On most any day of the year, Piazza San Marco, Venice’s magnificent square, is bustling with tourists admiring the architecture, shopping for souvenirs, or soaking up the ambiance at outdoor cafes. It’s a stunning sight to enter the enormous square whether from the city’s maze of alleyways or from the waterfront promenade. Prominent is St. Mark’s Basilica, named for the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark the Evangelist. It is one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks beneath its imposing bell tower and adjacent to the Doge’s Palace.
The best way to visit St. Mark’s Basilica
Many wait in long lines to get a glimpse inside of the basilica while others choose to avoid the crowds and be satisfied with a view from outside. After our recent trip to Venice, we can give you our recommendation for the best way to visit St. Mark’s Basilica to avoid the crowds and make the most of the experience.
Why take the Walks of Italy tour
Mr. TWS and I took the Walks of Italy “Exclusive Alone in St. Mark’s Basilica After Hours” small group tour. We’d previous taken the company’s “Rome in a Day Tour” and loved the experience.
- Visiting after the basilica has closed to the public for the day (which is exclusively available for Walks of Italy tours) avoids not only the lines to enter but also the throngs of people inside the basilica during the day. This provides a more serene and meaningful experience (befitting a visit to a church) and enables taking photos that are not filled with other tourists. The after-hours tour also provides access to areas that are not accessible in any other way such as the crypt, which can only be viewed on the tour or during occasional special masses.
- Local experts like our guide Elisabetta with backgrounds in art and history are able to share their knowledge with enthusiasm and often humor that bring the basilica to life, weaving stories and legends. These are characteristics that we’ve found with other Walks of Italy guides, too.
- Elisabetta really pulled all the information together, put it in context, and provided it to us real-time, enabling us to listen and focus on what you’re seeing. She was also able to answer all of our questions on the spot.
- The groups are small (maximum 15 people). There were about 10 people in our group making it easy to stay with the guide. But even when Elisabetta was whispering in the church, We were all able to follow her narrative with the very good headset system that was used.
Though we’ve seen many different cathedrals and basilicas in Europe, we were quite surprised at the many unique characteristics of both the interior and the exterior of St. Mark’s. These are a few of the highlights. There is much more to see and learn during the tour.
After meeting our group at the Museo Correr on Piazza San Marco, Elisabetta started our tour outside the basilica, providing some Venetian history and unique aspects of the square, including the acqua alta (high water) that occurs during exceptional high tides. She also pointed out main features of the exterior, such as the mosaic representing the story about the original transportation of St. Mark’s remains to Venice (below).
Inside the basilica, St. Mark’s most striking characteristic is its 8,000 square meters of gold glass tile mosaics that cover much of the walls and ceiling. Our favorite part of the tour was entering the quiet, quite dark basilica, taking a seat, and watching as the lights were turned on section by section. The stunning contrast reminded Mr. TWS of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the sepia-toned black and white screen transforms into spectacular Technicolor when Dorothy opens the door to Oz. The brilliant gold was magnificent with the lights on and virtually undetectable before they were turned on. The photo below doesn’t do justice to the splendor but it helps approximate the contrast between lights on and off.
The geometric patterns of the marble mosaic tile floors (in some places quite uneven) throughout the basilica are also beautiful.
We were particularly fortunate in the timing of our visit to St. Mark’s because it was April 25th which is St. Mark’s Day (Festa di San Marco). It is also Italy’s Liberation Day, the national holiday celebrating the end of Nazi occupation in World War II and also the end of the Italian Civil War.
With this annual celebration, there were special flower arrangements on the altar and the panels in the railing were removed so that worshippers on Saint Mark’s Day could fully see the altar where Saint Mark’s remains are said to reside.
Elisabetta pointed out the highlights and described aspects of history, symbolism and art as we walked through the interior to the altar where we saw the stunning gold, silver, and gem-laden Pala d’Oro altarpiece.
There are interesting tales relating to the saga of the remains of St. Mark and how they were transported from Alexandria to Venice, including the story about their mysterious disappearance and the subsequent miracle of their rediscovery in a church pillar in the 11th century.
Downstairs in the crypt we learned more history, including that of how the remains were previously kept down here in a sarcophagus though the crypt flooded completely during the acqua alta tides until preventive measures were taken.
Of course, St. Mark’s Basilica is a must-see landmark and from our experience, the best way to visit is on the “Exclusive Alone in St. Mark’s Basilica After Hours” tour. We enjoyed the features covered, the pace, the duration, the VIP access, and our excellent guide.
Disclosure: Our tour was hosted by Walks of Italy, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own — as always.
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