St. Mark's Basilica ★★★

The mosaics of the transept, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy (Photo by amberapparently)
The mosaics of the transept

The gloriously mosaicked Basilica di San Marco

Let's just come out and say it: there simply is no church in Europe more lavishly decorated, more exquisitely mosaicked, more glittering with gold than San Marco, the cathedral of Venice.

Built in the 11th century, St. Mark's guiding principle in architecture and decoration is Byzantine, but Romanesque and Gothic styles have left their mark as well over six centuries of expansion and decoration.

The atrium, ceilings, walls, and multiple domes are all encrusted with over 40,000 square feet of gold-backed mosaics crafted between the 12th and 17th centuries. 

The oldest of these mosaics were created by Eastern masters, and later ones were based on cartoons (the Italian word for a large drawing or sketch—carta means "paper," so cartone is "big paper") by Tintoretto, Veronese, and Titian.

The floor is a reflection of the mosaic craft in marble, an undulating wonderland of color and pattern.

The church's most disappointing aspect is that it's so popular and its lines so long you are shuffled through like sightseeing cattle, kept moving along so the next batch of tourists can cram in. Still, your time inside will be unforgettable.

The Pala d'oro

Don't miss popping into the baptistery alcove, with a font carved by Sansovino, or checking out the presbytery (space behind the main altar) with its Pala d'Oro, a gem-studded golden trophy altar from Constantinople cfrated between 976 and 1345.

The St. Marks Museum upstairs

Above the church proper and entered through the atrium is the Marciano Museum (a.k.a. Loggia dei Cavalli, the Loggia of the Horses), which gets you up onto a balcony and affords you a close-up look at some of those mosaics.

It also houses the original Triumphal Quadriga of four horses, replicas of which stride across the facade's roof. 

These life-size bronze equines are one of Venice's treasures. Taken in 1204 from Constantinople during the crusades, their origin is murky, but they're at least ancient (AD 2nd century is the best guess), either Roman or Hellenistic.

Photo gallery
  • The mosaics of the transept, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by amberapparently)
  • The facade, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by Andrzej Otrębski)
  • The domes of St. Mark
  • The mosaics on the upper nave, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by Gary Ullah)
  • Mosaics  on the comes of the Narthex, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by Zairon)
  • The mosaics inside a dome, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by amberapparently)
  • Under the Ascension Dome is the rood screen topped with 14 saints, it separates the congregation from the high altar. The main altar has the remains of the evangelist Mark. Above the altar is the masterpiece, the Golden Altar Screen., St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • The intricate inlaid stone patterns on the floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by amberapparently)
  • The intricate inlaid stone patterns on the floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by amberapparently)
  • The 10C Pala d
  • Doge Ordelafo Faliero, from Pala d
  • The replica quadriga of horses on the facade of St. Mark
  • The original, ancient, restored, gilded bronze quadriga of horses from the facade, St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by Zairon)
  • The sacristy door, a Renaissance bronze by Jacopo Sansovino (1640s), St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The location of the required bag check at Ateneo San Basso (Calle San Basso 315A), St. Mark's Basilica, Italy (Photo courtesy of San Marco)
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How long does St. Mark's take?

They'll try to shuffle you through in 20 minutes, but take your time, pop into the side chapels, behind the altar, and up to the Marciano Museum, sit on a pew and just admire the view, and plan to spend at least an hour to 90 minutes.

Also, plan to spend up to 30–45 minutes in line, especially in summer. They limit the number allowed in at a time, so the wait can be brutal.

One solution: Pay for skip-the-line entry tickets. You still wait for a bit, but not nearly as long.

San Marco rules

San Marco Ground Rules:

  1. Dress appropriately—no bare shoulders or knees (i.e. no shorts, short skirts, or tank tops).
  2. Keep respectfully silent (this is, after all, a church).
  3. No photography or filming is permitted, This brings a disappointed groan out of everyone. I know. It makes me angry, too.
  4. No bags allowed (see the next tip)
Check your bags

Large bags are no longer allowed inside the basilica, and a free left luggage office has been established at Ateneo San Basso in Calle San Basso 315A on Piazzetta dei Leoni (to the left of the church facade).

Oddly (and terribly inconveniently), the bag drop opens after the basilica and closes early: Mon-Sat 10am–4:30pm, Sun 10am–4pm.

The location of the required bag check at Ateneo San Basso (Calle San Basso 315A)
The location of the required bag check at Ateneo San Basso (Calle San Basso 315A)
How to see the mosaics lit up

The mosaics are now illuminated late mornings on weekdays—Specifically Mon-Fri 11:30am–12:45pm.

My favorite time to visit St. Mark's? On Sunday for the 6:45pm—for mass.

Mass? Yep. While the priest drones in singsong Latin at the altar, incense swirling around him from a swaying censor, you can sit in silence for an hour getting a crick in your neck.

That's because, only during the evening mass, the 40,000 square feet of glittering mosaics —which appear smoke-stained and shadowy by day—are illuminated to their full glittering glory. (They switch on the lights at other times, too, but this is the only reliable weekly one.)

Only one rule: Tourists are not allowed, so you must be discreet, arrive on time, stay in your pew, and sit quietly through to the end. Even if you are not devout (or not a Christian), this counts as a bona fide Italian cultural experience.

Though the lights are not switched on, regular masses are also held Mon-Sat at 7am, 8am, 9am, 10am, 11am, noon (except July-Aug), and 6:45pm, and Sunday at 7am, 8am, 9am, 10:30am, noon, 5:30pm (Vespers), and—the best, with illumination—6:45pm.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).