The Real Reason the Gondola is a Symbol of Venice… and How to Take One

A Venetian gondola in winter, waiting for passengers!
A Venetian gondola in winter, waiting for passengers!
Gondolas in Venice, Italy

Gondoliers on the Grand Canal

When they go to Venice, nearly every tourist wants to do one thing: Ride a gondola. It’s romantic, it’s iconic, and, like throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain, it seems like something you just have to do!

That said, taking a gondola can be expensive. The city rate starts at 80 euros for 40 minutes (100 euros after 7pm)—and that price is mandated by the city, so don’t expect to pay less. It’s also, of course, shamelessly touristy. If you see Venetians using a gondola, it’s likely for one of two reasons: a wedding or a funeral.

Still, we’d hardly pooh-pooh a gondola ride. The boats are beautiful, the experience romantic, and it’s true that the best way to see Venice’s gorgeous palaces is from the canal. And if you take a gondola ride, you’re participating not just in a sliver of authentic Venetian history… but also in a prime example of the changes that happening to Venice in general.

The tradition of the gondola tells the history of Venice

This gondola’s all ready to go.

What do we mean? Well, when gondolas first appeared back in the 11th century, they were an essential mode of transport. Many were used as shuttles, taking people back and forth across the canals. Others had more ostentatious purposes: They’d be owned by upper-class families to roam the waters and, of course, to show off their own status. By the 16th century, more than 10,000 gondolas roamed Venice’s canals.

Today, it’s a bit different. Only a few hundred gondolas are left in the city. Almost none have private owners. And 99 percent of the time, when you see a gondola, the only Venetian in it is—maybe—the gondolier. And that, of course, is a microcosm of what’s happening to Venice in general. The population has fallen from 120,000 residents in 1980… to just 60,000 today, if that. And the population is still in decline. Meanwhile, some 15 million tourists visit each year. That’s 25o tourists per each Venetian resident. So if there are more out-of-towners than locals, that’s not just true of gondolas.

The steepness of the gondola prices, too, is an echo of what’s going on in the city at large. Venice’s prices for real estate, food, and other necessities have soared over the past few decades (yes, even while the population is decreasing).

And modern life is taking its toll on both the city and its gondolas, too. The wake from the powerboats that now cruise the canals, for example, actually speeds up Venice’s deterioration: Those ceaseless waves hitting Venice’s delicate, 500-year-old palazzi and churches, day after day, are damaging the cement and stones that hold the structures together. That same wake damages the gondolas; studies show that all those constant waves reduce a gondola’s life from 40 years to about 10.

(Curious what it’s like to be a modern Venetian? Don’t miss our video of what it’s like to live on the canals of Venice today!).

So, should you take a gondola ride? If the price doesn’t bother you, then yes. There’s no better, or more romantic, way to experience Venice’s canals. But just be aware that, as you cruise through the green water, you’re participating in a tradition that—like “authentic Venice” in general—is increasingly at risk.

A rare sight: Venetians in a gondola*

If you take a gondola in Venice:

Negotiate the price in advance. The city rate starts at 80 euros for 40 minutes (and that climbs up to 100 euros for 40 minutes after 7pm), but lots of gondoliers charge more. Make sure you agree on the exact price, and on the number of minutes, before you climb aboard.

Be careful with a concierge. If you shy away from haggling, your hotel concierge can act as the middleman and do the negotiating for you. That’s nice—but it often comes with a big surcharge.

Know you can have 6 people in total. If you’re traveling with friends, it’s a great way to split the cost.

Remember that it’s expensive for a reason. Are gondoliers taking advantage of tourists? Maybe. But might they have reason? Yes. Venice is a pretty pricey city to live in, and the gondola itself is a big expense, setting a gondolier back some 20,000 euros for a hand-built version.

Carefully pick where you get your gondola. Not all gondolas have the same routes, but you can influence the kind of experience you’ll have depending on where you pick up a gondola. Grab one at the Rialto Bridge, and you’re headed for a trip down the iconic, bustling Grand Canal. Walk down to a side canal, where the water taxis and vaporetti don’t have stands, and you’ll have a more tranquil trip off the beaten path.

Be aware that you’ve got alternatives. If you simply can’t stomach the price, consider taking a traghetto, which crosses the Grand Canal for €3.

