A Guide to Venice's Historic Rialto Bridge

Rialto bridge with passing gondola. Venice, Italy.

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The arched Rialto Bridge, or Ponte di Rialto, is central to the history of Venice and is now one of the most famous bridges in Venice, if not the world. Dividing the districts of San Marco and San Polo, this elegant stone bridge is formed of three sets of stairs divided by arcades. The central stairs are lined with shops and vendors and so densely packed that it's easy to miss the fact that you're crossing over the Grand Canal.

The two other stairs, on the north and south sides of the bridge, offer those iconic views of the Grand Canal, with gondolas, water buses (vaporetti), and commercial boats trolling past day and night. While it's quite crowded on either set of steps, it's worth taking a moment to take some photos of this unforgettable scene. At sunset, especially, there are few more beautiful and romantic places to be in Venice. Here's everything you need to know when planning your trip to this iconic Italian site

Gondolier Heads into the Sunset Along Venice's Grand Canal

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The History of Rialto Bridge

The first of only four bridges that today span the Grand Canal, the bridge gets its name from the Rialto, the first district of Venice to be developed when people began to settle here in the ninth century. It didn't take long for the area to become the commercial and financial hub of a burgeoning city.

Prior to the construction of the Rialto Bridge in the late 16th century, a series of bridges occupied this natural crossing, the so-called "lazy bend" of the Grand Canal and its narrowest point. Because this bridge was the only place to cross the Grand Canal on foot, it was imperative to construct a bridge that would hold up to heavy use and would also allow boats to pass underneath.

Beginning in 1524, artists and architects, including Sansovino, Palladio, and Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo) began submitting blueprints for the new bridge. But no plan was chosen until 1588 when municipal architect Antonio da Ponte was awarded the commission. Interestingly, da Ponte was the uncle of Antonio Contino, the architect of Venice's other unmistakable bridge, The Bridge of Sighs connecting the ducal palace with the prison.

Where to Shop

The shops lining Rialto Bridge occupy some of the city's most expensive real estate. If you're looking for your keepsake of Venice, hit up Rivoaltus Legatoria for handcrafted leather goods and calligraphy sets, Leon Doro for Venetian masks created with papier-mâché, and Vetri del Ponte for Venetian glass.

Near the bridge is T Fondaco dei Tedeschi by DFS, a popular shopping center selling high-end items like luxury brand clothing, jewelry, shoes, purses, fragrances, and wine.

Things to Do Near Rialto Bridge

The bridge is a gateway to the Rialto Market; the city's principal food market since the 11th century, it hosts a warren of sellers hawking produce, spices, fish, and more.

If you want to take a gondola tour of the city, there are a number of tour operators nearby that offer Grand Canal cruises, including Venice Tours Srl and Agenzia Gondolieri Travel.

A seven-minute walk southeast of the bridge is Saint Mark's Square. The city's largest square, this popular meeting place is home to some of Venice's most popular attractions, including Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale), Saint Mark's Basilica (Basilica San Marco), and the National Library of Saint Mark's (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana).

Canal Grande. View near Ponte (bridge) di Rialto

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Where to Eat and Drink

On either side of the Rialto Bridge, you'll find restaurants along the canal offering spectacular views of the bridge. Of these, Osteria Bancogiro is arguably the best, with its outdoor terrace overlooking the canal and brick-vaulted ceiling in the dining room upstairs. The menu is heavy on fish, with many ingredients sourced from the nearby Rialto Market.

If you can't find a table there or want to get away from the crowds, our advice is to walk a little further into the Rialto district (in the direction away from St. Mark's) and seek out some of the more authentic taverns and restaurants in the dense warren of streets and alleys. Al Gobbo di Rialto serves up traditional Venetian cuisine, including tagliatelle with lobster and seafood risotto. For pizza, head to Antico Forno, considered one of the best restaurants in Venice.

When you're ready to imbibe, Vineria all'Amarone is a popular wine bar that specializes in Amarone Docg wines from the Valpolicella region of Italy. They offer wine by the glass and bottle, as well as individual wine flights. Alternatively, head to H2 NO, a cozy pub that offers a selection of craft beer, spritzes, and of course, wine.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How old is the Rialto Bridge?

    Although it was originally constructed as a pontoon bridge in 1173, the Rialto Bridge has been rebuilt a few times since then. Built between 1588 and 1591, the current stone structure is 431 years old.

  • Where is the Rialto Bridge?

    The Rialto Bridge is in Venice, and connects the city's San Marco and San Polo districts.

  • How much does it cost to visit Rialto Bridge?

    It's free to visit the bridge, but if you're planning to shop, have some extra cash on hand.