View of Venice from a water taxi (photo Sarah Ricks)

View of Venice from a water taxi (photo Sarah Ricks)

Have you ever taken a boat tour when visiting a new city? It can be exhilarating to see a city from a boat.

Boat Rides in the City of Canals – Venice

Venice is built on water, has no cars, and has vehicles only on its canals – its “streets.” These watery streets provide many ways to explore the city. While the most famous way to navigate Venice’s canals is by private gondola, that option is too pricey, and probably too touristy, for our family.

But thankfully there are less expensive ways to see Venice by boat, with views just as beautiful. The best bang for your buck is the public “bus,” called the vaporetto, which operates on a normal bus schedule. Naturally, in Venice the bus is a boat – a small ferry that is made up of mostly standing room. The Number 1 vaporetto cruises up the Grand Canal, with views of the gorgeous palazzos, stone bridges, smaller boats, and twisting pedestrian alleyways. You can also take a vaporetto bus to the nearby islands, such as the Lido and Murano, or enjoy refreshing rides across the open lagoon. A single ride is 7 Euro; buy a multi-day pass to save money.


Pictured above is our view from a water taxi ride in Venice. Yes, this boat ride was a splurge (over 60 Euros), but so worth it. We loved every minute of our water taxi ride, from splashing across the open water of the lagoon from the airport to cruising along the Grand Canal, to arriving at our hotel via a smaller canal. (Well, close to our hotel – not all canals are big enough for a motorboat, so we had to walk a bit once we were back on land.)

From a boat, view of a Russian church and street life in St. Petersburg (photo Sarah Ricks)

From a boat, view of a Russian church and street life in St. Petersburg (photo Sarah Ricks)

In Venice, you can also take a tiny boat that the driver rows across a single narrow canal. This last Venice boat public transportation option is inexpensive, but can be a little dicey. Essentially you are standing up in a small boat; my kids and I were too nervous about not losing our footing to take in the view.

Boat Tour of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is also a city of canals. A wonderful way to see the exteriors of the palaces and mansions is to view them from a boat from the city’s canals. We splurged on a 2-hour motorboat tour for just our family. This boat tour let us explore St. Petersburg’s canals with an excellent guide, who we booked months in advance through Travel All Russia private tours. We were lucky the August day was warm enough for the breeziness of a motorboat ride, especially as the wind picked up when we left the city’s canals and took a quick look around the river. While we were in St. Petersburg in August, “summer weather” is a relative concept: the temperature for several days following our boat tour hovered around 50 and it rained all day. A boat ride on those days would have been miserable. And that was summer; I imagine spring or fall would be even more challenging.

River Boat Tour in Budapest

In Budapest, the exterior of the Hungarian Parliament Building is beautiful by daylight. But to better appreciate the majesty of this building, take an hour long nighttime boat ride on the Danube River. Yes, it is touristy. Yes, the recorded audio tour was boring and sounded so scratchy that every one of my family of 4 removed our headphones. But the gorgeous view was worth it. At night, Budapest lights up its bridges and other buildings that line the riverbank. Other buildings are also beautiful all lit up against the night sky, but the crowd favorite was Parliament. Buy your tickets the day before as the evening boat tours sell out.

Architecture Boat Tour in Chicago

If your teens or tweens are interested in learning more about the Chicago skyline, take the 90-minute Chicago boat tour run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It is a docent-led tour that focuses on the city’s magnificent skyscrapers and other significant buildings.

River Boat Tour of Philadelphia

It’s also fun to get a new perspective on a familiar city by experiencing it from the deck of a boat. I live in Philadelphia, a city between two rivers.

Philadelphia now has one-hour river boat tours (photo Sarah Ricks)

Philadelphia now has one-hour river boat tours (photo Sarah Ricks)

Philadelphia recently opened up its smaller river, the Schuylkill, for one-hour boat tours in warmer months. Sit on a bench in the small ferry boat as a knowledgeable live tour guide talks about the history of Philadelphia’s use of the river. As you listen, take in the city’s skyline. It is also fun to people-watch the runners, bikers, picnickers, and other users of Schuylkill Banks,the city’s new riverbank park – one of Philadelphia’s new public spaces singled out by the New York Times in selecting Philly as a top 2015 destination.

Philadelphia’s Schuylkill river boat tours have not yet caught on with tourists; every person on our tour was a Philly native. Schuylkill River Boat Tours operates from May to October, $30 for adults, $17 for children 12 and under, book a few days or more in advance.

Interested in a City Boat Tour?

TMOM has you covered. Here are tips about a Boston boat tour, several Milwaukee boat tours, a free Seattle boat tour, and a special kids’ cruise of New York City.