Home Architectural Travel Discover Venice and Basilica San Marco

Discover Venice and Basilica San Marco

written by Penny Sadler

UPDATES November 17, 2019 : This week, Venice experienced one of the most devastating floods in history. St. Mark’s Square and the Basilica were closed to tourists. They have recently reopened but the city is still on high alert for more flooding. If you plan to travel to Venice, be aware.  Read up-to-date information about the flooding

Venice! It’s a city with an aura of mystery and romance. The bridges crisscrossing the canals, the gondolas gliding silently over the water, and the exotic architecture all add up to a city unlike any other in the world.

Discover Basilica San Marco 

Being a curious sort, I wanted to dive a little deeper into the waters of Venice. To help me discover Venice and decipher its long history, I booked a walking tour with Context Travel, called Venice and the East.

The three hour tour focused on St. Mark’s Cathedral (Basilica San Marco) with a little time spent on Piazza San Marco and stops at Corte del Milion and the Rialto Bridge.

CC wallpaper passion.com

I didn’t know it at the time of booking, but I couldn’t have chosen a better tour for learning about the history of Venice. Why? Because in my opinion (formed as a result of the tour), you can’t really understand Venice if you don’t know anything about Basilica San Marco.

To understand Venice you must have knowledge of Basilica San Marco

Our guide, Erika, explained how Venice developed and became one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world at that time. Located in a lagoon that opens onto the Adriatic Sea, and with direct trade routes to China, Africa, Turkey, and Greece, Venice became an important maritime power.

Piazzetta San Marco Venice and the East @PennySadler 2013

By the 11th century, Venice was a major player and the Byzantine government granted Venice the right to free trade throughout the empire, creating the opportunity for Venice to become very very rich.

Geographically located between the Asian influences to the east and the Latin influences of the west, the architecture of Venice reflects many Islamic design details. Until the 1400s, this type of architecture was very popular and is often referred to as Venetian Gothic.

Doge's palace Context Italy Venice and the East @PennySadler 2013

On the east side of the Doge’s Palace, next to the lagoon, you can observe more of the eastern influence in the faces carved into the cornices of the columns. The broader features and fuller lips clearly depict people from a different culture.

Venice and the east @PennySadler 2013


All that glitters is gold

Now let’s turn our attention to the focus of the tour, Basilica San Marco, where all that glitters really is gold! It is said that if you laid all the mosaics out side by side, they would cover an acre. Regarded as the most important example of Byzantine architecture in the world, it may be the most opulent church I’ve ever seen.

Besides the mosaics, there’s the Pala d’ Oro, a spectacular altarpiece commissioned in the 12th century. The panels depict religious scenes and are made of gold, silver, and gemstones – many stolen from Constantinople. The Venetians had really good taste and only stole the best.

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The cathedral has been the most important place in Venice since 828, and according to legend was originally built to house the remains of its patron, St. Mark. The mosaics on the exterior tell the story of smuggling his remains out of Alexandria in a basket filled with pork to ensure the Muslims would not go near it.

@PennySadler 2013

The cathedral burned down on two occasions and was rebuilt. In 1094, it was consecrated and given to the city of Venice to be the people’s church. This is the church you see today with its sparkling facade and many domes and turrets. St Mark’s represented the independent power the Republic of Venice had become.

This important building was also the personal chapel of the Doge of Venice until 1807. Can you imagine having your own personal gold mine, priceless art collection, and cathedral?

Context travel @PennySadler 2013

In spite of the beauty and art, it felt a bit heavy to me…possibly due to the history of religious wars attached to it? Or perhaps it felt heavy due to the cold, grey, day outside, and the fact that they don’t turn on all the lights until almost noon! Needless to say, the lights reflecting from the gold mosaics brightened up the interior considerably.

We completed our tour of the cathedral with a visit to the balcony and a great view over Piazza San Marco, politically and socially the most important place in Venice.

@PennySadler 2013 Context Travel Venice and the east

Our tour then concluded with a brief walk over to the home of Marco Polo (famous for his silk and spice trade route) and the Rialto Bridge which crosses the Grand Canal. The original house burned down, and there is some controversy about this being the location of the original house, but it makes sense that a merchant family’s home would be located in this area near the Rialto Bridge and on a canal.

Context travel Venice and the east @PennySadler 2013

The Rialto Bridge is perhaps the second most famous landmark in Venice. It was the first bridge to connect the islands and was rebuilt several times before it became what you see today. An interesting trivia tidbit: the designer of the current bridge’s name is Senoré Ponte – ponte means bridge! The Rialto was built with market stalls on each side, which remain in use today. It is one of only four bridges that cross the Grand Canal.

