When it comes to must-see cities, Venice has to be at the top of just about every list. Lights sparkling on the Grand Canal, gondoliers ferrying loved-up couples beneath the Bridge of Sighs, the sun setting on the piazza San Marco…few places evoke a greater sense of romance in our imaginations. While the Metropolitan City of Venice itself is on most people’s bucket lists, the greater region of Venice and Friuli is also well worth exploring! To celebrate my mom’s 60th birthday this July, my family and I spent 10 days meandering down the canals, rivers and lagoons of Northern Italy on board an 8-person Le Boat Houseboat.
Here’s Everything You Need to Know About a Houseboat Holiday in Venice
What To Expect
What to Expect on a Houseboat Holiday
I honestly mean it when I say that houseboat holidays are for everyone – even people who have never set foot on a boat before. You don’t need a skippers license to pilot a Le Boat houseboat and anyone over the age of 18 can do it. Don’t worry about not having experience, because you are extensively briefed on the route, the boat and what the captain’s responsibilities are upon check-in. The docks even have lighting on so if you need to dock late at night, you are able to see where you are going. Take a look on aquadocklights.com to find out more about this lighting.
You do feel nervous at first, but after the first couple of hours of relaxed cruising you start to feel comfortable behind the wheel.
The Le Boat houseboats have thrusters, which help you move them from side to side, making mooring and docking much easier than you’d expect – it might seem really scary to park a 15m houseboat between 2 others, but with a bit of patience and a lot of use of the thrusters, you’ll manage. The boats also come equipped with rubber bumpers, so small bumps and scrapes when going through locks or manoeuvring into tight marinas are no big deal. Depending on the trip you choose, the canals are generally very easy to navigate (you can’t go in the wrong direction) and the boat can’t go faster than 12km/h, so you’re not likely to get yourself into any trouble. The Le Boat crew is always on call though, so if you do need help, they are just a phone call away. (We experienced some issues with grass getting stuck in the engine and our AC not working during the trip and had to call them out)
What to Expect from The Boat
We chose the Vision4 for this trip. The boat has 4 cabins which are snug, but each have an en-suite bathroom, cupboard space, a few clever shelves and storage spaces and plug points. The kitchen is fully equipped with a 4-hob stove, oven, microwave, full-sized fridge and a table with seating for 8 people and the boat is equipped with AC to cool or heat the interior of the boat. Upstairs on the sundeck there’s loads of space to enjoy the sunshine (or escape it under a sunshade) and a bbq, bar fridge and, vital for summer, an outdoor shower. The boat can be steered from inside or upstairs, so the captain is always part of the group. You have the option to rent bicycles for the boat, which I cannot recommend enough! They make exploring and grocery shopping so much easier!
Also read: On my first trip with Le Boat, I went with my friend Misha and our two moms and if we can do it all, you can do it all! We previously cruised aboard the Horizon4, which has the same features but is a more modern and luxurious boat. The Horizon fleet is the top of the line, so if you have the budget, I would recommend splurging on the Horizon boat that suits your group.
What to Expect from a Cruise in the Venice and Friuli Region in Northern Italy
Remember that the cruising is the destination. Enjoy the experience of being on the boat, taking in the views, soaking up the sunshine and having the opportunity to travel slowly. Cruising is not about ticking hot-ticket destinations off your bucket list one after the next, but about seeing a destination from a different angle, exploring parts of a destination you might not otherwise visit and enjoying the quirks along the way. It’s a great way to spend time with family and friends, and unlike a road trip where you have to unpack every night and stop if you want a snack, when you’re cruising in a houseboat, you have everything you need with you. Make time for random stops and roll with the houseboat way of travelling: If a lock or bridge is closed for lunch when you arrive, grab your bicycle and find the nearest cycle path, or have a picnic on the riverbank. This is the best part of cruising!
The Venice and Friuli route starts at the Le Boat base in Casale sul Sile. The easiest way to get there from South Africa is to fly into Treviso International Airport and then take a bus to the base. You can also fly into Venice Marco Polo and take the bus to Treviso from there. I would highly recommend planning at least 2 nights in Treviso, which is a charming and highly underrated city, complete with canals, cobbled streets and stunning piazzas, but without all the tourists.
