Piazza San Marco Venice, Italy - 5 Things not to Miss

St. Marks Square

Piazza San Marco (St. Marks Square) and the Pigeons in Venice, Italy

San Marco is overshadowed by its famous piazza and Basilica, but this is a district of Venice Italy that has some of the finest palaces and villas along the Grand Canal. It is where you can find Harry's Bar, the Gritti Palace Hotel and La Fenice Opera House.

The San Marco district also has a maze of alleyways that run between the Rialto and the Piazza San Marco known as the Mercerie, where small shops can be found that sell traditional souvenirs such as marbled paper, Murano glass, leather goods and carnival masks.

And although there are many other squares in the San Marco district, such as Campo Santo Stefano where you can watch local Venetians engaging in traditional evening strolls around the square that is lined with elegant palaces and cafes, San Marco is famous for its Piazza, Basilica and Bell Tower.

detail of san marco basilica architecture

Detail of Basilica S. Marco on the Piazza San Marco

The Piazza San Marco today is filled with milling tourists, local Venetians and resident pigeons in the summer.

In winter St Mark's Square is delightly empty of tourists, the local Venetian reclaim their city, as do the pigeons and occasionally strategically placed water boards appear for you to step onto in order to walk from one side to the other due to seasonal flooding from the canal that laps at the square's doorstep.

All in all, the Piazza San Marco has become an iconic place to visit when in Venice, no matter what time of year.

What to see in Piazza San Marco?

In the large Piazza San Marco with views across the sea at one end is the spectacular Basilica  and the beautifully designed Palazzo Ducale . The square is also home to the Campinale , the Museo Correr , the Torre dell'Orologio , and  2 famous restaurants that have lined the piazza for decades; the Quadri and Florians .

It is at the Piazza of San Marco that most people start their trip in Venice. And why not?

Inside St. Marks Basilica

1: Piazza San Marco for the Basilica S. Marco and the Gold-Leafed Domed Ceilings

Mosaics in St Marks Basilica Stand in the square and slowly turn around in a complete circle and you will find that it is hard to take in all the grandeur at once.

Opposite the sea-end is the wonderful Basilica of San Marco, the third church to be built on this site.

The crowds stretch forever in summer as they try to get in to glimpse its beauty.

Try and visit off-peak to avoid the crowds and to truly enjoy this stupendous church, built on the site of a church said to have been the final resting place of San Marco, or in English, St. Mark the apostle, hence the name of the square.

Until 1807 the Basilica S. Marco had been used by the Doges as their private chapel and used for Ceremonies of State. 

Once you step inside the Basilica its exterior does not disappoint for what lies within. One is literally dazzled by the gold mosaics that clad the walls and domes. And as the light constantly changes inside the church it brings about another gem that you had previously missed and a change in atmosphere.

There is over 43 000 sq ft of golden mosaics. The earliest mosaics date from the 12th century. Even the floor has mosaic patterns of marble and glass. The main mosaic is upstairs showing the life of St. Mark and allegorical pictures from the Old and New Testament.

Something not to miss while you are looking around the Basilica is to see the Pala d'Oro.

The Pala d'Oro is a stunning altar-piece situated behind the main altar and was commissioned during the Byzantium era in AD 976.

Study the altar-piece carefully as you can still see the pearls, rubies, sapphires and other precious stones in this wonderful piece of art.

san marco basilica crypt

There is also the crypt to visit. It was here that the burial remains of many Venetians were laid to rest in times past. 

With a beautiful arched roof, columns and a small chapel it is a place that gives you a feeling of solitude and peace if you can visit without the crowds.

Basilica S. Marco Museum

Take the stairs to the first level, to the museum. You will be charged an entrance fee of E5.00 (as of 2012)and the steep stairs are to be found to the right of the Basilica entrance. However, it is worth paying the money as this is where you will be able to take some great photos. Photos are generally banned within the Basilica.

It is also where you can see the family tree of the Virgin Mary, also done in mosaics, as well as see the famous horses in the Museo Marciano, which originally stood at the top of St Mark's Basilica. They were stolen from Constantinople during a crusade and are now housed in the museum. Replicas replace them outside.

It is from this vantage point, opposite the family tree of the Virgin Mary, that you can look over the balcony and see just how vast this church really is. It is from this floor that you can step out onto the parapet outside to get some great photo shots of the Palazzo Ducale, the Torre dell'Orologio and the across the Piazza.

Main Door to the Basilica S. Marco

Opening Times for the Basilica di San Marco

Travel Italy Grapevine Travel Tip: Make sure that your arms are covered and you are appropriately dressed. This is a place of worship and Italians can be surprisingly conservative when it comes to what is worn inside churches.

