Gondola Rides in Venice: 9 Essential Tips

How to Ride a Gondola in Venice by Natalie Parker

Well over ten years ago in Vegas, I wanted a gondola ride at the Venetian Hotel.  Mr. P balked at the price and said that he’d pay for a real gondola ride when we made it to Italy.  I was hopping and skipping when we finally arrived in Venice last year, ready for him to make good on his promise.

Just like anything that’s mildly famous in a city, it’s worth knowing a bit before you buy.  Here are my essential tips for having a great gondola experience!

Rates are fixed.  At the time we went, it was 80€ for 30 minutes.  The price was the same for two to six people.  If you want to save, split it among a group.  If you have a group, note there are only two traditional seats in the gondola.  The others will be sitting on small footstools.  Rides at dusk cost more.

Yes, they speak English.  Gondoliers speak well-enough English to quote you the price, sell you the ride, and understand the below.  Don’t worry!

Watch the clock.  Even though rates are fixed, look at your watch to make sure you are getting the entire time you paid for.  To avoid an argument, make a big show of looking at your watch as you climb in.

Singing costs extra.  If you want a serenade by your gondolier, you will pay extra.

How to Ride a Gondola in Venice by Natalie Parker

Gondola vs. Sandalo.  Make sure you are riding a gondola and not a sandalo if you want a gondola ride.  A sandalo is a smaller boat that can fit into tighter canals, which can be a good thing if that’s what you’re after.  But if you’re after a ride in a gondola, make sure you know the difference in looks.  A gondola looks like this (note tall ends) and a sandalo looks like this.

Gondola traffic jams eat into your time.  Your time is fixed even if your gondola has to wait for 3 or 4 other gondolas to clear out of your path.  Do not get a gondola near San Marco or from the touristy side of the Rialto Bridge.  We got ours from Rialto Mercato on the other side of the bridge.  We told the guy we wanted quiet after seeing groups of cruise passengers stuffed up in other canals.  He listened and we had a wonderful time.

How to Ride a Gondola in Venice by Natalie Parker

Gondoliers will point out sites.  It’s sort of like a mini tour.  Since we asked for a quiet trip, we saw some cute cafes out of the way that we were able to find our way back to after the ride.

They will take your picture.  I think they’re pretty used to it!

How to Ride a Gondola in Venice by Natalie Parker

Don’t save your gondola ride for the last day.  Or save it really at all.  You never know how the weather can change.  If the weather is great, go for it!  If you really want to put off the ride, make sure to check the weather online.  If the weather is bad, no gondola rides.  We were there for 2 days: the first day was sunny and the second day was drizzly and windy.  If we waited til the second day, we would not have gotten a ride.

How to Ride a Gondola in Venice by Natalie Parker

Anyone else have tips to share?  We loved our experience!

Want more travel advice?  Check out an index of all my travel posts here!

Italy: How to Handle Rome’s Crazy Train Station

Surviving Roma Termini Train Station

Roma Termini is a huge train station.  If you are planning on training around Italy at all, odds are you will be there at some point.

What We Thought of Our Experience

We were super on guard and prepared for this and it ended up being a fine experience.  If you can navigate trains or public transport in other countries, you should be fine here, but pay attention to the below tips before you go!

Roma Termini Station

Things to Know About Navigating Roma Termini

1. Get there early.  Do yourself a favor and give yourself time to sort everything out.  Even with these tips, the place is chaotic and being in a rush is no bueno.

2. It’s served well by public transport.  We took a direct bus from our AirBNB in Trastevere.

3. Ignore those who ask if you need help.  They don’t work for the station and will try to pickpocket or fleece you.  Those that actually work there will be behind a desk or counter and will not actually seek you out.

4. Buy your tickets at machines or you can wait in line for a human.  Yes, you can buy your tickets online ahead of time via RailEurope or similar sites.  Remember to have cash if you don’t have a European credit card.  Read more about using credit cards abroad here.

5. Waiting in line for a human wasn’t that bad.  Your results may vary, but the line seemed to move quickly.  We waited about 15 minutes after being confused by the machine.

