From the splendors of Doge’s Palace to the tempting delicacies of centuries-old cafes, here are the best things to do in St. Mark’s Square, Venice.
The iconic Piazza San Marco is filled with hidden gems and some of Europe’s most stunning architecture.
St. Mark’s Square is breathtakingly airy with pigeons, columns and tourists all weaving through the open space. It’s a real contrast to the city’s tight and winding canals.
And while it’s easy to get lost in Venice, dozens of signs around the city will all lead you to this stunning square. St. Mark’s is indeed the prime destination for even the fastest of day trippers.
The relics of St. Mark, the city’s patron saint, were brought here 1,200 years ago after they were stolen from Egypt (in pork barrels!) by a group of crafty Venetian merchants.
The Venetians then build a chapel to house the holy remains. And they named the square after their patron saint: the Piazza San Marco.
There are enough legendary cafes, museums and curiosities around St. Mark’s Square to easily fill a day of sightseeing.
So where do you begin to explore Europe’s most beautiful square?
Here’s my ultimate guide based on all my visits to this queen of the Adriatic – and on insider tips from some of my favorite travel writers!
Here are the best things to do in St. Mark’s Square, Venice:
1. Spot the figures at St. Mark’s clock tower
St. Mark’s Clock tower is a gorgeous example of early Renaissance technology and a dizzying feat for its age.
It once kept the commercial heart of Venice buzzing for centuries before the invention of the wristwatch.
Today it still displays the time, the phase of the moon and the dominant sign of the Zodiac. You can’t miss this gorgeous blue clock face immediately to the left of St. Mark’s Basilica.
Insider’s tip: Two bronze figures nicknamed “Moors” strike the bell every hour. Don’t miss these colorful figures emerge from the clock tower if you’re in the square at the right time.
And twice a year, figurines in the form of Jesus and the three Magi emerge from the clock – once on Epiphany Day (Jan 6th) and again 40 days after Easter.
2. Sip on an espresso at Caffe Florian
The legendary Caffe Florian, founded in 1720, has the best seats for people watching over some sweets and a cioccolata calda (hot chocolate).
Caffe Florian is one of Europe’s oldest coffee houses. And through the centuries it’s been the meeting point for conspirators against foreign rule, Venetian nobility, artists and movie stars.
Grab a table inside one of the cafe’s lavish halls, like the richly decorated Chinese and Oriental rooms with their historic ambiance. These rooms are filled with gold leaf, red velvet sofas and a labyrinth of mirrors.
Or sit outside for sweeping views of the piazza and take in the vibrant scenes of everyday Venetian life.
3. Explore the Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s Palace is a gold-packed museum filled with grand staircases, intricate ceilings and art masterpieces. Ornate and decadent, the Doge’s Palace is a must-see on your Venice itinerary.
This dazzling Gothic palace was once the headquarters of the Venetian Republic. It boasts opulent interiors and commanding views of the city.
You can’t miss its glorious facade laced with patterns of pink Verona marble.
Inside, the palace is filled with mind-blowing rooms that were once occupied by the rulers of the republic during its 1,000-year-old reign. The palace was build as a testament to the prowess of this maritime power.
But this famed palazzo also has a darker side. The Doges often ruled with an iron hand. And their palace was also a prison where people were tortured and sentenced to death, including the famous Casanova.
A Secret Itineraries Tour gives you access to torture chambers, secret passages, hidden doors, prisons, and the Bridge of Sighs, which the unfortunate prisoners crossed on their way to their doom.
- Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Great Council Hall) is the seat of the lower house of Venice’s parliament, where as many as 1,800 citizens gathered to vote. The Doge sat in front of Tintoretto’s Paradise, the world’s largest oil painting. The walls are lined with portraits of the Doges – including a blacked-out portrait of beheaded Doge Marino Faliero.
- Prisons include cells and humid wells designed to torment prisoners. Casanova was the only man who escaped this prison in 1756.
