The famous Piazza San Marco, known in English as St Mark’s Square, is the main public square in Italy’s floating city, Venice. With a glowing reputation as one of the finest squares in the world and arguably one of Europe’s primary tourist attractions, it certainly has a lot to offer to visitors.
The popular Piazza San Marco, known amongst locals as ‘La Piazza’, is found at the southern base of the Grand Canal. Napoleon called the Piazza San Marco “the finest drawing room in Europe.” Inside it’s surrounded by stunning Baroque and Victorian era buildings and monuments.
When to visit Piazza San Marco?
Due to its popularity, we recommend that you head to PIazza San Marco first thing in the morning to avoid the big crowds. Start your day in this magical square with a sit-down coffee at one of the cafés before moving on to see the rest of Venice. Be careful when visiting during periods of heavy rain, as the square is prone to flooding.
How long is needed to visit Piazza San Marco?
You should reserve at least half an hour to visit Piazza San Marco. A little longer if you want to stop for a coffee or visit the Basilica San Marco or Museo Correr.
What should I wear to visit Piazza San Marco?
Dress comfortably on your trip to Piazza San Marco. You’re likely to be doing a lot of walking and exploring all day, so wear relaxed shoes and clothing. If you’re having lunch or dinner at a particularly exclusive venue, go for something that’s chic yet relaxed.
How to get to the Piazza San Marco?
If on foot just follow the yellow “San Marco” signs on the corners of buildings. The walk from the train station or the Piazzale Roma will take 30 minutes to an hour or more, as long as you don’t stop off on route.
When was Piazza San Marco built?
The piazza was laid out in the 11th Century, when its area was divided in half by a canal near the café tables in the picture. A century later, the canal was filled in, creating the basic shape that exists today. A major building project got underway in the 16th Century, and new stone paving replaced the old bricks in the early 1700s.
What you will find in the Piazza San Marco?
This beautiful Piazza is surrounded by shops, caffè’s and palazzi on three sides including the historic and expensive Caffè Florian. According to local legend Napoleon called the Piazza San Marco “the drawing room of Europe.” A full breakdown is below.
Basilica di San Marco
We will start our guide looking at the Basilica di San Marco or St Mark’s Basilica.
Looking at the Basilica you will notice the four bronze horses on the loggia above the porch. originally part of a monument depicting a quadriga (a four-horse carriage used for chariot racing). The horses were placed here after the sack and looting of Constantinople in 1204 The four horses have historically been symbols of the great power of Venice.
The Basilica di San Marco was built in 832 AD to house the remains of the city’s patron, Saint Mark. The holy man’s body was brought from Alexandria, Egypt by two Venetian merchants who smuggled it concealed in the barrels of pork meat, which they rightly regarded the Muslim guards would never touch. According to legend, the night the body arrived in the lagoon, St Mark was greeted by an angel, saying, “Peace be with you Mark, my Evangelist. Here shall your body rest”. Over the centuries, this legend has inspired many works of art.
200 years later, a sumptuous temple was built upon the foundations of an earlier church, and was consecrated when St Mark’s body was interred beneath the high altar. The new basilica was modelled after the celebrated Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. To enhance its opulence, the structure was subsequently clothed in marble and mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the lives of Christ, Virgin Mary and St Mark himself.
Many of the mosaics were later retouched or remade, as artistic tastes changed and the damaged mosaics had to be replaced, so the ones currently in place represent 800 years of artistic styles. Some of them derive from traditional Byzantine representations and are masterworks of Medieval art; others are based on preparatory drawings made by prominent Renaissance artists from Venice and Florence, such as Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, Paolo Uccello, and Andrea del Castagno.
Andrea del Castagno was active at San Marco in the mid-15th century, introducing a sense of perspective largely achieved with architectural settings. Attributed to him is the mosaic in the Mascoli Chapel, depicting the Dormition of the Virgin. Tintoretto, in his turn, created the mosaic in the central nave depicting the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (16th century), while Titian designed and executed, between 1524 and 1530, the mosaic decoration of the Sacristy vault depicting Old-Testament prophets.Read more about the Basilica di San Marco
Piazzetta dei Leoncini
On the north side of the Basilica you will find the Piazzetta dei Leoncini.