6. Platforms are easy to find.  Everything was pretty well marked.

7. There are plenty of food options.  Nothing ah-mazing foodwise, but there are options and better than we’ve seen in other cities (Gare du Nord in Paris, I’m looking at you!).  If you get there early and need a bite before getting on the train, you will be fine.

8. Stamp your ticket at the machine before getting on the train.  This is not a subway/metro and there are no fare gates that prevent you from getting on the train.  However, you need to punch/validate/stamp your ticket at one of the green machines before boarding (they look like this).

9. Watch your stuff, beware of pickpockets.  Train stations generally are easy pickings for thieves.  Do not leave bags unattended.  Do not set your purse on the ground next to you.

Photo courtesy Prasad Pillai via Creative Commons license.

Italy: Taking a Food Tour in Rome

Best Rome Food Tour

Mr. P and I are all about food, especially when traveling.  A coworker recommended Eating Italy Tours to us, so I booked a Trastevere walking tour.  To be honest, I did zero research and just booked it.  I trust the foodies at my office.

Our Thoughts on the Food Tour

Come on an empty stomach.  We ate so. much. food.  Some places we had little bites.  At others, it was much more.  We sat down as a group and shared three platters of pasta and wine at one stop and sat at another restaurant for dessert at the end!

Best Rome Food Tour

We learned a lot about local food and how it’s made.  So many of the places we stopped at had been in business for decades or even generations.  The pride in their work was evident and the food was amazing.  At the porchetta shop, the owner’s 90+ year old mother still sits at the register.

Best Rome Food Tour

We learned how to tell real gelato from fake.  I consider this a necessary public service announcement so I wrote about it in its own separate post.

Best Rome Food Tour

Easy-going, good-sized group.  As you know, I don’t like tours generally.  I make exceptions for food tours and this one was great.  I didn’t feel like I was getting herded along.  It was nice, down to Earth, and with a good-sized group.

We went back to several places we visited.  Later on that same day, Mr. P had to go back and get a porchetta sandwich.  It was a real porchetta emergency.  We also had snacks and dinner at one of the other restaurants and had the best cacio e pepe of our time in Rome!

Best Rome Food Tour

You get a list of the stops at the end.  Don’t worry about writing everything down!

They helped us with restaurant reservations.  We passed by a restaurant that we’d been trying to get into for dinner.  Even though it wasn’t on the tour, the guide stepped in for us and got us dinner reservations!

In sum, I’m still dreaming about what we ate.  It was that good.

Best Rome Food Tour

Should You Go?

At 75€ per person, it’s a bit pricey but you get a huge amount of food and an English-speaking guide.  I wholeheartedly recommend it if you even remotely like food.  You don’t have to be a big foodie to enjoy it, it’s paced well, and you get to stop in places you never would have thought to check out.  It was time very well spent for us!  They cater to some food allergies/issues, so check it out!

Eating Italy Tours

Note, I am not listing our stops on the tour here as it would not be nice to the company.  I received zero compensation from the tour company for my thoughts here — they don’t even know I’m writing this review.  To the extent we visited any of the stops on our own, I will talk about those experiences in another post.

We traveled to Italy in May 2015.  Click here for all of my tips and things we wish we’d known before our trip!

Italy: 8 Key Tips for Visiting the Colosseum

Rome Colosseum by Natalie Parker

Click here for all of my Italy tips!

What We Thought of the Colosseum

I’ll be honest: I’m glad we went, it was cool, but I wasn’t in awe.  It didn’t rise to the awe-inspiring moment of the Eiffel Tower.  Your results may vary, of course!

We weren’t in the best mindset when we got there because a bunch of the roads were shut down, we had to walk a long way, and it was really hot.  Still, I think I enjoyed sitting outside and looking at it more than picking my way through the inside.

