When In Venice…
When visiting Venice this very September, riding on a Gondola was high up on our long list of things to do. Of course it was; just the word Venice evokes dreamy images of burly, stripey-shirted, Italian men singing from the tail of a long boat as it cruises down twisty, narrow rivers or perhaps bobbing afloat on the wider, choppier Grand Canal. With that, I can almost smell the salty Adriatic sea on my nose, I can hear the dulcet tones of sweet Italian singing and my body is rocking from side to side, swaying like the ocean. Idyllic. However dreamy this image is, people are often (and rightly) hesitant about the whole experience. You’re probably going to have to haggle or get harassed or get hustled. Where does one even pick up a Gondola? We saw gondola stands at busy junctions but we also saw a few dodgy, troll-like Gondoliers hanging out under shady bridges looking to score themselves some quick coin. What’s the best option for your average tourist?
Being full of wisdom, this Travel Blogger booked his ride online in advance. A pre-booked private boat would set you back $80 (£65/€73) for 40 minutes, which seemed a little sleep. We opted for a bundle package; a boat trip to 3 islands combined with a walking tour combined with a shared Gondola ride to finish. This 6 hour day-trip should set you back $70pp (£57/€64) unless you’re lucky enough to have it paid for you (thanks Mum!).
Whilst we enjoyed the experience (it definitely is a must-do when in Venice) it didn’t quite match our expectations, confirming the suspicions we had before we boarded. During our first few days in Venice the gondola became a common sight and it becomes more and more apparent that the romantic image is somewhat tainted by the reality of life. Ok, perhaps a little harsh… it’s just that it quickly becomes apparent that the gondolas are there purely as a money making machine with little love or craft involved. . Still… when in Venice you just HAVE to do the gondolas…. right?
Back in 2014 we rode the gondolas in The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. We were tempted to ride it AGAIN when we visited in early 2016. So what are the differences? Which one is better? It’s time for a good, old-fashioned head to head. Let the battle commence!
Gondola Head to Head: Venice vs Las Vegas
Gondola stations are scattered throughout Venice, though details of where they are located can be difficult to find online since every website is working for sales commission. Being that we had a shared gondola we were in a group of 30+ people literally piled into a massive, packed, shambolic mess of a queue. It wasn’t pleasant and we almost walked away before a plucky Australian lady grabbed our hands and shouted “We’re a FOUR! WE’RE TOGETHER!! WE ARE A FOUR!” I’m sure a private tour is less chaotic however you’ve still got the rigmarole of haggling a price, time and route. All in all this seems like a bit of a game whereby the only real winner is the gondolier. Score: 3.5/5 (total: 3.5/5)
Located on the first floor (that’s right, the lagoon and fake-lake, fake St Marks Square and fake cityscape is UPSTAIRS) you can meander through the quaint, boutique Italian designer stores absolutely pigeon-free until you find yourself at the Emporio D’Gondola ticket store. All prices are clearly labelled, staff are at hand for help and assistance plus you can even pre-book. Extremely efficient. Daylight robbery done right. Score: 4/5 (total: 4/5)
Gondolas as are available day and night. While demand is high there is more than adequate supply- in fact you’re likely to find a queue of Gondoliers vying for your custom. You’re not going to be short of options. On the downside, rain, inclement weather or adverse tides may see numbers reduce. Venice’s city hall are also looking to ban Gondolas from the busy Grand Canal before 10.30am to help this busy thoroughfare. They also want to bring in breathalysers for the gondoliers which is both comforting and terrifying in equal measure. Score: 4/5 (total: 7.5/10)
The gondolas at The Venetian operate from 10am-11pm SUN-THUR with FRI and SAT staying open until midnight, whilst the ticket office opens slightly earlier at 9.30am, accepting bookings in advance. The Venetian also benefits from two separate options; the inside gondola ride through the Grand Canal Shoppes or the external ride passing the Bascillica, St Marks Tower and the hotel’s frontage. The inside canal is kept at a balmy 24.5c whilst the outside is weather dependent (btw… you’re in a desert). Occasionally the lakes may be closed due to cleaning but there will always be one option available. Score: 4/5 (total: 8/10)
PRICE / DURATION
Official Venice City prices state that a 40 minutes trip should set you back $87 (£72/€80) with prices after 7pm increasing to $110 (£90/€100). Finding a Gondalier actually willing to sell you that rate may be a hard task. Also, check your watch as it has been know for their clocks to run a little fast. Expedia is showing pre-booked tickets at $36pp (£29/€32)shared or $156 (£128/€142) for a private couple (if pre-booked is this price then you can imagine you will NEVER get the $130 official price…). As you can see, it’s a variable mix though there should be something for every budget. Tips are appreciated. Score: 3/5 (total 10.5/15)
Adult tickets cost just $29pp (£24/€26). A private, two-passenger gondola ride is available for between $76- 116 paid by cash or card. Clear and simple. Tips are expected (the American way). Downside? It’s only 15 minutes, just enough to experience it fully. The outside Gondola may be over slightly quicker. Score: 3.5/5 (total 11.5/15)
70% of the gondolas we saw had tatty seats or tired interiors. Some had exposed foam where the fabrics had worn out and some had garden chairs on board for when they’re cramming in their passengers. Our shared Gondola had 2 front facing seats at the foot of the gondolier, two seats in the middle of the boat that were facing each other (very close and very rocky!) and two makeshift ‘spaces’ at the nose of the boat that you kind of just laid in situ. We did see a few nice boats, however, I’d imagine this is all where all the price negotiations and haggling play their part… Score: 2/5 (total: 12.5/20)
