Free Things To Do in Venice
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This elaborate church sits on the popular piazza by the same name. The church was built in honor of St. Mark the evangelist, whose remains were stolen from their home in Alexandria, Egypt, and hidden in barrels of pork and cabbage leaves by a couple crafty Venetians, intent on bringing him to rest in Venice.
Crafted from many different styles of architecture, today its opulence shines from nearly every corner – from the four bronze horses that guard the entrance to thousands of square feet of mosaics to the Pala d'Oro. If you look closely at the church's center gable, you can see a statue of St. Mark along with Venice's emblem: a lion with wings.
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Several centuries ago, if you wanted to cross the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge was the only way. There are now four major bridges that cross the canal, but Rialto is by far the most famous. The bridge's current incarnation is the handiwork of Antonio da Ponte, who beat out Michelangelo and Palladio for the job. Antonio da Ponte's name translates to "Anthony of the Bridge," and he built the Rialto Bridge entirely of Istrian stone after it collapsed multiple times from previous designs. Predicted to fail by critics, the bridge still stands and is considered an engineering marvel.
Recent visitors recommended enjoying the bridge either early in the day or after sunset, as they said it becomes quite crowded toward midday. Still, most say the lovely views from the top are worth any crowd maneuvering you have to do. Others recommend skipping the crowds altogether and enjoying the view of the Rialto Bridge from the water in a waterbus. Access to the bridge, which connects the neighborhoods of San Marco and San Polo, is free 24/7.
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St. Mark's Square, or Piazza San Marco, is considered by many to be the heart of Venice. As the largest square in Venice, St. Mark's Square is the only "piazza" in the city. All other squares are campo. Lining the square are multiple historical sites including St. Mark's Basilica, St. Mark's Campanile and Doge's Palace, as well as a number of restaurants, making it the perfect spot for leisurely people-watching and wine sipping. Along with intricate architecture and hearty plates of spaghetti carbonara, visitors will also be met with throngs of tourists, pigeons and vendors selling souvenirs. If you hoped to pick up a gondola hat or a carnival mask during your trip, this is the place you will find them.
Recent visitors stress to visit St. Mark's Square either early in the morning or late in the evening simply because of the crowds. With many tours of the city starting at the piazza, it is always busy during the day. Being a constant hub of activity, the restaurants and shops in the square are very expensive. Visitors suggest walking a few streets away from the square to find more reasonably priced meals and souvenirs. Despite the prices, some visitors said grabbing a coffee was worth being able to sit comfortably in the action and take in the surrounding architecture. You'll find St. Mark's Square in San Marco; it free to access 24/7.
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Centuries ago, the Bridge of Sighs, which connects the Doge's Palace to dungeons, was used to transport prisoners from the courtroom to the prisons. Legend has it that the Bridge of Sighs, or Ponte dei Sospiriin Italian, was named for the sighs prisoners like Giacomo Casanova would utter as they took one last look at the outside world through the bridge's windows as they made their way to prison for good. On a much lighter note, Venetian lore says if two lovers kiss on a gondola under the bridge, they'll be granted eternal bliss.
Recent travelers offer mixed reviews on the Bridge of Sighs. Those who enjoyed it appreciated the details of the architecture and unique placement of the bridge, saying it was a nice photo op, especially while the gondolas passed underneath it. Those who weren't as smitten noted its lack of accessibility as the main drawback, saying that merely looking at the bridge was underwhelming. Other disgruntled visitors pointed out that amount of tourists, combined with the small amount of viewing space, made the bridge barely visible.
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In 1516, Jews in Venice were forced to move to a small northwestern section of the island. Considered to be the world's first ghetto, residents were only allowed to leave the neighborhood during the day and were then locked up at night and guarded. Today, this area is a part of the Cannaregio sestiere (district) and is filled with restaurants and shops (some offering kosher products), a Jewish museum as well as several synagogues, which are open for touring. Although it's free to wander around the neighborhood – and you might want to do just that – the synagogue tours do cost.
For a deeper understanding of the ghetto's history, recent travelers recommend booking a walking tour through an outfitter like Viator. Several water bus lines stop near the neighborhood, but you can also reach it on foot – it's about a 10-minute walk from the Lista di Spagna. For more information, visit the neighborhood's website.
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