*Okay—a boat that’s like a gondola, but not technically a gondola! Check out the great catch by Liam in the comments on what the boat actually is that these Venetians are using.

Taking a gondola in Venice is one of the best things you can do in La Serenissima...if you know how to do it. Find out the secrets on the Walks of Italy blog.

14 Comments

  • Subi says:

    I was fortunate enough to be in Venice in May of 2008. One day, there was some kind of celebration going on – from what we could make out, a pro-Venice, anti-motorized-watercraft celebration. My friend and I got to ride in a gondola in a “parade” on the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s, all for free! It was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip.

  • Wow! Thank you so much for this helpful tips! I did not know that it costs that much to have a gondola ride…compared to traghetto for only 3 Euros!

    I wonder why the number of the Venetian residents are decreasing. Where in fact, Venice is one of the most famous romantic getaways.

  • Liam Pierce says:

    Hello,

    I just stumbled across your blog while doing research on gondolas, and while I commend you on your interest and factual organization, I should let you know that, with the exception of the top photo, neither of the two boats below are gondolas. The are sandalos. I wouldn’t feel so confident in this if I haven’t been a gondolier myself for the past 7 years. Don’t get me wrong: sandalos are gorgeous boats. But they carry a history that is completely separate from gondolas. Should be a quick fix, but the reason why venetians are in that last boat is because sandalos are the more popular form of transport for residents. They are easier to row, and you don’t need a gondolier’s license to row one.

    Respectfully yours,
    Liam

    • Hi Liam,
      Thanks for the great catch! You’re absolutely right—we miscaptioned the photograph. Thanks so much for pointing it out. Are you still a gondolier? The next time we’re in Venice, we’ll have to look you up! 😉

      • candice says:

        I’d like to know if Liam is still a gondolier too! I will be in Venice in August, and would give him my business for a gondola ride.

    • James Yong says:

      hi Liam , i will be in Venice in November 2013 , how to contact you ? i would like to give u a business to do . Pls email me back .

      Thanks .

  • Jelena says:

    Love the blog, great tips.
    I’m Croatian living in London. I’ve been to Venice 3 times every time was different and I was very young 🙂
    This time I’m visiting with me friend mid December for 2 nights. We both quiet fussy about accommodation food ambience..you name it 🙂
    Not in a bed way tho!
    It’s my friends first time in Venice so it’s going to be I’m afraid very touristy.
    We are arriving round 6pm on Friday. It will check in and off we go.
    Can you firstly recommend a good accommodation and restaurants that captures both worlds of Venice, not too far from anything but not too touristy and close to good restaurants/ bars.
    Think Bienalle is finishing 24/11, can the art work still be seen after that date?
    Many thanks in advance,
    Jelena

    • Hi Jelena,
      We’re happy to help. If you’re looking for less-touristic with good restaurants, we’d recommend that you focus on the neighborhoods of Dorsoduro and Cannaregio (more information here). For restaurants, we like Casa Bonita (Cannaregio 492) for good fish at moderate prices; Da’A Marisa (Cannaregio 652b) for excellent meat or fish dishes; and Ca d’Oro (Calle del Pistor, Cannaregio 3912), which is one of the most famous cicchetti spots in Venice; and, in San Polo, All’ Arco (Calle Arco, San Polo 436); Do Mori (Sestiere San Polo 429, Calle dei Do Mori); Antiche Carampane (San Polo 1911, Rio Tera delle Carampane); and Osteria da Fiore (Calle del Scaleter). For accommodation, we’d recommend that you take a look at Tripadvisor for B&Bs, and in particular in the Cannaregio and Dorsoduro areas.

      We hope that helps! Have a wonderful trip!

  • Cathy says:

    My husband and I love to take a gondola ride at night after dinner. It is the most romantic time to do that. The day trippers are gone and it is so peaceful and quiet. You only hear the sound of the water lapping against the side of the buildings. We bargained with the gondolier and while pricey definitely worth every euro. During the day there are just too many people on the canals and too much noise!

  • Nancy Komatz says:

    So wonderful to see Mose again…he led our cechetti tour last September! Hope to see him when I return this September with my son! My recommendation: Pay the price, take a gondola ride…you’re in VENICE!!!

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