Venice counts 438 bridges in total, but one of them is not quite like the others: the Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) of course!
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Brief history of Venice’s Rialto Bridge
The origins of the Rialto Bridge
Located in the current sestiere (neighborhood) of San Polo, on the left bank of the Grand Canal, the Rialto neighborhood became the economic center of the Doges’ City as early as the 11th century. The Venice market set up shop there in 1097, attracting shops, warehouses, and even the city’s first banks and insurance companies.
However, a challenge emerged as the political center of Venice was located on the opposite bank of the Grand Canal from the thriving economic hub, in the current sestiere of San Marco – where the Doge’s Palace (and the Bridge of Sighs) as well as St. Mark’s Basilica are located.
That’s the reason why the first bridge spanning the Grand Canal – the first original Rialto Bridge – was built in 1172.
The Rialto Bridge before the 16th century
The original Rialto Bridge looked nothing like it does today: it was actually made of a succession of barges and boats with wooden planks laid on top. Every time a boat had to cross the bridge, the planks had to be removed and the barges moved so as to make way. This makeshift solution was obviously far from ideal!
That’s the reason why in 1264, a wooden bridge was built to connect both banks of the Grand Canal. Although better than the first option, this solution soon proved quite flawed as well. The bridge was threatened both by the city’s humid climate (causing the decay of wood) and fire hazards, and therefore had to be restored regularly. In 1444, part of the bridge even collapsed under the weight of a crowd who had gathered to have a look at the bridal gondola of The Marquess of Ferrara.
Following the accident, the bridge was rebuilt, but this new wooden construction was quite different from the previous one: it included two rows of shops, and could be lifted to enable the passage of boats. However, the bridge quickly deteriorated, and Venetian leaders were forced to to opt for a new long-lasting solution.
The Rialto Bridge after the 16th century
In 1551, the Senate of Venice finally decided to build a bridge made of stone. The most famous architects of the time — among whom Palladio, Sansovino and Michelangelo — were asked to pitch ideas for the construction of the new Rialto Bridge.
In the end, the Senate selected the project submitted by Antonio da Ponte. Construction work began in 1588 and lasted 3 years. In 1591, the Rialto Bridge we know it today was officially completed.
For the following three centuries, until the construction of the Ponte dell’Accademia and the Ponto degli Scalzi (Bridge of the Barefoot) in the 19th century, the Rialto Bridge was the only pedestrian walkway across the Grand Canal.
A proper restoration
From May 2015 to December 2016, the Rialto Bridge underwent 18 months of intensive renovation and is now (almost) as good as new!
Visiting the Rialto Bridge
The architecture of the Rialto Bridge
Immediately recognisable with its the silhouette in the shape of a circumflex accent (^), the Rialto Bridge is an architectural masterpiece. Built on swampy land, the bridge rests on no less than 6000 stilts. It is 48 metres long (157 ft), 22 metres wide (72 ft), and 7.50 metres high (24,5 ft).
The bridge is made of three pedestrian aisles:
- a central aisle flanked by shops nestled in twelve symmetrical arches
- two side aisles on either side of the main aisle
The ornaments of the Rialto Bridge are simple and understated. However, the figures of the two holy patrons of the city (St. Mark and St. Theodore) appear on each side of the bridge.
The view on the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge
From the Rialto Bridge, the view on the Grand Canal is quite simply spectacular.
Captain Ulysses recommends that you stop by the bridge several times during the day to enjoy the panorama in the daylight, at sunset and at night.
But be prepared: the Rialto Bridge is a must-see in Venice and it is crowded day and night.
Guided tours of the Rialto Bridge
Many guided tours in the City of the Doges stop at the Rialto Bridge, but Captain Ulysses recommends one in particular: a walking tour of Venice and a gondola ride, to discover the best of the Serenissima accompanied by a guide.
The view on the Rialto Bridge from the Grand Canal
Could a visit in Venice be complete without a boat tour on the city’s picture-postcard canals? Captain Ulysses thinks not. After all, it is tradition!
Besides, while the view on the Rialto Bridge is beautiful from the mainland, it is even more stunning from a boat navigating down the Grand Canal.
If you’re up for a boat ride on the Grand Canal, you have three options:
- the vaporetto (the cheapest option)
- a cruise on a small motorboat
- a gondola ride (the most expensive option … but also the most romantic)
A stone’s throw from the bridge, the Rialto Market
It would be a pity not to drop by the Rialto Market while in the area.
Located in the sestiere (district) of San Polo, this market is one of the largest and most famous in Venice. It is a paradise for gourmets!
The Rialto Market is actually divided into three smaller markets:
- the Pescheria, the fish market
- the Erbaria, the fruit and vegetable market
- the Beccaria, the meat market
If you want to find out more about local gastronomy, Captain Ulysses recommends
- a guided tour of the Rialto Market including delicious tastings
- a guided tour of the Rialto Market followed by a cooking class
The Rialto Bridge spans the Grand Canal between the sestiere of San Marco and the sestiere of San Polo.
It is located a 5-10 minute walk from St. Mark’s Square. The nearest vaporetto station is the Rialto station, served by lines 1, 2 and N.
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View on the Rialto Bridge