By Christine van Blokland. This article originally appeared on TravelSmith.

What Makes a Gondola a Gondola?

To be a true, authentic Venetian gondola, it must be made by a Venetian craftsman and be a very specific size, color and design: approximately 35-feet long, weighing 1,100 lbs. and asymmetrical in design. That's right: the port side has to be nine inches wider to balance out the weight of the gondolier.

In a city full of vibrant color, why are all gondolas painted black? During the Renaissance, at the height of Venetian excess, noble families would try to out-do the Joneses by decorating their gondolas with excessive gold and bright colors. With about 10,000 gondolas fighting for attention in the canals of Venice at the time, the government passed a “sumptuary law” in 1562 to take all that conspicuous consumption down a notch. Gondolas have been plain ol' black ever since. (Thank goodness the interior can be plush red velvet!)

Alla Vigna

Bed and Breakfast Alla Vigna, Venice

Design Elements, or: What's That on the Hood?

The iron prow-head, or ferro (meaning: iron), is the "hood ornament" of the gondola. But it provides so much more than mere decoration; it represents the geography of Venice. The main curvy “S” shape represents the S-curve of the Grand Canal, while the fat curvy head at the top represents the Doge's Cap.

The six prongs sticking out in front represent Venice's six sestieri, or districts: San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce, Castello, Dorsoduro and Cannaregio. Sometimes you'll see three smaller ornaments tucked within those prongs. They represent the three islands of Venice: Murano, Burano and Torcello. The one prong sticking out backwards, toward the riders—that's Giudecca, the southern-most island facing the sestieri.

And my favorite part: the tiny little arch under the fat and curvy “Doge's Cap,” is the Rialto Bridge.

Why Does a Gondolier Charge More than a Water Taxi Driver?

The first Venetian gondola was documented around 1100 AD. Modern gondoliers carry on a long and treasured tradition. They must be licensed by their guild, which requires a stringent and comprehensive exam. Our gondolier told us only three or four new licenses are issued each year. His license was passed down from his father, and his grandfather was a gondolier too. This type of lineage is very common.

La Villeggiatura

La Villeggiatura, Venice

Why Do Gondoliers Wear Those Striped Shirts and Straw Hats?

One story says the shirt stripes match the striped poles in front of the homes of the nobles, each unique to its family. Another story says it was the French influence after World War II, with those nautical, striped Breton shirts. And the straw boater hats with the red ribbon? Those are simply to keep out the sun.

Venice Gondola Travel Tips

Do use your time on the gondola to note where you'd like to go back and walk around.

Don't eat in a restaurant in the tourist center, with menus translated into six different languages. Steer extra clear of the ones with waiters out front, begging patrons to come in.

Do/don't ask your gondolier to sing? I still haven't figured this one out.

La Casa del Mercante Venezian

La Casa del Mercante Veneziano, Venice

Must-Have Travel Items to Bring to Venice

1) Comfy shoes. While the Italians are notoriously fashionable, don't try to out-style them with uncomfortable shoes. I can't emphasize this enough.

2) A cross-body bag for both men and women. (Yes, men can use a man-bag here without ridicule.) Shouldered purses can get swiped, backpacks can get unzipped without you even knowing and fanny packs are, well, always open to ridicule.

3) A paper map. Oh, the horror! What will the kids say?!? Honestly, I love the map apps as much as the next traveler, but we all know you can't get a signal when you need it most. Venice is very maze-like; you will get lost. Street names will not make sense. A very detailed paper map will save you. (It can be our little secret.)