8 Tips for Visiting the Colosseum

1. Get an advance ticket. Buy advance tickets here and you can get in a special line.

2. Sometimes the advance ticket line is huge, but don’t despair. When we got there, the line for people who already had tickets was twice as long as those without.  We were pretty pissed (see above about it being hot).  Don’t despair. Our line moved quickly and we were inside within 20 minutes.

3. A Roma Pass gets you a dedicated entrance but . . . it seemed weird. Yes, their line was way shorter. But once they got inside, their line ground to a halt and we passed some of them. Did they need to use their pass to print a ticket once they got inside? Sometimes that’s the case with monuments.

4. There are restricted areas if you’re not on a tour. I’m not a tour person and I felt a tad ripped off that I couldn’t access the third level or the main platform, It seemed like a racket. Still, I don’t think the tour would have been worth it for us — we saw plenty. If seeing every last nook and cranny is important to you, book a tour. You’ll also get to skip the line.

Rome Colosseum by Natalie Parker

5. Bring a picnic, especially if it’s hot. The food options close by aren’t great. I wish we would have taken some snacks to eat inside the Colosseum or nearby in the Forum.

6. If you’re visiting the Forum after, ask for directions. We didn’t and walked the long way around in the hot sun. There was a closer entrance!

7. Bring a map of the Forum. We had a really hard time finding exits.  There was a moment when I thought “we’re trapped in here!”  Sure, we could have used this as an opportunity to explore the Forum more, wanderlust and all that jazz.  But it was hot and we were tired.

8. It’s worth the climb up Palatine Hill. There are great views of the Forum and Colosseum. We wish we’d brought a picnic here!

What would you add to this list?  Was your experience different?  Please share!

We traveled to Italy in May 2015.  Click here for all of my tips and things we wish we’d known before our trip!

Italian Paper

Italian Paper by Natalie Parker

It happened again. I tried not to, but it did anyway.

In Italy I found myself buying rolled handmade paper in Venice and having to carry it around for the rest of the time. Onto a vaporetto (public boat), into the rental car, across Italy, across Florence on foot to our new apartment, to the train station, onto a regional train, onto a bus, to the hotel, on the airport shuttle, through check-in and security, one flight, one layover with a run through the airport, one longhaul flight, through customs, on the train home.

It’s a good thing I could keep it on my wrist — just treat me like a kid with a balloon. At least I didn’t leave it on the airport check-in counter like I did in Buenos Aires.

I told myself I wouldn’t do this. In Venice, I suggested that the clerk cut the sheet into a couple smaller pieces. She looked horrified. Look lady, I’m going to cut it up anyway. Nope, I couldn’t bring myself to insist, so it got rolled and around my wrist it went for the rest of the trip.

Italian Paper by Natalie Parker

I really should stick to buying cards because they’re compact! When we got to Florence, I bought some Florentine paper that had to be rolled because why not? I was already holding a roll anyway.

Do you have a weakness when shopping abroad?  I’d love to hear it!

Italy: How to Tell Real Gelato from Fake

How to Tell Real from Fake Gelato in Italy

Did you know that most gelato you will see in Italy is fake?  Yes, fake as in made from a powder and pumped full of air.  80% of gelato in Rome is fake.

Don’t let the “artigianale” (artisinal) signs fool you.  We saw plenty of fake gelato that was labeled artigianale.

Look at the colors.  Real gelato will not have artificial colors.  Look closely at mint and banana.  Real mint gelato is white, not green.  Real banana is greyish and not yellow.  If you find green mint or yellow banana, it’s probably fake gelato.  The color of the gelato should exist in nature.

How to Tell Real from Fake Gelato in Italy

Look at how it’s displayed. Is the gelato piled up into pretty puffy mounds?  Then it’s probably fake.  The pretty mounds mean that the gelato has had air whipped into it and likely contains stabilizers.  Real gelato will be displayed very simply.  Some of the real gelato we saw was kept in covered containers!

Is it garnished? Are there piles of mint leaves on the mint or strawberries all over the strawberry gelato?  Then it might be fake.  Again, real gelato doesn’t need to advertise.

