Even if you've only ever seen a single photo of Venice, chances are you already know what St. Mark's Basilica looks like. Arguably the most famous landmark in Italy's floating city (unless you count canals as landmarks), this stunningly beautiful cathedral is one of the most photographed and visited churches in the world, welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors each and every year. It's more than likely then that the basilica has also found its way onto your very own travel bucket list!
In this in-depth guide, we will introduce you to the cathedral's fascinating history, list out all the must-visit highlights inside, and provide you with important information before visiting. The most immersive and hassle-free way to visit St. Mark's Basilica is by booking a tour with a private guide.
The history of St. Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco in Italian) spans more than a thousand years. The basilica's history is closely intertwined with that of the Doge's Palace, which is located right next to the cathedral and is also a very popular place for travelers to visit. After the body of St. Mark the Evangelist was stolen from Egypt and brought to Venice in 828, the body was originally housed in the Doge's Palace. Later on, the Doge (the leader of the Venetian Republic), declared that a church should be built to house the relics instead.
The church was originally built somewhere between 828 - 832, only to be later destroyed during a 976 uprising against the ruling Doge. Following the devastation of the original structure, the building of the basilica that presides over St. Mark's Square to this day began in 1063. Since then, the grand cathedral has been through a lot, including a devastating fire in 1145, the addition of the now-iconic mosaic art in the 1150s, and the introduction of the famous bronze horses during the 13th century. St. Mark's Basilica was designated the Doge's chapel until Napoleon himself declared it a public basilica in 1807.
Important info before you visit
As with any major landmark, to get the most of your visit to St. Mark's Basilica, it's best to plan ahead. First, you should take into account that the basilica actually features multiple sections, namely the basilica, its bell tower, a museum dedicated to the cathedral's history, and Loggia dei Cavalli or the Balcony of Horses. Seeing how many places there are to visit in the complex, make sure you give yourself enough time to explore, or alternatively, only incorporate specific areas into your visit. Different parts of the basilica also have different opening hours and require a separate ticket. Opening hours and ticket prices can vary based on holidays.
The basilica is open every day from 9:30 am to 5:15 pm. Last admissions are at 4:45 pm, so don't leave your visit to the last minute. In fact, for minimal crowds, it's best to visit the basilica first thing in the morning, preferably on a weekday. Keep in mind though that this is one of the most popular attractions in a very popular city, so chances are it will get crowded no matter what time you visit. The museum is only open until 2 pm, while the bell tower stays open until 9:15 pm, with last admissions at 8:45 pm.
All visitors should keep in mind that St. Mark's Basilica is a religious site. This means visitors are asked to behave respectfully, dress modestly, and keep their voices at a low volume. The basilica is closed for visitors during Sunday morning mass. On Sundays, tourists can visit the basilica from 2 pm onwards.
Entrance to the basilica used to be free of charge, but this has changed as the church is trying to raise the funds needed to maintain this historic monument which has suffered greatly due to repeated flooding. Nowadays, the entrance ticket is priced at €3. If you would also like to visit the Pala d'Oro (high altar retable), a supplement of €5 will apply. Likewise, to visit the museum - Loggia dei Cavalli, a €7 supplement will be charged. Entrance to the bell tower is priced at €10 per person. Children under the age of 6 can enter all areas of St. Mark's Basilica free of charge.
St. Mark's Basilica is huge in size and you could easily spend an entire day wandering around the complex. Here are the must-see sights to look out for.
The basilica's Pala d'Oro, or high altar retable, is over a thousand years old and is widely considered one of the most beautiful and masterful examples of Byzantine enamel found anywhere in the world. This grand altarpiece is encrusted with gems and jewels, including pearls, emeralds, rubies, and amethysts.
The basilica's treasury houses treasures gathered throughout the centuries. The collection is fascinating and large enough to be divided into four sections based on the objects' origin and time period.
St. Mark's Museum
St. Mark's Museum is home to the Horses of St. Mark, the iconic bronze horses which were originally brought to Venice during 13th century crusades, and were later removed by Napoleon, only to be returned in 1815. Besides the famous horses, the museum also houses Byzantine sculptures, Gobelin tapestries, Persian carpets, and much more.
Tomb of St. Mark
The Tomb of St. Mark is housed in a crypt beneath the basilica. The crypt was built on the ruins of the original basilica destroyed in 976. The relics of this famous martyr (who is considered to be the author of the Gospel of Mark) were stolen from Egypt in 828 and remain in Venice to this day.
St. Mark's Basilica is one of the most popular and most revered landmarks in Venice. With its long history, unique architecture, and priceless works of art, it's no wonder that the basilica continues to attract visitors year after year.
As you can see, there is a lot to see at St. Mark's Basilica. Private tours are the best way to get the most of your visit to this iconic monument. Exploring the basilica with a professional guide who can point out all the hidden highlights and explain their historical meaning will take your visit to a whole new level. Get to know our guides today!
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