The beauty, elegance and romantic charm of a gondola ride have lured in passengers for centuries. However, today’s canal rides are pricier than ever, and the only Venetians ever found in a gondola are the gondolieri themselves. However, seeing Venice from the water is an unforgettable experience, with the lagoon representing the city’s past and present. Indeed, it was from the water that Venice made its fortune. If you want to save your wallet and experience Venice like a resident, public transport is your best option, and like everything else in the city, its buses are truly unique.
The vaporetto (plural: vaporetti) is the basis of the city’s water-bus network. The word itself means “little steamer,” although nowadays vaporetti don’t run on steam but rather on diesel. You’ll see them all over town, sailing down the Grand Canal, travelling from island to island and docking on an imbarcadèro (bus stop) to let passengers on and off.
The first and most important means of transportation for all Venetians is their feet. In this fully pedestrianised city, residents spend their days strolling through the lovely calli (streets) and running up and down bridges. Sometimes they’re pushing a pram or pulling a shopping trolley behind them – these are the only wheels found in this water-bound city. However, when feet fail their owners, or when the route is too long or there’s a need to cross the lagoon, Venetians rely on the vaporetti.
Water buses are like all public transport across the world – pivotal to local life. They’re public and used by everyone who calls the city home, and yet the small space of a passenger deck on a vaporetto can be incredibly intimate – especially at rush hour. Because their city has a relatively small population (fewer than 300,000 people), Venetians are likely to meet someone they know every time they hop on a vaporetto.
You’ll notice people chatting away, be they lifelong friends or total strangers. You’ll see tourists marvelling at the views, leaning over the bars to snap photos (and being roundly told off by the driver). You’ll see the elderly wheeling their shopping bags, longing for shops that are now closed, and parents herding small children into seats. You’ll see eager university students – especially in September – excited to start their academic path, cementing their newly forged friendships with an adventure in Venice and losing their hearts to this enchanting city.
Take a seat amid the mayhem, if you can find one, and sit back to enjoy your ride through Venice. Here’s how to navigate the city’s unique public transport without ending up in the canal.
Although cheaper than a gondola, public transport in Venice is quite expensive compared with that in many other major cities, and planning your visit well ahead of time will help you figure out the best option available to both you and your bank account. A vaporetto single ticket costs €7.50 (£6.45) and is valid for 75 minutes, with children under age six travelling for free and reduced rates available for people using wheelchairs.
If you’re planning on travelling by vaporetto all day, travel cards might be a worthy investment. Actv, the company that operates the vaporetti, sells a one-day travel card for €20 (£17), with those valid for two, three and seven days costing €30 (£25.75), €40 (£34.40) and €60 (£51.50) respectively.
Visitors ages six to 29 are entitled to the Venice Rolling Card, which grants a reduction on ticket prices for both vaporetti and museums. For younger travellers, spending just €6 (£5.15) on this card will help you enjoy more of Venice’s amazing attractions on a budget, while the Actv three-day-pass price becomes €22 (£18.90) instead of €40 (£34.40).
If you visit the lagoon quite often or if you’re in Venice for an extended stay, you can also purchase a Venezia Unica City Pass card, which costs €100 (£85.90) for non-residents and drastically reduces the price of vaporetti tickets.
Tickets are available for purchase in all of Venice’s main areas, not just at water-bus stops. Look for places displaying the Actv logo, which include newsstands and supermarkets. However, bear in mind that some of these smaller venues will only accept cash, so make sure you have a few coins to make a swift purchase if you’re running late for an appointment. You can also buy vaporetto tickets at tourist offices (such as those in Piazzale Roma, for example), online or even via the AVM Venezia Official APP.
The water-bus system covers numerous routes with a fixed timetable. There are plenty to jump on, and it’s hard to get lost. Most lines start running at 5am and end at 11pm, with roughly 20 minutes between rides.
Possibly the most useful lines for visitors to the city are No 1 and No 2, which also happen to be the most beautiful. Hitting the main sights of the lagoon, these routes glide straight down the Grand Canal. Ride them in the evening when the hoards of day trippers have gone home, leaving the city quieter and more serene. There’s no experience quite like travelling through Venice’s equivalent of a main thoroughfare, palazzos on either side lit up, as the sun sets ahead over the lagoon.
Route 12 is also one to note, as it will take you straight to the lovely and picturesque islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. Unlike a guided tour, a self-planned trip on the vaporetto gives you time to explore each island on your own, wandering among the coloured houses of Burano and viewing the church on Torcello without needing to stick to a rigid itinerary.
Although tourists are always welcome, Venetians would be much happier if everyone respected their city (hence the recent tourism campaign, #EnjoyRespectVenezia). It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all. While this might be the holiday of a lifetime for you, the residents are trying to live their everyday lives.
Most of the etiquette for vaporetti is the same as for any other public transport. For example, don’t push; take your backpacks off; be mindful of other people around you; don’t stand in the way of the vaporetto’s staff – and above all, be polite. A smile and a thank you will take you a long way!
Of course, there are also some Venice-specific tips. First, it doesn’t matter if you’re not at the very front or gazing through the glass windscreen; you’ll get a great view wherever you are. Second, don’t lean too far over the railing while trying to snap that perfect picture for Instagram – falling into the canals is not a great way to start your holiday.
If a gondola ride is on your bucket list, and you can’t bear the idea of leaving Venice without going on one, try a traghetto (ferry). Smaller than a vaporetto and far less crowded, traghetti cross the Grand Canal from one side to the other. They’re situated in various locations around the city – the one crossing at Rialto Mercato, the centuries-old fish market, gives an incredible view of the city’s most famous spots. They’ll be far cheaper than a one-hour-long tour, and you’ll still get to experience Venice from the rocking perspective of the gondola.