There rises a vision out of the earth; a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light; a treasure heap, it seems, partly of gold and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
With travel back on the agenda and European destinations welcoming visitors again, it’s time to plan your next visit to Italy. And what better place to start than the captivating floating city of Venice? The delights of the Serenissima have to be seen to be believed, and at the very heart of everything is spectacular St. Mark’s Square. All roads in Venice lead to Piazza San Marco, and a stroll through the sweeping public space, with its historic cafes, dazzling architecture and majestic landmarks, needs to be at the top of your to-do list when visiting the city.
Dominating the Piazza is the iconic church of the same name, the spiritual and symbolic centre of Venice for the last thousand years. Its glittering mosaics and awe-inspiring design, a heady fusion of styles and influences that speak to the cosmopolitan nature of the Venetian empire at the height of its power, make St. Mark’s one of the world’s most extraordinary churches - and a must-visit when in Venice.
Unsurprisingly, the basilica is extremely popular with tourists, and a visit to St. Mark’s can be a frustrating experience - long entrance lines can see you queueing for hours in the sun, whilst the throngs of visitors inside make getting a good view of the mosaics and other artistic masterpieces for which the church is famous very difficult indeed.
Fortunately, there is a way to visit St. Mark’s without the crowds: by joining a special after-hours night tour of the basilica, you’ll have the unique opportunity to enter St. Mark’s after it has closed to the general public, enjoying the tranquil surroundings in peace and learning all about the history and art of Venice’s most important church from an expert guide. Read on to discover how to visit St. Mark’s at night!
But first a little bit of history
Before we get down to the practicalities, you need to know a little more about St. Mark’s. Constructed in the late 11th century and inspired by the great basilicas of Constantinople, the unforgettable sight of the cathedral’s endless jumble of domes and turrets transports us straight back to the mysterious world of Byzantium.
We actually owe the existence of St. Mark’s to an audacious ancient theft: in the middle of the 9th century, two Venetian merchants by the names of Buona da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello found themselves trading in Alexandria. Business concluded, they stopped by to pay their respects to the relics of St. Mark, whose bones were conserved in the city.
Succumbing to the temptation of pulling off a great coup for their home city, the doughty sailors hatched a plan to liberate (that is, steal) the apostle’s bones from Muslim controlled Alexandria, spiriting them off across the seas in a barrel of pork fat. The boys returned to a hero’s welcome, and St Mark was decreed the patron saint of Venice. Doge Giustiniano Particiaco wasted little time in ordering the construction of a magnificent church worthy of housing the sacred remains, and St Mark’s basilica was born.
How can I avoid the crowds at St. Marks?
St Mark’s Basilica is open daily from 9.30 AM (Sundays from 2 PM) to 5.15 PM (last admission is at 4.45 PM). As St. Mark’s is the most popular site in Venice, be prepared for very long queues to enter, especially in the high season from April to October. If you want to see the Basilica without having to fight the crowds, then we think that an after-hours night tour is the best option. Through Eternity Tours offer both small-group tours and exclusive private itineraries that enter St. Mark’s after the site is closed to the general public, meaning you’ll get to walk right in and enjoy the splendours of the church with only your guide and a select few other visitors for company.
What will I see on a night tour of St. Mark’s basilica?
On an evening tour of St. Mark’s you’ll start your itinerary in beautiful Piazza San Marco, nicknamed the ‘drawing room of Europe’ by Napoleon, just as the sun begins to set, painting the landscape of the Serenissima in unforgettable pink hues. You’ll learn all about the history of the basilica and why St. Mark’s is so important in the story of Venice from an expert art-historian guide, before being ushered into the hallowed halls of the basilica itself.
As the lights are turned on one by one you’ll be transported into a glittering golden world, with shimmering mosaics extending as far as the eye can see in every direction. The mosaics that cover every inch of the basilica’s walls and ceilings were created by the finest artisans from Venice and beyond over the course of hundreds of years, and portray scenes from the Old Testament and Lives of the Saints.
On a night tour of St. Mark’s you’ll also get up close and personal with the extraordinary Pala d’Oro, a superb golden altarpiece that is a masterpiece of medieval craftsmanship. Over 250 magnificent painted enamels depict Christ alongside prophets and saints. Being in the presence of these wonderful artworks without the distractions of the usual crowds is a special experience indeed, and you’ll have plenty of time to ask your guide anything you’d care to know about the treasures of the cathedral during your time inside.
Some parts of St. Mark’s basilica are usually off-limits to visitors: beneath the church an eerie Gothic crypt is the final resting place for generations of Venetian patriarchs, and on a St. Mark’s night tour you’ll have the opportunity to visit this limited-access area. The crypt was built over the remains of an earlier church that was destroyed to make way for the basilica we know today, and on our tour of the underground areas you’ll get to see evidence of this forgotten history.
Nowhere speaks to the rich history of Venice as evocatively as St. Mark’s Basilica, and experiencing the magic of its glittering interior is an absolute must on any visit to the Serenissima. To check availability and book your place on an exclusive after hours small-group tour of St. Mark’s for just €109, check out our tour page today. If you’d like to reserve a private night tour of St. Mark’s then we’ve got you covered as well! Get in touch to find out more.