When To Go
The official houseboat season in Italy is from 1 April to 31 October. We went in July, which is the height of summer and peak tourist season. Temperatures hovered around 30°C – 35°C, which made for sticky sightseeing in Venice, but was great for beach days down the coast. If you want to avoid the crowds, the ideal time would be to go at the beginning (May/June) or end (September/October) of summer, when temperatures are more moderate and most of the tourists have left the city. But if you enjoy the sun and a holiday vibe, July/August is ideal.
Planning Your Route
There is no set itinerary when it comes to your cruise. Le Boat encourages you to keep your options open and stay flexible so that if you find you particularly enjoy a stop along the route, you can stay an extra night. I would recommend spending time researching highlights along the route before you go, so that you have a general idea of what to expect and don’t spend too much time on the first few destinations, then run out of time to see the highlights at the end.
I liked to sit with a coffee every morning and go over the route, the directions and the info about what to look out for along the way, writing out directions for my dad, our captain
I’d also recommend checking out Google Maps and pinning a few restaurants, beaches and marinas that you like the look of before you go. You never regret doing research before a trip! The most important thing is that you plan your day’s cruise every morning, checking the route to make sure you understand where you’re going, any locks and bridges (and their opening hours and telephone numbers if necessary) and the details of moorings or marinas where you plan on spending the night.
It’s a good idea to call the marina you plan on staying at in the morning, to make sure they have space and to find out about hours. During your cruise you will have the option to moor for free or to pay to dock at marinas. If you plan to use free mooring, remember that there is limited space, so arrive early during the season to ensure you have a spot for the nights. At marinas you will be able to plug the boat into the electricity point, fill up your water tank and secure the boat so that you don’t feel any wakes or currents during the night. They also often have excellent shower facilities, pools and laundry rooms so that you can freshen up before you set off for your next destination.
Highlights On The Venice Friuli Route
First stop: Treviso (2 nights before the boat)
If you think Venice is romantic, wait until you experience the charm without the crowds in Treviso!
In Treviso, or “Little Venice”, you can wander cobblestone streets, admire canals, enjoy gelato and sip Aperol Spritz – all without the crowds. Summer concerts, weekend markets and lots of excellent restaurants that don’t charge tourist prices make it even more of a must-visit. This charming city was one of my favourite stops on the trip, so I’d recommend planning 2 nights here before setting off on your cruise.
Casale (1 night)
Check-in at the Le Boat base in Casale sul Sile is available from 4pm, so your first night will be in nearby Casale. Here you can moor next to a beautiful bell tower and take your bicycle to the Coop grocery store to stock up on supplies for your first few days of cruising. There is a little restaurant/bar right on the water where you can grab a Spritz and a great bakery for coffee and a brioche (which is what they call croissants in Italy) in the morning before you head out.
Burano (1 night)
Depending how early you leave Casale, you should arrive at the island of Burano in the late afternoon or early evening. Here you can moor for free – you will see other houseboats already moored in the designated area. We arrived just before the sun started setting and took our bikes to explore the colourful island as the sky was changing colour. Restaurants close early on the island, so make sure to grab a table before 8pm – and go wild with mosquito spray before you set off! Spending the night here was an excellent idea, as it gave us the opportunity to enjoy the island virtually alone before the tourist boats and day-trippers arrived at 11am.
Murano (we skipped it to make up time)
The neighbouring island of Murano is in fact a collection of 7 small islands connected by a series of bridges. Famous for traditional glass blowing and a more laid-back experience than Venice, this island is a nice stop before the crazy crowds in Venice. There is more free space here to moor for the night, so you will again have the opportunity to explore in the early evening and the next morning before the crowds arrive.
Sant’ Erasmo (lunch stop)
This peaceful island may seem a bit desolate when you arrive at the mooring spot, but get on your bike and head towards Al Bacan restaurant for a delicious lunch on the beach. This was an unexpected highlight on the trip! You can take a quick dip before heading to Orto di Venezia if you’d like to pick up a bottle of local organic wine. It was closed up when we arrived, but we called their number and within a few minutes a scooter was zooming down the dusty road and a woman opened up the cellar for us. It’s not the most interesting experience in terms of wine tasting (we just bought a bottle and left) but it makes a nice gift or addition to your wine rack.
