To understand the city you must explore it by water, travelling some of its 177 canals. What better way to do that than in an iconic gondola? The tradition of gondolas stretch back 1,000 years. These flat-bottomed canoes were specially designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Venetian waters. A man who says a gondola ride is too touristy is too tired for life. (Didn't Samuel Johnson say something like that?)
Riding gondolas all around Venice can be pricey, but what we've discovered is that by booking a tour that includes a gondola ride you actually bring down the price considerably and get the hassle-free experience you're after. Who wants to haggle with a gondolier while you're on vacation? Here are the top gondola-based activities —
Discover ancient piazzas, iconic bridges, and narrow backstreets by foot… and by gondola. Start by walking to explore Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, and the surrounding campo (the neighbourhood) as well as cultural centerpieces like Teatro la Fenice, Scala del Bovolo, and the Rialto Bridge.
Then, hop aboard a classic Venetian gondola to cruise the Grand Canal and the smaller, off-the-watery-path channels. As you glide the Grand Canal and drift past glamorous bank-side palaces and churches, hear tales of how it became Venice's most important thoroughfare.
This tour was fabulous. Our guide was excellent. The tour takes you around the back streets, which you would never even find, and gives you so much interesting information about Venice that is truly unique. The gondola ride is something that again is unique and a must when visiting Venice."
– 5-Star Review
We also like this activity – Gondola + Serenade + Dinner…
This is what we think of as classic Venice! Delight in the dulcet tones from a Venetian singer and see the sights on a gondola ride with a musical serenade. Set off in a majestic fleet of eight gondolas with a professional Venetian singer positioned on one of the boats. Admire the Rialto Bridge, Palazzo Barberino, and other romantic landmarks while your flotilla navigates the Grand Canal and smaller waterways.
This is a very popular activity, so be sure to book early.
This was great fun. The atmosphere on the gondolas, with the singer and his serenade was so memorable.So glad we booked this trip, since the people who booked rides but didn't get the music didn't look like they were having half as much fun!"
– 5-Star Review
Step into your private gondola near St Mark's Square, then sit back and relax as your gondolier navigates the waterways. As you float through the city you learn the lore of the Venetian gondolas — your gondolier narrates the story of the city and its waters.
Cruise along Rio della Madonnetta ("rio" designates a smaller canal or "water street", if you will), see the Rialto Bridge, and pass the Gothic Ca' d'Oro mansion on the Grand Canal. Also see Rialto Market from the water, with its colourful stalls of fresh fish, fruit, and vegetables.
Our guide, Alessandro, was wonderful! He was very knowledgeable about the history of the buildings along the canal as well as current events such as movies shot in Venice and where movie stars have stayed. I would definitely recommend this tour!"
– 5-Star Review
We've saved the most fun gondola activity for last. We're sending you to gondola school. That's right, you learn how to be a gondolier, if only for a couple of hours.
Meet your teacher waterside, where your gondoletto awaits. More stable than a traditional gondola, gondoletti have been used for centuries to train Venetian gondoliers. Your education starts with on-land training to work on balance.
Then, hop aboard your gondoletto to learn the tricks of gentle rowing, steering, and stopping on open water. Each student will take turns at the helm. You first practice on the quieter rios and as you feel more confident, the group heads out to the canals. As you glide, you learn about the saga of the boats and of the life of a gondolier. This small-group activity is limited to 6 people to ensure a better education!
Gondola school was amazing! I'm so glad we did this. So much better than simply riding in one. Our teacher said that you can't really understand Venice unless you get on the water, and we couldn't agree more."
– 5-Star Review
At the end of the 16th-century there were 10,000 gondolas on the water. Today, there are a mere 425 gondolas in operation. Only three or four new gondoliers graduate each year. (Maybe they didn't do well in the school?)
Gondolas are made to exact measurements — 35 feet 6 inches long and 4 feet 6 inches wide. The left side is 10 inches longer to counterbalance the weight of the gondolier.
These traditional flat-bottomed boats are engineered to float in even a few inches of water! The boat is ideal for the shallow Venetian lagoon and occasional mud flats
It's no lightweight kayak. A gondola weighs 1,100 pounds. In spite of its weight it is quite manageable for one trained person to steer it using a single oar.
Gondolas are painted black by law. It takes up to six glossy coats worth to make it perfect.
During the Renaissance, when the canals were crowded with 10,000 gondolas, noblemen would try to out-do each other with fancy designs and bright colours. The canals started to look gaudy. The city passed a law that decreed gondolas must be standardized and painted black.
Gondoliers are allowed to decorate the interior with a touch of gold, velvet upholstery, carpets, or plastic flowers — especially those gondolas used for weddings or Carnevale.
There are eight different kinds of wood used to make a gondola — from elm to walnut.
The hull alone is made out of 280 little, precision-cut pieces. All the timber must be seasoned for a year.
Gondolas need regular servicing. The hull must be treated with a new coat of varnish every 40 days to protect it against lagoon pests. With proper maintenance, a gondola can last up to 20 years.
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