St Mark's Square in Venice. It's on everyone's list, and so that's where you will find everyone! We went recently, and we understand the appeal, the incredible historical buildings, the unique construction along canals on marshy islands, the gondoliers plying the waters with tourists. It's a very atmospheric place! Here is a photo essay of Piazza San Marco.
(For general tips about how to navigate a busy tourist area see our post "how to navigate a tourist trap")
Basilica San Marco
St Marks Basilica is the "main attraction" for which the square is named. It was built originally in wood in the 9th century and as is common with wood buildings built before electricity, it burned down. It was rebuilt in brick, the same kind of brick most of Venice is built with. Our private guide Andrea, showed us this illustration of the original brick facade.
During the 11th century, the height of Venice's reign as a super power, the facade was "gilded" with the spoils of war, marble and statues plundered from the empires they conquered.
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Entrance to the Basilica requires a ticket to visit. Lines to buy them on site grow quickly, even during quieter times. Investigate if it's worth buying a timed ticket in advance, or joining a tour with "beat the line" access. All visitors are subjected to a bag check, as is standard at any tourist site. There are also several other attractions inside with separate admissions, either payable in advance or with cash inside.
Photos are not allowed inside the Basilica, but we were very fortunate to have Andrea with us, and the crowds were not bad in early October, so were able to appreciate the beauty of Basilica without craning our necks in the crowds!
Campanile, St Mark's Bell Tower
There are many churches in Venice, and many of them feature their own bell towers. It seems nearly every turn reveals another brick tower! The most famous of these is the St Mark's Bell Tower. You can pay to go up the tower via elevator for a view over Venice. You can purchase a timed ticket in advance during the high season, May-Oct. If you haven't planned ahead, and there is a long line, it's worth checking on your phone to see if there is a "skip the line" access ticket available at a time later in your visit. You can buy, download and show the ticket right on your cell phone!
Views Across to Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore
In St Mark's Square if you turn your back, you'll have a view across the Saint Marks basin to the islands of Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore. This is a popular spot at sunset.
You'll see the gondoliers in their striped shirts, and you can line up and head out in your own gondola and cruise into the canals of Venice from St Marks Square.
Bridge of Sighs
Your gondolier will pole you under the Bridge of Sighs, which connected the Doges Palace, where justice was meted out to the prisons, prompting the nickname, imagining how prisoners must feel as as they get their last glimpse of venie and freedom.
The Ponte della Paglia pedestrian bridge parallels the Bridge of Sighs where people line up to get this view, stand in the sea of humanity until the folks in front of you get their selfie, and then you can get a spot at the rail and get this view.
To get the view the prisoners had, you'll need to get a ticket for the Doge's Palace.
Palazzo Ducale, Doge's Palace
The pink Verona marble facade of the Doge's Palace is evident from the water. The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Venetian Republic since the 9th century, although this version was rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries.
To visit, you'll need tickets, and like most major tourist attractions, it's best to buy these online ahead of time! The palace is filled with art work and is best enjoyed if you can find someone to interpret what you see. We used our professional, private guide Andrea, which cost over 100 euro, but we felt was well worth the cost. because of his passion for Venice and his knowledge of it' history and art. However, there are other less costly options, from joining a group tour, or the budget option of using a narrated tour podcast.
If you were a 15th century dignitary, you might have entered the Palazzo Ducale from the Giant's Staircase. But mere mortals will find the line on the canal side, under the portico near the Ponte della Paglia pedestrian bridge.
You'll enter at the inner courtyard, but don't hustle through to get inside...take a few minutes to appreciate the variety of architecture on each of the four interior facades. They represent three completely different architectural styles from the periods they were built of imporoved!
After ascending the Scala d'Oro staircase, you'll visit elaborately decorated public rooms of the seat of the Venetian Republic. Gold adorns the walls and ceilings, some of the most accomplished artists have left room sized paintings on the walls and ceilings, sculptors created beautiful plaster and marble statues. Even the floors are made of priceless mosaics.
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Although the Rialto Bridge is not in Saint Mark's Square it connects San Marco to San Polo, and is another of Venice's "blockbuster" sights. The current incarnation of the original wooden bridge was designed by Antionio Da Ponte (am I the only who loves when people are named appropriately for their profession!?) and rebuilt in the 16th century. The bridge, originally the only one across the Grand Canal, was built as early as the 12th century and it connected the markets to the Basilica and government building in St Marks Square.
The bridge today, IS a market, with a central section lined by gift shops. (I'd advise that you can find similar things for less money in other parts of Venice.) There are also steps on the exterior of both sides of the bridge that provide selfie opportunities and views of the palazzos that line the Grand Canal. A fun way to tour the bridge is to work your way up one exterior staircase, and through the middle shopping arcade, then ascend the other side for views on the other side. Be prepared to have lots of company!
A reminder that this video was taken during the "slower" fall season, we were told midsummer you can barely move!
There are a lot of incredible things to see in Venice, which is why we hired a professional guide to help us maximize our time there and put what we saw in context. We wanted to come back with a better understanding of Venice, and we were fortunate to have done that. We saw the major "sights" in Venice and then we took time to explore and get lost, off the beaten path and take in the charm of other parts of Venice. Be sure to check out our next post...where we see the "other" sights in Venice.
Post and Video By: Kathy Klofft
Photos By: Jeff Klofft