The oldest, most famous, most popular and busiest neighbourhood in Venice, attraction-filled San Marco is named after the patron saint of the city (Saint Michael, in case you were wondering). Complicating matters somewhat, though, is the fact that San Marco is also the smallest sestiere in Venice, leaving it rather ill-equipped to deal with all those people.
Bordered by the Grand Canal on one side (where it is joined to San Polo by the unrivalled Rialto Bridge) and the far less touristy neighbourhoods of Cannaregio and Castello on the other, San Marco Venice can be a little overwhelming at times but one of the many things that travel teaches us is to simply appreciate each place for its pros and not get too bogged down in the cons. Plus, it still has many of the main sights you came to the city to see, including the iconic St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco). So, yeah, you’re going to end up there sooner or later.
It is said that Napoleon called the Piazza San Marco “the drawing room of Europe” though there is little proof. Since the Piazza San Marco is so close to sea level it is often affected by the Acqua Alta, the “high water” from storm surges from the Adriatic or heavy rain and is quick to flood. Be sure to check out the winged lion – the Lion of Venice – which is the symbol of St Mark – while wandering the San Marco square.
The San Marco district can get bery busy to if possible try to visit either early or late and wander another neighborhood in the middle of the day.
The 6 Sestieri of Venice
People on very short visits often visit only the big attractions of San Marco. However, if you have enough time it is well worth checking out each of the 5 other Venetian sestieri.
For a complete overview, check out Where to Stay in Venice: Guide to Venice Neighbourhoods
San Polo runs a close second to San Marco for popularity, as the oldest neighbourhood in Venice and home to the wildly popular Rialto Bridge and Rialto Markets.
See our complete guide: San Polo: Venice’s Most Lively Neighbourhood
Cannaregio offers an authentic look at the real Venice, where outstanding sites sit side by side with local shops and Venetians going about their daily lives.
For a more in-depth look, see Cannaregio: Guide to our Favourite Venice Neighbourhood
Running neck and neck with Cannaregio for the most “real” and local of the sestieri, Castello boasts many excellent trattoria and unique art.
For more details, check out Castello: Guide to Venice’s Most Authentic Neighbourhood
Dorsoduro is the place to go for museums, including the Guggenheim collection, Accademia Gallery and the relatively new Punta della Dogana museum.
Check out our full guide, Dorsoduro: Guide to Venice’s Best Walking District
Last but not least, Santa Croce includes the Harbor of San Basilio and parking area of Piazzale Roma, serving as the city’s transportation hub.
To find the hidden gems of this underrated sestiere, see Santa Croce: A Guide to Venice’s Least-Known Neighbourhood
Map of San Marco Venice
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Best Things to do in San Marco Venice
Unlike the other Venice neighbourhoods where you can spend a lot of your time seeking out hidden gems in quiet corners, the main attractions of San Marco are epic, world-famous and generally crowded. But most definitely memorable. Here is our list of the best things to do in San Marco Venice.
Visit St. Mark’s Basilica
One of the most famous churches in the world, St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) is one of the most impressive Byzantine buildings on the planet. Built all the way back in the 11th century as a better place for the tomb of Venice’s patron saint, Saint Mark the Evangelist, it is a true world wonder.
Stunning from the outside, the San Marco Basilica is somehow even more impressive inside with the extravagant marble floors, gold decorations and spectacular mosaics that depict biblical scenes (often focused on St. Mark’s personal adventures). The gold reliquaries of the treasury are a particular highlight and were the main source of the church’s immense wealth after the fall of Constantinople.
See the View from the Campanile di San Marco
This sensational tower in the centre of St. Mark’s Square is 99-metres tall and was first built in the 12th century (and later rebuilt in the 16th century).
In those days it served as a defensive watchtower and lighthouse, while today it is the place tourists can climb to the top to enjoy one of the best views in Venice. You can also see the largest of the five original bells of the campanile.
Take a Gondola Ride from St Mark’s Square
Possibly the most iconic Venetian image is quietly cruising the canals in a traditional gondola, manned by a jaunty man in full classic attire. As cliché as it may be, there is still something to be said for seeing the city from the comfort of one of these flat-bottomed boats instead of fighting your way through the crowded alleys.
When they first appeared in the 11th century, these light, practical boats were the main transportation options in Venice. Today, however, they are one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. There are numerous places where you can hire a Venice gondola but the area in front of St. Mark’s Square is by far the most popular.
Check out the National Archaeological Museum
Located across from the Piazzetta (a small extension of the Piazza San Marco), this thorough museum features an impressive range of exhibits dating back to prehistoric times of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt and Greece, then covers the full gamut of Venetian history up to the fabulous art, ceramics, clothing and jewels of the city’s 16th century elite.
Listen to The Bells of San Marco
Even if you choose not to tackle the exhausting climb to the top of the campanile, the bell tower is an impressive site from outside as well. The five bells are contained within a loggia on the belfry that features several lion faces and Lady Justice (La Giustizia) herself (the Venetian version, anyway).
Standing below in one of the world’s most well-known squares below the Torre dell’ Orologio while these famous bells ring out is an unquestionably moving experience.
