Last Updated on April 24, 2024

I made my first visit to Venice in April of 2024 covering the Venice Biennale. I was in town three days with numerous pre-arranged exhibition viewings, but did want to make time for the highlights: St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. I knew sorting that out on my own – not speaking Italian, never having been, being limited on time – was more than I wanted to take on myself.

I decided on a half-day tour including both locations – which are side-by-side – offered by The Tour Guy. The tour included a gondola ride at the end.

If for no other reason than the tour’s “skip the line” access to the sites, it was worth it. Venice is one of the most over-touristed places in the world, and even though I was visiting during a “shoulder season,” the crowds were big. Touring St. Mark’s Basilica felt like Disneyworld at times, shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors.

The Doge’s Palace is a much larger – and equally remarkable – complex allowing tourists and groups to spread out, but because it is so large, I could imagine wayfinding being confusing on your own. I’d sooner try visiting St. Mark’s Basilica by myself because everything guests can see is contained in one, enormous space, with no opportunity for getting lost or turned around.

I am an atheist and the Renaissance is not especially interesting to me, so St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace were not on my list of lifelong pilgrimage sites. I wasn’t looking to spend hours and hours at both places investigating every detail. I understand their significance, wanted the highlights, and found The Tour Guide’s half-day tour more than sufficient in providing what I was looking for.

If, however, cathedrals and Catholicism and Italian history and Renaissance painting are your thing, marching through both buildings at pace without lots of time to stop and ponder may leave you feeling rushed. Consider separate tours or a return visit by yourself.

NOTE: Bags larger than a purse are not allowed in St. Mark’s or the Doge’s Palace. Leave your backpack behind or you’ll have to check it before entry.

NOTE: Venice is the least accessible city I’ve ever visited. Visitors must walk (or water taxi) everywhere. The streets are old and uneven. Stairs take you over the numerous canals. Anyone with mobility challenges will want to be aware of this before arriving. Likewise, St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace are not like large museums with broad hallways and elevators.

Sadly, visitors in wheelchairs or the elderly or anyone who gets around with the aide of canes, crutches or walkers will need to think long and hard about visiting Venice because navigating the city will prove difficult.

St. Mark’s: Remember to Look Down while Looking Up

Ceiling mosaic inside St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, Italy.
Ceiling mosaic inside St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. Photo by Chadd Scott.

St. Mark’s Basilica is astoundingly beautiful. That begins on the exterior.

Even if you don’t step foot inside, the outside of the building is a bananas conglomeration of crazy patchwork stone, colors, textures, relief, surfaces, detail, arcs, columns, railings, windows, sculpture, and lattice work. It’s the “grand finale” of the fireworks show applied to architecture and design – everything, everywhere, all at once.

The glass mosaics are zany and I’m a huge fan of mosaics.

The building’s exterior reminded me of a stone quilt.

The interior is equally astounding, especially the ceiling mosaics, although a knowledge of Christianity – which I don’t have – would be beneficial in deciphering the various scenes depicted. Another good reason to visit on a tour and have the guide decipher everything for you.

Just the same, I could appreciate the magnificent color, detail and craftsmanship.

What I most enjoyed were the floors. That’s right. Remember to look down while looking up in St. Mark’s.

The Basilica’s floors are every bit as intricate and carefully crafted as the ceilings with all manner of mosaics and stone inlay designs of fantastic patterns, birds and Biblical stories.

Mosaic stone design on floor in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, Italy
Mosaic stone design on floor in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Doge’s Palace > St. Mark’s Basilica

I had zero expectations before visiting the Doge’s Palace and was blown away. I preferred it to St. Mark’s. In addition to architectural highlights nearly equaling its neighbor, the Doge’s Palace’s enormous Tintoretto and Veronese paintings – more like murals – stood out.

If Italian Renaissance painting is your thing, you may want more time in the Doge’s Palace than this tour allows. The other high-spot for this material in Venice is Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Pay particular notice to Tintoretto’s enormous Il Paradiso, produced over four years when the artist was in his 80s and composed of 500 figures.

Tintoretto 'Il Paradiso' painting inside Doge's Palace complex in Venice, Italy
Tintoretto ‘Il Paradiso’ painting inside Doge’s Palace complex in Venice, Italy. Photo by Chadd Scott.

The only stop on the tour I wish I’d had more time for or information on was at the very end of the Doge’s Palace portion and the Bridge of Sighs and prison cells. People convicted of crimes in Venice were transported to cells over the Bridge of Sighs, offering them their last glimpse of beautiful Venice – resulting in their sighs.

The conditions they found in their cells were barbaric. Crowded, dark, dank, alternately stifling hot and freezing cold, rat infested, little food, abused by guards, abused by prisoners, no windows, no fresh air, no movement. I could have used more time to process this all.

These dungeons were in use into the 20th century.

Caging people is a grisly feature of Western Civilization. Native Americans – and many Indigenous civilizations around the world – had, and have, no such thing as jails and prisons. “Justice” in Europe and North America is synonymous with “punishment.” Often brutal punishment in barbaric conditions. To this day.

More than 2 million people are locked up in the United States, by far the highest number in the world. Tens of thousands of them are doing time on relatively minor drug and property crimes like possession and shoplifting. The imprisoned are overwhelmingly Black, Brown, and poor relative to their percentage of the total population.

By the end of my 3.5-hour tour of St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, my guide and group of 14 were just trying to stay together long enough to get to the finish line, understandable, but I will remember these cells and the Bridge of Sighs despite the brief time we spent with them.

NOTE: The half-day tour is a FULL 3.5 hours and not including a gondola ride at the end. There are NO bathroom breaks or snack stops. There are no water breaks. Food and beverages are not allowed in either location. While there are opportunities for brief impromptu rests, plan on being on your feet standing or walking – on stone – that entire time. Plan in advance for this.

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