Bridges, churches and endless palazzos
You don’t have to stand in line for museums to see the best sights in Venice, but if you can take your eyes away from the gondolas, here are 10 beautiful things you can discover about the city's architecture
Venice will never run out of stories to tell and Venice architecture will never be boring. While being very Italian in nature, the look doesn’t quite match that. Gothic and baroque architecture mixes with Byzantine and Islamic elements to create imposing palazzos, art-filled churches and architectural wonders out of bridges. Some sights have majestic facades while others look rather inconspicuous at first sight but are pure architectural magic inside. Here’s a look at the best such wonders and their stories:
Perhaps a cliché but it’s impossible not to include it in an ode to Venice architecture. Starting off as a wooden bridge of boats, Rialto Bridge is nowadays an icon of Venice, having been the first bridge to connect the two sides of the Grand Canal. Along the years it was transformed into this beautiful stone arch with stores on both sides. The days of trading silks off the deck of cargo ships are long gone, but the commercial vibe of the area is still very much alive. It might be crowded and cliché but still an unmissable sight!
Another famous sight located in Saint Mark’s square is the Palazzo Ducale, the former residence of the Doge of Venice and the administrative cabinets of the city. There are offices to be visited, with little secrets to tell, lavish apartments filled with artworks and dungeons that were once occupied by Casanova, as the famous story goes. If you’re curious, you can even visit the chambers where he was detained, but the Gothic architecture is itself an attraction, with the facade covered in gorgeous pink marble.
Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo
Venice is full of these little treasures hidden between small squares and narrow alleys, but the famous staircase of Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is worth the detective work. In close proximity to the Rialto Bridge, the former home of the Contarini family is less than spectacular in its façade, but the fabulous staircase that was added at a later date is the main attraction. This spiralling scala with perfectly symmetrical ornate arches towers over the small courtyard. You might also recognize it as Brabantio’s house in Orson Wells’ 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare.
While the building itself is imposing with it arcades and paintings, if you want a real insight into the life and culture of the Venetian Republic over centuries, the impressive collection occupying the first floor of this museum is the place to be. Artefacts, portraits of aristocrats, nautical maps and navigational instruments, a numismatic collection, armours and weaponry tell the story of the lagoon, together with significant artwork from Venetian masters added to the heritage of this museum over the years.
Basilia dei Frari
In Venice you don’t have to go to museums to see artists’ work, as many of the churches are wonderful examples of the eclectic Venice architecture. This Gothic church is the home of one of Titian’s masterpieces, with Assunta – a small altarpiece from 1518, in which a radiant Madonna reaches to the heavens. Fittingly, the artist himself is buried here, near his sublime creation. But these are not the only attractions hidden here, with beautiful (and sometimes shocking) art pieces like Canova’s pyramid mausoleum, Madonna with Child triptych by Bellini or the Doge Pesaro monument by Longhena.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli
One of the most genuinely Venetian churches in town, Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a wonderful work of art, which was designed, built and decorated by one artist, Pietro Lombardo. That gives it a very unitary feel and look – even if it was opened back in 1489, very little has changed other than some restauration work. What makes it unique is that the interior is almost entirely made of majestic sculpted marble and the altar holds the supposedly miraculous “Virgin Mary and Child” painting by Zanino di Pietro, which gives the name of the church.
Bridge of Sighs
Photo | Trygve B. Wiig Bergen Norway
This fine display of Italian Renaissance was built as a bridge been the old and new prisons of the Doge and it comes with contrasting stories. Some claim that its name was given by the prisoners crossing the bridge to find their sentence and catching a glimpse of the outdoors through the small windows. Another legend says that couples kissing while going under the bridge on a gondola at sunset sigh at the gorgeous view and are blessed with eternal love. Whether it’s love or war, the bridge is wonderful piece of architecture.
A magnificent palace dedicated to the 18th century works of Venetian masters like Titian, Canaletto, Tiepolo, Veronese or Tintoretto. Paintings, sculptures and frescoes cover the walls, with artwork recovered from various spots on the island (churches, museums or private collectors) in an attempt recreate the original décor and furnishings of the palace. Mission accomplished, as a visit to these grand halls takes you right back to the age of splendour and decadence.
One of the most photographed buildings along the Grand Canal, this Venetian gothic style palazzo dates back to 1430. You can understand its popularity at a glance, with the gold leaf on the ornate facade giving the building its name. Once inside, the gallery greets you with an extensive selection of art from Baron Giorgio Franchetti’s collection, including famous local artists like Titian, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, and Carpaccio, but also names slightly further from the lagoon, like van Dyck. Besides the permanent exhibit, temporary ones sometimes display here too.
This is one of the calmest places in the lagoon, with fewer tourists crowding its streets and fantastically relaxing scenery. There is not one specific landmark but an entirely new approach to Venice architecture: rows of bright colourful houses line the island, with flower pots in their windows inviting you to test just how photogenic they are. It’s an ideal location to just take a stroll and get lost in the land of lace – the finest in Europe actually. You can shop for your next visit to the tailor or just visit the museum dedicated to this wonderful fabric.
Venice architecture has had wonderful influences which explain the diversity in styles when it comes to palazzos, churches and bridges – some of them taught in architecture and design classes around the world. So make sure to check some of these out on your next visit, as pictures really can’t do justice to the beauty of Venice. And when you’re done exploring, share your own favourite spots in a Venice Insider Guide.