Watch the Sunrise at Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)
Whether you use the Italian Palazzo Ducale or English Doge’s Palace, this is one of the unmissable buildings in Venice. Located right next to St. Mark’s Basilica and physically connected to the iconic Bridge of Sighs, this magnificent architectural achievement has served many purposes over the years (and still does to this day).
Yes, it was where the Doge lived as the ruler of Venice for a millennium from the 8th century to the 18th. However, it also served as the main government building, courthouse and prison. Inside, the number of attractions are staggering but some of the most important include the elaborate Sala del Maggiore Consiglio (Great Council), Sansovino’s Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase) and the many famous paintings by major Venetian artists such as Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), Giovanni Bellini, Paolo Veronese and Vittore Carpaccio.
Even though you won’t be able to go inside until later, seeing the Doge’s Palace at sunrise means you can kill two birds with one stone – get really cool photos with the soft morning light streaming through the pillars, and do so without any other tourists around at one of the most popular spots in Venice.
Relax in the Giardini Reali
Somehow, despite its central location right between Piazza San Marco and the Canale Grande, this tiny, lush garden has managed to retain a quiet, serene atmosphere. It is beautiful and calm and a great place to escape the crowds of the square. Famous Harry’s Bar is nearby, as well as a small coffee shop, in case you want to pick up something to enjoy during your time in this peaceful garden.
Cross The Bridge of Sighs
Made of gleaming white Istrian limestone, the gorgeous Bridge of Sighs is one of the world’s most famous bridges. Ponte dei Sospiri in Italian, this incredible Venice landmark was built in 1600 by Antonio Contino to connect the Doge’s Palace to the prison cells across the Rio di Palazzo (Palace River).
Naturally, Venetian rulers have always appreciated having an easy, discreet way to move prisoners back and forth between the prison cells and the interrogation rooms of the palace (don’t we all?). Today, though, if you want to actually set foot on the Bridge of Sighs (and are reluctant to do something that ends in a royal interrogation), you’ll need to book a tour of the Palazzo Ducale.
Despite its grim origins and history, the Bridge of Sighs is an extraordinary photo spot, especially late in the day when the light is softer, and ideally when a traditional gondola is passing by underneath. Of course, as specific as that sounds, it shouldn’t be a problem since legend has it that any couple who kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset will enjoy both eternal love and happiness (realistically, even just one of those sounds pretty enticing). So, yeah, you’ll probably see a gondola or two.
Plus, if you happen to be weighing the pros and cons of the cost of a sunset gondola ride, you should probably also factor in that whole eternal happiness thing.
See the Opera at Teatro La Fenice
Yet another of the world’s most famous landmarks, the elegant La Fenice has been renowned in top opera circles for centuries, although it really rose to prominence in the 19th century during the era of bel canto opera featuring four historic composers – Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi.
It is definitely worth checking out the latest schedule to see if anything is playing during your visit.
Visit Museo Correr
One of the best museums in Venice, the Museo Correr boasts an impressive range of antiques, artifacts, architecture and exhibits from every stage of Venetian history. It has a little bit of everything, from luxurious apartments to classic weaponry to ancient sculptures and everything in between.
Tickets to the Doge’s Palace include entrance to the museum and even those who don’t normally get too worked up about history will still love the fantastic views from the museum of St. Mark’s Basilica and St. Mark’s Square.
Take a Break at Caffé Florian on the Piazza San Marco
The classic arcades of the three connected buildings of St. Mark’s Square (the Procuratie) are lined with delightful cafés with outdoor terraces where you can relax and watch the crowds stream in and out.
Try a “Bellini”, a Prosecco and peach cocktail dating back to 1931, enjoy some delicious cicchetti and don’t forget to mentally brace yourself for front row St. Mark’s Square prices.
Best San Marco Venice Hotels: Where to Stay
Staying in San Marco district is not the most economical but if you want to be in the heart of it all there are some really amazing choices for hotels in San Marco Venice.
Baglioni Hotel Luna
The stunning Baglioni Hotel Luna features a stunning location less than 100 meters from St. Mark’s Square. And if you’re staying here, price probably isn’t your main concern so it probably also makes sense to splash out on a suite that overlooks the lagoon. You will be spoiled by the views and amenities and there is even a private dock so you can arrive in style by motorboat or gondala.
Also just a 5-minute walk from St. Mark’s Square, Hotel Flora is tucked away down a quiet little street in a lovely renovated 17th century building. You can also enjoy a peaceful breakfast in their cute garden area.
A Call for Calm Apartment
If you are looking for an apartment, the Plum Guide only offers rentals that meet their extremely high standards for quality and comfort and has several of the best choices in Venice, including some with as many as 3 or 4 bedrooms.
One of the best accommodation options in all of San Marco is the aptly named A Call for Calm apartment, mixing traditional and modern with gorgeous exposed beams but all the amenities and comfort you could ask for. With two bedrooms, two baths and a full kitchen, it is one of the most comfortable stays in Venice.
San Marco Venice Summary
Yes, San Marco is touristy. And busy. And crowded. But as with all the most popular tourist destinations, it got that way for a reason. Featuring many of the world’s most famous landmarks and attractions, San Marco is a glorious, hectic, memorable, phenomenal mess. Venice in a nutshell.
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