How to Tell Real from Fake Gelato in Italy

Yes, it can be challenging to avoid the fake stuff and find the real stuff.  On the plus side, if you avoid the fake gelato it will keep you from eating gelato every three seconds on your trip.

Even being careful to find the real stuff, I still averaged about 1.5 gelatos a day during our two week trip.  It can be done!

Italy: Tips for Eating Out in Rome

Eating Out in Rome by Natalie Parker

Eating out in Rome was actually stressful.  It’s something we weren’t expecting.

My thoughts below apply mostly to the Trastevere area, avoiding the tourist restaurants.  I’m sure there’s more to this and we could have spent more time in Rome to get to know it better, but I hope for the casual traveler, this will help soften the blow a bit.

Make reservations beforehand.  We called several days in advance to many places and were consistently told they had absolutely no availability at all for any of the days we were there.  Not early in the evening or late at night.  I honestly find that hard to believe but maybe I’m missing something.  Looking back, I would have tried to call a month ahead of time (which still kind of seems outrageous, we weren’t looking at five star restaurants).

Walk ups are possible, but you have to be forward or the staff will ignore you.  This was a bit of a shock to the system.  I’ve never experienced it before — in any country I’ve been in, even in famously “rude” France, someone at least acknowledges your presence when you are trying to get a table.  After having all restaurant staff ignore us, we had to physically flag someone down and ask if they had room.  We were mostly treated like a bother and that they were doing us a favor by even talking to us.  This wasn’t the case at every place we tried, and I’ll highlight those in a roundup of restaurants later.

We had some really great meals and not everyone was aloof or indifferent.  But, I think this is worth noting if you’re traveling to Rome just so you’re in the right mindset.  Again, expectations are everything when traveling, so if we’d known that eating out was going to be a contact sport, we’d have been in the right mindset for it.

Just like in Paris, not every place will do dishes justice.  While it’s easier to find a decent plate of pasta in Rome than soup a l’oignon in Paris, we still had some mediocre dishes.  For the times we had to dip into touristy restaurants, we had much better luck with the pizza (pizza is harder to mess up?).

Have you been to Rome before?  I’d love to know if our experience was unique.

Italy: Vatican Museums Tips & Review

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

The Vatican Museums are a must-do on most Rome lists.

We expected the Vatican Museums to be a knock-our-socks-off experience but it wasn’t.  We’re still very happy we went though.

Our Impressions and Experience

We booked tickets in advance for 10:30am and got to skip the gargantuan line.  Even in the morning, the museums were oppressively crowded.  On top of that, the free map was pretty worthless, so we couldn’t tell if we had to shuffle through all the galleries or if we could skip ahead to what we really wanted to see.  We didn’t want to accidentally miss anything so we shuffled along.

15,000 people visit the Museums every day.  We wish they’d limit the size of the tour groups they admit.  There were groups of 20-30 people all trying to move together through a tiny door or enclosed space — it was easy to get swept up in the wave.

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

It was difficult to stop and look at anything, both due to the crush of people but also the setup.  Aside from the Pinacoteca Vaticana (more on that below), it’s not set up like a classic museum experience.  There isn’t space to sit back and enjoy the art.  It’s a set of galleries that you pass methodically through.  The Louvre in Paris is far superior in terms of experience.

On that note, there weren’t as many showstoppers as we expected.  The top 3 pieces for us were the Sistine Chapel (obviously), the Raphael Rooms (including the The School of Athens, below), and Raphael’s Transfirguration in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.  Our next favorite after that was the map gallery but it was hard to enjoy due to the crowds.  It’s very possible that we’re snooty/biased but we’ve been to Egypt before so their Egyptian collection wasn’t that impressive.

The Sistine Chapel was everything we hoped it would be.  I was glad no photos were allowed because it made for a better experience.

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums

Buy tickets online early.  I’m always stunned to see lines when tickets are easily available ahead of time.  The lines here were particularly epic, so buy online!

Print online voucher, skip the lines, get tickets inside.  After buying online, you get a voucher to print.  You must redeem that voucher for the actual tickets when you get to the ticket hall.  The good news is that you can skip the line to get to the ticket hall!

