Piazza San Marco Travel Guide
IntroductionCommonly referred to as “the drawing room of Europe”, the Piazza San Marco is the beating heart of the city of Venice. It is a huge space that is dominated by the Basilica of Saint Mark, peppered with beautiful monuments and buildings, and is surrounded by many of the city’s important institutions. As can be expected, the piazza is often full of people, both tourists and locals, who are there to appreciate the unique Venetian atmosphere. Important religious festivals as well as large celebrations such as the Carnavale are held at the piazza.
With a history that dates as far back as the year 800, the piazza has seen many centuries of change, and has often been at the center of it all, especially back when Venice was a maritime power. It has survived Medieval times, witnessed the Renaissance and the fall of the Republic of Venice, endured during the Napoleonic Age, and finally came to us in the 21st century as the breathtaking location that we now know it as.
What to SeeThere are a LOT of things to see at the Piazza San Marco, but here are a few to get you started.
Museo Civico Correr
Located right at the Piazza San Marco, the Museo Correr was first established in 1830 when the nobleman Teodoro Correr, a passionate and extensive art collector, bequeathed his massive collection to the city of Venice. He also provided additional funds to the city for conservation purposes as well as for expanding the collection. He explicitly voiced his intention to make the collection available to the public, and in 1836, the museum finally opened its doors. Over the years, the museum and its collection grew, thanks to more donations and acquisitions, until it became the institution that we now know of. The museum has many regular exhibits, the heart of which is the Neoclassical Palace and Canova Collection which features the Napoleonic Gallery as well as the works of the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. There is also a plethora of artwork which features traditional Venetian life and culture which is a sure treat for those who wish to know more about it. The museum is open from Monday to Friday, from 9 am to 2 pm.
One of the most extensive archaeological collections in Italy, second only to Rome and Naples, Venice’s Archeological Museum was first established in 1523 by Cardinal Domenico Grimani. It has an impressive collection of Roman and Greek sculptures, as well as ceramics, coins, and other items that date as far back as 1 BC, that have Assyro-Babylonian, Greek, Tuscan, Roman and Egyptian origins. The Museo Archeologico also houses a part of the Museo Correr’s collection. It is open from Mondays to Fridays from 9am to 5pm, and is closed on national and religious holidays.
Considered as one of the largest libraries in Italy and in Europe, the Marciana Library also goes by other names such as Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Libreria Sansoviniana, National Library of St. Mark’s, and Libreria di San Marco, which can cause some confusion among tourists. The building itself is considered as a work of art as it is a major work of the famous sculptor and architect Sansovino. Construction of the library began in 1537 and was completed in 1588. Other than the structure itself, the interiors are also a sight to behold as the works of Renaissance-period masters such as Titian, Alessandro Vittoria, and Tintoretto grace its walls and ceiling. Don’t let just the pretty décor fool you, though, because the Biblioteca also houses an impressive, and massive, collection of books, prints, and priceless manuscripts.
For visitors wishing to tour the library, you will have to book your visit in advance. Tours are available from Mondays to Thursdays, as well as Sundays, except for the fourth Sunday of the month. Tour time slots are at 10am, 12pm, and 2pm. Meanwhile, for those who wish to browse books instead, library hours are Mondays to Fridays, from 8am to 7pm, and on Saturdays, from 8am to 1:30pm.
Named after its founder, Floriano Francesconi, Caffè Florian started out as two simply furnished rooms when it first opened in 1720. Since then, it has grown in size and patronage, and is also known as a favorite haunt among many persons of note, including Carlo Goldoni, Goethe, Casanova, Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens. It is also credited for being the only coffee house at the time that served female customers (which would probably explain Casanova’s fondness for the establishment). The coffee shop continued to flourish and was passed on to Francesconi’s descendants, though after a while, it was eventually bought by outsiders. By 1858, the shop was in need of restoration and the results of that undertaking comprises most of what we now see in the café in this present day. During the restoration efforts, Caffè Florian was expanded and its interiors were decorated in opulent fashion.
These days, the café remains a popular spot, especially among tourists who wish to enjoy relish food and drinks in such an impressive atmosphere. Take note, however, that when choosing to dine at the Florian, be ready to pay extra as prices here are higher than usual. On top of the pricey food and drinks, there is also an additional per-head surcharge if there are musicians at the café.
Just behind Piazza San Marco, north of the Museo Correr, is a wide spot in the canal that is referred to as the Orseolo Basin. This space is basically a parking lot for gondolas, where gondoliers keep their watercraft for the evening. The many rows of pretty gondolas is a lovely sight and is worth a quick peek, and a photo or three. Whether you wish to hang around and chat up the gondoliers is up to you, of course.
The Lion of Venice
A monument that’s hard to miss, the Lion of Venice is an ancient bronze winged lion sculpture that sits atop a column at the Piazza San Marco. The lion is a symbol of the city, as well as the city’s patron saint, St. Mark.
Tips and Advice
- While it has been a popular sight on television and movies for people to feed the pigeons in Venice, take note that this practice is actually ILLEGAL, as the city has recently passed a law prohibiting people from feeding these birds which they consider as pests (mostly because of the damage that their droppings cause to nearby historical buildings). While you may still spot tourists who feed the birds, note that you will no longer find bird seed vendors in the area, and that if you insist on giving the pigeons food, you do so at your own risk.
- Piazza San Marco is pretty much the heart of Venice, and is hence a transport hub where many water buses or vaporetto stop. Just make your way there if you want to catch a water bus to take you to other parts of Venice.
- If you ever get lost in Venice’s winding streets, just look for one of the many signs that will lead you back to the piazza and you can get your bearings from there.
- There are often small open-air concerts at the piazza in the evenings, usually consisting of a band or small groups of orchestra musicians who are playing for one of the cafes in the area. Just find an establishment you fancy, order a drink, and enjoy the music. Take note, however, that the price of that drink may be rather steep, so be prepared to spend more than you usually do for a cup of coffee.
- If you are arriving in Venice by train, it is possible to get to San Marco on foot. It will take about 30 to 40 minutes of walking, so wear comfortable shoes.
- In case you need to get to a tourist information center, there is one located at the piazza. From inside the piazza, just turn your back to the basilica and head to the other end of the square. The tourist information office is at the left corner.
- If you need to go to the restroom, instead of walking into a café and ordering an overpriced drink (or worse, not ordering at all!) head for the public restrooms near the tourist information center. There is also another restroom on the same side of the piazza as the tourist center, behind Museo Civico Correr, near the post office.
- There are ATMs at the tourist center and near the post office. A third ATM can be found behind the clock tower.
- At certain times of year, the square may be flooded for several hours at a time mostly due to a combination of high tide, low pressure, as well as winds from the Adriatic (“scirocco“) that forces water up the Venetian Lagoon. Heralded by sirens, this event often takes place around late September to April, and can be rather frequent during the last quarter of the year. When this happens, temporary walkways called “passarelle” are set up to provide access to the basilica and vaporetto stops. If you happen to be in an area without any walkways, though, just ask for some trash bags to slip over your feet and lower legs, and make your way to the closest passarelle.