Travel info for Piazza San Marco in Venice

The most beautiful salon in Europe


Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

GPS: 45.434605429028, 12.339034923112

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Built from the 11th century onwards and world-famous, the Piazza San Marco is also known as St Mark’s Square. It is the ancient political, religious, cultural, social and economic centre of the Republic of Venice (an independent state from the late 7th to the late 18th centuries). This place is praised for its architectural layout and is the only square in the city to hold the title of piazza (the other Venetian squares are known as campo). Pigeons and strollers rub shoulders daily around the legendary cafés in the elegant arcaded buildings of the Piazza San Marco.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Venice came under Byzantine rule. This city-state, built on marshy land, developed rapidly thanks to the economic activity of its port and the size of its fleet. Even before the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the city became the capital of the Republic of Venice (known as “La Serenissima”), one of the greatest maritime powers of the Mediterranean basin in the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, the Piazza San Marco became one of the world’s main trading centres thanks to the presence of wealthy merchants, its strategic location on the Adriatic Sea and the navigational skills of Marco Polo. This Venetian merchant and explorer was well acquainted with Asia and trade with the East, as his father had worked for several years for the Mongol emperor, Kubilai Khan. During this flourishing period, Venice was part of the great trade routes for silk, grain and spices between the European and Asian continents. Its territory expanded and its heritage was enriched with a great variety of artistic objects from elsewhere thanks to the conquest of new provinces around the Mediterranean basin. In the 18th century, the Venetian lagoon became one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. The city of Venice became a major stopover for young noblemen and aristocrats who came to perfect their education in Europe through a series of cultural journeys called the Grand Tour.

A romantic place par excellence, the Piazza San Marco is the result of several phases of construction and urban planning. It is bordered by the Grand Canal (the main waterway running through Venice), St Mark’s Basilica (the most important religious building in the city), the St Mark’s Campanile (the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica is the largest monument in the lake city), the clocktower (which looks like a monumental gate), the Doge’s Palace (former official residence of the first magistrate of the Republic of Venice), the Procuratie Vecchie (superb façade with columns, porticoes and arcades), the Procuratie Nuove (model of the Venetian Renaissance) and finally the Napoleonic wing (marking the entrance to the Museo Correr). Symbol of the floating city of Venice, a sculpture of a golden winged lion imported from Asia Minor and nicknamed the Lion of Venice, represents the patron saint of the city (St Mark).

