As son of the famous lithographer Jakob von Alt, Rudolf was immersed in an artistic environment from birth. Together with his brother Franz he helped his father in his studio by colouring the latter's work. At the appropriate age he enrolled in the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna after which he travelled extensively, quickly gaining fame in his own right for his finely executed city views and landscapes, and receiving important commissions from aristocratic and royal patrons such as Tsar Alexander II and Alois II, Prince of Liechtenstein.
Von Alt's early focus was mainly on the landscapes of the Alps and northern Italy. He visited Venice in 1833 with his father, where the architecture left a profound impression on him, leading him to combine truth to detail not only in architecture, but also in the rendition of light and local colour. He returned to the subject even late in life, using earlier drawings as the basis for his compositions.