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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:

"The church in Venice, though, is somehing more than all things bright and beautiful. It is descended from Byzantium, by faith out of nationalism; and sometimes to its high ritual in the Basilica of St. Mark there is a tremendous sense of the Eastern past, marbled, hazed, and silken. St. Mark's itself is a barbaric building, like a great Mongolian pleasure pavilion, or a fortress in Turkestan: and sometimes there is a suggestion of rich barbarism to its services too, devout, reverent and beautiful though they are."

Piazza San Marco with Basilica

ABOVE: St. Mark's Basilica faces the Piazza San Marco, just behind the Campanile (bell tower) and next to the Doge's Palace. TOP INSET PHOTO: St. Mark, his retinue of angels, and a winged lion (click thumbnail for a larger image).

CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGEIf 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.

CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGEInterestingly enough, the Basilica 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.

Visitor information

Basilica entrance photo

ABOVE: The main visitor entrance is on the Piazza side of the church; look for the crowd-control barriers and the stanchions with signs.

sign photoThe 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:

  • Check your bag or backpack at the Ateneo San Basso, a former church just around the corner and down the Calle San Basso from the Basilica's main entrance. (You'll need to do this anyway if you're carrying anything larger than a purse, and there's a 60-minute limit.) When you check your gear, you'll be given a plastic claim check that can be used to bypass the queue at the front of the Basilica.

  • Visit when the Basilica opens or late in the afternoon, when it's less likely to be packed with tour groups and daytrippers. (Downside: The gilded mosaics are most impressive at midday, when the church interior is illuminated.)

  • Join a tour. Book a sightseeing tour in advance through Viator, or look for freelance guides in front of the Basilica.

More tips:

  • Dress conservatively. Tank tops, shorts, and other "scanty" clothing aren't allowed. (Mankind may have been created in God's image, but the church authorities apparently think God has a body-image problem.)

  • Keep moving. The Basilica's interior is smaller than the typical cathedral's, and visitors are expected to shuffle more or less continuously along the roped-off sightseeing route. (In high season, you'll be lucky if you have more than 10 minutes to see the main floor of the church.)

  • Visit on a sunny day, or at midday if crowds aren't too heavy. (The lights are normally turned on between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and the illumination makes the gilded mosaics shine.)

  • "Pre-sightsee." Rick Steves has a PDF map of the Basilica on his Web site. You'll also find a Rick Steves audio tour in MPEG-4 (iTunes) format.

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

Copyright (c) iStockphoto/David Pedre

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.

acqua alta photo

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.)

Basilica and Doge's Palace

This fisheye view of the Basilica and the Doge's Palace (right) shows a drier Piazza and a flock of pigeons.

Copyright (c) iStockphoto/Luke Daniek

Copyright (c) iStockphoto/Gijs van Oewerkerk

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.

Copyright (c iStockphoto/Amanda Lewis

Amanda Lewis took this photo of a Byzantine mosaic.

Copyright (c) iStockphoto/D.N. Davis

This detail of a mosaic above one of the Basilica's doorways was photographed by D.N. Davis.

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