Piazza San Marco Walking Tour, Venice

Piazza San Marco Walking Tour (Self Guided), Venice

All of Venice’s roads seem to run into Piazza San Marco – the commercial, religious, and political heart of the city. With a glowing reputation as one of the finest squares in the world and arguably one of Europe’s primary tourist attractions, it certainly has a lot to offer to visitors.

Start your exploration with a tour of the pink-and-white marble Palazzo Ducale, which takes you through a succession of richly decorated chambers and halls, arranged over four floors. More than a palace, the Gothic-Renaissance structure also was the seat of government, housing a Senate and Court facilities. Interestingly, the prison, just over the canal, was connected to the court rooms via the enclosed Bridge of Sighs, which took its name in the 19th century, when visiting northern European poets romantically imagined the prisoners’ final breath of resignation upon viewing the outside world one last time.

Take time to carefully look at the exterior of San Marco Basilica, the jewel in Venice's gem-laden crown with a stunning combination of Byzantine and Roman architecture. From the top of its bell tower, towering high above the square, one can enjoy sublime views across the city, the lagoon and, sometimes, the peaks of the Italian Alpine range on the horizon.

Other highlights include the richly decorated Renaissance clock tower on the north side of the Piazza (Torre dell'orologio); the 16th-century Procuratie Vecchie, whose arched façade runs the full length of the square’s north-west side, and the Archeologico Museum’s strong collections of Imperial Roman artefacts.

Walk around, take photos and enjoy the atmosphere, all while taking in the history with this self-guided walking tour.

Getting to Sight #1. The first tour stop (Bridge of Sighs) can be reached by: Alilaguna Water Taxi: Blue, Rosa; Water Bus: 1, 4.1, 7, 4.2, 5.2, 2, 20 + N (Night line).
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from iTunes App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Piazza San Marco Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Piazza San Marco Walking Tour
Guide Location: Italy » Venice (See other walking tours in Venice)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.6 Km or 0.4 Miles
Author: naomi
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Bridge of Sighs
  • Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace)
  • San Marco and San Todaro Columns
  • Campanile di San Marco (St Mark's Campanile)
  • Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Basilica)
  • Torre dell'orologio
  • Cafe Lavena
  • Procuratie Vecchie
  • Museo Archeologico (Archaeology Museum)
  • Caffe Florian
Bridge of Sighs

1) Bridge of Sighs

Although only a small bridge as compared to others in Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1600, is one of the most viewed structures in the city and is an important historic landmark. Passing over the Rio di Palazzo, the bridge connects the New Prison (Prigioni Nuove) to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. Made of white limestone, it was designed by Antonio Contino, whose uncle Antonio da Ponte designed the Rialto Bridge.

The bridge's English name was bequeathed by Lord Byron in the 19th century as a translation from the Italian "Ponte dei sospiri", from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells. In reality, the days of inquisitions and summary executions were over by the time that the bridge was built, and the cells under the palace roof were occupied mostly by small-time criminals. In addition, little could be seen from inside the bridge due to the stone grills covering the windows.

Today, per local legend, romantic partners earn eternal love & happiness if they should kiss on a gondola at sunset, beneath the bridge, as the bells of St Mark's Campanile chime.
Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace)

2) Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) (must see)

Built on the foundations of a 9th-century fortress, this palace is unquestionably the finest secular European building of its time which, in the course of centuries, had served many purposes, including Doge residence, seat of the Venetian government, court of law, civil office, and even a prison.

First built in the 14th century, much of the original palace was destroyed by fire in the 16th century reducing to ashes most of the art treasures held inside. Some of the greatest Venetian masters of the time, such as Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Bellini, and Tiepolo, contributed to restoring the palace to its former glory, recreating gilded stucco, sculptures, frescoes, and canvases.

A blend of Byzantine and Gothic architecture on the outside, inside the palace is all Classical which, in turn, led the art critic John Ruskin to declare it “the central building of the world”.

