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

May 23, 2023

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!

Rialto Bridge

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.

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.

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.

by Walks of Italy

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