November - March/April (Easter):

Basilica S. Marco: 9.45 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. - Sunday and holidays: 2.00 p.m. - 4.00 p.m. (entrance free)
St. Mark's Museum: 9.45 a.m. - 4.45 p.m. (entrance: ticket 5 € , reduced 2,50 € only for groups with more than 15 people)
Pala d'Oro: 9.45 a.m. - 4.00 p.m. - Sunday and holidays: 2.00 p.m. - 4.00 p.m. (entrance: ticket 2 € , reduced 1 € only for groups with more than 15 people)
Treasury: 9.45 a.m. - 4.00 p.m. - Sunday and holidays: 2.00 p.m. - 4.00 p.m.(entrance: ticket 3 € , reduced 1,50 € only for groups with more than 15 people)

March/April (Easter) - November:

Basilica S. Marco: 9.45 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. - Sunday and holidays: 2.00 p.m. - 5.00 p.m. (entrance free)
St. Mark's Museum: 9.45 a.m. - 4.45 p.m. (entrance: ticket 5 € , reduced 2,50 € only for groups with more than 15 people)
Pala d'Oro: 9.45 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. - Sunday and holidays: 2.00 p.m. - 5.00 p.m. (entrance: ticket 2 € , reduced 1 € only for groups with more than 15 people)
Treasury: 9.45 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. - Sunday and holidays: 2.00 p.m. - 5.00 p.m.(entrance: ticket 3 € , reduced 1,50 € only for groups with more than 15 people)

Bell Tower:

October: 9.00 a.m. - 7.00 p.m. (entrance: ticket 8 € , reduced 4€ only for groups with more than 15 people)
November - March/April (Easter): 9.30 a.m. - 3.45 p.m. (entrance:  tickets
8 € , reduced 4 € only for groups with more than 15 people)
March/April (Easter) - June: 9.00 a.m. - 7.00 p.m. (entrance: ticket 8 € , reduced 4 € only for groups with more than 15 people)
July - September: 9.00 a.m. - 9.00 p.m. (entrance: ticket 8 € , reduced 4 € only for groups with more than 15 people).

More Travel Tips and Resources:

The Basilica S. Marco really is worth standing in the queues in summer to get into. If you want to avoid the queues we suggest that you buy your tickets online. 

You can buy online tickets for the Basilica of San Marco here.

Map of Basilica San Marco Interior and Mosaics

Plan your trip to the Basilica ahead of time. Because of its sheer size and various places that one can visit we were totally overwhelmed when we went just because it is so spectacular you don't know what to look at first! Having a map of the layout of this huge church certainly helps.

So here is an interactive map of the Basilica to help you plan your trip better .

I also have
a map of the mosaics for you to view.

2: Tower Clock of Venice on the Piazza San MarcoThe Tower Clock of St. Mark's Square, Venice

The best place to view the Tower Clock, or Torre dell'Orologio is, as I said, from the first floor of the Basilica at the top end of St Marks Square. It is on your right-hand side as you stand on the parapet facing the sea.

It was built in the late 15th century, and is somewhat spoilt by the modern addition of digital numbers on canvas marking the time. However, it is an interesting piece, with Roman Numerals on the outside of the clock face, and the phases of the moon and the zodiac also incorporated.

If you are out on the balcony at the right time, you will be able to see the Moorish figures at the top strike the bell on the hour.

However, while you are admiring the handiwork of this ancient clock, remember the two inventors of this complex clock both had their eyes gouged out after they had completed it so as to prevent them from creating another like it!

3: The Campanile on Piazza San MarcoCampanile StMark's Square

Also on St Marks Square is the Campanile. What you are looking at is not the original, as the original building fell down without warning on 14th July 1902. It was a miracle that no one was killed or hurt. The only casualty was the custodian's cat! It was said that this was a miracle.

In fact there were 3 miracles in St Marks Square. First of all the largest of the bells which had been brought from Constantinople had survived the crash in one piece.

Secondly, the Archangel Gabriel, which remains on top of the new tower, remained in one piece.

Finally, even more amazing, was a Murano glass cup that had been used as part of the opening ceremony of the original tower in 1513, also
survived in one piece.

The tower was rebuilt and completed 10 years later. It was originally built in 1173 as a lighthouse, although during the Middle Ages prisoners were hung in cages from the top as a deterrent to others, and often left to die. However, today, if you have fine weather, you can enjoy great views of the city and beyond. On a clear day you can even catch a glimpse of the Alps!

The Museo Correr is a museum that houses an extensive collection of works of art that were donated by Theodore Correr in 1830.

The Meaning of the Two Columns in Piazza San Marco

Facing the sea are the two columns that grace St Mark's Square that look imposing and quite innocuous. However, if they could talk, they would be able to tell you stories of the many men who were traditionally hung, drawn and quartered between these two columns.

It was here too that men, whether disgraced Doges, public figures, or just common criminals were also beheaded or impaled.

San Marco Square with the Palazzo Ducale on the left.

4: Palazzo Ducale on the Piazza San Marco

On the Piazza San Marco is also the handsomely built, Palazzo Ducale. It is as sumptuous on the inside as it appears on the outside with its walls clad in pink and white marble, and well worth a visit. This was the home of the Doges, the republican's rulers who were elected for life.

