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Piazza San Marco

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Basilica di San Marco - Piazza San Marco - Venice

ABOVE: Interior of Basilica di San Marco.

Monuments and more monuments

Find a spot in the middle of the Piazza and look back toward the Ala Napoleonica. The late Mr. Bonaparte had this wing built in the early 1800s to house a state ballroom. Today, the building is occupied by the Museo Correr, also known as "The Museum of the City and Civilization of Venice."

Turn 90 degrees to your right, and you'll be looking at the long wing of the Procuratie Vecchie--originally occupied by the Procurators of St. Mark, the highest officials of the Venetian Republic other than the Doge.

 The building has been rebuilt at various times in the intervening centuries, and its ground floor is occupied by shops and other businesses. Its most famous tenant is the Caff� Quadri, where Austrian occupation troops took their Turkish coffee during the first half of the 19th Century.

The clock tower to the right of Quadri is named the Torre dell'Orologio and has been ringing out the hours since 1499. The archway beneath the clock opens onto the Mercerie, a series of interconnecting shopping streets that lead to the Rialto Bridge.

Rotate another quarter-turn, and you'll be facing the Basilica di San Marco: a grandiose and magnificent hodgepodge of Byzantine domes, mosaics, and plundered treasure from the Near East and Asia.

Look off to the right of the Basilica for a glimpse of the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge's Palace. This Venetian Gothic edifice would be a superb Masonic Lodge if it were transferred to Omaha or Cincinnati. It looks a bit unwieldy, with its warehouse-like upper stories being supported by two layers of delicate stone arches, but it's striking nevertheless.

Turn now toward the Campanile di San Marco, a 99-meter (325-foot) guard tower from the 8th Century that was rebuilt after a sudden collapse in 1902. You can take an elevator to the top for a great view of the city and the lagoon.

Behind, in the Procuratie Nuove, are the Museo Archeologico and the state library known as the Libreria Sansoviniana or Biblioteca Marciana.

Another slight turn, and you'll see well-heeled tourists and locals sipping drinks at the Caff� Florian, which opened for business in 1720 and has been a hangout for the likes of Byron, Balzac, and Henry James.

There--you've seen St. Mark's Square, and you can move on to other sightseeing attractions or, better yet, find a table and order a glass of chilled Prosecco while other visitors take their tourist turns amid the pigeons.

Note: At certain times of year, the square may be flooded for several hours at a time by acqua alta, or "high water," which is caused by a combination of high tide, low barometric pressure, and winds blowing north up the Adriatic Sea. Temporary walkways provide access to the basilica and vaporetto stops at such times.

Next page: How to reach the Piazza San Marco


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