Flying over the brackish lagoon into Venice’s Marco Polo airport there is the briefest glimpse of the beautiful island city out of the right-hand window as the plane banks and turns in to land. The sight holds promise of ornate palazzi, emerald green canals and glistening gondolas gliding through the water. Millions find the city’s pull irresistible each year. But what is the best way to get to the heart of the historic city?
Although there are no written records of the birth of the city, Venice is generally agreed by historians to have been founded by mainland refugees fleeing from German and Hun invaders. The refugees took shelter in the almost impenetrable marshland, originally building temporary homes amongst the reeds, but later making them more permanent whilst retaining the protection of the lagoon from attack. Even today reaching the island city is not easy.
In fact until the 19th century, when a rail causeway was built across to the new Santa Lucia railway station on the north-west shore of the city, there was absolutely no link to the mainland. And even though the 20th century saw the addition of the Ponte della Libertà roadway and parking facilities on the nearby Tronchetto island the main modes of transport around the lagoon and the historic city remain water based. Venice is Europe’s largest urban traffic-free zone and functions entirely without motorbikes, bicycles, cars or lorries. Its even forbidden to roller skate! So whilst reaching the edges of the city can now be done by air, road or rail, the last few steps inevitably have to be done by boat and foot whatever the final destination.
Sounds simple, but even here there is a choice of vessel. What’s best? A motoscafo taxi, a vaporetto or traghetto waterbus or even a gondola? Well that depends!
The motoscafi speedboats epitomise the glamour of Venice and add a touch of class with their highly varnished wooden decks reminiscent of old schooner yachts. Hundreds can be seen cruising up and down the grand canal every day, with their tourist passengers, cameras in hand, transfixed at the sight of all the palazzi. One can be hired, with a bit of haggling, at several points including the train station, airport and Piazza San Marco and many tourists hire them to have a personal tour of the canal. But as a mode of public transport they’re not really an economic choice unless in a group, or with a lorry load of luggage!
The next best choice is to get one of the vaporetti or public water busses which run back and forth along the canal every few minutes. Arriving by air offers the added choice of the Alilaguna ferry which costs €15 one way or €27 return from the airport into town and is an easy way into the centre. Otherwise, arriving by road or rail into Piazza di Roma, there is a good choice of similar ferries running various lines which take in the myriad of stops along the grand canal and out to the Lido in the lagoon.
Whichever method picked the issue of tickets can be a thorny one at times as ticket booths are a little difficult to track down beyond the main tourist spots. Its easy enough at the airport, train and bus station as there are ticket booths but once out on the network, there are few ticket machines and no directions as to where to buy tickets. Water buses do have conductors with ticket machines but passengers aren’t ask to show tickets often, although the fine for not having one is €50 which is no small amount when on a budget! The one advantage to the ticketing system is that tickets can be bought in advance as they are only activated when validated at the ferry stop before boarding the ferry so its worth having a stock ready or getting a day, weekend or week pass.
And finally there are the gondolas or in Italian, gondole! Whilst absolutely beautiful to look at, and carrying huge cultural and historical significance for the Venetians, in reality the gondole are actually not an economic choice for transport unless you just want to cross the canal in which case the traghetti gondola at various crossing points on the Grand Canal are very handy and cheap. The advantage of the gondole, however, is that they are a fantastic way to see the smaller canals in and around the historic city and to appreciate the internal workings of Venice close up. Plus they introduce a peace to the hustle and bustle which can be hard to find. But if speed is important, gondole are not the best choice as they glide gracefully through the water driven by a single gondolier and his unique paddle at a medieval pace. A gondola ride is an experience in its own right and very much recommended but more as a tour, not a method of getting from A to B.
So, overall, day to day transport in Venice boils down to two main methods depending on the size of the wallet or purse paying! Motoscafi are well suited for the tourists with the best exchange rate and most spare cash (or a group or the odd Venetian Duke with a private dock into his palazzo!) Whilst the vaporetti water buses suit the rest of us perfectly well! And, personally, I find the vaporetti quite sociable with a mix of Venetians on their way home or with their children after school and tourists weighed down by their cameras, guide books and suitcases! Why don’t you give one a try next time you’re visiting La Serenissima!
Vaporetto tickets can be bought from machines or kiosks at San Marco, Ferrovia (Station), Zattere, Accademia & San Tomà plus some others. Tickets cost €7 for one trip, €30 for 48 hours, €35 for 72 hours and €50 for 7 days. The fine for not having a ticket is €52 and don’t forget to validate it before you board!!
Alilaguna tickets can be bought from the kiosk inside the airport, the booth at the airport jetty, San Marco ferry stop or on the boat. Tickets cost €15 one way (€16 onboard) or €27 return valid for up to 1 month.
Motoscafo taxis cost €110 from the airport, one way, and tickets can be bought from the kiosk at the airport jetty.
Gondole are €80 for 35-40 minutes and can take up to 6 people. It can be worth haggling and obviously if you want to be seranaded that costs extra!!