Spending a day on a Venice river cruise along the Brenta canal has been on my Italy want-to-do list for years, and this summer I finally booked it. The canal that links Venice and Padova has interesting bridges, locks that work according to Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs, and villas with a fascinating history. This is no shipping route: the historic Burchiello boats of three centuries ago belonged to nobility, who built party villas and summer homes along the Brenta canal and sailed from Venice on holiday, and to see and be seen. With the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the partying ceased, the original Burchiello boats were destroyed, and many of the villas fell into disrepair. But today’s route – done in a comfortable river cruiser with a snack bar on board – still gives a great sense of how the nobility lived between the 16th and 18th centuries, and is a great way to see some of the pretty countryside outside of Venice.
Bridges and Locks on the Brenta canal
As we sailed to Padova, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the other boats, the cyclists on canal-side paths, and soaking up the countryside scenery. But my kids were more interested in the action, and their eyes lit up when we hit bridges or locks. There are 9 swing bridges and 6 locks on the route between Venice and Padova. In the photo below, we’re in one of the locks and my kids are watching the water rise, waiting for our boat to rise to the same height as the river in front of us (though in this photo they are looking out the back of the boat, so the water behind us is lower).
Each time we approached a bridge, the guide called ahead to make sure the bridge would swing or lift so our boat could pass. Many of them were automatic (still requiring a person to press a button, always greeted by the guide with a friendly ciao!) but there were a few manual historic bridges such as this one:
The villas of the Venice river cruise!
We stopped at three villas, where our (fantastic!) guide gave an in-depth tour in both English and Italian. The first stop was Ca’ Foscari, by the famous architect Andrea Palladio.
An original etching shows what Ca’ Foscari looked like in its heyday, and in the same etching you can also see the original Burchiello boats. The boats would be rowed with oars from Venice, but along this part of the canal the Burchiello was attached to a rope and pulled by a horse who walked along a path on the side of the canal:
Our guide pointed out many more villas as we sailed along the route – there were originally more than 40; many designed not as residences, but solely for parties, which could last days. Inside, the villas were full of art: frescoed walls, Tiepolo oil paintings, gilt furniture. The Villa Pisani, a Doge’s Palace and famous as the site where Hitler and Mussolini first conferred, was our final stop and was incredible both inside and out:
This painting below, inside the Villa Pisani, is a great example of the focus on the hedonistic lifestyle of the day: the nobility who spent time in the villas of the Brenta canal between the 16th and 18th centuries was focused on pleasure and enjoyment.
Taking a Venice river cruise on the Brenta canal: The Logistics
- The boats depart from Venice or Padova, and the route takes a full day, though you can meet the boat and board or disembark at the halfway mark. Check the routes and days they run here because not every route runs every day.
- At the end of the day, unless you brought your luggage, you need to get back to where you started. We were able to buy bus tickets on board, but the return transfer is not included in the tour price. If you end in Padova, as we did, it’s simpler to take a bus back to Venice rather than walk 20 minutes to the train station and take the train back. If you end in Venice, the boat arrives on Riva degli Schiavoni (near the Londra Palace hotel), so you could get a vaporetto (public boat) to the train station.
- The guide was absolutely excellent and talked practically non-stop the entire day. She did the whole tour in both English and Italian. Our group was divided pretty equally, so she would do her speech once in one language, and then repeat it in the other language.
- There is a lunch stop, but it’s not included in the price of the tour. The boat stops at the “Il Burchiello” restaurant, which isn’t really close to anything else, and you don’t really have enough time to venture off on foot in search of an alternate lunch place. However, there are a few options: you can pre-book a 3-course meal at the restaurant; or you can arrive and order a-la-carte (which is what we did, and it worked well, and the food was great) but then you won’t have time to order 3 courses; or you can order a picnic lunch that the restaurant will prepare for you and you can sit in the restaurant’s outdoor space and eat it.
- And, an obvious-but-worth-mentioning tip: since you’re on a boat for an entire day, bring hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, and wear layers.
One final note: This is not a sponsored post. I paid my own way on this trip, and would definitely recommend it.
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