Travelling around Italy by Water
Italy has stunning stretches of coastline, dreamy lakes, and world-famous canals, so it's a country made for exploring by water. From ferries to gondolas, kayaks to yachts, here are some of the best ways to see Italy by boat.
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Taking a boat around the canals and lagoon of Venice is one of the joys of a city break there. But boats are not just there to serve tourists, they’re an essential way of getting around La Serenissima. There are many forms of water transport in Venice, and if you’re flying into Marco Polo Airport, you can begin your aquatic adventure as soon as you arrive, by taking a waterbus (vaporetto) direct to the city.
Venice's most famous boats are, of course, the gondolas, and a trip on one is on many visitors' wish lists. You can expect to pay around 80€ for a 30-minute tour (100€ after 7pm), but if you want to keep the costs down and aren't necessarily looking for a romantic trip for two, bear in mind that the price covers the whole boat, which holds up to six passengers, so you could always get a group together. The busier areas include the Grand Canal and St Mark's Square, but you can also go a little off the beaten track and hire a gondola in places like San Polo, Campo San Barnaba, and the Jewish Ghetto.
Vaporettos ply the canals and lagoon, and a great side trip is to take one out to the islands of Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glassmaking, and you can take a tour of some of the factories there, while Burano is known for its pretty, colourfully painted houses. There are plenty of boat tours in Venice, too, allowing you to learn more about the city from local guides. There are even kayak and stand-up paddleboard tours.
With their pretty lakeside towns nestling under steep mountainsides, the Italian Lakes are heavenly, especially on a sunny day. Taking a trip on a scheduled ferry or pleasure boat and just watching the scenery go by is a great way to get around. The largest Italian lake, Garda, has car ferry services, including from Malcesine to Limone Sul Garda, and Maderno to Torri del Benaco, while more leisurely pleasure boat services run along the length of the lake, stopping on the way, and some let you take a bicycle on board.
On Lake Maggiore, which straddles the Swiss-Italian frontier, you can take a car ferry across from Laveno to Intra, or a pleasure boat along the lake and across the border to Locarno. Also popular is the 5-minute ferry from Carciano to Isola Bella, one of the Borromean Islands. There, you’ll find a stunning palace and equally impressive gardens.
On Lake Como, you can get ferries all the way along the lake from Como to Colico; fast services take 90 minutes, but there are also slower stopping services. There are also ferries across the lake that call at Varenna, Menaggio, Cadenabbia, and Bellagio.
Bay of Naples and Amalfi Coast
What better way to travel around the Bay of Naples area than by sea? There's an extensive network of ferries, plus many cruises, making it easy to reach islands like Capri and Ischia, and coastal towns such as Amalfi, Positano, and Sorrento.
Getting to Capri is easy. The ferry from Amalfi to the island takes about an hour, while the Naples to Capri service takes about 50 minutes. You can also sail to Capri from Sorrento and Positano, both a 30-minute trip. To reach the islands of Ischia and Procida, you can take a ferry from either Naples or nearby Pozzuoli. A great way to cross the Bay of Naples is by catching the Naples to Sorrento ferry, which takes about 80 minutes, stops on route near the Roman sites of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata, and offers views of Vesuvius.
It's also easy to rent a boat on the Amalfi Coast for a private tour, or book a group trip, allowing you to stop off in each seaside town for shopping, swimming, dining, and sightseeing. Another great way of seeing this stunning coastline at a leisurely pace is by taking a sea kayaking tour.
There are many ways to reach Sicily by ferry, including from Villa San Giovanni or Reggio Calabria to Messina, from Salerno to Messina, from Naples to Milazzo, plus Sardinia to Sicily ferry services from Cagliari. A network of ferries from Milazzo provides easy access to the Aeolian Islands, off the north coast of Sicily. These islands include Vulcano, where you can walk across the volcanic landscape and visit the mud baths. Lipari is home to an archaeological museum full of items that were unearthed on the island, including Neolithic vases and Roman amphorae. There's also Stromboli, where you can climb the famous volcano.
Another island off northern Sicily is Ustica, which was a prison island in fascist times housing political opponents of Mussolini, as well as prisoners of war. It's a much more alluring place these days, especially the main village of Ustica. The island is a scuba-diving destination with a number of schools, while you can also go on boat tours to view some of the caves around the coast. Among Ustica’s other attractions, you can see remains of a Bronze Age settlement. Ferries to Ustica depart from Palermo.
The Italian Riviera, in Liguria, has some of the most stunning stretches of coastline in Italy. One of these is the area known as Cinque Terre. A great way to see Cinque Terre is to take the frequent ferries that from April to November run from La Spezia and Portovenere, stopping in the villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. You can stop off for lunch, swim, shop, and walk parts of the coastal path. One-day and half-day tickets, allowing you to hop on and off where you like, are available.
Another gorgeous place to visit by boat is Portofino, a seaside village of colourful houses where you can go shopping in luxury boutiques or buy from local craft producers, as well as visit the hilltop Castello Brown. Portofino is on a rocky peninsula that's surrounded by a marine reserve, and there are plenty of boat charters available, plus watersports like kayaking, making coastal exploration easy. There's also a ferry service from Rapallo, which calls in at Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, and San Fruttuoso, the latter home to a Romanesque abbey.
A great way to travel around Sardinia is by yacht charter, which allows you to call in on ports around the coast, visit nearby beaches and historic sights, and sample the local cuisine. Sardinia also has plenty of smaller islands to explore, which you can reach by ferry. Embark from Palau to the islands of the Maddalena archipelago, home to beautiful beaches and rocky bays, plus the pretty town of La Maddalena. You can also sail to the Parco Nazionale dell'Asinara islands from Porto Torres and Stintino. Once there, you can visit remote beaches, see the wild albino donkeys, and pass the remains of the islands' notorious prison as you explore.
Although many people fly direct to Sardinia, it's possible to take the ferry there from elsewhere in Italy. You can reach the northern port of Olbia from Livorno, Genoa, and Civitavecchia, travel from Livorno to Golfo Aranci, or sail to the capital Cagliari from Naples, as well as the Sicilian cities of Palermo and Trapani. Sardinia also has ferries to the French island of Corsica from Santa Teresa Galura and Porto Torres on the north coast.
Other ferry routes
Italy is a hub for ferries across the Mediterranean. If you're travelling throughout the region, it's a great way to get around, whether you're taking your own wheels or backpacking and using public transport.
Adriatic ports like Venice, Ancona, Bari, and Brindisi offer ferry services to destinations including Croatia, Greece, Albania, and Montenegro. From west coast ports like Salerno, Naples, Civitavecchia, Genoa, and Livorno, you can sail to destinations including Tunisia, Spain, and Corsica, while you can travel to Malta from the Sicilian port of Pozzalo.
You can also read more about:
Where to go for a long weekend in Italy.
Italy's best cycling and hiking routes.
When's the best time of year to visit different parts of Italy.
Where Italy's best beaches are.
Italy's best food cities.
Our Italian wine guide.
Italy's top archaeological sites.
Nick Elvin contributed to this post.