There is nowhere like Venice which means, by definition, there is nowhere like San Marco – the very heart of the city of canals. St. Mark’s Square is easily the most visited part of the city so you will be in A LOT of company if visit.
However, visiting St. Marks at night is an even more special experience because the once-packed piazza is quiet. And stepping inside St. Mark’s Basilica at night? Well, that is the kind of thing you remember for a lifetime.
The crown gem of the piazza, St. Mark’s Square has sat at the very entrance to Venice for more than 1,000 years. The five-domed Basilica is attached to the Doge’s Palace and is normally only open to the public during the day.
However, for a select few, it is possible to visit the basilica after dark, long after the crowds have been ushered away. I was lucky enough to be invited to join LivItaly on a unique nighttime tour of St. Mark’s to experience the most famous church in Venice in near solitude.
I was a guest of LivItaly and I can say as a non-tour person that this is honestly one of the best tours I have ever been on. I traveled up to Venice last week to join them on the special evening visit to the church, and after a stop for view and cicchetti, we wandered over to St. Mark’s Square just as the skies turned midnight blue.
As the lights of the square twinkled in the acqua alta (a Venetian high tide that regularly floods into the piazza), we learned about the history of the basilica from our guide Marie. With its five domes and extensive Byzantine-style mosaics, the Catholic Church is one of the most beautiful and most unique places of worship in Italy.
Venice was once one of the richest and most powerful trading centers in the world, and the Venetians knew it. Deeming their first Patron Saint, St. Theodore, a bit too much of an unknown, they went off in search of another better-known saint to watch over their fine city. After a small bit of grave robbing, they returned to Venice with the bones of St. Mark and built Basilica di San Marco in his honor.
Walking through the doors into the splendor of the gold-covered sanctuary is an experience at any time of day, but sitting in complete darkness as the caretakers turned on the lights to illuminate 43,000 square feet of glittering mosaics is honestly something I will never forget. It gave me goosebumps:
Once inside, we had an hour to explore the basilica in complete solitude. Marie was there to explain how it had changed over its nearly 1200 years of history. The church first built on this spot would have been much smaller. It was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in a grand style, filled with treasures that the Venetians plundered from all over the world.
While the ceilings are the star of the show, I couldn’t help but notice how intricate and beautiful the floors are as well. I realized that I never would have been able to see the floors if I visited during normal hours because they would have been hidden by the shuffling feet of hundreds of other curious tourists.
Your eyes are always drawn to the sparkling ceilings which stand over the entire cathedral. However, one of the best examples of the immense wealth (and impressive looting skills) of the Venetian Republic is the Pala d’Oro altarpiece. You normally have to pay an additional fee to see the Pala d’Oro during the day, but since we were on a private tour, we could admire it for as long as we liked. It is studded with rare jewels and is truly priceless!
After seeing the main basilica, we also wandered down to the crypt, an area of the church that is usually closed to the public.
LivItaly limits their groups to a maximum of six people so you are always going to have an intimate experience. No headsets or crowd control needed. I honestly felt like a President or a celeb – because who else gets to see special places all to themselves? Well, you and me, if we plan ahead and book a spot. Here is more information about the nighttime St. Mark’s tour.
Getting to tour St. Mark’s at night just reminded me once more of why Venice is a city that I never tire of. I don’t think I have ever left thinking “oh, yeah, that’s it for me. It’s time to go home.” Instead, I am always left wanting more and forever inspired to try even harder at attempts to understand one of the world’s most unique cities.
Note: I was a free guest of LivItaly tours but this review represents my honest opinion of the experience.