Venice is a city seemingly comprised entirely of iconic scenes; especially that of the gondolas gracefully cutting through the water. Over the years they became increasingly ostentatious until in the 1500s they were ordered stripped down and painted the uniform sleek black we all know today. Venice is already known for being a very expensive destination, from hotels to restaurants to even public transportation. When traveling on a limited budget, it can seem that you must be content to just gaze upon the elegant boats as they glide past. There are times though, when traveling, that a splurge is much merited. I will staunchly argue that a journey through the canals in one of these beautiful works of art is an experience absolutely worth finding the extra cash for.
A less common choice of time but wonderful because so few gondolas are out at night.
Photo courtesy Brad Coy on Flickr
They might try and pass it off in Vegas, but it just can't hold a candle to the real thing. There's really no other experience like relaxing while soaking up the atmosphere as your gondolier skillfully guides the gondola through the maze of canals. You can take in a whole new view on Venice from the water; sometimes you could even reach out and let your fingers graze the ancient masonry.
At first glance, the price of a ride can come across as a bit of a rip-off and no one likes to feel ripped off. 100 Euros for a 40 minute boat ride? Insanity! Bear in mind though, that being a gondolier is a bit of feast or famine. Outside of tourist season, their income opportunity drops dramatically. Additionally, gondolas are extremely expensive - around $50,000 new - and the gondoliers rigorously train for years before they are accepted into one of the few slots available. Choosing this splurge allows you to contribute to keeping what are effectively small businesses going while having an amazing time.
It doesn't have to be as pricey as you think: the steep price can be offset by finding fellow travelers to join in, with the potential of making new friends. If 4 people share the ride, you'd only have to shave a few dollars from your budget in a dozen spots to indulge. By getting off the main drag, your gondolier is more likely to give you a bit of a break, even more so outside of season. Plus, the atmosphere is much more evocative when you're not biting your nails down the chaotic Grand Canal.
Ponte dei SospiriGondolas lined up under the Ponte dei Sospiri at dawn
Contrary to romantic ideals everywhere, gondolas aren't just for starry eyed love birds. If romance isn't on your itinerary, consider a morning, afternoon, or early evening departure. I took a rather late ride around 8:00PM and it was gloriously serene. We wound through the back canals, accompanied mainly by the sound of lapping water. When we passed under an open window, you could hear the sounds of a family sitting down to dinner: clinking dishes, laughter, and music.
You're probably going to be in Venice only once and this is definitely something you won't ever forget! Sometimes certain experiences are "cliche" for a reason. They're truly incredible and often rare. While there is always an exception, I have yet to meet someone who did indulge in a gondola ride who wasn't thrilled that they did so.
So how much will it cost? Expect to shell out around 80 Euros, even after negotiating. Prices start higher in the popular areas and during season, hence the suggestions in #3. You can call it corny, you can call it cliche, but you can't call it common. If you have a favorite travel splurge or gondola story, please share it in the comments below.