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The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs is a very pleasant solution to a very grim problem. In 1600, Venice’s prisons for common criminals were being moved from the ground floor of the Doge’s Palace (where you can still see the old ones on the Secret Itineraries Tour) to a building across a narrow canal from the Palace. The question was how to get the inmates who had just had confessions wrung out of them in the torture chamber into the new prison. A passageway-cum-bridge was needed and a young architect named Antonio Contino was chosen for the job. His creation is a small, enclose span of white limestone with stone bars covering the windows. It has become famous for its baroque beauty, its sad history, and probably a bit of poetic license by the Romantic writers whose letters have contributed so much to the romantic aura of Venice. Like many parts of city, it’s difficult to untangle the facts from the lore surrounding the Bridge of Sighs, which only adds to its allure.

Visiting the Bridge of Sighs: What to See

The Bridge

In 1600, the architect Antonio da Ponte (of Rialto Bridge Fame) decided to move the pozzi prison cells in the Doge’s Palace to a new building on the other side of a narrow canal. Not averse to a bit of nepotism, he commissioned his nephew, Antonio Contino, to come up with a design. The young Contino created perhaps the nicest prison passage the world has ever known – from the outside anyway. The little Baroque bridge – the only covered bridge in Venice – quickly entered into Venetian lore as the Ponte dei Sospiri, or as Lord Byron translated it, “Bridge of Sighs.”

Despite what you might have heard, the origin of the name is somewhat obscure. In popular folklore, it comes from the sighs of prisoners condemned to life sentences in the new prison as they took in their last view of Venice from the tiny windows in the Bridge. This theory was popularized by Romantic writers like Lord Byron who came to Venice on their Grand Tours.  The problem with this theory is that by the time the Bridge was built there were very few people being condemned to life sentences in the prison. It was mostly small-time crooks who would be out after short stints. This doesn’t mean they didn’t sigh, just that some of the heart-wrench is taken out of the story.  

The other, happier, tradition connected to the Bridge is that if you kiss someone beneath it at sunset (which you can only do on a gondola) you will love each other forever. It’s unclear if this is just a bit of marketing spread by the gondoliers, or yet another legend that sprang long-ago from the fertile waters of the lagoon. Either way, there’s no doubt that a kiss under the Bridge at sunset is a supremely romantic moment.

Tips for Seeing the Bridge of Sighs

Opening Times

If you want to see the Bridge of Sighs from the inside, as old inmates like Casanova would have seen it, you have to take a tour that includes the Secret Itineraries. The Palace’s hours vary according to the season. From April 1st to October 31st the Palace is open from 8:30am to 7:00pm with last entry at 6:00pm. From November 1st to March 31st, the Palace is open from 8:30am to 5:30pm with last entry at 4:30pm. The Palace is closed on December 25th and January 1st. If you want to take a Secret Itineraries tour you should definitely book it in advance. 

You can also see the Bridge (from the outside) from two other bridges  –  the Ponte Canonica to the north, and the Ponte della Paglia on the south. The more famous of the two views is from the Ponte della Paglia.

Tickets

Walks of Italy is one of the organizations authorized to offer guided tours of the secret passages in the Doge’s Palace

Rules

The Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour is not wheelchair accessible

Like most other museums in Italy, you are not allowed to enter with large backpacks or luggage, though you can check them in the cloak room.

The Best Time to See the Bridge of Sighs

Some would argue that the best time to see most of Venice is at sunset, given its various romantic connotations. The problem is that Sunset is when everyone in Venice is in the streets trying to take advantage of said romantic connotations. If you don’t mind the crowds, the end of the day is a great time to go see the Bridge of Sighs from the outside. But if you prefer a little more solitude we highly recommend you go at sunrise. Despite being notoriously crowded throughout most of the year, Venice is still surprising uncrowded every day in the morning, the earlier the better. If you can drag yourself out of bed, the best view of the Bridge of Sighs is from the Ponte Della Paglia just as the sun peeks over the rooftops.

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