Get there early.  Get the earliest time you can make.  Hopefully it will cut down on the crowd issue.  Our tickets were for 10:30am and we had trouble with crowds.

Get a tour book with a decent map.  The free maps aren’t great.

Use the post office near the gift shop.  If you’d like to send a post card from the  Vatican, the one at the museum gift shop had a shorter line.  Bring a pen, there are no free pens available (they’ll sell you one though!).

Get between the herds.  Do your best to stay between the big tour group herds.  It’s very easy to get stuck behind a group or swept up with them.

You can take photos, but no flash.  Learn how to use your camera!  No selfie sticks are allowed, and no photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel.

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

Don’t be a jerk in the Sistine Chapel.  No photos are allowed, don’t try it.  I don’t think anyone wants to see the blurry picture you snuck with your phone to prove you were there.  Keep your voice down.

Check out the modern art.  The modern religious art after the Sistine Chapel was quite good and few were stopping to look at it.

Make sure to visit Pinacoteca Vaticana.  We were shocked at how many groups skipped this.  The Raphaels here (pic directly above) were easily top 3 of the whole experience.

Have you visited the Vatican Museums?  Any tips for a great experience?

Rome Snapshots

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

The first stop on our grand Italian tour this summer was Rome.  We spent five nights there.

First Impressions of Rome

We enjoyed our stay but didn’t love it.  There were lots of bright sides (see pictures below).  If I try and put my finger on why Rome didn’t suck me in like other European cities, this comes to mind:

It was more run down than I expected.  Expectations are everything when traveling, of course.  It felt at times like we were in a cross between a middle eastern city and a European one.

Eating out was stressful.  I’ll cover this in another post but I’ve never had more difficulty getting into good places to eat.

Overwhelming crowds and touts.  It was impossible to enjoy places like the Spanish Steps or Pantheon without being overrun by crowds and touts trying to sell us things.  The touts were really aggressive and I almost lost my marbles when one touched me.  Italy in the summer?  I know.  But this wasn’t the case as much in other cities we visited after Rome.

Lack of good public transportation.  I’m spoiled by other cities, but I hate that to get between sites, often the 45-minute walk was the best option.  Traffic was too congested for a cab.  It seemed insane that we couldn’t find a decent bus route to get us from the Spanish Steps back to our Trastevere apartment.

The Good Stuff

Despite the above, we enjoyed our time, both sightseeing and eating.  We stayed in Trastevere, which was a great decision.

It was a cute neighborhood and full of good food.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Right up our alley, right?

We spent one very long day checking all the Vatican boxes.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Thankfully, we broke up the day by getting amazing pizza that we saw on one of Anthony Bordain’s shows.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We ate small pastries every morning for breakfast.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We took a food tour and found an amazing porchetta shop.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We walked everywhere.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Even to the Colosseum one day when a charity walk blocked the bus route.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Pizza and pasta.  I found that it was easier to find good pizza at touristy spots.  Pasta was a bit more hit or miss.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We happened on a restaurant one night that had a Roman-era wine cellar.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We loved the rooftop views from our apartment.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

After a bunch of packed days, we took our tired feet to the train station and headed to Venice.  Before we get there, I have some more tips on Rome to share.  Stay tuned!!

When You’re in Venice and Your Husband is an Indiana Jones Fan

Indiana Jones Saint Barnaba Venice by Natalie Parker

. . . this happens.

I can’t blame him.  I’m a movie dork too.

Remember the library at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?

It’s actually a church called San Barnaba di Venezia.  Mr. P Googled it while we were in Venice and we hopped on a vaporetto (a public boat like a bus) to see it.

What I love about this adventure (other than the fun picture of him outside), is that we got to wander around another part of Venice.  The piazza was adorable.  I found the cutest shop that makes wood crafted toys and bought gifts.  And then I got gelato.  Because gelato.

“X” marks the spot!

We went to Italy for the first time this summer and I can’t wait to share all our adventures plus some great tips with you!