St. Mark’s Square
It only takes one visit to St. Mark’s Square to understand why it was called “The drawing room of Europe”. Both grandiose and intimate, dripping with embellishments, yet utterly refined, teeming with people yet somehow familiar, the largest plaza in Venice is one of Italy’s most breathtaking public spaces. Like much of the city, it emanates outward from the Basilica of St. Mark, both physically and spiritually. Many of its most famous adornments can be traced back to the 13th-century siege of Constantinople that brought Venice so much of its most famous riches in the form of plunder. Whether you see the main sites like the St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Doge’s Palace, and the Clock Tower, or just sit in a cafe as watch the crowds stroll by, you can’t visit Venice without pausing in the Piazza San Marco for a moment and soaking up the atmosphere.
Visiting St. Mark’s Square: What to See
The Basilica di San Marco
When two enterprising Venetians stole the remains of St. Mark from Alexandria (by hiding them in barrels of salted pork where the Muslims would refuse to search) the city needed a place to put them. Thus was born St. Mark’s Cathedral. Both the spiritual center of Venice and the Doge’s private chapel, it grew in size and ostentation as Venice expanded her maritime empire. By the 11th century it was going by the nickname “Chiesa d’Oro” or “Church of Gold” and in the 13th century it received and incorporated much of the plunder (gold, jewels, statues, and even marble columns) from the pillaging of Constantinople in the 4th crusade. Today it is considered one of the best examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in the world. Not to mention, Istanbul still wants all of its nice things back. Given the influence of the Byzantine empire and other Eastern cultures on the architecture of Venice, this is one of Italy’s most singular churches.
The Horses of St. Mark
Perhaps the most famous pieces of plunder to come back from Constantinople were four bronze horses that had once stood in that city’s hippodrome. Their age and origin are uncertain but they were probably made around the 4th century BC, possibly by a Greek sculptor. After being brought back from the 4th Crusade, they were installed on the terrace of St. Mark’s Basilica where they stood until Venice was looted by Napoleon, who took them to Paris in 1797. The Venetians got their horses back in 1815 but have subsequently moved the originals into St. Mark’s Museum in order to protect them from weathering. What you see on the church today are exact replicas. An interesting side note is that the collars you see on the horses today were added in Venice cover the fact that their heads had been chopped off in order to fit them into the ships to transport them from Constantinople.
The Doge’s Palace
You can’t run an empire that spans the entire Mediterranean sea for some 400 years without a very well-oiled governmental apparatus. The home of this apparatus was the Doge’s Palace. It was part residence, part courtroom, part administrative building for a nation without land. From this corner of St. Mark’s Square they kept the records and made the decisions that dictated much of the trade and commerce in the Mediterranean. It was an executive, legislative, and judicial branch all packed into one impressive building. First constructed in the tenth century then added to in fits and starts as the Republic grew, the building evolved right along with Venetian society until it was officially made a museum in 1923. Walking through its numerous rooms and passages today is a trip through the history of the old empire.
St. Mark’s Bell Tower
St. Mark’s Campanile or Bell Tower started life in the 9th century as a watchtower over docks that have since been paved over. It didn’t, however, reach its final form until the 16th century. Not that it was smooth sailing from then on. The tower had a bad habit of getting hit by lightning and catching fire. Over the years, the damage piled up until the tower collapsed in 1902. Incredibly, the only casualty was the caretaker’s cat. Since being rebuilt in 1912 thousands of visitors climb the tower every year and it has shown no signs of further damage. It is, however, closed at the slightest hint of lightning.
A good coffee house has always been a place where people from all walks of life meet, socialize and share ideas. It’s only fitting then, that the oldest coffee house in the world still in operation, Caffè Florian, has hosted some of the greatest meeting of minds in history. This St. Mark’s Square institution has, at various times, been a hangout for Goethe and Cassanova, Byron, Proust, and even Charles Dickens. It isn’t just the company that makes this cafe such a hit. Coffee was first introduced to Europe by the Venetians, who imported it from North Africa. Venice hosted the first European coffee houses and, to this day, they make as good a cup of espresso as you will get anywhere in the world.
Tips for Visiting St. Mark’s Square
St. Mark’s Square is a public plaza and so is accessible, free of charge, 24 hours a day.
St. Mark’s Basilica has varying hours depending on the season. From November through the end of Easter (which changes every year) it’s open from 9:45am to 5:00pm Monday through Saturday and 2:00pm to 4:00pm Sundays and Holidays. From the end of Easter to November the hours are the same Monday through Saturday but on Sundays and holidays it’s open from 2:00pm to 5:00pm.
The Bell Tower opening times change even more depending on the time of year: In October it’s open from 9:00am to 7:00pm. From November through March/April (Easter) it’s open from 9:30am to 3:45pm. From March/April (Easter) through June it’s open from 9:00am – 7:00pm. From July through September it’s open from 9:00am – 9:00pm
The Doge’s palace has different hours for the high season and low 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.
The main thing to keep in mind if visiting the Piazza San Marco in the off season, especially in the winter, is that you might hit a period of acqua alta, i.e., flooding. This happens when a combination of high tides and the southerly Scirocco wind cause the water levels in the lagoon to rise and flood Venice. Because the storm drains of the Piazza San Marco flow directly into the lagoon, the water can come right back up them at times of acqua alta, and you’ll find yourself anywhere from ankle to knee-deep in water. When these weather conditions are forecasted the main thoroughfares will generally be outfitted with elevated wooden walkways by the city. Do as locals do and bring a sturdy pair of rubber boots; they will save your feet. For more information check out our survival guide to the acqua alta.
The Best Time to Visit St. Mark’s Square
When visiting St. Mark’s Square you always have to weigh two factors against each other: crowds and weather. Winter in Venice can be cold and damp, which is to say nothing about the flooding. Summers can be hot and jam-packed with people. Spring and Autumn usually have very nice weather but are similarly packed. One way or another there will typically be a crowd in St. Mark’s Square. If you want to avoid the crowd, the easiest way to do so is by simply waking up early. No matter the season a sunrise walk in Venice is a guaranteed way to see any part of the city mostly empty.
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