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  • A city emerging from the lagoon and built on the water 1,000 years ago that has no equivalent in the world; the massive pavement and architectural coherence of the Piazza San Marco (180 metres long and 80 metres wide) contributing to the romanticism of the place; the extravagant character and magical atmosphere of the historic heart of Venice
  • The elegant buildings adjoining the square: St Mark’s Basilica, completed in the 11th century (with five domes, it combines Byzantine, Romanesque, Islamic, Gothic and Renaissance details and has remarkable 13th-century mosaics); the Doge’s Palace (in Gothic and Renaissance styles, it served as the seat of government of the ancient Venetian republic); St Mark’s campanile (a former watchtower); and the clocktower (a superb 15th-century mechanism)
  • The 16th and 17th century monuments of the Procuratie Vecchie to the north and the Procuratie Nuove to the south (former flats occupied by procurators and high officials of the republic of Venice); the Napoleonic Wing to the west, built at the beginning of the 19th century to link the Procuraties Vecchie and Nuove (it was covered with decorations to the glory of Napoleon Bonaparte)
  • The breathtaking view of the “Queen of the Adriatic” and the lagoon formed by the estuary of the River Po from the top of the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica (St Mark’s Campanile)
  • The Piazzetta San Marco overlooking the Grand Canal of Venice (which is nearly 4 kilometres long and 60 metres wide on average); gondola or vaporetto rides (a water bus that operates during the day and evening); beautifully decorated ancient palaces
  • The shopping streets and luxury boutiques leading to the Rialto Bridge (the oldest on the Grand Canal) and the Bridge of Sighs (connecting the former prisons of the Doge’s Palace); the mythical and prestigious cafés under the arcades of the Piazza San Marco (including the Caffé Florian, opened in 1720, and the Caffé Quadri, inaugurated in 1775); the Venetian way of life
  • Nearby are the National Archaeological Museum of Venice, the Teatro La Fenice (opera house) and the Museo Correr (the museum of the city and Venetian history); the Biblioteca Marciana along the Grand Canal (this 15th century library contains an incredible collection of manuscripts, maps and ancient books); the Royal Gardens or Giardinetti Reali
  • A place free of traffic; the mythical Orient Express train network linking the Venezia Santa Lucia railway station to several European capitals (London, Paris, Vienna, Istanbul); the winged lion embodying the splendour of the city; a constellation of a hundred or so picturesque islands scattered around the Venetian lagoon (including Murano, Burano, Torcello, San Michele, San Francesco Del Deserto, San Lazzaro, Chioggia, Giudecca, Lido, Mazzorbo, San Erasmo, Vignole…)
  • The timeless Carnival of Venice and its festive atmosphere (in February); the historic regatta held on the first Sunday in September (boat procession, 15th century costume parade and rowing race on the Grand Canal in Venice)
  • Founded in 528, Venice remained the capital of the Republic of Venice for 11 centuries. The city and the Veneto region owe their name to the Veneto people who inhabited north-eastern Italy in ancient times.
  • The foundations of the city have rested for centuries on a system of piles, piers and wooden pilings anchored in the mud. In the space of a century, the city, which is spread over a total of 118 (mostly artificial) islands and islets, has sunk by 30 centimetres.
  • A total of 120 doges succeeded each other in Venice during the era of the Republic of Venice between the 7th and 18th centuries. This high ruler, chosen from among the members of the Great Council (composed of Venetian nobles and aristocrats), represented the chief executive of the government. From the 13th century onwards, his actions and powers were controlled by oligarchs who were members of the Council of Ten. The port and fleet of Venice reigned supreme over the Mediterranean Sea. The political and commercial decline of the republic began at the end of the 16th century and coincided with the rise of the Ottomans in the Mediterranean basin. The last sitting doge (Ludovico Manin) was forced to abdicate after the French invasion in 1797. When Napoleon Bonaparte first discovered the Piazza San Marco with his troops, he described the architectural ensemble as “the most beautiful salon in Europe, with only the sky worthy of being the ceiling”.
  • At the very beginning of the 16th century, Venice was one of the most populous cities in the world (about 120,000 inhabitants). According to Sabine Frommel (art historian, German specialist in the French and Italian Renaissance), it was at this time that the Piazza San Marco took on its present configuration. Festivals, official receptions, religious processions and carnival were held here, as well as the announcement of public condemnations and executions.
  • In its history, St Mark’s Campanile has suffered from many stability problems. The initial construction of the 100-metre-high tower dates back to the 9th century and the work took almost 250 years. It has suffered from several fires and earthquakes, causing stone to fall and major cracks to appear in its structure. In 1902, the tower collapsed due to its fragility. A lottery and a national subscription made it possible to rebuild it identically some ten years later. At the top of the tower is a golden angel weathervane statue of the archangel Gabriel. The famous Italian mathematician, geometer, physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei used the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica in the early 17th century to present one of his brilliant inventions (the telescope) to the Venetian Senate. This facilitated the first observations and studies of the Moon and other celestial bodies.
  • The Piazzetta San Marco (part of the square overlooking the canal between the Doge’s Palace and the Biblioteca Marciana) is home to two large columns. Erected in marble and bronze respectively in the 12th century, they are dedicated to two important figures in the history of Venice: Theodore Tiron (patron saint of the city until 826) and the evangelist St. Mark (represented by a winged lion in bronze, he was chosen the following year to embody the new celestial protector of the city in order to compete with Rome). By order of the 11th Doge (Giustiniano Participazio), the sacred relics of St. Mark were stolen and exfiltrated by two Venetian navigators to Egypt, near Alexandria. A small church was then built in the Piazza San Marco by the Doge of Venice to house these relics (this monument later became St Mark’s Basilica). There are a number of legends surrounding these two columns and it is customary for the people of Venice to avoid passing between them.
