want to indulge?
For the ultimate splurge
"On the third Saturday night of July each year, all of the Venetian Lagoon comes together to celebrate Festa del Redentore. It commemorates the end of the plague in a party like no other. The night culminates in a 45-minute long fireworks display over the Redentore Church and the absolute best way to take part in this festival is to watch the fireworks with friends and a few bottles of Prosecco from a gondola. Except to pay around €350 for a private gondola for you and up to five friends. Regular gondolas are not for hire on Redentore and you'll want to be sure to book a few weeks in advance."
Option 7: WALK! (Or do a little bit of everything.)
While I still enjoyed my time in Venice, transportation felt like a chore, an ordeal to get through, not a leisurely sight seeing experience. I wished I had researched my options more thoroughly. So should you spring for a gondola ride? Should you brave the water bus? That's entirely up to you! I don't regret not taking a gondola ride but I'm also disappointed that the water bus wasn't as good as I expected. Here are some final recommendations to keep in mind:
Venice is a beautiful, magical city - and hopefully your boat rides will only enhance your experience!
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
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PS: Looking for food recommendations in Venice? My friends Justin and Lauren have a guide to vegan food in Venice (that all food lovers will enjoy). My friend Sue (who also experienced Row Venice, above) did a great piece about 'happy hour' in Venice and an epic quest to find an incredible hidden bar. Let me know if you try any of the restaurants on their lists!