Venice (2 nights)
The City of Bridges. Or The Floating City. I just call it Magic. When you are approaching Venice, navigating the lagoon, with its water taxis, ferries, superyachts and small local boats all criss-crossing invisible “lanes” is pretty hair raising! We were relieved when we found a quiet Marina to dock at Certosa island, North-East of Venice. We arrived in the afternoon and had some time to freshen up before catching the ferry (€7 one way) to piazza San Marco, where we arrived just as the sun was setting. I can’t think of a more spectacular way to see Venice for the first time!
Venice in the summer is jam-packed, so expect to enjoy Rialto Bridge and other sights with millions of other tourists. We found a Spritz with a gorgeous view of the bridge and the Grand Canal, which we enjoyed for about 10 seconds before our friend Meyer slipped and fell into the canal! After finding him some dry clothes (from a souvenir stand lol!) we decided to take a water taxi back to the boat to clean him up. This was such a great experience and it really felt like we were in a movie! The boat had luxurious wood finishes and plush leather seats, so it felt like we were taking a water limo. The trip costs €100 for 8 people and takes about 25 minutes back to Certosa, but it’s definitely something I recommend experiencing! If you have to choose between a gondola ride or a water taxi, I’d recommend the water taxi! It’s less touristy and more glamorous in my opinion.
We ended up spending 2 nights docked at Certosa, so that we had an evening, one full day and a night to explore Venice before cruising to our next destination. If you feel like you need more time to explore, you could easily spend 3 or 4 nights here, depending on how long you have the boat for. Finding good food in Venice is a challenge and it’s unbelievably easy to fall into a tourist trap, so ask around for recommendations and read reviews before you go. Pin the places you’d like to try out and then plan your sightseeing around where you’d like to end up at mealtimes, or you could easily end up spending €30 on a bang-average meal or frantically reading Google reviews outside a million restaurants when you’re already hangry. We only had two really great meals in Venice – one at Rio Novo (the service was incredible, especially because on the whole we found the service in Italy borderline hostile!) and one at Adriatico Mar (where we had a delicious cheese and charcuterie board and organic wine).
Jesolo (2 nights)
You can dock at Porto Touristico di Jesolo, a lovely marina with excellent ablution facilities. This town is absolutely buzzing during the summer, so there is a great holiday feeling in the air. Take your bike and head to the beach – which stretches for almost 15km and is lined with thousands upon thousands of colourful umbrellas in perfect symmetry. One road up from the beach is one of Italy’s longest pedestrian streets, where you can cycle, eat good food, indulge in excellent gelato and do some local shopping to your hearts content. Although this is not one of the sophisticated “see and be seen” beaches you’ll find on the Amalfi coast, it’s laid back, the water is warm and the loungers are some of the cheapest in Europe, at €15 for 2 loungers, an umbrella and even a clever safety box. We spent 2 nights here and loved it!
Caorle (2 nights)
Cruising from Jesolo to Caorle you’ll come across a bridge that closes from 12:30-14:30. If you’re fortunate enough to arrive during this time, moor the boat and head straight to Ristorante Albergo da Luigi – a restaurant you can see from the water – for a delicious lunch cooked by Italian nonnas and served on grandma’s best crockery. The food is excellent and house wine comes in 1/2 litre or 1 litre carafes and is very good. Certainly one of my top 5 memories from our trip!
Arriving in Caorle, we docked at Darsina dell’ Orologio, where we spent 2 nights. You will find a Coop grocery store a 5 minute cycle away, so you can stock up on anything you need for the boat. When it comes to eating and exploring, skip the new part of town altogether and head straight to the old town. Flower boxes spilling out of windowsills, colourful walls, beautiful little piazzas and charming restaurants are around every bend in the pedestrianised centre. There is also a nice beach for when you can’t stand the heat any longer.
Bibione (we skipped it to make up time)
Another seaside resort town with another stunning stretch of beach as well as a thermal spa (I can’t imagine you would want to set foot here in the heat of summer, but it would be great during last couple of weeks when the air is turning). You can moor here for free or stay at Porto Baseleghe marina.
Lignano (1 night)
We docked at Marina Uno Darsena, which is a short cycle from the beach. Beach loungers are available at €26 for 2 loungers and an umbrella. This is a resort town, so there are lots of restaurants to choose from, and there is quite a cool nightlife scene starting from around 10:30pm. We found ourselves at a beachside bar, under the stars, watching some kind of rock cover band, drinking Aperol Spritz until late. It’s safe to cycle around at night, so enjoy the weather and vibe as long as you can stay awake.