The interior of the palace – spectacular furnishings and paintings, marvelously adorned ceilings – reveals lavishness on the scale that is hard to match. The most outstanding is the Grand Council chamber, featuring Tintoretto’s “Paradise”, reportedly the world’s largest oil painting. Running up to it, in terms of grandeur, is the Sala dello Scrutinio or the “Voting Hall” embellished with paintings depicting Venice’s glorious past.

A stark contrast to this splendor are the cell-blocks on the opposite side of the canal – grim remnants of the horror of the medieval justice – linked to the outside world by the Bridge of Sighs by which the prisoners were led to their cells. The word “sighs” refers to the laments of the numerous victims forced across the bridge to face certain torture and possibly death at the hands of the state inquisitors appointed by the city.

To get the most of your time at Palazzo Ducale, use the infrared audio guide available at the entrance and hear a fascinating story of the 1,000-year-old maritime republic of Venice and the intricacies of the government that once ruled it.


On the night of 25 July 1755, aged 30, Casanova was arrested for affront to religion and common decency and was sentenced to five years imprisonment without having had a trial. He was taken to the Doge's Palace and put in a cell under its roof, which was covered with lead plates. In summer, the lead roof absorbed the heat and turned the place into an oven, but prisoners also suffered greatly from the "millions of fleas".

Casanova's physical distance from the opulence of Venice and the center of government was negligible, the psychological distance immeasurable. Eventually, after 15 months of torment and despair, he managed to escape by making a hole in the ceiling and descending his way to freedom with bed sheet ropes. The only person ever to escape from the prison of Doge's Palace, he first sought refuge in Munich, then Strasbourg, and completed the final leg of his journey by coach to Paris, where he would start a new life.

Book in advance for the guided "Secret Itinerary" tour that takes you into otherwise restricted quarters and hidden passageways, such as the Doge’s private chambers, the torture chambers where prisoners were interrogated, and the two cells that Casanova occupied.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 8:30am–7pm, last admission 6pm (Apr-Oct); 8:30am–5:30pm, last admission 4:30pm (Nov-Mar)
San Marco and San Todaro Columns

3) San Marco and San Todaro Columns

The monumental complex between the Doge’s Palace and the Marciana Library features two marble and granite pillars overlooking the lagoon and surmounted by statues of the city’s two patrons: the winged lion, symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Tòdaro, the Byzantine St. Theodore of Amasea, the city’s first protector. These are the Columns of San Marco and San Todaro.

Mystery still shrouds their arrival in Venice. It is said that they were brought from the East as spoils of war and erected for the first time in 1127 by Nicholas Barattieri, who was rewarded for this titanic undertaking by the Government of the Republic with the granting of exclusive rights to set up a gambling table between the two columns, an activity strictly prohibited in the territory of the Republic. This right expired with Barattieri’s death.

It appears that there were originally three columns, transported on three separate boats. However, one of them capsized while landing and the third column sunk into the muddy bottom of the lagoon. Legend has it that it remained there because no one wanted to accept the difficult task of recovering it, due to its huge size and enormous weight.

Having lost its status as a free zone for gambling, in around the 18th century the practice became established of conducting public executions on the site, with the condemned made to stand facing the centre of the square with their backs to the lagoon. For this reason, Venetians still avoid passing between the two columns, out of superstition.
Campanile di San Marco (St Mark's Campanile)

4) Campanile di San Marco (St Mark's Campanile)

The city’s tallest bell tower was originally constructed in the 12th century, as a combined lighthouse and belfry, and was continuously modified up until the 16th century, when the golden angel was installed on its summit. Back in the day, each of the five bells here had a distinct function: the largest bell tolled the start and the end of a working day; another bell rang midday; two other bells either proclaimed a session of the Senate or called members of the Grand Council to the meetings; while the smallest of the bells gave notice of a forthcoming execution.

It was at the top of this belfry that Galileo Galilei famously demonstrated his telescope to the Venetian Doge on 21 August 1609 – the event commemorated by a plaque at the tower's observation deck. Still, the most dramatic event associated with the Campanile took place on 14 July 1902, when the tower fell down shortly after giving a sound of warning to the leisurely coffee drinkers at piazza below, sending them run for their lives!