- Armory is a sweeping collection of arms and weapons from across centuries. The collection includes arms used by Venice’s secret Council of Ten, torture apparatus, and Turkish artifacts taken from battle. The more horrific items include the predecessor of the machine gun.
Insider’s tip: Your ticket to Doge’s Palace also gives you entry to the Museo Correr, the National Archaeological Museum and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. But your ticket is good for one day only. So if you want to hack the waiting lines, head to the lesser-visited Museo Correr and get your ticket there to all the attractions.
4. Catch the views from St. Mark’s Campanile
Ride to the top of this iconic bell tower in St. Mark’s Square for the best views over Venice.
Looming some 98 metres tall, the campanile offers 360-degree views over the lagoon. And you can even see the Dolomites on a clear day.
The panoramic views are especially spectacular at sunset. But it’s best to reserve your spot online to avoid the crowds. The elevators only take a dozen people at a time.
The Campanile di San Marco is the highest point in Venice and an incredible spot to get aerial photographs of the domes of the basilica and the surrounding lagoon.
Insider’s tip: The belfry has five bells that all served a function in Venetian life. And these bells still ring on certain occasions. You’ll hear the Nona daily at noon.
The present structure is a replica built in 1912 to replace the previous tower that collapsed. It was originally built as a watchtower and point of reference to guide ships coming into the harbor.
Notably, it was used by Galileo in the 1600s to study and observe the skies.
Today the red brick campanile is a simple, square tower with a belfry. It’s topped by a pyramidal spire with a golden weather vane in the shape of archangel Gabriel.
5. Visit the Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs conjures up romantic gondola rides. But its history is much darker.
Venice’s prison was housed inside the Doge’s Palace up until the 16th century. But as the population grew, so did the number of criminals. The palace’s cells quickly filled up and a new prison was built next to the palace.
Architects designed a completely closed bridge in 1602 to connect this new prison to the palace: the Bridge of Sighs.
But the name doesn’t refer to sights or Venetian lovers passing through, as many believe. It actually refers to prisoners like Casanova sighing when they walked towards their doom and gazed upon Venice for the last time through the windows of the bridge.
The bridge’s dazzling facade is made of marble and white Istrian stone in a baroque style.
You can admire it from the Ponte della Paglia on the Riva degli Schiavoni for the best views. Another option is to take a gondola ride on the canal and pass under the bridge.
But be patient. The Bridge of Sighs is one of the most famous landmarks in Venice and it’s always crowded.
The inside of the bridge contains two corridors separated by a wall that let prisoners pass without seeing each other.
If you want to visit these corridors, they’re included in the ticket for the Doge’s Palace.
– Contributed by Nesrine from Kevmrc
6. Discover St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica is a stunning Byzantine cathedral in the heart of the piazza, full of gold mosaics and Venetian paintings.
The 1,000-year-old basilica has a lavish Byzantine facade with 500 columns. And it’s topped by four famous bronze horses – looted from Constantinople during the Crusades.
The waiting lines are always long to get inside. So arrive early before the basilica opens at 9:30 am. Or visit later (the last admission is at 4:45 pm) to catch the sunset from the balcony and beat the crowds.
Consecrated in 832 AD, the Basilica di San Marco houses the relics of the city’s patron saint. The relics are now housed in the church’s high altar, held up by marble and alabaster columns.
The basilica is a mix of eastern and western styles. And it once served as the chapel for the doge before it became the city’s cathedral in 1807.
The stunning facade was decorated over the centuries with rare marble, columns, reliefs and sculptures – many of which were spoils from the Fourth Crusade.
It’s filled with mosaics that narrate the life of Christ and the history of St. Mark’s relics. And this includes the story of the sea storm that the smugglers braved to bring the relics to Venice.
Above the entrance are four ancient bronze horses that date back to ancient Greece. But what you’ll see on the basilica’s balcony are exact replicas. The original horses are inside to protect them from air pollution.
Inside the basilica
The interior is spectacular with gold mosaics and biblical scenes filling every curve.