Grado (we skipped it to make up time)
The historic town of Grado has been likened to Venice, but without the crowds. There are cycle paths around town and another great beach. Keep an eye out for posters around town advertising summer concerts and outdoor cinema screenings.
Precenicco (1 night)
As your boat needs to be at at the Le Boat base, vacated, by 9am on your last day, you’ll probably spend your last night in Precenicco, where you can moor for free. The town is really cute, with a few nice restaurants and bars where house wine only costs €1 a glass! We spent our last evening sipping wine in the piazza and enjoying this little town’s welcoming vibe. You have the option to book a cleaner for the boat at an additional cost, otherwise you have to clean it yourself before checking out. Personally, that’s not how I want to spend the last few hours of my holiday, so we sprung for the cleaning service. A taxi back to Venice costs around €140 in a minibus that can seat up to 6 people, but you can also take the train. A taxi straight to Marco Polo or Treviso International airports costs around the same.
What It Costs
The cost of your trip will depend on how long you choose to cruise, whether you choose to stay in marinas or moor for free, whether you eat out or self-cater on the boat and how far in advance you book your trip. To save on flight costs, sign up to airline newsletters around a year ahead of your trip and cash in on flight specials that come to your inbox. To save on the cost of the boat, sign up to the Le Boat newsletter and enjoy their early booking discounts, where you can save up to 40% on your holiday!
- Flights to Venice (per person): R9 800,00
- Le Boat Vision4 rental (10 nights): R122 000,00
- Fuel levy: R5 800,00
- Damage waiver: R6 320,00
- One way fee: R1 500,00
- Optional cleaning fee: R2 180,00
- Optional bicycle rental (8 bicycles): R9 040,00
- Optional grocery starter pack: R1 055,00
- Optional basic grocery pack: R730,00
- Marina costs: R7 300,00
- TOTAL: R149 000,00
- TOTAL per person (10 nights including flights): R28 500,00
My Top Tips
- Don’t miss the opportunity to explore Treviso. We stayed at Hotel II Focolare, which was so lovely! Bigger than average rooms, AC to beat the heat and a great complimentary breakfast. It’s located right in the middle of town and was very reasonably priced! From there we just walked and walked, stopping for Spritz and gelato when the heat became too much. One evening we found a bar with a string quartet playing under the trees and it was just dreamy. Definitely worth spending some time here before heading to Venice!
- Pack mosquito coils and spray! They were out in force!
- Keep Google Maps open on your phone while you’re cruising to help keep you on track. It’s not particularly complicated, but sometimes, especially in the lagoon around Venice, you’re looking at the print map and looking around and it’s not making sense and Google Maps gives you an extra bit of self confidence
- Pack a swimming towel (Turkish towels are ideal as they take up hardly any space and dry quickly. I love the ones from The Cotton Company)
- Pack a small packet of washing powder in case you need to wash smalls on the boat or do a load of laundry at the marina
- Always rent bicycles! They make exploring, beach missions and grocery shopping so much easier! It’s a good idea to bring reusable shopping bags or a backpack for grocery shopping (and don’t forget the bicycle repair kit in case you get a flat tyre!)
- With 8 people on the boat, you’re likely to be doing a lot of dishes! Buy paper plates so that you don’t have to do mountains of dishes
- Head to the Coop in Casale to stock up on ingredients for a few meals during the first few days of your trip. Pasta and sauces, crackers and cheese, eggs and salad ingredients can tide you over on your first night or during a long day of cruising
- Bring along a USB with a couple of movies (there’s a TV in the saloon), a deck of cards and a couple of board games for rainy days and late nights (Head’s Up! is perfect)
- Bring an aux cable so you can play music from your phone
- Research and plan your daily route before you set off every morning and monitor your route as you go – write down the tips on the tide, the locks and bridges and the points of interest along the way that you find in the Le Boat manuals so you can access them easily while you’re cruising
- The Venice lagoon is the most “difficult” part of the trip, so plan your route carefully and concentrate when you are in the area
- The cruise from Venice to Jesolo is fairly relaxed so plan ahead and shop for stuff to bbq on the boat while you’re cruising – definitely one of my favourite things about being on the boat!
*Based on my previous relationship with Le Boat, they extended their early-booking discount a further 10% for my family, although we were going to book the holiday either way. As always, my views and opinions are my own.