One boat, four seats. Two at the gondalier’s foot and two directly opposite. The boats are actually built for six but you’ll not need to share with this large of number unless you’re one big happy party. Great photo opportunities are had by all and lots of lovely (sickening)snuggling too. What’s more the lake is naturally still so you’ll find a pleasantly smooth journey. Boats are built for the US market so expect wide, comfortable seats and a clean and tidy finish from these like-new Gondolas. Score: 5/5 (total 16.5/20)
Your gondola will typically take you on a round trip, ending up at the same point where you started. You are sure to experience lots of windy, narrow canals surrounded by tall crumbling building facades. You’ll feel amazement and serenity at the same time and your photo shutter will be on constant-click mode. You yourself will be subject to many photographs, such is the beautiful site of a gondola gliding its way across the waters. At some point you will burst forth onto Grand Canal; an amazing site to behold. You will pass rustic homes, waterfront palaces, ancient warehouses and photogenic churches with each stoke. The sights are magnificent and never boring. Score: 10/5. Yes 10/5 (total: 22.5/25)
Similar to in Venice you’ll be passing under bridges and pretty streetscapes. The path is lit by fake streetlamps, you’ll pass a bustling St Marks Square and the ceiling is an ever bright blue fake sky. But that’s the problem here…. it’s all fake. It’s a fun novelty and an amusing sight. But, truth be told, they’ve done such a great job of the theming the initial amusement soon gives way to gasps of “wow” “no way” and genuine disbelief before you know it. Here, gondoliers singing is obligatory. It happens. In Venice the only singing we saw were from “extras” that had been hired onto the boat especially. As far as experience, you’re in for a treat. The outside tour takes in the ever beautiful views of the Las Vegas strip, Rialto bridge and St Marks Tower. But it’s all fake and that means it gets a lower but still respectable Score: 3.5/5 (total: 20/25)
Our gondolier didn’t speak. We jumped in with the rest of our crew and then we got out when prompted. You’d be forgiven for thinking he was mute, except he would talk loudly in Italian to passing colleagues. Who knows what he was saying about us? I guess this was more of a excursion type trip so chances of a tip were low so perhaps his input levels were pretty low but still; a little guide would be nice. Perhaps a song or even a little hum. In fact, damn it, a smile would have been an improvement. Judging by the passing Gondoliers it seems that this attitude is commonplace and we were perhaps only lucky that our driver wasn’t on his mobile phone* for the entire trip (*that must have been the cheap boat)…. Score: 1/5 (total: 23.5/30)
Expect full on, upbeat, outgoing all-American flavour here. A hearty greeting, gutsy singing and much infotainment all form part of your tour and you’ll leave feeling like we you WANT TO tip. The difference here is that the gondoliers are employed and making an honest buck, whereas the Venetians are self employed and largely self governed. Service here trumps anything Venice could offer. Score: 5/5 (total: 25/30)
Once it’s done I think its genuinely done. The sights were fantastic but also navigatable by foot. It’s inevitable you will end up on a boat at some point in Venice be it on an excursion/tour or a vaporetto bus and therefore you will still experience the open waters. If visiting with friends who wanted on, I’d definitely find a cafe and meet them when they were done. Score: 1.5/5 (total: 24/35)
Despite its fakeness it is still enchanting. Whilst I wouldn’t rush to take the indoor boat again I would certainly consider the external gondola trip. If I was visiting with friends who were dying to get on board then unlike Venice I would definitely join in. I can’t quite put my finger on why, I suppose gliding through the ‘streets’ trumped walking it whereas in Venice the walking was still so very pleasant!? (Talk about clutching at straws!). Score: 4/5 (total: 29/35)
The Venice experience was not what we had expected. Neither was Vegas. Venice was slightly disappointing when compared to the ideal in your head and Vegas was actually a lot more enjoyable. Perhaps the order in which we completed our trips played their part or perhaps it was our level of intoxication. Either way with Venice eluding expectations and Vegas exceeding them, the two meet up somewhere in the middle in terms of levels of satisfaction.
Both are worthwhile or even essential experiences; one for pure beauty/wonderment and one for pure insanity/amazement.
Venice certainly appeals to more people however if you have the slight incline to try in Vegas then please do. Vegas benefits highly in terms of comfort and service but nothing can compare to the beauty of being in Venice and surrounded by the real McCoy.
My final score ranks out as Venice 24 v 29 Las Vegas and I think that’s about right. It doesn’t make Vegas the out and out winner or the better choice, despite these scoring factors placing it as the favourite.
Overall reviews of these categories sees Vegas top out at 29/35; an impressive overall score. Yet Las Vegas only received a top mark of 5 only once, in comfort, whilst Venice (also receiving top marks just once) topped out at 10 for experience- it simply cannot be competed with – which speaks volumes. The one thing that Las Vegas was great at was absolutely trumped by Venice, without Venice even trying….
To summise, gondol-ing in Venice isn’t all its cracked up to be. Prepare for underwhelming reviews, poor service and a hard trade off between an uncomfortable or pricey ride… but boy is she pretty- and that’s all you need her to be.
Final thought: Whilst in Venice one tour guide compared Venice’s future to Disneyland; I think if he ever rode the Gondola in Vegas he would have a full on melt down. Stay clear Tommaso, stay clear!!
Have you ridden the gondolas in Venice or Vegas? How were your experiences? Have you tried out both? – how did they compare? Would you give either a wide birth or would you embrace each for their own unique qualities? Let me know in the comments section belloowwwww.