A gondolier guides a gondola along Downtown Napa on the Napa River

Napa Gondola: The Next Best Thing to Venice

Downtown Napa recently hosted Julie and me for a visit. We knew about the region’s reputation for delicious, full-bodied wines. However, we didn’t realize that Downtown Napa offers an unexpected adventure that transports you to Venice. We enjoyed our Napa gondola experience so much we want to share it with you.

A Brief History of Gondolas in Napa

Scott McConkey and Julie McConkey of Miles with McConkey Travel Blog take a gondola ride in Downtown Napa
Enjoying a gondola ride on the Napa River. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Interestingly, an individual with an Irish name introduced the Italian experience to Downtown Napa. Sean O’Malley started as an employee in Oakland for the prior operator, Gondola Servizio, in 2018 as a fun job. 

O’Malley says, “The City of Napa had approached Gondola Servizio to expand from Oakland to the Downtown Napa Dock. Living in Napa, it was easy for me to manage the gondola business and be a gondolier. I had fallen in love with everything about the business and offered to purchase it in 2019.” With that, Napa Valley Gondola was born. 

Sharing a Unique Passion in California’s Renowned Wine Country

A gondolier guides a gondola toward the Napa Valley Dock.
View of Downtown Napa from a gondola. Photo credit: Napa Valley Gondola

Some guests may wonder if they sampled too many wines when they gaze into the Napa River and spot a long, narrow boat maneuvered by an oarsman in a striped shirt and a straw hat with a ribbon. O’Malley says, “A typical reaction we get from most people is amazement. It is not often you see a Venetian gondola outside of Venice.”

Sharing his passion for gondolas with travelers is only part of O’Malley’s mission. He says, “What I really love most about this business is the joy the cruise brings to the passengers. It is always a delight when someone discovers the beauty of the gondolas as well as the Napa River.”

Are the Napa Gondolas the Real Thing?

A gondola goes under a bridge in Downtown Napa.
Going under the bridge in Downtown Napa. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

O’Malley says, “I have a little anecdote that I like to tell people that the gondoliers are the most photographed people in Napa, but truly the stars of the show are the gondolas.” For those who question the authenticity of the Napa boats, O’Malley elaborates, “The gondolas were hand-built in Venice, Italy, and were imported to California. They’re made out of seven types of wood and were custom-made for us in Napa.”

Each gondola is 36 feet long and contains unique ornate decorations. You may notice that the slender boats tilt to one side. The asymmetrical design is intentional, counterbalancing the gondolier’s weight, which stands to one side.

How Does Napa Compare to Venice?

Boats on the water in Venice, Italy
Gondola in Venice. Photo credit: lakov via Deposit Photos

O’Malley says, “The bonus about using gondolas in the Napa River is that conditions are very similar to what you find in Venice, Italy.” While conditions may be similar, the scenery is a bit different. Venice buildings line the canal, nearly appearing to float. Plus, many gondolas regularly fill the iconic waterways.

Napa has more ground between the waterway and its quaint downtown area. Since Napa Valley Gondola currently has three gondolas, the Napa River will be less crowded than Venice. O’Malley states, “The major difference between what we do here in Napa compared to Venice is we offer only private cruises.” While Venice offers a historic setting, Napa delivers a more relaxed experience with its charm, private cruises, and open waters.

What Can You Expect on Your Cruise?

Close view of a gondola's metal decoration.
Each gondola has unique decorative figures. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

O’Malley says, “We offer a traditional cruise experience much like you would find in Venice. It consists of a 55-minute cruise with the gondolier. Now, every gondolier is different. We all have different ways of providing entertainment to the customers – so every cruise is unique.” 

For travelers who want a scenic wine-tasting experience, Napa Valley Gondola offers a “Wine-makers Cruise” with wines from Ward Four Wines. Justin Trabue founded the winery and prides herself on making wine accessible to Black communities, supporting small businesses, and sourcing from vineyards with sustainability efforts.

How Many People Can Ride in the Gondola?

Scott McConkey and Julie McConkey of the Miles with McConkey Travel Blog enjoy a gondola ride in Napa Valley, CA.
Enjoying a Venice, Italy experience in Downtown Napa, California. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

While a gondola cruise is perfect for a romantic date, the experience is also fun for groups or families. O’Malley says, “We have a good mix between couples and groups. The gondolas can hold up to six people, so it allows for families or friends to all go on the gondola at one time. We also have three gondolas, which gives us the capacity to take out groups of 18.”

How Long is the Napa Valley Gondola Cruise Season?

Metal figurine on a Napa gondola
Napa gondolas comprise many fine details. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Napa Valley Gondola tries to offer cruises year-round. Of course, the weather ultimately dictates the availability. The primary gondola cruise season in Downtown Napa runs from April through December.

Travelers to Downtown Napa should book a gondola cruise in advance to secure a spot. You can find more information and reserve a cruise on the Napa Valley Gondola site.

Our Thoughts

Reflection of buildings and a bridge in the Napa River at sunrise
Downtown Napa near sunrise. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Julie and I enjoyed exploring the famous wine region. While there are many things to do in Downtown Napa, including unique wine tastings, boutique shops, and art galleries, we most enjoyed the Napa Valley Gondola and Napa Valley Wine Train experiences. Each is so different and unexpected.

First, the partnership between Napa Valley Gondola and Ward Four Wines is a tremendous fit. You can take pride in supporting small businesses that want to provide everyone with access to unique experiences.

The gondola cruise is perfect for a date but is also fun for a family or group. It is a wonderful way to experience the region’s charm and romance. The relaxing ride induces a sense of calm as you gently glide along the Napa Valley River.

Keep your eyes open for wildlife. Guests regularly see birds, foxes, beavers, or river otters. Before our cruise, we spotted a beaver. We encountered green herons, ducks, geese, and mergansers during our ride. 

Beyond the wildlife, we could not help but admire the craftsmanship of the gondola itself. You can see the level of detail that goes into each vessel between the different types of wood and the unique metal figures. The peaceful ride delivers a surreal experience, the next best thing to Venice.

Featured image credit: Napa Valley Gondola

Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey

Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!