Alexandra has a Ph.D., frequently travels to Venice, and has given multiple scholarly talks on Venice's politics and history.
Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Gondola
The Venetian gondola ride does not enjoy a good reputation on the internet. And I don't get it.
How did the idea that only boring and gullible people would possibly want to explore the canals of Venice in one of the few boats that can reach all the city's nooks and crannies gain so much traction?
Sure, there are some unscrupulous gondoliers. All sectors of Venetian tourism have a dark underside. I'll be the first person to point out how absurd gondolas look as they struggle against the wake and traffic in the Grand Canal, and yes, I get that the fantasia of a gondola ride loses its luster if you're in the cluster of boats that can form in the areas around Piazza San Marco.
But those situations are so easy to avoid! You--yes, you, the first-time visitor who doesn't speak a word of Italian--can avoid them as long as you note all the information provided in this article and are willing to approach and address the gondoliers as you would any other trained professional with a service to offer.
Official Gondola Fares
Every additional 20 minutes
€40 (before 7pm)/€50 (after 7pm)
The Hard Truth About Gondola Prices
As you can see from the table, gondola rides are expensive. Unless it's early January and no one wants to go out on the freezing canals, don't spend much time trying for a discount. It rarely happens for anyone, including honeymooners.
Before deciding to take a gondola ride, make sure you're comfortable with the terms. Many of the biggest complaints about gondolas come from people who were not educated on the prices or were used to getting discounts elsewhere and experienced sticker shock that clouded their gondola ride.
I know the fares seem insanely high, but gondoliers are trained professionals who have passed a rigorous exam (after a minimum of 400 hours of training) that tests everything from their navigational skills to their knowledge of Venetian history to their facility in languages. Furthermore, each gondolier is responsible for the costs of building, appointing, and maintaining his gondola.
All that being said, do not give your custom to gondoliers who try and charge more than the official fares. Walk away from any gondolier who balks at the official rate or official ride time. Be forewarned: when demand is high (mainly on summer nights), this may take some time. You can help yourself by avoiding San Marco or the Rialto and searching in less popular areas (see the recommendations below). You may also decide that you are willing to pay 20-25% above the official rate to avoid the frustration.
If you encounter gondoliers who attempt egregious price gouging, report your experience to the Ente Gondola, whose official contact information is listed below.
Contact Information for Ente Gondola
- Contact us--Ente Gondola
If you do have an issue with a gondolier, you can contact the Ente Gondola using this form. This website also has the physical address and phone number of the organziation.
Arrange Your Own Gondola Ride
Negotiating is unromantic, but do it anyway.
There is something quite appealing about just being able to walk up to your prearranged, prepaid gondola. There is a certain vulgarity in having to negotiate and exchange money on the spot, especially if you are trying to surprise or impress a special someone. The problem is that prearranged gondola rides almost always involve some sort of middleman.
This is the strongest recommendation I will make in this entire article: it is not in your interest to involve a middleman. Most gondola ride packages are littered with fine print that sharply reduce the value and enjoyment of a gondola experience.
The low rates? They're group rates--you could have up to six people in the boat.
The official 40 minute ride? It becomes 30-35 minutes in most packages.
Part of a couple? Be ready to get taken for a ride of a different and more unpleasant sort. Private packages for a couple can start around €65-70 ($75-80) per person, or €140 for a couple.
You want singing, an atmospheric nighttime ride, the full 40 minutes, or even a little control over your route? Those aren't available in this package--a package that can cost almost double the official rate!
Just talk to the gondoliers.
About talking to gondoliers
To be fair to critics, there are gondoliers who are only interested in churning through uninformed tourists who will accept sky-high rates or who put on an unappealing and exaggerated "stereotypical Italian man" act.
The easiest way to cut through the nonsense and find a top-notch gondolier is to treat gondoliers like you would any other professional. Unfortunately, many tourists treat gondoliers like disposable cogs instead of genuine professionals (which then fuels some gondoliers' opportunism).