The Piazzetta dei Leoncini (Piazzetta meaning small piazza) is named after the two red marble lions sitting in the Piazzetta that were presented to Venice by Doge Alvise Mocenigoin in 1722.Read more about the Piazzetta dei Leoncini
Turning to our left (anti clockwise) to look at the Torre dell’Orologio.
In a square filled with iconic Venetian buildings, this remarkable Renaissance clock tower holds its own. Its base has always been a favorite meeting point for Venetians as it marks the entrance to the ancient Merceria, one of the busiest streets in Venice, now home to both high-end boutiques and trinket shops.
The tower’s clock itself was made the official timekeeper of Venice as far back as 1858. It notably not only tells the time but is also aid to the astrologer, matching zodiac signs with the position of the sun.
Above the clock’s face, against a field of golden stars, you can see a winged lion of St Mark, symbol of Venice found practically everywhere around the city. Beneath the lion is a statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus who also seem to be watching over Piazza San Marco.
The two men striking the bell at the extreme top of the clock tower are some of the most peculiar Venetian characters. Originally, these were two shepherds who, but after being reproduced in bronze, grew significantly darker with time, and thus, got the nickname of “Moors”.
If you decide to climb the tower, you may want to book a tour. There are two English tours run every day, each limited to 12 people only. On this tour you will see a secret door and then stop at every level all the way to the top to observe the clock mechanism and other curious things within the tower, along with San Marco square itself down below.Read more about the Torre dell'Orologio
Procuratie Vecchie & Caffè Lavena
To the left and running along the north side of the Piazza is a long arcade. These buildings built in the early 16th century are called the Procuratie Vecchie (old) and were the homes and offices of high state officials during the Republic of Venice. Today, at ground level the arcade houses shops and restaurants including the famous Café Lavena.
Established in 1750 café Lavena has its origins in the popular Venice of the 17th century. As the other cafés of St Mark’s Square, Lavena equally had its part in intellectual life in the city. The person who gave lustre to Caffé Lavena, patronizing it from his first coming to Venice and becoming an habitual customer, was the composer Richard Wagner. Almost every day from five to six in the afternoon, Wagner used to visit Caffé Lavena and stay for half an hour, conversing very often with the owner Carlo Lavena.
Other famous persons that has frequented Caffé Lavena include the Venetian violinist Raphael Frontalli, famous composers and writers along with the current plethora of famous and not so famous movie stars that visits during the annual Venice Film Festival. Café Lavena is a great place to sip coffee with your loved one in a sunny afternoon and watch the world go by.Read more about the Caffè Lavena
Procuratie Nuovissime & Museo Correr
Turn towards the east. The buildings facing the Basilica at the end of Piazza San Marco and to the left of Caffè Lavena is the Procuratie Nuove (New Procuracies) or Ala Napolenica (Napoleon Wing) so called because it was rebuilt by Napoleon in 1810. This wing is occupied primarily by shops as well as the grand staircase leading to the Correr Museum.
Museo Correr is a fine arts museum found in Piazza San Marco. From the Neoclassical Rooms in the Napoleon Wing to the spacious rooms of the Procuratie Nuove. Museo Correr offers a wonderful insights into Venetian history, culture and art. Here you’ll discover the daily life of Venetians through the ages and see fascinating examples of their art up until the early 16th century. Even if you’re not a big admirer of classical art, it’s worth a visit for the amazing views over the Piazza!Read more about the Museo Correr
Procuratie Nuove & Caffè Florian
Turning left down the southside of the Piazza are the Procuratie Nuove (new) that were built starting around 1582. (Remember, the Procuratie Vecchie were built in the early 1500’s). The ground floor holds more shops as well as the very famous Caffè Florian opened in 1720. When Austria ruled Venice in the 19th century, after the fall of Napoleon, the Venetians sipped their coffee at the Florian while the hated Austrians were at Quadri’s across the Piazza. The upper floors of this section of buildings house the Correr Museum. At the far end is Sansovino’s Liberia dating from the mid-16th century. The building also houses the Museo Archeologico.
Read more about the Procuratie Nuove
Campanile di San Marco
Towards the end of the Procuratie Nuove is the Campanile di San Marco
The city’s tallest bell tower was originally constructed in the 12th century, as a combined lighthouse and belfry, and was continuously modified up until the 16th century, when the golden angel was installed on its summit. Back in the day, each of the five bells here had a distinct function: the largest bell tolled the start and the end of a working day; another bell rang midday; two other bells either proclaimed a session of the Senate or called members of the Grand Council to the meetings; while the smallest of the bells gave notice of a forthcoming execution.