I am glad I waited to go inside Basilica San Marco with a guide. The place is huge and the lines are long. With a guide you won’t have to wait in line as long, nor will you waste time waiting in the wrong line! Also, I might have missed the Pala d’ Oro,  Comprised of over 250 enamels and covered in precious stones it was totally worth the extra 2 euros we paid to see it.

I would recommend this tour for anyone who is interested in history, architecture, art, culture, and gold!

architectural detail Doge's Palace Venice and the east @PennySadler 2013

This tour was provided by Context Travel however the review and all opinions are my own. Interior photographs provided by Context Travel and the creative commons. All other photos are mine.

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Syangbo Ghale October 21, 2016 at 5:24 am

your photographs suggest why Venice makes the cut for the most attractive destination in the world. I like the one with the reflection-Basilica San Marco-looks amazing.
Great that the religious wars are almost behind us.

Penny Sadler October 21, 2016 at 9:47 am

Thanks for you comment. Venice is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Mingma @ everest base camp trek August 29, 2014 at 3:59 am

What a nice way to spend a layover! Much better than sitting an airport 😉 I love being on the water in anyway.

Emily July 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

We’re so glad to hear that you enjoyed the walk! Erika is a fantastic docent and it sounds like she did a wonderful job of conveying Venice’s historical relationship with the East. The walk has recently undergone a name change and is now called: St Mark’s to Rialto: Venice and the East

Here’s the walk description: http://www.contexttravel.com/city/venice/walking-tour-details/st-marks-to-rialto-venice-and-the-east

Any questions, just get in touch at italy@contexttravel.com

Penny Sadler July 19, 2014 at 9:34 am

Good to know!

www.mudlusciouspress.com June 14, 2014 at 3:19 am

i love Venice and i love art history. so i enjoyed everything in your post. thanks alot for sharing. 🙂

Adam P. December 13, 2013 at 2:43 am

Venice is one of those few special places, where I can put up with the hordes of tourists quite easily and take them as a part of the scenery. Don´t know why exactly, but it is..It´s always been imprinted in my mind as a bustling trade center with people running around rushing to some important business meeting (maybe that´s partly thanks to the beautiful paintings by Canaletto)and so without the hectic tourist traffic it wouldn´t feel right somehow.. Context Travel sound like a very good alternative to traditional tours that too often feel like they barely scratch the surface.

Mary @ Green Global Travel December 12, 2013 at 8:58 pm

When I was at Basilica San Marco, there just happened to be a boy choir singing. It sounded like angels and that moment will always be my favorite memory of Venice. Thanks for reminding me why Venice is so special.

Penny Sadler December 12, 2013 at 9:04 pm

That is a beautiful memory indeed. How lucky!

Cat of Sunshine and Siestas December 11, 2013 at 6:36 am

Venice is a place I’ve almost avoided because of the tourist draw. Sounds like a great tour to really take you to the soul of the place! There’s a direct flight from Seville, so I really haven’t got much of a choice, anyway!

Penny Sadler December 12, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Alright now you are beholden. 🙂

Melissa December 10, 2013 at 11:19 pm

I LOVE Venice! As an art historian, I appreciate your telling of some of the history of the place, and your photos are fantastic. Looks like you got the most out of your tour for a variety of reasons!

Penny Sadler December 12, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Thanks Melissa.

Lizzie December 10, 2013 at 10:16 am

I love Venice and it was great reliving being there through your post. The photos are great and your words really brought its history to life!

Penny Sadler December 12, 2013 at 9:03 pm


Larissa December 9, 2013 at 1:10 pm

I’ve heard good things about Context Travel. Will definitely have to check them out, since I like to dig a little deeper into a destination.

Penny Sadler December 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm

I also took a tour with them in Rome. In both cases I think their guides give you more than you expect. Maybe too much! 🙂

wanderingeducators December 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

What an incredible tour – and beautiful photos!!

Penny Sadler December 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Thanks! I learned a lot!

Jennifer December 9, 2013 at 12:00 am

I haven’t used Context Tours, I sure have heard of the company, though. Glad that the tour co was able to give you such a fantastic Venice experience (did they shield you from the smell? You don’t mention the…olfactory wonder of Venice).

Penny Sadler December 9, 2013 at 1:17 pm

I Jennifer, I didn’t because honestly didn’t have any problems. I’ve been twice, both in October. I thought the smell was only a problem in the summer? Have you been in the summer? or when?

The Tin Man December 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm

I know the history of Venice quite well; however, your post was so very riveting! Your narrative and the most wonderful photographs brought that history back to life. This is one of my favorite posts ever! Delightful!!!!

Penny Sadler December 2, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Tin Man thank you for that!


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