When planning an Italy itinerary that includes Venice, there are three things I always recommend: spend some time getting good and lost; see Venice from above, and see Venice from the water. Since Venice is built on 117 islands – connected by 400 bridges – there are lots of ways to see Venice from the water. Note: swimming is not one of them unless you go to one of the public beaches. Here are some great Venice boats:
The short, inexpensive Traghetto
Although the word traghetto means ferry everywhere else in Italy, in Venice, it’s a specific type of boat as pictured above that only goes back and forth and back and forth across the Grand Canal at seven designated points (here’s a map of traghetto crossings). Since the Grand Canal is not that wide, the ride takes only a few minutes. It’s inexpensive, and if you don’t want to spend the money on a gondola but want get your photo taken on a gondola-like boat, a traghetto is not a bad substitute. Or, if you want to cross the Canal and there isn’t a bridge, take a traghetto.
Public boat or vaporetto
Those big boats in the foreground that look like ferries are vaporetti. They are Venice’s public transportation: you buy a ticket, you get on, there are different routes, designated stops, and you get off where you need to. Even though it’s touristy, I do recommend taking a boat down (or up) the entire length of the Grand Canal. You can even download a free audio tour. But, the vaporetti are crowded. They are full of people with luggage, confused tourists, excited tourists, and are usually packed to the gills. It’s not a quiet cruise where you can sit and enjoy the sights and listen to your audio tour. Luckily, however, There’s A Boat For That.
The Hop On Hop Off Boat, aka the Vaporetto dell’Arte (UPDATE: This boat, as of 2014, is not currently running. Service may resume but I don’t know when)
This boat is exclusively for tourists, but given that there are more than 60,000 visitors to Venice per day – more than the number of residents – Venice is not a place you need to worry about looking like a tourist. Everyone is a tourist, and for good reason: The city is fantastic and you should feel good about supporting it with your tourist dollars. So get on the tourist boat, relax in comfort, peace and quiet. Put on the headset, pick your language, and enjoy the tour on the Vaporetto Dell’Arte.
A Dinner Cruise
Why not kill three birds with one stone? See the sights of Venice, ride a boat, and eat dinner on the Galleon Dinner Cruise. It’s a candlelit aristocratic Venetian feast that travels past the famous islands of Burano, Torcello, and Murano in addition to the main islands of Venice. The only limitation? It’s just on Wednesdays.
Hotel, shmotel: do a boat and breakfast
Stay on the Boat and Breakfast Sarah Sun Island yacht, moored near Piazza San Marco in the heart of Venice. It has air conditioning / heat, includes breakfast, and even though it’s a fancy yacht, it’s in the budget accommodation category – at least for Venice. Or, stay on a houseboat.
Paddle a Kayak through the canals
Explore the canals of Venice on your own power by paddling with Venice Kayak on a half-day, full day, multi-day, or evening tour. If you’ve been following the news on the damage cruise ships are doing to Venice, you’ll love this no-motor alternative. And because you’re not on a boat with a motor, you’re not restricted the same way as other boats – in a kayak you can go practically anywhere you want, but not completely on your own: kayak rental comes with a guide.
Get to or from Venice on a historic Burchiello boat, instead of taking the train
Instead of arriving or departing Venice on the train, take a river cruise down the Brenta on a Burchiello. They’ve been modernized since the images above were done, and they’re comfortable boats. Take a full day to get from Venice to the gorgeous and underrated city of Padova, and you’ll learn a lot from the guide about the villas along this historical waterway, even stopping to visit some of the frescoed summer dwellings of Venetian aristocrats from 3 centuries ago.
A historic Topetta
A topetta is a historic Venetian wooden boat, though these days it usually has a motor attached. It holds up to 6 people and is what the locals use to get around and to transport goods. If you’d like to book a private boat tour in Venice that is longer than a 40 minute gondola ride and more reasonably priced, you should book a tour through the canals on a topetta.
And finally, the Gondola: some beyond the obvious tips
On my first trip to Venice, as a high school student, I had no money so I didn’t ride a gondola but I really wanted to; I thought it was a romantic must-do. Then later, when I was working in Italy as a tour guide (but still poor) and spent quite a bit of time in Venice, I turned up my nose at this only-for-tourists activity. A few years later, when I was living in Milan and had a decent salary as a corporate expat, I finally rode a gondola. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. Yes, it’s for tourists. But it’s a historical, romantic way to see the canals. It’s not at all beyond the obvious, but if it’s on your bucket list, go ahead and do it. You may have heard that gondola rates are fixed: you can not negotiate the cost, but make sure you get your full 40 minutes and know that the rates buy you the entire boat. It’s worth spending the extra money to go after 7 pm, when the rates go up but the light is nice and the water traffic has died down.
A lot of people don’t realize that gondola routes are not up to the gondolier: you can decide where you want to go. I recommend having a look at these six great gondola routes. The website is in Italian but the six routes are highlighted on the map when you click the links on the left side of the screen. Decide which one you want to do, and find a gondolier at one end of the route. Tell the gondolier the itinerary you’d like him (or her) to follow and if they try to convince you the route needs to end where it begins, insist on your route. Be firm but polite, and if they aren’t flexible, go talk to another gondolier.
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