Venice -Grand Canal & St. Mark's Square




Grand Canal & St. Mark's Square

No trip to Venice can be considered complete without a trip down the Grand Canal and a visit to St. Marks Square.  These two events can easily fill an entire day.  


Canal Grande (Grand Canal)- The Grand Canal has been the lifeblood of Venice since this was the richest city in the world, and the only true way to appreciate it is on a boat.  The Grand Canal is lined with palaces that were once homes to Venice’s nobility and rich merchants.  Today many of these palaces have been converted to hotels and museums while some still await their rebirth.  You should try to see the canal once during the day and once again in the evening.  Remember: the #1 vaporetto makes the journey in about 45 minutes and the #82 takes about 20 minutes.


The following is a list of highlights on the Canal.  These are listed in order from St. Mark’s Square to the train station.  Many of these sights are explained in further detail on our about Venice's Top Sights.

  • (Left) Basilica della Salute 

  • (Left) Collezione Peggy Guggenheim 

  • (First bridge) The Ponte Accademia

  • (Left) Ca’ Rezzonico

  • (Left) Ca’ Foscari (Excellent example of Venetian Gothic, today it is the University.)

  • (Second bridge) Ponte di Rialto

  • (Right) Ca’ d’Oro 

  • (Right) Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi (the Casino, open only in winter months)

  • (Right) Jewish Ghetto - look for the pink “skyscrapers”

  • (Right) St. Lucia train station (built in 1954)

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)- This piazza has been the symbol of Venice for centuries.  Napoleon once called it Europe’s greatest drawing room.  In addition to the Campanile, Basilica, Palace and the Museo Correr, there are several other interesting things to see and do. 


The Torre dell’Orologio is a clock tower built in 1496.  The clock shows the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac.  Above it a sophisticated mechanism brings out statues of the Magi (3 Wise Men) guided by an angel to pass in front of the Virgin and Child on the hour.  Above this scene another mechanism propels two Moors to strike a bell on the hour.  The legend has it that the workers who designed and built this were rewarded by having their eyes gouged out so that they could never replicate this masterpiece. 


There are several cafes on the square that are very popular in the evening.  The two best known are long time rivals, Caffé Florian (1720) and Caffe Quadri (1638), often with dueling orchestras.  It is very expensive to eat or drink in these cafes, but it is a world class experience to see and be seen there.  Expect to pay a cover charge of up to $7.00 per person just to sit down, and that amount again for each drink.  A less expensive option for nightlife is Le Café in Campo San Stefano near the Ponte dell’Accademia.


The smaller square between the Piazza and the water is the Piazzetta San Marco.  It was once a small harbor filled in during the 9th century.  Between the two columns near the shoreline was the location of public executions.  On the top of one of the columns is a statue of the lion of St. Mark.  On the other column is the previous patron saint of the city, St. Theodore.  (Imagine this could have been called St. Theodore’s Square!?)


Campanile di San Marco- This bell tower is located right on Piazza San Marco and offers a 360 degree view of Venice.  It was completely rebuilt stone by stone in 1902 after the original 10th century structure fell down (miraculously, no one was killed).  There are hundreds of steps to the top (325 ft. high), but thankfully there is also an elevator.  Visit first thing in the morning before it gets too crowded.


Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica)- This building dominates St. Marks Square.  It is dedicated to the city’s patron saint, Saint Mark, who was martyred by the Turks in Alexandria, Egypt.  It was originally built in 829 AD to house his remains.  The building was destroyed by fire in 932, and was rebuilt again in 1063. 


The five portals (entrances) of the building are topped by domes.  Above the domes is the loggia (balcony) from which the Doges (Dukes) presided over the crowded public functions that took place in the square.  The horses and the bronze door of the main portal are believed to be from the 4th century.  They were brought to Venice from Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) after the Fourth Crusade in 1204. (The horses you see outside are copies of originals which are now inside the Museo Marciano.)   As you enter the portals the mosaic above the doorway to the far left is the only original one.  The others are all 17th and 18th century reproductions.


As you enter the basilica you will be amazed by the gold mosaics and colored marble.  The lower floor is decorated in Byzantine and Venetian style while the second story is Gothic.  The mosaics on the atrium’s ceiling depict scenes from the Old Testament and date from 1225-1275.


The Treasury or Tesoro holds the riches.  The greatest of these is an altarpiece made of gold in Byzantine and Venetian style.  The name of this altarpiece is the Pala d’Oro. 


The Museo Marciano is up the stairs to the right just after you enter.  The main attractions are the original bronze horses.


The Presbytery (clergy’s private chapel) features mosaics depicting the life of Jesus including the Resurrection. 


Note- Bare shoulders or midriffs including tank tops, shorts or skirts above the knee are not allowed.  You will be turned away, so please come prepared.   On select days of the week there may be an English tour available.


Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)- This building was once the home of the Doges who were elected for life.  It also served as the seat of all government and a courthouse.  The present building is Gothic Renaissance style, begun in 1173.  It incorporated some of the walls and towers of a previous castle from 810, and was expanded to its current size in 1340.  The 1340 addition included the Sala Maggior Consiglio (Great Council Room) which is an architectural wonder considering the vast size of the room with an unsupported ceiling. 


As you enter, you will notice the Scala d’Oro or Golden Staircase which leads up to the Doges' apartments and the government chambers.  These areas are decorated with 16th century paintings.  In the Great Council Room is Tintoretto’s Paradiso, the largest oil painting in the world. 


From the palace continue across the famous Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) connecting the palace and the Prison.  People who were sentenced to death crossed this bridge (supposedly sighing) as they were brought to the Piazzetta San Marco for their execution.  The two red columns on the facade of the palace mark the spot where death sentences were read out.   Tour the medieval prison which was in use until the 1920s.


You can rent an audio guide to tour the palace on your own, or join an English tour at 10:30 AM called “the secret itineraries” (Itinerari Segreti).  It is recommended that you make reservations to visit the palace, and reservations are required for the organized tour.  To make reservations from the U.S. call (011) (39) 041 522 4951. 


Museo Civico Correr- This museum is a collection of art and everyday items such as coins, games, books, weapons and clothing that paint a historical picture of Venetian life.  Included in the clothing exhibit are the robes worn by the Doges.


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