A unique form of water transportation, the gondola has been used to carry passengers along Venice’s waterways for centuries.
A Bit of History
Gondolas were once the chief form of transportation through the canals of Venice. Today, they are generally used as sightseeing vessels for tourists willing to shell out quite a few euros for a ride on these historic rowing boats.
Some experts believe gondolas date all the way back to the seventh century, but the most common belief is that they originated around 1100. Designed to deal with the shallows and mud flats of the canals, early gondolas had twelve oars. A few centuries later, they were much smaller in size but had acquired a “felze” or cabin. In the sixteenth century, they had become so covered with ornamentation that a law eventually banned such ostentatiousness. From that point on, and still today, the vessels were permitted to only include a curly tail, a pair of seahorses, and a multi-pronged prow.
Gondolas are built at one of just three remaining boatyards, of which the Squero di San Trovaso is the most famous. All gondolas are built in the same manner by experienced builders, they are composed of 280 separate pieces. The left side is longer than the right, which allows it to resist the tendency to turn to the left during a forward stroke by the gondolier.
Not everyone can be a gondolier. In Venice, it is considered a noble profession that has been passed down from generation to generation through the centuries.
Nearly every visitor to Venice wants to enjoy a gondola ride while visiting the city. However, gondolas aren’t the normal form of transportation around the canals. That task falls to the vaporetti, or water taxis. Gondolas, instead, are tourist vehicles that visitors can hire for sightseeing purposes or purely for the opportunity to say they rode on one of these historic vessels. Many hire them for a romantic journey and, each year, hundreds of couples become engaged while sailing through Venice’s canals.
Gondola rides are offered at a fixed cost set by the city government, though experienced travelers will tell you that many gondoliers do not always adhere to these costs. That’s why it can be necessary to negotiate the price and length of ride before you board the gondola. Don’t expect the ride to be cheap, especially during peak tourist season when the demand is great. In addition, rates are higher after a certain hour of the day, so a nighttime ride will be more expensive.
Gondola stands are located throughout the city. Some trips include a jaunt down the Grand Canal while others paddle along the quieter side canals. Often, you can book a ride through a travel agent or the concierge at your hotel, which means you won’t need to haggle about the price.