See a Video Tour of Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)
Needing something free to do in Venice? Taking a walking tour of St Mark’s square is one of your best free choices.
Where to find St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco)
Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square is the main public square in Venice. The Piazza is located in front of the great Byzantine church known as Basilica di San Marco.
What you will find in the Piazza
This beautiful Piazza is surrounded by shops, caffè’s and palazzi on three sides including the historic and expensive Caffè Florian. According to local legend Napoleon called the Piazza San Marco “the drawing room of Europe.”
History of the 4 Bronze Horses
Dominating Saint Mark’s Basilica and therefore the piazza located in front of it are the four bronze horses (though more recent sources say they are made of copper they are known as the four bronze horses). The four horses have historically been symbols of the great power of Venice.
In fact, St. Mark’s four horses were sent from Constantinople to Venice in the early 1200’s though their exact origins have been the source of much historical debate. It is rumored that the Genovese (people from Genova a once powerful city-state) said in 1379 that “there could be no peace between the two cities until the horses had been bridled.” After Napoleon conquered Venice some 400 years later he removed the horses from the Basilica and had them shipped to Paris where they remained until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1814.
Touring the Piazzetta dei Leoncini
On the north side of the Basilica you will find the Piazzetta dei Leoncini. The Piazzetta dei Leoncini (Piazzetta meaning small piazza) is named after the two red marble lions sitting in the Piazzetta that were presented to Venice by Doge Alvise Mocenigoin in 1722.
Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) History
Next on your tour around Piazza San Marco is the Torre dell’Orologio or the Clock Tower. Completed in 1499 the clock tower is located above an archway to the left of the Basilica (if you are facing the cathedral). Walk through the archway and you will eventually find your way to the commercial center of Venice known as the Rialto.
To the left and running along the north side of the Piazza is a long arcade. These buildings built in the early 16th century are called the Procuratie Vecchie (old) and were the homes and offices of high state officials during the Republic of Venice. Today, at ground level the arcade houses shops and restaurants including the famous Caffè Quadri. Offices occupy the upper floors of the arcade.
Ala Napolenica (Napoleon Wing)
The buildings facing the Basilica at the end of Piazza San Marco and to the left of the arcade with Caffè Quadri is the Ala Napolenica (Napoleon Wing) so called because it was rebuilt by Napoleon in 1810. This wing is occupied primarily by shops as well as the grand staircase leading to the Correr Museum.
Turning left down the southside of the Piazza are the Procuratie Nuove (new) that were built starting around 1582. (Remember, the Procuratie Vecchie were built in the early 1500’s). The ground floor holds more shops as well as the very famous Caffè Florian opened in 1720. When Austria ruled Venice in the 19th century, after the fall of Napoleon, the Venetians sipped their coffee at the Florian while the hated Austrians were at Quadri’s across the Piazza. The upper floors of this section of buildings house the Correr Museum. At the far end is Sansovino’s Liberia dating from the mid-16th century.
Campanile (Bell Tower) Facts
Opposite from the Liberia is the 323 foot (98.6 meters) tall Campanile (bell tower) of St. Mark’s Church. Initially built in the 12th century the tower was restored in the early 1500’s. The Campanile has been struck by lightening on many occasions and was severely damaged by an earthquake at least once before finally collapsing for good in 1902. A new tower was built in the same style as the old with work being completed in 1912.
Piazzetta di San Marco
The Piazzetta di San Marco is an open space connecting the south side of the Piazza to the lagoon, The Piazzetta lies between the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) and the Biblioteca (library) Marciana which is St. Mark’s library. At the open end of the Pizzetta di San Marco are two large granite columns. Sitting on top of the first column is Saint Theodore, the patron saint of the city prior to St. Mark. Saint Theodore is holding a spear with a dragon that he is said to have slain This is a copy of the original which is housed in the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). Sitting on the second column is a winged lion of Venice, the symbol of Saint Mark. The original columns are thought to have been erected in 1268. Much activity has taken place between these two columns including gambling and public executions.
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)
On the far side of the Piazzetta and to the right of the Basilica is the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). In fact, the initial Palace was built in 1340 and extended towards the Basilica in 1424. The Palace is a magnificent example of Gothic Architecture. The Palazzo Ducale was the residence of the Doge of Venice (the chief magistrate of the city) and the city’s seat of government. Today it is a museum.
If you want to do the Secret Itineraries Tour for Doge’s Palace you can skip lines and book the tour through Select Italy.
Bridge of Sighs
Another grand Venetian landmark, the Bridge of Sighs runs between the Palazzo Ducale and the prisons. In fact, the Bridge of Sighs is the only one of Venice’s 409 bridges that is covered.
A local legend says lovers will be granted eternal love if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the Bridge of Sighs as the bells of the Campanile are ringing. Click here for our more in depth guide to the Bridge of Sighs.
And that completes your tour of Piazza San Marco and Piazzetta di San Marco.