Nicknamed Chiesa d’Oro, or the Golden Church, the basilica contains some 8,000 square meters of mosaics, mostly gold, that shine ethereally in the dim light.
The iconic golden mosaics are made with a thin layer of gold leaf laid between two layers of glass.
Entrance to the basilica is free, but certain sections require additional tickets. The museum (7 euros) gives you access to the balcony for a closer look at the horses and great views of the square.
And the Pala d’Oro (5 euros) gives you access to the basilica’s Byzantine altar screen of gold, packed with precious stones that include 1,300 pearls and 300 sapphires.
7. Take a gondola ride
A gondola ride through Venice is pricey and very touristy – but also very much worth it.
These flat-bottomed rowing boats are an iconic fixture of Venice. Used since the 11th century to get around the city, gondolas today are mostly a tourist attraction.
Some 400 licensed gondoliers serve the city. And a ride with any of them is an experience – romantic, memorable and quintessentially Venetian.
The craft of the gondolier is a tradition passed down from father to son. And families often proudly maintain their own boats.
Gondolas are easy to find. They’re dotted around the city whether you’re at St. Mark’s or the narrow canals of Cannaregio. They all charge a standard fee of 80 euros for a 40-minute ride, and 100 euros for evening rides after 7 pm.
You can book a gondola through your hotel or an agency for an additional surcharge. For a bargain option, book a group ride with up to five people and split the price.
Take a gondola from St. Mark’s or the Rialto Bridge to experience the rush of the Grand Canal.
For a quiet romantic trip, take a ride away from the water taxi stops. You’ll see more of the city off the beaten path.
And don’t forget to pack a hat and some sunscreen in the summer because the gondolas don’t provide shade or umbrellas.
But don’t expect an opera performance. Some gondoliers sing for an extra tip – but most do not.
They will more often tell stories and anecdotes about the districts you’re passing through.
– Contributed by Nicholas of The World Overload
8. Take the Vaporetto Line 1
A boat trip on line 1 of the water bus, or Vaporetto, gives you an incredible overview of the Grand Canal – especially if you only have a limited time in Venice.
The Vaporetto is the Venetian public waterbus. And Line 1 is the busiest and most important of the 19 routes that traverse the city.
Line 1 hits all the major landmarks along the Grand Canal from the Main Station of Venezia Santa Lucia to St. Mark’s Square all the way to Lido Island.
Take the full journey and sit back and enjoy the scenery and the splendid palaces that line this famous waterway. You’ll spot the Ca d’Oro, the best surviving palazzo in the Venetian Gothic style, and the majestic Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.
Line 1 also passes under the iconic Rialto Bridge and Ponte dell’Accademia, and gives you a different perspective on these Venetian landmarks.
The ever-popular line makes about 15 stops for a leisurely journey that takes about 45 minutes.
The water bus runs every 12-20 minutes, from 6 am to 10 pm. But it gets busy in peak season so board in the early morning to beat the crowds. And grab a seat up front for the best photos.
Tickets are 7.50 Euros per ride and good for 75 minutes. Or if you’re in Venice longer, opt for 1-day (€20), 2-day (€30) 3-day (€40) or one-week (€60) passes. You can also take the Vaporetto to the popular day trip destinations of Murano and Burano.
Buy tickets online or at ticket offices at Piazzale Roma, Ferrovia, Rialto, and San Marco. You can also buy them at tobacco shops, newsstands or anywhere with the ACTV logo.
– Contributed by Kenny of Knycx Journeying
9. Celebrate New Year’s Eve in the piazza
From fireworks over the lagoon to late night bubbly in St. Mark’s, celebrating New Year’s Eve in Venice is an unforgettable experience.
The celebrations continue past midnight so dinner is served after 8 pm. Call a few weeks in advance for a reservation if you want to dine at a restaurant.
A dinner cruise is also a great way to see key Venetian landmarks like the Rialto Bridge. The traditional New Year’s Eve dish is cenon di capodanno, or sausages and lentils.
