A Guide to Venice's Historic Rialto Bridge

The history and significance of Venice's most elegant bridge

Rialto bridge with passing gondola. Venice, Italy.
© Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

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, and one of Venice's top attractions.

This was the first of only four bridges that today span the Grand Canal:

  • Ponte dell Accademia, rebuilt in 1985
  • Ponte degli Scalzi, built in 1934
  • The modern Ponte della Costituzione, or Ponte di Calatrava, built in 2008 and designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava 
  • And the 500-year-old stone Rialto Bridge, which is packed with shops on either side. As such, the 16th-century Rialto Bridge is by far the oldest Grand Canal bridge and divides the districts of San Marco and San Polo.

In the commercial hub

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

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.

The Rialto Bridge today

The Rialto Bridge is an elegant, arched stone bridge 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. These shops occupy some of the most expensive real estate in Venice, so while it's nice to say you bought a souvenir on the Rialto Bridge, this is not the cheapest place to find your keepsake of Venice. 

The two other stairs, on the north and south sides of the bridge. offer those iconic views of the Grand Canal, with gondolas, vaporetti and commercial boats trolling past day and night. It's still quite crowded on either set of steps, but still 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. 

On either side of the Rialto Bridge, you'll find restaurants along the canal offering spectacular views of the bridge. You'll also find some spectacular menu prices, and not necessarily the best cuisine in Venice. 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. You might not get a million-dollar view, but you'll have a better meal. 

This article was updated and expanded by Elizabeth Heath.

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