Spend the day like a Venetian aristocrat and visit these beautiful villas along the Brenta River.
Stately villas line the banks of the Brenta River in the countryside near Venice. Many of these have been designed by the famous Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. In this area known as the Riviera di Brenta, select Venetian villas and their gardens have been restored and are open to the public. This is a great area for a drive, a bike ride along the banks of the river, a boat ride, or even a bus trip from Venice or Padua.
Most of the villas date from the 15th -18th centuries and were built as the main house of a farm estate or, later, as summer homes for well-to-do Venetians who wanted a getaway from the city and a place to entertain guests. Spend a day like a Venetian aristocrat and visit these beautiful Palladian villas: here are three of the most famous that are open to the public.
Villas of the Brenta Riviera in Veneto
Villa Foscari, the “Discontented”
Villa Foscari, designed by Andrea Palladio, is also known as La Malcontenta, or “The Discontented,” allegedly named for a member of the Foscari family who was confined to the villa after her infidelities were found out, according to one story. Located in the town of Mira, this villa is privately owned and thus has limited visiting hours; but when it’s not open, you can still appreciate its beauty from outside the fence. Hours: Tuesday and Saturday mornings 9 am-12 pm, April-October. It can also be visited as part of a burchiello boat tour (see below) which starts near the villa.
Villa Pisani and its truly twisting Labyrinth of Love
Because most of these villas are named for the family who built them, several are named Villa Pisani, including two designed by Palladio. The most famous Villa Pisani was built in the early 18th century in the town of Stra (though this was begun by Paduan architect Girolamo Frigimelica and completed by Francesco Maria Preti). It’s the top villa to see, with about thirty rooms open to visitors, some of them with original frescoes and decor. Inside the villa is the National Museum of 18th -19th century furniture and art.
A highlight of a visit is the huge maze called the “Labyrinth of Love,” the most intricate maze I’ve ever been in. Luckily, there’s a guide at the top of a central tower who yells out directions after you’ve been wandering around for a while! Climb the tower for nice views of the maze and surrounding gardens. Take some time to wander through the gardens too, admiring the statues. You can easily spend a couple of hours here. If you start feeling hungry, stop by the café at the back of the gardens and enjoy lunch on the grass when the weather is warm (the café even lets you borrow mats); don’t forget to bring a bottle of sparkling Venetian wine: a bubbly Prosecco Superiore di Valdobbiadene works wonders on a warm afternoon. Hours: Villa Pisani is easily accessible to visitors as it’s open every day except Mondays from 9 am (closing times vary by season).
Villa Widmann Rezzonico Foscari
Originally built in the early 18th century, likely by Venetian architect Andrea Tirali, the villa was remodeled in the mid-1800s in French Rococco style when the Widmann family bought it. Inside the villa are some of the original furnishings and decoration. 18th century statues are spread throughout the garden and there’s a small lake plus an area with peacocks and other birds. Take a look at old-fashioned carriages in the boathouse and step inside the small family church on the grounds, where special exhibits and events are often held. Hours: Villa Widmann is open to the public daily, except in winter when it’s only open on weekends.
Brenta River Cruises with Villa Visits
A relaxing way to see the villas is by boat along the Brenta River in a burchiello, a typical Venetian barge used by the villa owners to arrive at their villas from Venice. These tours depart from the small harbor in Mira near Villa Foscari, and most include visits to three villas as well as a stop for lunch. Companies offering these river cruises are Il Burchiello and I Battelli del Brenta. Another company, Delta Tour, offers several Riviera del Brenta cruise options starting from Stra, Mira, or Fusina in the Venetian lagoon.
Where to Stay
Some villas have been repurposed as nice hotels or bed and breakfast inns. We stayed by the river in Mira at the elegant, comfortable Barchese Levi Morenas Bed and Breakfast next to the Villa Barchessi Levi Morenos. The villa’s gardens are now a public park, but the villa itself is private. The bed and breakfast is right by the bus stop for the bus that goes to Venice—perfect for a day trip to La Serenissima.
The Brenta Riviera is known for its excellent fish. We enjoyed a fantastic fish tasting menu at Ristorante Isola di Capera, a short walk from the B&B; and there are several other good fish restaurants in Mira, as well.
One more villa outside Vicenza, Palladio’s city
Palladio designed twenty-three of the buildings in the city of Vicenza, including his most famous, the Basilica Palladiana. Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto make up a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes these twenty-three buildings plus twenty-four villas in the Veneto region. Stop by the Palladio Museum in Vicenza to learn more about his work.
Several beautiful Palladian villas are located in the countryside outside Vicenza. One of the most well-known is Villa Capra or “La Rotonda,” created in Palladio’s classical style. A highlight of the interior is the tall circular hall with a domed ceiling, decorated with trompe l’oeil painting and beautiful frescoes. The villa’s grounds are open Tuesdays through Sundays from mid-March through early November, and the interior can be visited on Wednesdays and Saturdays.