For anyone heading to Italy, Venice will probably be one of the first destinations that you aim for. A historical maritime trading republic cloaked (literally) in golden opulence, Venice’s “golden age” in the late middle ages and early modern period left it endowed with a unique legacy of neo-classical bronze artwork and architecture. It is this legacy that still continues to astound millions on a yearly basis.
Unfortunately, this attractive wealth and prestige means that Venice can end up as a very expensive place to visit for the uninformed. However, you don’t necessarily need the bank balance of a Doge to enjoy the city if you know what you are looking for. Here are five of the best Venetian attractions that are absolutely free to visit and explore.
Ghetto Ebraico di Venezia
One of the lesser known parts of Venice, the historical Jewish ghetto still forms the hub of Orthodox culture in the city. Exclusively home to Venice’s Semitic population between 1516 and 1797, the series of enclosed squares offers an authentic look at the traditional Venice that many feel has been lost in some of the more “touristy” areas. The five synagogues are well worth visiting, and Kosher restaurants abound for those so inclined. Please remain respectful while visiting; the area is still very much an active neighborhood, and the Shabbat (Friday evening and most of Saturday) is almost universally observed.
Basilica di San Marco
Although many churches in Venice increasingly charge for entry, the iconic early twelfth century St. Mark’s Basilica remains completely free to visit. The spectacular Italo-Byzantine façade and soaring, elaborate exterior arches mark out the cathedral as one of the finest examples of classic Catholic architecture in existence. Inside and outside, the famous golden mosaics, latticework and painted domes provide visitors with a glimpse into a world of beautiful religious artifacts and artwork. Please keep in mind cultural concerns, in that you must be what the Catholic church considers “dressed respectably” to visit. Bare shoulders or limbs (above the cuff or lower leg) are generally forbidden for religious reasons.
A trip to this iconic building should be added to every traveler’s list of necessities (amongst travel insurance and so on.) The symmetrical white clad stone structure is instantly recognisable, and is considered one of Italy’s finest examples of late renaissance design. Built in 1591 to bridge the districts of San Marco and San Polo, the Ponte di Rialto gives (and contributes to) fantastic views of the heavily trafficked, world famous Grand Canal.
San Giorgio Maggiore
This small, unassuming island lagoon houses some of Venice’s best known landmarks. The seventeenth century church gives the island its name, and the striking marble façade is well worth seeing. It is also worth making time to take a good look at St. Mark’s Campanile. One of the defining symbols of Venice, the bell tower and clock mechanism are available for viewing if you pre-book a guided tour.
La Zecca (The Mint)
The historical mint of Venice may not immediately strike you, but it is one of Venice’s best kept secrets. The mint served from the sixteenth century as Venice’s main source of currency, and the elaborate, rich decoration that remains in place is reflective of that former status. Often home to special exhibitions, the building now houses most of the main reading rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.