After dinner, head to Piazza San Marco for the annual “Love” event. A giant blow-up Bellini bottle marks the entrance. And you get a small bottle of bubbly to toast with at midnight.
Street performers and live musicians set the atmosphere for a lively celebration.
Everyone heads to the water for the midnight fireworks. Head to Riva dei Sette Martiri, a lovely waterfront area along the Grand Canal, for great views. Riva degli Schiavoni, the sprawling waterfront alongside St. Mark’s Square, also offers unbeatable views.
And dress in layers. The restaurants are warm but the piazza gets chilly.
– Contributed by Pamela of The Directionally Challenged Traveler
10. Browse the Museo Correr
The Museo Correr offers a fascinating look at everyday life in the historic Venetian republic.
The museum includes art, antiquities and historical collections from Venetian institutions and the city’s urban history.
If you love art and maritime history, Museo Correr is an airy and intriguing exhibit that chronicles the rise and expansion of Venice.
A fascinating array of artifacts all bring the past to life, from ships flags to navigation instruments to old maps and paintings celebrating naval victories.
Themes include the sea, weapons, crafts, parties and games – a real slice of Venetian life.
Highlights include a coin collection that spans a thousand years, and the apartment of Sissi, where Austrian Empress Elisabeth lived.
- The Napoleonic Wing once housed the sovereign when Venice was under Austrian rule. The neoclassical rooms include a collection of sculptures, a ballroom, throne room and banqueting hall.
- The painting gallery includes a great collection of Venetian painting from the 16th century, including Lorenzo Veneziano, the Bellini family and Carpaccio.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the Empire-style museum cafe for unbeatable views of the piazza. You don’t need a museum ticket to visit the cafe.
Your Museo Correr ticket is also valid for the National Archaeological Museum and the Marciana National Library (decorated by Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto). You can easily visit all three museums together.
Standard tickets to the Doge’s Palace also include entry to the Museo Correr. So if you’re visiting both museums, head to the Museo Correr first to get your ticket to the Doge’s Palace without a line.
– Contributed by Dzangir of Dr Jam Travels
11. Take in the lagoon views from the piazzetta
The nearby piazzetta offers ethereal views of the lagoon and the gondolas tied to wooden beams.
You can see the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and the white facade of Palladio’s church right across the water.
Two majestic granite columns mark the tip of the piazzetta. One column is topped with a statue of St. Theodore while the second column is topped with a statue of the Lion of Venice, the winged symbol of the city.
The piazzetta is a gorgeous, open space that faces the water and forms an entrance to the square.
12. Celebrate Carnival in the square
Full of elaborate ceremony, the carnival takes over the city’s canals from mid-February to Ash Wednesday.
The streets at carnival are full of masked strangers dressed in decadent 18th-century costumes. And the atmosphere is unbeatable.
The celebrations center around St. Mark’s Square and spill out through the rest of the city. Find carnival events online (and make reservations) in a sestiere near you. Many events are free while others (like masked balls) are a splurge and need reservations – or a special invitations.
Attend a glamorous costume ball, don a mask or stroll the streets to people-watch and take in the festive atmosphere. But book your accommodations in Venice well in advance to join the fun.
There are boat parades at night with festive crowds showing off their finery and illuminated floats with dancing animals and glittered acrobats. There are also street fairs, concerts, markets and formal masquerade balls.
There’s something for everybody from mask competitions and ice skating to classical concerts (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the Salone Capitolare). Pub crawls are also a tradition in themselves where you bacaro hop and indulge in cicchetti and wine.
The Carnival originates from the celebrations of the Venetian victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia (an ancient Roman city) in 1162.
And the celebration has only grown bigger and more decadent throughout the centuries.
These days, Carnival includes the Flight of the Angel, a kick-off event held in St. Mark’s Square. Dating back to the 16th century, the event features an “angel” descending into the piazza down a zip line.
Daily mask contests are also held on a stage at St. Mark’s Square. They’re open to anyone and free to enter.
– Contributed by Yulia of Miss Tourist
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