Venice is well known to be the most expensive city in Italy. It has long been one of the chief complaints of the local population that the city has been progressively readjusted to revolve around the needs and schedules of mass tourism rather than the daily life of the average resident. Having said that, you will need to stretch the concept of “average” by several lengths to fit it to such an unusual, larger than life dream of a city. Some of the urban myths about tourist rip-offs are pure fiction of course, but some are pretty close to reality if not for one detail: they are not ripping you off because you are a tourist, that’s actually how expensive everything is. Does this mean you have no hope of ever seeing Venice if you are on a limited budget? Of course not: it is a matter of asset management and investing wisely. When it comes to Venice, the first thing you should look into is decent accommodation. You will probably have to invest most of your budget on renting a comfortable place to sleep and use as your basis before you set out to explore the city. Once you make sure you set aside a reasonable amount for transportation, food and the unavoidable souvenirs, you can visit some of the most fascinating sights for free.
1. Piazza San Marco and its Basilica (by night)
The symbol of Venice itself, St. Mark’s winged lion, will be waiting for you on its pillar, towering over the square by the same name. Across from it, you will find another pillar, from which the statue of St. Theodore of Amasea surveys the piazza. If you want your experience to be truly breathtaking and unforgettable, we suggest you take a walk through the square at night: the magnificence and sheer size of it will be even more striking when it’s deserted and pigeon-free. This is the only place in Venice that goes by the name of “piazza” (square): all the other squares in the city are “campi” (fields). While in Piazza San Marco, you can also visit the ground floor of the Basilica for free and be astounded by the superb byzantine mosaics. From the outside, this monumental complex presents a rich and complex facade, bearing the traces of the deep connections that existed between the Venetian Republic and the main civilizations in the middle and far east.
2. Ca’ d’Oro
In the neighbourhood – or rather in the sestriere known as Canareggio, along the Grand Canal, you will find a building known as Ca’ d’Oro (literally golden house). This old mansion was converted into a museum in 1927 and it currently houses the Franchetti Gallery. If you want to thank someone for offering you the chance of enjoying art in this stunning building, spare a thought for the memory of baron Giorgio Franchetti, who bought it and restored it in 1894 with the express purpose of making his impressive art collection accessible to the public. The museum, like many other venetian museums, can be visited for free on the first Sunday of each month. The building itself is beautiful and the product of a fascinating history. Among the most prized works of art being permanently exhibited here there are Andrea Mantegna’s St. Sebastian, Titian’s Venus in the Mirror and Judith and several frescos by Giorgione.
3. Bridge of Sighs
In a city that is 60% water and 40% tourists, bridges are not an uncommon sight to say the least. This, however, is the most famous of them all, connecting the Doge Palace (Palazzo Ducale) with the New Prison. The bridge got its suggestive name as Lord Byron imagined how convicts, being led from the interrogation room of the palace to their cells in the dungeon, would catch one last glimpse of Venice and the free world and sigh. In fact, the sight from the bridge is narrow and limited, which makes the whole narrative highly unlikely. The bridge itself is a masterpiece of baroque architecture, a triumph of geometrical perfection in white limestone. Another urban myth, one that movie directors have exploited more than poets, claims that lovers passing under the bridge on a gondola and kissing in its shade will be granted eternal love. Also, luckily, the stone windows make it impossible for young hopeless romantics to attach locks to the bridge.
4. Music Museum in the Church of St. Maurizio
In Campo San Maurizio the church by the same name has long been deconsacrated and turned into a museum of music. This unique collection comprises several ancient musical instruments and offers precious information on the greatest Venetian musicians of al times. Music here is celebrated in all its aspects and a special focus is placed on the craft of ancient luthiers and the making of traditional instruments. Venice has been at the forefront of western music evolution for centuries and the original prototypes of many musical instruments were designed in the workshops of venetian artisans. The XVII century was a particularly productive age in this respect. This might have something to do with the fact that music was reaching a zenith of perfection and that Venice was the dream destination of many artists. The Music Museum often hosts exhibitions and events that allow visitors to hear the music of ancient and traditional instruments, as well as playing tributes to the most relevant Venetian composers. The museum can be visited for free and guided tours are available upon reservation.
5. The Squeri: where all the gondolas in Venice used to be built
Squero, like calle, Doge and sestriere, is one of those terms you will lovingly commit to memory and never have any reason to use elsewhere. The reason so many terms don’t even have an Italian equivalent is that Venice presented its inhabitants with so many unique circumstances that words had to be created to describe them, but such circumstances could never occur elsewhere, therefore the terms stayed in Venice and became part of the fabric of the city itself. A Squero is in fact an old workshop in which gondolas used to be built and repaired. These workshops went from being one of the most common sights in the city – not unlike bodyshops in a modern city where cars are the main mode of transport – to being the relic of a past long gone. There are only six Squeri still in existence and they no longer cater for every rowing boat in the city, mostly because wooden rowing boats are not such common an occurrence as they used to be. Nowadays, the six working Squeri of venice produce and maintain gondolas on an almost exclusive basis.
6. Accademia Galleries
Like Ca’ d’Oro (and all public museums) the Accademia Galleries can be visited for free on the first Sunday of every month. Located in the sestriere of Dorsoduro, this museum complex contains the most complete collection of Venetian art in existence. Venice was at the forefront of figurative art from the XIV to the XVIII century, with names such as Bellini, Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Tiepolo and Giorgione. The museums’ collection also includes one of the most famous drawings in human history: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Leonardo, as you might know, hailed not from Venice, but from Florence: the venetian theme is not strictly binding to the Accademia collections, which include works of art from several national and international schools, from the Florentine and Bolognese schools, to the French and Flemish ones. The building is part of a large complex that originally comprised the Church of Santa Maria della Carità with the adjacent school and a nearby convent. The name Accademia is short for Accademia di Belle Arti (Fine Arts Academy), which opened the galleries in the early XIX century.