The Venetians put the Campanile back “where it was and how it was”, and the tower is now safe to climb to the very top. Unlike other belfries where you have to brave a narrow, steep spiral set of stairs to reach the top, the Venetian one has an elevator so you can easily get a pigeon’s eye view just for a fee.

Standing 99 meters high, the Campanile is the tallest structure in Venice; an ideal vantage point for observing the cupolas of the San Marco basilica and further afield, including the surrounding lagoon. Sometimes in the evening, the view is so clear that one can literally see for miles away! But even if you don't reach the top, standing at the base of this historic belfry and staring up at its summit can be just as exciting an experience.
Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Basilica)

5) Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Basilica) (must see)

By far the main draw for tourists visiting Venice is the Basilica di San Marco. It was built in 832 AD to house the remains of the city’s patron, Saint Mark. The holy man’s body was brought from Alexandria, Egypt by two Venetian merchants who smuggled it concealed in the barrels of pork meat, which they rightly regarded the Muslim guards would never touch. According to legend, the night the body arrived in the lagoon, St Mark was greeted by an angel, saying, “Peace be with you Mark, my Evangelist. Here shall your body rest”. Over the centuries, this legend has inspired many works of art.

200 years later, a sumptuous temple was built upon the foundations of an earlier church, and was consecrated when St Mark’s body was interred beneath the high altar. The new basilica was modeled after the celebrated Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. To enhance its opulence, the structure was subsequently clothed in marble and mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the lives of Christ, Virgin Mary and St Mark himself.

Many of the mosaics were later retouched or remade, as artistic tastes changed and the damaged mosaics had to be replaced, so the ones currently in place represent 800 years of artistic styles. Some of them derive from traditional Byzantine representations and are masterworks of Medieval art; others are based on preparatory drawings made by prominent Renaissance artists from Venice and Florence, such as Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, Paolo Uccello, and Andrea del Castagno.

Andrea del Castagno was active at San Marco in the mid-15th century, introducing a sense of perspective largely achieved with architectural settings. Attributed to him is the mosaic in the Mascoli Chapel, depicting the Dormition of the Virgin. Tintoretto, in his turn, created the mosaic in the central nave depicting the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (16th century), while Titian designed and executed, between 1524 and 1530, the mosaic decoration of the Sacristy vault depicting Old-Testament prophets.

Inside, there are also a number of things you can see for a separate fee, such as the Golden Altar, the Museum, the Treasury, and the Crypt. It is also definitely worth paying to go up to the first level just to gaze at the interior and the square outside from an elevated point, or you might as well want to come on a night tour when the basilica is closed to the public and you can have the entire place to yourself.

Entry to the basilica is free but you can pay a small fee just to skip the line and book a time slot.

Why You Should Visit:
Exceptionally beautiful blend of Byzantine and Western art!
The grandiosity of the mosaics and the wealth of the 'treasure room' will make you realize how powerful Venice was in its golden days.

The best time to visit the basilica is around midday when all the golden mosaics adorning the vaults, walls and cupolas are illuminated and are most spectacular. The lights are on only for limited times (11:30-12:30), so make sure to schedule your visit accordingly, so as to see/appreciate the mosaic at its best.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9:30am-5pm; Sun: 2-4pm (until 5pm during the summer months)
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Torre dell'orologio

6) Torre dell'orologio (must see)

In a square filled with iconic Venetian buildings, this remarkable Renaissance clock tower holds its own. Its base has always been a favorite meeting point for Venetians as it marks the entrance to the ancient Merceria, one of the busiest streets in Venice, now home to both high-end boutiques and trinket shops.

The tower's clock itself was made the official timekeeper of Venice as far back as 1858. It notably not only tells the time but is also aid to the astrologer, matching zodiac signs with the position of the sun.

Above the clock's face, against a field of golden stars, you can see a winged lion of St Mark, symbol of Venice found practically everywhere around the city. Beneath the lion is a statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus who also seem to be watching over Piazza San Marco.