  • In the 18th century, La Serenissima was an erotic destination focused on games and lust. It was during this period that Giacomo Casanova built his reputation as a Venetian adventurer and great seducer. In 1755, he was arrested by the authorities and imprisoned in a cell in the Old Prison (or Piombi), located in the attic of the Doge’s Palace. Together with his cellmate (a priest named Marino Baldi), Casanova managed to escape. This is the only known escape in the history of this prison.
  • Threatened by the rising waters of the lagoon, Venice now has only 56,000 inhabitants within the city walls, compared to 250,000 in the 18th century. A victim of its splendour, the city has lost 20% of its inhabitants in 20 years, a figure that has risen to 60,000 over the last 40 years with the explosion of tourism.
  • As the Piazza San Marco is the lowest place in Venice, no one living in the area lives on the ground floor because of the frequent flooding caused by the tides. This natural phenomenon, which usually occurs in winter, is called “acqua alta” and is the greatest threat to the heritage of the Piazza San Marco. Since the first measurements were taken, the year 1966 holds the record for the highest rise in the water level in the centre of Venice (1.94 metres). This figure was almost beaten recently, in November 2019 (1.87 metres against the average of 1.30 metres recorded in the past). That year, 80% of the city was flooded and the water caused significant material and architectural damage to buildings. As this phenomenon could increase in the future with the inevitable rise in water levels, a major project was launched in the early 2000s to save the city. Called Mose (an acronym for Moses in Italian), this complex engineering system aims to close the three passes of the Venetian lagoon with mobile dikes. The gates are operable and act as a dam on high tide days when the 1.10 metre threshold is crossed. Criticised for its exorbitant investment cost (several billion euros), the financial effort required to maintain the dykes each year, the limited scope of the system (as it only acts during the acqua alta), its impact on the natural ecosystem of the lagoon (as water no longer being able to circulate with consequences for fauna and flora, salinity and water temperature), repeated scandals linked to the quality of the work or financial malpractice, as well as multiple delays, this project has been operational since October 2020. According to the first tests carried out in real conditions, it seems that this dam has succeeded for the moment in protecting the foundations of the city against high tides.
  • With tides intensifying and the average water level increasing by 10 cm since the 1960s, the future of Venice is more than uncertain. Of the 10 most important episodes of acqua alta, a natural phenomenon that has always existed in the history of La Serenissima, half have occurred in the last 20 years. Specialists believe that to save the city, it will probably be necessary to close the lagoon on which Venice depends, which will disrupt the ecosystem and biodiversity. As it sinks further, Venice could be one of the first cities to disappear underwater due to global warming by the end of the century. Protecting and developing the salt marshes within the Venice lagoon system could help regulate the overall water level and safeguard the environment (however, only one sixth of the salt marshes remain today).
  • The Procuratie Vecchie building in the Piazza San Marco is owned by the Italian insurance company Generali (its logo features the winged emblem of the Lion of St Mark). Undergoing renovation, this prestigious venue will soon reopen to the public for the first time in five centuries.
  • Venice has the world record in terms of the proportion of accommodation used for tourism (25%). It receives almost 30 million visitors per year, a large proportion of which are cruise ships (15 per week). Also, many people spend only a few hours visiting the city centre and do not sleep on site. This mass tourism tends to weaken the old monuments, generate leakage into the water table and increase the amount of rubbish. The large boats, ever more massive and numerous to operate, represent a constant threat to the sustainability of the foundations of the Venetian city. In order to move them, it was necessary to dig up the lagoon, which is naturally shallow. The passage of cruise ships causes waves that eat away at the lower parts of the buildings, while the backwash alters the wooden pillars that form the base of the buildings. These pressures on the shoreline can lead to the eventual collapse of the building and architectural heritage, increase erosion and change the water regime. In the short to medium term, the city could be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger if no efforts are made by the authorities to better manage the influx of tourists and stem the damage caused by cruise ships.
  • At certain times of the year, the Piazza San Marco may be flooded and made inaccessible to the public due to the phenomenon of acqua alta (high tide). Do not hesitate to ask before booking your next stay.
  • Although it is not respected by visitors, there is a rule that prohibits sitting in the Piazza San Marco for picnics. Similarly, it is forbidden to feed pigeons in the square as they contribute to the deterioration of the buildings of the city (fines of €500 can be imposed on offenders).
  • The Piazza San Marco is still an essential place to visit. To escape the hordes of tourists that crowd around the Renaissance buildings, do not hesitate to visit Venice in other ways. On the fringes of the main tourist routes, La Serenissima abounds in small canals, charming bridges, flowery balconies, rooftop terraces and hidden courtyards.
  • If you have time to spare, opt for a visit to Murano, an island renowned for its master glassmakers (5 kilometres away, it is easily accessible by vaporetto). Spread over 150 workshops, Murano’s glassmakers perpetuate manufacturing processes and techniques dating back to the Middle Ages (they work with glass only by hand and give glass-blowing demonstrations). An official label guarantees the authenticity and origin of the glass (Vetro Artistico® Murano) and prevents you from buying counterfeit and non-locally produced objects.
  • Other islands in the lagoon such as Burano (a fishing village specialising in lace), Mazzorbo (a land of orchards and vineyards) and Torcello (the site of the first inhabitants of Venice, which is no longer populated) are worth a visit.

Where to eat

  • Pasticceria Da Bonifacio
    (excellent pastries)
  • Cantine del Vino Gia Schiavi
    (local institution)
  • Osteria alle Testiere
    (very good seafood)

Where to go

  • Rialto Markets
    (three markets in one)
  • Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
    (beautiful view)
  • Gallerie dell'Accademia
    (great Venetian paintings)

Where to stay

  • Istituto San Giuseppe
    (former convent)
  • Hotel Flora
    (lovely and well-placed)
  • Gritti Palace
    (along the Grand Canal)