Tourist Mistakes | Free Sights
Basilica di San Marco
A short visitor's guide to St. Mark's Basilica
St. Mark's Basilica is the leading tourist attraction in Venice after the Piazza San Marco, and for good reason: It's a riot of Byzantine architecture, with spectacular gold mosaics and enough plundered sculptures and other relics to thrill the most jaded aficionado of the Christian Crusades. (As a bonus, admission is free.)
In The World of Venice, Jan Morris has this to say about Venice's Catholic religion and cathedral:
If bones are barbaric (as they may seem if you're a relic-phobic Protestant), the Basilica's "rich barbarism" may be due, in part, to the reason for its existence. The Basilica was constructed as a home for the bones of St. Mark the Evangelist, whose remains were stolen from Alexandria, Egypt by two Venetian merchants who smuggled the saint's bones past Muslim customs officials by stuffing them into a barrel of pork in 828 AD.
After 200 years or so in temporary quarters, the Evangelist's bones were moved to the new Basilica di San Marco (the third church on the site) in the 11th Century.
Interestingly enough, the Basilica di San Marco didn't become Venice's cathedral until 1807, after many hundreds of years as a chapel and state church under the authority of the Doges of the Venetian Republic. Several popes have served as Patriarch of Venice, most recently Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul I.
The official Basilica di San Marco Web site has more details on the church's history, art, and architecture.
The Basilica di San Marco is open for tourist visits from Monday through Saturday from approximately 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. (On Sunday mornings, you can attend mass, but wandering around isn't allowed.)
Visiting hours can vary slightly by season; the sign in front of the Basilica will show current times.
Admission is free, but it's polite to leave a donation in one of the coinboxes. Unless you're on a budget or in a hurry, consider visiting the San Marco Museum, the Treasury, and the Golden Altarpiece. (You'll need to buy a separate ticket for each.)
Avoiding the queue:
The line to enter the Basilica through the main door can be long during high season and on weekends. To minimize waiting time, try one of the following strategies:
Official Web site:
The Procuratoria in Venice has an official English-language Web site about the Basilica, with historical information, a 3D "Virtual Basilica" tour, a liturgical calendar, etc.
More photos of the Basilica di San Marco
David Pedre took this photo from the Campanile di San Marco, which overlooks the Basilica and St. Mark's Square. The picture shows the Basilica's façade (at bottom) and its five domes.
From fall through spring, occasional flood tides or acqua alta can make the Piazza in front of the Basilica look like a wading pool. (Recently, the square's pavement was raised--not for the first time--to minimize the problem.)
This fisheye view of the Basilica and the Doge's Palace (right) shows a drier Piazza and a flock of pigeons.
These two photos (top by Luke Daniek, bottom by Gijs van Ouwerkerk) show two of the four Horses of St. Mark, a.k.a. the Quadriga.
The horses on the Basilica's façade are replicas of the original quadriga, which is now exhibited inside the church. The gilded bronze horses are believed to be at least 1,700 years old; they were brought to Venice in 1204 during the Crusades.
Amanda Lewis took this photo of a Byzantine mosaic.
This detail of a mosaic above one of the Basilica's doorways was photographed by D.N. Davis.
Top inset photo copyright © Luke Daniek.
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