It was at the top of this belfry that Galileo Galilei famously demonstrated his telescope to the Venetian Doge on 21 August 1609 – the event commemorated by a plaque at the tower’s observation deck. Still, the most dramatic event associated with the Campanile took place on 14 July 1902, when the tower fell down shortly after giving a sound of warning to the leisurely coffee drinkers at piazza below, sending them run for their lives!
The Venetians put the Campanile back “where it was and how it was”, and the tower is now safe to climb to the very top. Unlike other belfries where you have to brave a narrow, steep spiral set of stairs to reach the top, the Venetian one has an elevator so you can easily get a pigeon’s eye view just for a fee.
Standing 99 meters high, the Campanile is the tallest structure in Venice; an ideal vantage point for observing the cupolas of the San Marco basilica and further afield, including the surrounding lagoon.Read more about the St Mark's Campanile
Behind the Campanile di San Marco lies the Marciana Library.
The Marciana Library or Library of Saint Mark is a public library in Venice, Italy. It is one of the earliest surviving public libraries and repositories for manuscripts in Italy and holds one of the world’s most significant collections of classical texts. It is named after St Mark, the patron saint of the city.Read more about the Biblioteca Marciana
Piazzetta di San Marco
The Piazzetta di San Marco is an open space connecting the south side of the Piazza to the lagoon, The Piazzetta lies between the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) and the Biblioteca Marciana (St. Mark’s library).
At the open end of the Pizzetta di San Marco are two large granite columns. Sitting on top of the first column is Saint Theodore, the patron saint of the city prior to St. Mark. Saint Theodore is holding a spear with a dragon / crocodile that he is said to have slain. This is a copy of the original which is housed in the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). Sitting on the second column is a winged lion of Venice, the symbol of Saint Mark. The original columns are thought to have been erected in 1268. Much activity has taken place between these two columns including gambling and public executions.
Read more about the Piazzetta di San Marco
Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy,
The Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace in Venice is one of the main landmarks of the city. The building is an unmistakable testament to Venice’s historic wealth and power. Its facade features a gorgeous pink Verona marble – is a real Gothic masterpiece. For almost 1000 years it was the building from which 120 Doges (or chief magistrates) wielded their awesome power and decided Venice’s fate. This seat of government housed a Senate, court facilities, the secret police, and also prisons. It was also the residence of the Doge of Venice, who – once elected – would remain in his position for life.
The Palace is key to understanding the city’s history. Built on the foundations of a 9th-century fortress, this palace is unquestionably the finest secular European building of its time which, in the course of centuries, had served many purposes, including Doge residence, seat of the Venetian government, court of law, civil office, and even a prison.
First built in the 14th century, much of the original palace was destroyed by fire in the 16th century reducing to ashes most of the art treasures held inside. Some of the greatest Venetian masters of the time, such as Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Bellini, and Tiepolo, contributed to restoring the palace to its former glory, recreating gilded stucco, sculptures, frescoes, and canvases.
The interior of the palace – spectacular furnishings and paintings, marvelously adorned ceilings – reveals lavishness on the scale that is hard to match. The most outstanding is the Grand Council chamber, featuring Tintoretto’s “Paradise”, reportedly the world’s largest oil painting. Running up to it, in terms of grandeur, is the Sala dello Scrutinio or the “Voting Hall” embellished with paintings depicting Venice’s glorious past.
By the end of the 13th century, Venice was one of Europe’s richest cities, mostly due to trading spices, silks, and wool between Europe and the Middle East. Its wealthy citizens became patrons of the arts, commissioning fabulous sculptures and paintings to decorate their palaces.Read more about the Palazzo Ducale
Bridge of Sighs
The best vies of the Bridge of Sighs is from the Ponte della Paglia, between the Doge’s Palace and the Prisons’ Palace.
Another grand Venetian landmark, the Bridge of Sighs runs between the Palazzo Ducale and the prisons. The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge’s English name was bequeathed by Lord Byron in the 19th century as a translation from the Italian “Ponte dei sospiri”,from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells.
A local legend says lovers will be granted eternal love if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the Bridge of Sighs as the bells of the Campanile are ringing.Read more about the Bridge of Sighs