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St Mark's Square in the Gondola City of Venice

Published by Bill Lehane, Writer

Country: Italy

The Experience

Venice is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions, attracting some 20 million visitors per year to the Italian city. The historic city of Venice, once an independent city state, was a major trading post in its day between Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic world. In fact, around the 13th Century it was the richest city in all of Europe. The legacy of this era remains fully palpable, with a great number of magnificent historic buildings.

The gondola city of Venice, which is made up of 113 small islands, is perhaps most famous for its many canals and their many gondolas. However, Venice is also very well known for the grandeur of the central St Mark's Square, and its current principal residents: pigeons.

Until recently, Venice was home to some 140,000 pigeons; more than one for every two human inhabitants. Feeding the pigeons in Piazza San Marco was a tradition that lasted many decades, and the Square's many visitors once kept 19 pigeon feed sellers in business. They are, however, now something of a dying breed. Since 2008, feeding the birds has been banned by city authorities over concerns for their impact on the classic architecture that dominates the Square (the pigeons greatly enjoy pecking away at the marble facade of St Mark's Basilica).

Health authorities estimate that there are 40 times more pigeons in the historical centre of Venice than the ideal level for any metropolitan area. Cleaning up after the many pigeons has also taken its toll on the city's finances. Keeping the area clean all year round reportedly costs an astonishing US$36 PER PIGEON. So if you want to see the Square as it has been enjoyed for generations, get there soon before all the pigeons are gone.

Apart from the many birds, there's plenty to see on St Mark's Square; of course, not least the grandiloquent basilica of the same name that dominates the historical square. First erected by Venetian rulers in the 11th Century as an exclusive place for their worship, it has since become the Venice’s cathedral. You can see exactly why it was once nicknamed the “Church of Gold,” for despite the passage of centuries, it remains decked in gilded mosaics both inside and out, with many marble columns, domes and other features that were later added. Inside, at the high altar, you'll find the relics of St Mark the Evangelist: one of the Twelve Apostles.

Doge's Palace is also situated on the Square, and was once the home of the rulers and political elite of ancient Venice. In its equally grand interior, you'll find many great artworks as well as insight into how Doge's Palace was used in the Venice heydays. It's just one of a total of 13 museums on St Mark's Square, with two art galleries, as well as museums of lace, glass and natural history among the many attractions of Venice to choose from.

The most pleasant thing to do on the Square is also the simplest—sit down at one of the many outdoor cafes, order a large, expensive coffee, and gaze at the wonderful architecture, the varied tourists and locals, and of course, the birds.

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When to Go to St Marks Square

Delta is the only airline flying direct from the US to Venice Marco Polo Airport, while Air France, Alitalia, and KLM offer flights from Canada. There are plenty more options if you fly into another major European city en route.

The best time of the year to visit St Mark's Square in Venice, is during early summer and autumn, when the sun is shining and the temperature is mild enough to do plenty of walking around. If you go in high summer, there will be scores of other tourists on every corner, and you may not get to see everything you had planned.

Odds n' Ends

In order to give yourself the best chance of avoiding the crowds, consider leaving your visit to the Venice’s top attractions and events until the early evening. If you're staying in Venice, you'll find many tourists will already have left to return to Mestre on the mainland, and you won't have to queue to see the best sights.

If you do head to Venice in high summer, be aware that there will be quite a stench from the canals. Try to avoid visiting in November, since the seasonal high waters can cause temporary flooding of up to 65% of the city.

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