A Budget Guide to Touring Venice

Romantic… yes, relaxing… sure, but can you properly do Venice without the seemingly mandatory gondola ride?

Venice: two soft syllables that epitomize romance. Simply uttering its name conjures up images of winding cobblestone streets, graceful architecture, lovely piazzas and over 150 interwoven canals. It’s a paradise for lovers, the dream destination of newlyweds from around the world – and also the most likely place in Italy to have your wallet emptied by one of the locals. If you’re imagining a run-in with a pickpocket or a burly mugger, though, you can relax; in this town, you’ll most likely be relieved of your cash by a very charming man in a striped shirt and a straw hat. Most newcomers to Venice rank a gondola ride at the very top of their to-do list. After all, to skip this time-honored tradition would be like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower or visiting Rome without stopping by the Colosseum. What few tourists realize, however, is that unless you’ve done plenty of research and are willing to engage in some bare-knuckled bargaining, you’ll probably be taken for a ride in more ways than one. Don’t get me wrong; Venice is a wonderful city and touring the canals by gondola can leave you with unforgettable memories – but only if you first learn the tricks of the trade.The city government’s official rate for gondola rides is 80 euro for forty minutes, but such low fares are never advertised and are rarely accepted if offered by a potential passenger. Some gondoliers may pretend not to understand the proposed amount, others may laugh openly in the customer’s face, and in some cases an extremely polite gondolier may simply spread his hands in a “what-can-I-do?” gesture, apologize profusely, then walk away. The actual asking price tends to run closer to a whopping 120 euro for a forty-minute trip. Sometimes a determined customer can bargain down to 100 euro, but that still means tourists from the US are paying $144.

To avoid any misunderstandings, check your watch before starting out and confirm with your gondolier what time you’ll arrive back.

Considering the fact that two nights of lavish dinners in a canal-side restaurant can be enjoyed for far less, many visitors decide to abstain. There are, after all, cheaper ways to experience the beauty of Venice without missing any of the city’s famous sights. The first fact everyone should know is that nothing can be seen from a gondola that isn’t also visible from dry land. A pleasant stroll through the city streets actually affords a better view of both the canals and Venice’s colorful architecture, with the added benefit of being able to pause and linger over your favorite sights. Since no land vehicles are allowed anywhere in the city, Venice is a paradise for walkers. Every canal is also spanned by at least one bridge, so you’ll rarely encounter a dead end. The best spots for sightseeing are the Accademia Bridge and the Rialto Bridge, and for the mere cost of jostling for a good spot by the railing you’ll be treated to a dazzling view, especially at sunset. Another advantage to taking the “dry route” is the fact that the canal water often emits an unpleasant odor, especially in the overwhelming heat of summer. It may be difficult to maintain the wistful, romantic thoughts that a gondola ride inspires when you and your partner are constantly holding your noses. From the land, these odors are barely noticeable in summer and virtually nonexistent at other times of the year.

For those determined to see the city from the water, there are several inexpensive alternatives to the gondola. Minus the cuddly atmosphere, a trip on a vaporetto, a medium sized water bus, only costs six euro. Even cheaper are traghetti, which can be ridden for mere pocket change. Nearly identical to private gondolas, these are used to ferry passengers from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. The trip may be short, but two people can ride a traghetto for about one US dollar. For those hard-line romantics who choose to throw caution – and currency – to the wind and hire a private gondolier, there are several crucial points to remember. First, be certain that you and your gondolier have agreed on the route of your trip before you leave shore. While drifting down the Grand Canal can be scenic, it can also be turbulent due to the constant traffic of water taxis and vaporetti. The hundreds of narrow side canals offer a smoother, more relaxing and far more romantic ride.

The second important rule is to verify ahead of time exactly how long you’ll be out on the water. Many gondoliers will paddle furiously in order to turn a forty-minute trip into a half-hour one if they think they can get away with it. It’s not unusual to see tourists staring at their watches and shaking their heads in disbelief after their ride is over, probably wondering how they managed to spend 120 euro in less time than it takes to watch a sit-com on TV. To avoid any misunderstandings, check your watch before starting out and confirm with your gondolier what time you’ll arrive back at the dock. Visitors should be cautious of the “freelance” gondoliers who park their boats in the small side canals and openly solicit passers-by for business, because they’re far more likely to shorten a trip than the “official” gondoliers found in the large stations at the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square.

If you’re still craving a private boat ride but the cost of a gondola excursion leaves you feeling a little seasick, consider taking a trip on a water taxi instead. A twenty-minute tour of the city can be enjoyed for about 35 euro, and while your driver won’t serenade you with his rendition of O Solo Mio, you’ll probably experience a warm glow from the feel of that extra 85 euro still in your pocket

 

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