You may have heard of San Marco in Venice, Italy, but if you’ve never been there, you probably don’t realize the scope of it. San Marco, known as Saint Mark’s in English, includes a large plaza, a bell tower, a large basilica or church, and a museum.
San Marco, is one of two main location points in Venice. While walking around Venice, visitors will often see signs pointing to San Marco or Rialto (the famous bridge). If you know where your hotel is located relative to one of these landmarks, you just need to follow the signs to get to familiar territory. It’s fun to wander into unknown areas, to see real Venetians at work or play, and then use the directional signs to make your way back.
The Piazza (Plaza)
You will know you have arrived in the area of San Marco when you come upon the large plaza. Surrounding the plaza on three sides, are similar-looking continuous buildings – three stories high, an arched walkway, and arched windows. On the fourth side – toward the east – stands the church, the bell tower, and an extension of the plaza toward the harbor.
The buildings around the plaza hold a couple small museums, numerous shops, and several cafes. I found a beautiful Italian pashmina scarf in one of the shops years ago – it has been to Europe with me several times. There are usually vendor carts in the plaza near the church with offerings of T-shirts, bags, artwork, and other souvenirs.
If you walk through the plaza extension, which looks like a smaller plaza, you will get to the harbor. If the sun is shining, the water will sparkle, and the views across the harbor are beautiful. There is a vaporetto stop here – where the Grand Canal empties into the lagoon. Along the harbor and the edge of the plaza, there are more cafes and souvenir sellers.
The Campanile (Bell Tower)
The Bell Tower, located toward the eastern end of the plaza, is over 320 feet tall and offers visitors spectacular views of the island city. Originally built in the 12th century, the tower has been rebuilt and repaired several times. Only one of the original bells remains.
The bell tower has an elevator, making the top easily accessible for visitors. (At the time of this writing, the fee is 8€ – well worth the cost).
From the tower, you can see the church’s five domes. You can view the entire plaza, the red-tiled roofs of the buildings surrounding the plaza, and the lagoon – in fact, most of the island city of Venice.
Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica)
In the ninth century, Venetian merchants brought the remains of St. Mark from Alexandria to Venice. At this time, the Basilica di San Marco was built to house the remains and honor St. Mark. The present building was begun in the late eleventh century. Although frequent repairs and renovations have been made, most of the building remains true to its original design.
Visiting the church is free and takes 10 to 20 minutes to walk through. Often, however, there is a long line to get into the church – average wait time 45 minutes. The best time to visit is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The church is occasionally closed to tourists due to religious activities – check this website before you go.
The church was built in a combination of Italian and Byzantine styles. The facade includes two sets of five arches, one on the main level, the second set on the upper level, with the center arches larger than those on the sides. There are five domes, arranged in a cross configuration, only partially visible from the plaza. The exterior is decorated with mosaics similar to the ones inside the church.
During the Fourth Crusade and the fall of Constantinople (13th century), more religious artifacts were brought to Venice, including mosaics, statues and, most notably, the bronze sculpture of four horses or quadriga, which was displayed above the main arch and church vestibule until the 1970s. At that time, it was removed to its current location inside the museum of the church and replaced by a bronze replica.
The interior of the basilica contains a combination of marble and mosaics. The lower portion of the walls and columns are covered in marble. The upper walls and interior domes are covered in golden mosaics. The gold background sets off the colorful figures and seems to illuminate the entire interior.
The floor is also covered with mosaics, but they are made from Italian marble. The patterns resemble intricate quilt patterns – something I was immediately drawn to. There are spirals, tessellations and other geometric patterns, interspersed with representations of plants, flowers, and small animals.
Located between the church and the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Museum houses many of the artifacts that were brought from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade. There are mosaics, tapestries, and other antiques in addition to the quadriga, or sculpture of four horses. The museum is open daily with an admission fee of 5€.
Ducal (Doge’s) Palace and Jail
While the basilica was originally the chapel of the Doge’s Palace, it is now the city church home of the archbishop of Venice. The large Palace building is attached to the church, although the public entrance is now located on the side of the building that faces the water.
The Doges were elected officials that acted as governors and judges. The Doge’s Palace contained apartments for each of the Doges, courtrooms and other meeting rooms, and a passageway to the adjacent jail. The Doges would meet to establish laws and principles. They would also conduct trials for citizens that had broken laws. If someone was found guilty, they would be walked through the passageway to the jail.
A 19€ ticket includes your visit to the Doge’s Palace, and, in addition, visits to the Correr Museum, the Marciana Library, and the Archeological Museum. Of these extra sites, I have only been in the Correr Museum, and although it was interesting, I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who has limited time in the city.
Visiting San Marco
If you are in Venice, visiting the San Marco area is a must-see. Plan to spend the better part of the day if you visit all the sites I’ve listed. If you don’t have that much time, I’m not sure what to suggest you skip – I wouldn’t skip anything. If you are short on time, though, you can get up early so you tour the church and bell tower without much waiting in line – visit the tower, the church and museum, and then the Doge’s Palace. Enjoy your day at San Marco, Venice!