The two men striking the bell at the extreme top of the clock tower are some of the most peculiar Venetian characters. Originally, these were two shepherds who, but after being reproduced in bronze, grew significantly darker with time, and thus, got the nickname of “Moors”.

If you decide to climb the tower, you may want to book a tour. There are two English tours run every day, each limited to 12 people only. On this tour you will see a secret door and then stop at every level all the way to the top to observe the clock mechanism and other curious things within the tower, along with San Marco square itself down below.
Cafe Lavena

7) Cafe Lavena

Established in 1750 café lLavena has its origins in the popular Venice of the 17th century. As the other cafés of St Mark's Square, Lavena equally had its part in intellectual life in the city. The person who gave lustre to Caffé Lavena, patronizing it from his first coming to Venice and becoming an habitual customer, was the composer Richard Wagner. Almost every day from five to six in the afternoon, Wagner used to visit Caffé Lavena and stay for half an hour, conversing very often with the owner Carlo Lavena.

Other famous persons that has frequented Caffé Lavena include the Venetian violinist Raphael Frontalli, famous composers and writers along with the current plethora of famous and not so famous movie stars that visits during the annual Venice Film Festival. Café Lavena is a great place to sip coffee with your loved one in a sunny afternoon and watch the world go by.
Procuratie Vecchie

8) Procuratie Vecchie

The Procuratie (literally, "procuracies") are three connected buildings on St Mark's Square in a U-shaped configuration connected to St Mark's Clocktower – the last of them completed, to finish off the square, under Napoleon's occupation. The oldest is the Procuratie Vecchie on the north side of the square, built as a two-storey structure in the twelfth century, to house the offices and apartments of the procurators of San Marco – esteemed officials of the city and the Venetian Republic.

The most appealing feature of its impressive architecture are the 100 small round arches surrounding the windows and the archways along its expansive veranda area. In these archways you will now find some of the most famous, oldest, and most expensive Venetian cafes. The original design was made by Mauro Codussi, which still betrays something of its Gothic roots, then reconstructed by Jacopo Sansovino and other designers in the 16th century.
Museo Archeologico (Archaeology Museum)

9) Museo Archeologico (Archaeology Museum)

In 1523 Cardinal Domenico Grimani offered the City of Venice a very important collection of sculptures and antique art pieces, some of which came from ancient Greece, Egypt and Assyria-Babylon. Nowadays, the museum has particularly strong collections of Imperial Roman artefacts, including coins from the Roman era and even earlier, back to the earliest years of the Republic. Among other highlights is the collection of Roman funerary sculptures, or you may want to focus on other nearby parts, such as Napoleon's Palace rooms, works by Bellini, exhibits of Venetian life, weapons & armoury, exhibits of ship-building and many artefacts that belonged in the Doge’s Palace. A wonderful lesson in art and history for all – children, students, and elders.

The Archaeological Museum is part of the museum complex in Piazza San Marco, thus it has same location and can be visited with single ticket, which additionally includes a visit to the Doge's Palace, Correr Museum, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 11am–5pm
Caffe Florian

10) Caffe Florian

Opened in 1720 by Florian Francesconi and called by Napoleon "one of the world’s most beautiful drawing rooms", Caffè Florian is the oldest coffee house in continuous operation in Italy and the second oldest in the World (after Café Procope in Paris). Due to its prestigious position, it is almost a symbol of Venice; the meeting place of artists and poets, writers and politicians, including Wagner, Goethe, Lord Byron and also Casanova, who favored the Caffè Florian because it was the first establishment to permit the entry of women (whom he was always so eager to court).

Here, surrounded by local history, one can enjoy an amazing range of cakes and coffees, expensive and served by well-dressed waiters to tiny marble tables for two. The pleasure you get is definitely worth it; however, when the resident musicians are serenading (which is one of the reasons why you'd choose the caffè in the first place) be prepared for an additional €6 per person to be tacked onto your bill. The mood is calm and relaxing (other than the occasional birds that may come and harass) and you can request songs from the musicians.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Thu: 10am–9pm; Fri-Sat: 9am-11pm; Sun: 9am-9pm

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