The Bridge of Sighs: The Complete Guide

A gondola going under the Bridge of Sighs

 TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

With over 400 bridges crossing the canals of Venice, you'd have to be a local to visit them all. But if you're looking for the best ones to see on your next trip, then the Bridge of Sighs surely makes the list. Called the Ponte dei Sospiri by locals, this iconic landmark was built in the year 1600 and connects the Doge's Palace to the historic prison across the canal.

Even though it has a dark history used to transport prisoners, today it's easily considered one of the most romantic places in Venice, which is no small feat in a city as idyllic as La Serenissima. It's tradition to kiss your loved one on a gondola ride while passing under the Bridge of Sighs; just don't expect it to be an intimate moment since most tourists have the same idea.

History

Prisoners that were tried in Venice were initially held in the underground prison chambers inside the Doge's Palace (the most famous one being Casanova). As the number of prisoners grew, the prison was expanded to a building across the canal named the New Prison, and the Bridge of Sighs was constructed to shuttle passengers directly from their trial into their cells.

According to legend, the name of the bridge comes from the sighs of prisoners who crossed the bridge on the way to their prison cells or the execution chamber, catching their last glimpses of Venice through the tiny windows. The bridge and its unforgettable name became particularly famous after Romantic poet Lord Byron referenced it in his 1812 book "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," writing, "I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand."

Architecture

The highly ornamental bridge is made of white limestone from Istria in modern-day Croatia that is typical of most buildings built in Venice during the Renaissance. The architect, Antonio Contino, was the nephew and apprentice of Antonio da Ponte, who designed what is arguably Venice's most famous overpass, the Rialto Bridge.

The arched bridge isn't open air like many of the bridges in the city, and there are just two small rectangular windows with a lattice-like screen. Inside, a stone wall divides the interior into two narrow hallways, so prisoners who were entering and leaving could never cross paths.

Best Time to Visit

Venice is always filled with tourists and the Bridge of Sighs is one of the most popular attractions in the city, so plan out your time at the bridge if you want to avoid the biggest crowds. Ideally, you can visit the bridge during Venice's off-season when the city has—relatively—fewer tourists for a chance to get an unobstructed photo. But if your trip falls in the summer or during the Carnevale season, expect other people to be around at all hours of the day.

The Bridge of Sighs is one of the most photogenic spots in a city that's already picture-perfect, usually with gondolas underneath to add some Venetian flair to the shot. For an Instagram-worthy photo, head to the bridge in the morning or evening. Not only will you avoid the peak midday crowds, but the softer light is ideal for the best pictures.

How to Visit the Bridge of Sighs

The only way to actually cross the Bridge of Sighs and see the inside is to book a tour of the Doge's Palace. Tour groups begin by learning about the Doge and the Venetian Republic inside the palace before crossing over the bridge and getting a tour of the prison, walking the same path and getting the same final view as prisoners centuries ago.

Of course, many visitors want to get a picture of this famous landmark, which you can't do if you're inside the bridge. The easiest way to see the Bridge of Sighs from outside is to step on one of the neighboring bridges. The easiest one to reach is the Bridge of Paglia right next to St. Mark's Square and just behind the Doge's Palace. It's one of the most-traversed bridges in Venice so it's usually packed, but the light enters in from behind you and perfectly illuminates the Bridge of Sighs for your photo.

The other option is the Bridge of Canonica, which is far less popular since it's not on the main foot traffic route of the city. Not only can you admire the Bridge of Sighs without other tourists impatiently nudging you along, but you'll get the lagoon in the backdrop of your photo.

If you're in the mood to indulge, then the most luxurious way to get a view of the bridge is to book a gondola ride. They're expensive, but you can pass directly underneath the bridge in the most quintessentially Venetian way possible and smooch your partner as tradition calls for.

Pittsburgh's Bridge of Sighs

When he began designing Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh in 1883, Henry Hobson Richardson created a replica of the Bridge of Sighs which connected the courthouse to the Allegheny County Jail. At one time, prisoners were indeed transported across this footbridge but the county jail moved to a separate building in 1995.

Pittsburgh is second only to Venice in the number of bridges within its city limits, so it's fitting that Richardson's greatest work (by his own estimation) emulates the landmark in a fellow City of Bridges.

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