It has been standing in its present condition since 1340, having being built on the site of an earlier Byzantium palace.

It is also here, along the waterfront that you can see the famous Bridge of Sighs. Named because of the sighing and distress made by the prisoners as they were transported between buildings.

5: The Historical Florian Cafe on the Piazza San Marco

Florian Cafe San Marco
Florians is an institution, a little like
Harry's Bar .

Florian Cafe
on St Marks Square has been around for a while now, and was a favourite haunt of Lord Byron and Henry James. 

Florians is an elegant cafe that bustles with people in the summer and the chairs and tables extend right out into the square.

Left is a picture of Florians just visible on the far right, during the winter, a much smaller affair, catering mostly for the well-heeled Venetians.

During the height of the summer the whole area in front of the arcade is filled with tables, chairs, tourists and patrons soaking up the atmosphere and drinking some very expensive coffee.

Cafe Quadri is also an elegant and very old cafe on the square.

Be warned;  neither cafe is cheap. You pay for the views, the location and for the privilege of listening to the orchestra playing their tunes.

San Marco Hotels and some Travel Tips

The closer you are to San Marco the more expensive the hotels become. This is due to its popularity with tourists for its central location and convenience. But really Venice is small enough, and the water transport so dependable that you could find cheaper accommodation elsewhere, but still close by.

Finding a hotel in the neighbouring district of Costello would be a far wiser decision if you are looking to save some pennies.

Having said that, if you are wanting to surround yourself with luxury is to treat yourself to the Gritti Palace Hotel. This is a 15th century palace that was turned into a hotel and has been stayed in by Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemmingway and Greta Gabo and comes complete with Murano glass chandeliers and damask soft furnishings and feels more like a private palace than a hotel.

See our page on hotel accommodation for more options.

Where is Piazza San Marco and How to Get to There?

Getting to Piazza San Marco by Water Taxi from Santa Luca Train Station:

Where is Piazza San Marco and how do you get there? Well there are a number of ways to get to Piazza S. Marco. The way most people get here is by either from the train station or from the car park. If you are coming from the train station Santa Lucia you cannot bring any luggage into the Basilica, so drop off your luggage first before visiting. Catch one of the water taxis, known as vaporetti:

  • Line #1  gets you there in about 35 minutes. Plenty of time to enjoy the Grand Canal and its lovely villas and buildings.
  • Line #51 which is a direct line and will take you to San Marco in about 25 minutes.
  • Line # 2 which is another direct line that will take you to the square again in 25 minutes.

If you want to walk from the Santa Lucia train station it takes about 30-45 minutes to reach it.

Getting to Piazza San Marco by Water Taxi from Piazzale Roma:

If you find yourself in Piazzale Roma it is probably because you have come to Venice either by bus, car or bike. It is a huge parking area on the mainland linking Venice with a causeway.

Here you will need to buy your tickets for the water taxi. Head for the
Hellovenezia Office , near the bridge. You won't be able to miss it in the summer as it will be the office with long lines of tourists all waiting to buy their tickets.

A Travel Italy Grapevine Travel Tip:

Head into the middle of the square to the newsagent. It is a kiosk with magazines and newspapers outside, and above the winter, is a sign in blue and yellow saying "Biglietti and Ticket". Visit our basic Italian phrases page to help you out in purchasing your tickets, but here they are very used to foreign visitors and you should find that they speak fairly good English.

Cut the queues and buy your ticket like a local. You can also buy tickets here for getting back to the airport.

However, if you want to buy a visitors Tourist Card for Venice you will have to queue up at the Hellovenezia Office. Buy the tourist card here for however long you are in Venice.

The tourist cards are valid for 12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, or 7 days, depending on which version you buy. The last time we were in Venice we were only there for 5 days, bought the 7 day card and still saved heaps!

Save on travel. The water taxis are expensive and you will end up paying 6x more than what the locals pay to catch the taxis if you don't by the tourist card.

The water taxis to catch to Piazza San Marco from Piazzale Roma are:

  • Line # 1 which will take you there in about 40 minutes.
  • Line # 51 direct which will take you there in about 20 minutes.
  • Line # 2 direct which will take you there in about 30 minutes.
If you are feeling energetic and you would like to walk,  it takes about 40 minutes to get there.

Getting to Piazza San Marco by Car:

Because Venice is a city without cars you cannot get to San Marco by car, but have to find parking at various designated spots on the mainland. As already mentioned head for Piazzale Roma , which is well sign-posted on your approach to Venice.

Here you will find 3 parking areas:

  • Autorimessa Comunale
  • Garage San Marco
  • Sant'Andrea

Another Travel Tip for Visiting Piazza San Marco, Venice

Avoid the crowds and head for the island of Tronchetto, a large car park that the locals use to visit Venice and also very close to the Piazzale Roma.

Another solution which I think is even better still is to park the car on the mainland at either Mestre or Marghera. Take either the train or bus from here to Piazzale Roma or Santa Luca Railway station.

Video on Piazza San Marco

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