Piazza San Marco, or Saint Mark's Square, is the largest and most important square in Venice. Being the widest swath of flat, open land in the water-bound city, it has long been a popular meeting place for Venetians and visitors alike. The Piazza's rectangle design was once a showcase for the city's aristocracy and is most impressive from its sea approach – a reminder of Venice's centuries-old legacy as a powerful maritime republic.
Called "the drawing room of Europe" (a quote attributed to Napoleon), Saint Mark's Square was named after the unusual and stunning Basilica of the same name that dominates the east end of the square. The slender Campanile di San Marco, the Basilica's bell tower, is one of the square's most recognizable landmarks.
History of Saint Mark's Square
Constructed in the 9th century in front of Saint Mark's Basilica and the adjacent Doge's Palace, the square was enlarged in the 12th century after a canal and dock were filled in. The campanile (bell tower) was rebuilt three times—the latest version was finished in 1912. In the 16th century, during the sack of Rome, Jacopo Sansovino fled to Venice and constructed the lovely Loggetta del Sansovino, used as a council waiting room for the Doge's Palace. The Piazza was once paved with bricks in a unique herringbone pattern.
But in 1735, the terracotta blocks were replaced with natural stone. On the waterfront, the paved areas, known as La Piazzetta (little square) and Molo (jetty), are overseen by two 12th-century columns. Atop each is a statue of Venice's two patron saints: Saint Mark in the form of a winged lion, and Saint Teodoro (Theodore).
What to See and Do in Piazza San Marco
Saint Mark's Square is the epicenter of Venice – almost everything in the city revolves around it. In the summertime, the square is teeming with tourists, but fall and spring see somewhat fewer crowds. Winter, although wet and cold, can be very romantic and ethereal.
No matter what time of year you visit, here are some things to do and see on Venice's Saint Mark's Square.
Visit Basilica San Marco - Saint Mark's Basilica is one of the most stunningly beautiful and intricately designed cathedrals in the world; no wonder it is the city's top attraction. Pure Venetian, the church's architectural style encompasses Byzantine, Islamic, and Western European influences, and has more than 500 columns and 85,000 square feet of intricate, golden mosaics adorning the main portal and the interiors of its five domes. Inside, the Basilica's museum contains a fascinating collection of carpets, liturgies, and tapestries, along with the bronze Horses of San Marco, brought back from Constantinople during the 4th Crusade.
Listen to The Bells of San Marco - The Campanile di San Marco is the bell tower of Saint Mark's Basilica. Rising 323 feet above the Square, the freestanding tower has a loggia that surrounds its belfry containing five bells, topped by lion faces and Venice's version of Lady Justice (La Giustizia). Crowned by a pyramidal spire with a golden weathervane in the likeness of the archangel Gabriel, the tower was last restored in 1912 after it collapsed 10 years earlier. Fun Fact: In 1609, Galileo used the tower for an observatory and to demonstrate his telescope.
Wander the Halls of Doges Palace - Adjacent to Saint Mark's Basilica is the opulent Doges' Palace (Palazzo Ducale), the erstwhile headquarters of the Doges, rulers of Venice. The Doge essentially functioned as the king of Venice, and his massive palace functioned almost like a self-contained city. The former assembly halls, apartments, and harrowing prisons are part of the self-guided or guided tours available here.
Witness Antiquity at the National Archaeological Museum - Founded in 1523 by Cardinal Domenico Grimani, the museum tells the story of Venice: a city of art, glass, ceramics, and jewels. Located across from the Piazzetta, it has an array of Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian artifacts, as well as pre-protohistoric archaeological finds. There's also an impressive collection of 16th-century works acquired over the centuries from Venetian nobility.
Read Old Text at Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana - The National Library of Saint Mark's is situated inside a section of the Procuratie Nuove that faces the Piazza. It maintains thousands of works printed between the 16th and 17th centuries and is believed to hold the greatest collection of classical texts in the world. Not only that, but it is among the oldest public manuscript depositories in Italy still in existence.
Appreciate Venetian Art at the Museo Correr - Behind the rows of shops along the Procuratie Nuove is the Museo Correr, which occupies the building's upper floors. One of 11 civic museums in Venice, it displays a wonderful collection of Venetian art and historical artifacts.
Sip a Bellini at an Outdoor Cafe - Piazza San Marco is lined by Procuraties (three connected buildings) whose arcaded ground floors host elegant cafes with outdoor tables. Order a Bellini – a cocktail of Prosecco and peach nectar invented in 1931 – as you watch the world go by. But be prepared to pay a premium, because a front row seat on this iconic square doesn't come cheap.
How to Visit Piazza San Marco
Location: Piazza San Marco, 30100 Venezia
Save time by buying a San Marco Square Museum Pass. The pass includes admission to the Doge's Palace, Museo Correr, Archaeological Museum, and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. It's ideal for travelers visiting Venice for a day or two.
Traveler Tip: In an effort to curtail the damage by pigeon droppings on Venice's many UNESCO Heritage sites, feeding the pigeons is prohibited; violators could be fined €50 to €200.
Island of Burano. A picturesque and uncrowded island in the northern Venetian Lagoon famous for its brightly colored houses and handmade lace.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The museum showcases over 60 paintings, many by renowned painter Tintoretto.
Museo Leonardo da Vinci. Located inside the Scuola Grande, this interactive museum displays the painter/inventor's genius through anatomical studies, interactive machines, and multimedia exhibits.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection. See works by such modern masters as Picasso, Pollock, and Calder. The museum occupies the American patron of the arts' former home on the Grand Canal.