FREE Venice

Written by  Kat Mackintosh

Beautiful, doomed Venice is famously car-free - but that’s not the only thing about it that’s free.

Venice is something of an open-air museum. A labyrinth of unexpected pathways leading to bridges, palaces and squares. While it’s all too easy to get lost amongst the tiny stores selling glass and carnival masksa lot of the city’s beauty is exterior. The Bridge of Sighs, with its ornate limestone carvings, was used to transport prisoners from their cells to their interrogation in the Doge’s Palace - definitely best experienced from the outside.

The stunning Venetian architecture deserves a closer look and there are some buildings open to the public. The Ca D'Oro, which fronts on to the Grand Canal was one of Venice’s most beautiful homes, but it’s been converted into an art museum which now welcomes people inside without charging a fee.

You don't have to wander far to find yourself at Venice’s heart, the Piazza San Marco. This square exposes beauty on all sides: the Doge’s Palace, the Basilica di San Marco, the Basilica’s bell tower and an opening onto the lagoon. In so many photos of Venice, this is a particularly picturesque place to sit and watch the world go by - though if you sit on a chair belonging to one of the famous cafés you will have to pay for the privilege - though when the cafe orchestras are playing, it is worth every penny. However, if you are happy to stand, you can enjoy a free concert.

St. Mark’s Basilica houses the bones of St. Mark, the patron Saint of Venice, and some breathtaking art works and mosaics. The best time to come is around midday when the lights are turned on illuminating the art and exquisite mosaics, or even better attend a Mass and experience the church how it is meant to be used. However, you need to follow a dress code, and it is by no means easy to attend a service - you need to convince the guardian you are there not for tourism, but for worship. Your camera should be firmly put away. You do have to pay to go up the Campanile(bell tower), and see the Pala d’Oro altar piece in the church’s museum.

Religion has played a very important role in Venetian life, which is reflected in the glorious churches and the religious art that abounds throughout the city, and visiting some of these churches is a good way to see great art for free. Across the water from the Piazza San Marco, the Santa Maria della Salute, has a stunning dome, the Gothic Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo is the burial place of 25 of Venice’s Doges and the Church of the Frari has work by Donatello and Titian - Titian and Canova are interred here in fabulous funerary monuments.

The Rialto Bridge is another great Venetian landmark. It’s lined with expensive old stores and jewellery shops, which have traded here for the last thousand years. On one side are the Rialto Markets. The pescheria - fish markets, and the erberia - vegetable markets, are in swing by 8AM as they have been since the 11th Century and offer the same eclectic produce – from squid to red-laced rose radicchio. Again, no purchase is required, though you’ll be sorely tempted, but the experience is well worth some time spent here, purchase or no purchase. Towards the end of the market day – round 11 – you’ll be able to pick up some bargains as stall holders try and offload stock.

If you can’t afford to buy a piece of Venetian glass to take home (and let's face it, most is vastly overpriced) you can at least take a complimentary look at what you’re missing with a visit to the Murano Collection, part gallery and part showroom, and even see some glass blowing. You'll need nerves of steel, though, to resist the salesmen.

You can’t really see Venice until you’ve seen it from the water like the locals do, and gondoliers know it and charge a hefty fee these days. However, for some small change you can take the gondola across the Grand Canal to near the Accademia Bridge. It's called the 'traghetto' - and is a great way to experience a gondola and the wiles of the gondolier for a fraction of the cost. Ask him to sing a traditional Venetian song - and if he hasn't finished by the time you get to the other side, pay for a new ride. It's a pittance, and you are getting centuries of culture encapsulated into a small moment of time, in the midst of the most famous waterway in the world - something you are unlikely to forget.

Best of Venice

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