By Jim Ferri
Venice seduces you at every turn.
There’s that special light that falls so softly over the land and sea, and the waterways instead of streets, the incredible art and architecture and all those wonderful little restaurants you stumble upon everywhere … and that barely skims the surface.
Venice is a city for the senses and it all comes together in the Piazza San Marco, the Holy Grail of Venetian tourism.
St. Mark’s Square has always been such an important place in Venice that to this day it’s still the only Piazza in the entire city (all of the other squares are known as campos) and during the high tourist season (April through November) it can get obscenely crowded.
During the many times I’ve returned to it over the years, though, I’ve discovered how to experience it at its best. It just takes a little planning.
The first thing you need to do is consider the time of day. Professional travel photographers love the special light in that hour before the sun rises, and the hour after it sets. Those are magical hours for them, and in the ethereal light of Venice it is even more so.
So visit the square early in the morning and enjoy yourself, have an espresso, wander along the water’s edge and watch the changing light as the rising sun illuminates the basilica and other buildings. Being there early also lets you be at the front of the queues for the Basilica, Doges’ Palace and the Campanile.
(You can also go online and book a time (for one euro) to visit the Basilica on the Veneto Inside website. The issue there, though, is you need to know the exact day and time you will be at the Basilica and you’re only given a ten-minute window.)
If you didn’t get to St. Mark’s in time to greet the morning sun, don’t waste your time standing on the long lines anytime before noon. That’s the time all the tour groups come in and they go to the head of the line. Instead wander around the rest of the Piazza, through the streets of Sestieri San Marco (the surrounding district), have a gelato and find a little restaurant for lunch. Come back in mid-afternoon when the crowds have dissipated.
Then you can visit the Basilica, Doges’ Palace and the Campanile, all of which are very interesting, although the tour of the palace can get long. Even though I was on a self-guided tour through the apartments and other areas of this 14th-century masterpiece — and could move at a fast pace — by the time I finally got to the basement I wondered if I was going to die in the prison down there. Everyone else seemed to be trying to escape, as well, most walking in circles searching for the way out.
(There’s also a “Secret Itineraries Tour” of the palace, which provides access to other areas with a guide at fixed times, which must be pre-booked. You’ll find more information on this at the end of this post.)
St. Mark’s Basilica, the jewel of the Piazza, is right next door to the Doges’ Palace and blends the architectural styles of the East and the West. It’s a stunning place and entrance is free, although there is a small charge to visit the Chancel, the Treasury (which still holds many relics plundered from Constantinople) and the Loggia.
If you visit no other area after the main basilica, pay the five-Euro fee to go up the steep steps to the Loggia for a beautiful view of the Piazza and of the four life-size bronze horses that were taken from the entrance to hippodrome in Constantinople in 1204. The ones you see on the outside are modern replicas, but you only need to step inside to see the originals. To the right you can also get a great photo of the beautiful Torre dell’Orologio, the Renaissance clock tower that sits above one of the entrances leading into the warren of streets beyond.
You’ll also get a spectacular, and considerably higher, view of the Piazza and the entire surrounding area and its islands from the top of the Campanile, the square’s bell tower. There’s an elevator to the top and if you want to do something incredibly unusual, time your visit to be up there on the hour when the bells ring.
Recently, I was in the tower on the hour (there is a ring to that), and the pealing bells (as large as the Liberty Bell and only 6 feet or so above your head) were so loud most of us had to put our fingers in our ears just to help muffle the sound. And it doesn’t doesn’t ring just the number of the hour, but goes on ringing for several minutes.
At the other end of the Piazza is the little-known Museo Correr, a museum that recounts the history of Venice up until the end of the 18th century. Also nearby is Nardi, a famous jeweler renown for its Venetian moretto jewelry, popular during the 1920’s and 30’s.
Walking about the square you can’t help but see the nearly 300-year-old Caffè Florian, one of the elder statesmen of the Piazza. It and its elegant rival Quadri, sitting directly across, lend an air of elegance to the St. Mark’s experience with their tuxedoed waiters and mini-orchestras. Be sure to take a look at the interior of both cafes, especially the ornate rooms of the Florian. Keep in mind also that if you sit at one of the tables either outside or in, you’ll pay dearly. At Caffè Florian prices are considerably less if you go into the back bar.
But don’t limit yourself to the Piazza, although you could spend the better part of a day here. Also wander the labyrinth of streets and alleyways in the sestieri beyond the square. Even with the crowds, and the innumerable Carnevale-mask shops, and the legion of waiters trying to lure you to a table, it can feel like Venice on steroids at times. But it’s still a fun place to wander and just let yourself get lost any time of year.
At the end of the day wander over to the one-and-only Harry’s Bar made famous by Hemingway, Toscanini, Chaplin, Bogart and Bacall, Taylor and Burton… home of the Bellini, carpaccio and the extravagant bill. It’s right next to the San Marco Vallaresso vaporetto stop.
If you go:
St. Mark’s Basilica
Entrance fee: general admission to the basilica is free
Entrance fee: €8