Be respectful and you will find a gondolier who will be happy to put his training and expertise at your disposal.
Gondola Points to Avoid
Don't get a boat at the gondola stations right by the S. Zaccaria vaporetto stop, the Rialto Bridge, or Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Most of the common pick-up locations in Castello and San Marco are choke holds, but these three often seem to be more congested than average. Picking up a gondola in this part of Venice can put you in two common situations you want to avoid if you can.
First, you may end up spending a lot of time on the Grand Canal, especially if you start near the Rialto. The advantage of the gondola is that it can access canals that vaporetti and the water taxis cannot. Spending most of your ride bobbing up and down in the Grand Canal while dodging bigger, noisier watercraft not only wastes this advantage, but does not fit with most people's fantasies of a gondola ride. It's also a huge safety issue. It's almost never possibly to completely avoid the Grand Canal, but you want to minimize your time there.
The second issue with picking up a gondola near the most popular tourist sites is that you risk becoming part of a gondola train. If you stand at the canal that is spanned by the Bridge of Sighs, you can watch gondolas pop out like they're on an assembly line. This experience is not ruinous, especially if you and your partner are sociable people who would enjoy waving and exchanging small talk with passing boats, but it can make your experience feel a bit unoriginal.
Gondola Points to Consider
My top recommendation is just to wander in San Polo, Dorsoduro, and Santa Croce. It's hard to give precise locations, but I've had good luck in Campo San Barnaba (a/k/a the church from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). If you're just looking for a general area to start wandering, I would recommend the area between the S. Silvestro and Cà Rezzonico vaporetto stops. If you're on the other side of the Rialto, there are usually a few gondoliers near Campo SS Apostoli.
The logic here is obvious: If you can arrange a ride in an area where fewer gondoliers regularly camp out, it will be just that much easier to get the "road (somewhat) less traveled" experience that most people want when they take a gondola ride. All the "quiet, secluded gondola" pictures in this article were taken in San Polo or Dorsoduro.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of wandering, or if you are on a tight schedule, I would recommend the stations by the Accademia Bridge or San Tomà, which are usually less crowded than their counterparts on the other side of the Rialto. In the late autumn, winter, or early spring, the 'minor' gondola stations in San Marco/Castello/Cannaregio (please see the linked map) can be a good choice.
Map of Traditional Gondola Stations
- Traditional Gondola Stations
This map shows the city's gondola points. Begin with Stations 6 and 11 and avoid Stations 1, 2, 3, and 8. Stations 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10 can be good choices during low(er) season. Just emphasize that you want to minimize your time on the Grand Canal!
- The official gondola rates are for a 40 minute ride.
- Tour companies and middlemen add huge surcharges while usually shortchanging you on time and sending you on standard routes. Avoid!
- By directly approaching gondoliers, you can avoid surcharges and maximize the time you spend in the smaller canals.
- Avoid hiring a gondola near the crowded areas of San Marco or the Rialto Bridge.
- Give yourself time to find a smaller group of gondoliers in San Polo or Dorsoduro.
- The gondola stations at the Accademia Bridge or San Tomà are a good compromise if you are pressed for time.
One Final Thought
I wrote this to dispel the notion that a gondola ride is always a bad idea, especially for the savvy or educated tourist. However, I understand that not everyone will enjoy a gondola ride. Maybe you've read all of this and you're not convinced: you think the price really is just too high, or you get anxious at the idea of talking to the gondoliers.
That's fine! The gondola offers a truly unique perspective on Venice, but you can also experience some of the tranquility of the quieter parts of the city by just taking a walk. Just as there is no reason to specifically avoid a typical tourist experience just because it is typical, there is no reason to force yourself to partake in a tourist experience just because everyone else says it is essential!
© 2018 Alexandra Hoerl
Liz Westwood from UK on October 29, 2018:
I took a gondola ride many years ago and still remember it. This is a really useful article for anyone travelling to Venice and considering a gondola.