There’s a good reason Piazza San Marco is the most iconic location in Venice, Italy. From the stunning Basilica San Marco to the Doge’s Palace, it is a beautifully maintained relic of the Venetian glory days. It’s a photographer’s playground of elaborate architecture, repeating patterns, and diverse activity. We spent a month in Venice in May of 2017, and we returned again and again to Piazza San Marco for photography, sightseeing, and just to let our daughter chase the pigeons. If you are excited about coming home with photos of Venice’s most popular attraction, please enjoy this guide to what you’ll find there and how to get the best photos.
Piazza San Marco Photography Guide
Basilica San Marco (Saint Mark’s Basilica)
Basilica San Marco might just be the most ornate building you will ever see. The sculptures, murals and columns of the Basilica make beautiful photography taken individually or as a whole. When it comes to capturing exceptional photos, your main obstacle will be tourists (and sometimes other photographers). Our visit was in May, which isn’t even considered high tourism season in Venice, and the crowds in the square and on the streets of Venice were so thick it was often hard to move around, let alone compose a good shot. There are two ways to get around the crowds, and unfortunately, they both mean losing a little sleep.
- Get There Early: If you are able to get to the Piazza San Marco by around sunrise, you should be able to make it before the tourists wake up and before the vendors arrive to cater to them. The added benefit of getting up early is that the lighting is better at sunrise and in the golden hour shortly after. The lighting in the late afternoon and evening is also nice, but the crowds will still be overwhelming.
- Slow Exposures: Late at night, the crowds will start to thin out again, but you don’t need them to disappear entirely. If you use a tripod and a long exposure, the people will blur and even disappear. It also gives you a chance to see how the artificial lighting highlights the shapes of the buildings.
Acqua Alta (High Water)
We were lucky enough to visit during this rare event, when seawater rises high enough to come up through grates in the street and flood the square. It happens on certain full moons, but only when other conditions are just right as well. It gives you a chance to capture not just the Basilica, but it’s reflection as well. Just watch out that you and your camera gear don’t get trapped by the rising water. There is no current, so you don’t have to worry about getting swept away (in fact, many people choose to dance or play in the water), but you could get wet.
Columns and Arches
The entire square is lined with arches and columns that create shaded walkways in front of shops and cafes. The repeating patterns of these walkways make for great photos as they simplify the scene and draw they eye to your chosen point of focus. It’s a great place for portraits, or just getting creative with your foreground when photographing the Basilica.
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)
Speaking of Columns and Arches, they get particularly beautiful as you make your way to the Doge’s Palace. This is another place where you stand no chance unless you show up before the crowds. But if you do get there early enough, you’ll be rewarded not just by the beautiful architecture, but by views of the water in the background and iconic rose colored street lamps in the foreground. This building is exotic complex, and it’s location on the corner where the square meets the water means that you have a lot of options when you are choosing your composition.
Riva degli Schiavoni (The Waterfront)
The Riva degli Schiavoni runs East all the way around the Venice Harbor from Piazza San Marco to a beautiful green park (where you will probably want to relax and enjoy the shade if you attempt this walk in the heat of the day). There’s a lot to see here. The Lion of Saint Mark sits atop a giant monument, and along the walkway you will find other statues as well. Near the square rows of gondolas float in the water, making a nice iconic foreground for a view of the harbor and the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. If you want to take photos from a gondola, I’d recommend a ride in the canals instead where ride will be smoother and the scenery more diverse. Farther down the big Cruise ships dock, flooding the city with the tourists you woke up early to avoid.
As you walk along Riva degli Schiavoni, be prepared for bridges. The canal crossings make great elements in your photos, but they can be a lot of work if you are carrying a lot of gear (or pushing a stroller!).
The cafes in the Piazza San Marco are incredibly beautiful. I don’t know whether it’s because there are aesthetic regulations or because they are competing with one another to attract customers from crowded square, but they certainly put on a show. Some have orchestras playing live music outside, others decorate their interiors like opulent palaces. We decided to have a breakfast platter at Cafe Florian. The prices were outrageous and the dishes mediocre, but we knew we were paying for the photo, not the food. That’s something to get used to when dining out in Venice.
Torre Dell’Orologio (Saint Mark’s Clocktower)
The clocktower is built into the walls of the square. It’s a tall structure of made of white stone, and decorated with a winged lion. But the most beautiful part of the tower is the brilliant blue clock with it’s gold astronomical symbols. Most people will snap a photo of the front of the tower as they are passing through Piazza San Marco, but we discovered what we thought was a more compelling composition from the back side of the tower, where there is a similar but smaller clock face.
Even though the clock face is smaller, this angle has a lot of advantages. The first is that the square, including the Basilica San Marco and the dome of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore all the way across the water. To bring the background into the image, we used a telephoto lens from as far away as possible, which made the distant structures look closer in relation to the foreground. The other advantage of the backside of the clock is that the alleyway provides you with open shade, which makes it easier to take a flattering image of any family members you might want in the photo.
So enjoy your time in Venice and make Piazza San Marco one of the highlights. If you are interested in guides to other popular places we’ve visited in Italy or elsewhere in the world, visit our travel destinations page for many more helpful posts.