For the Venetian Republic, Piazza San Marco was the center of the world. Here, decisions were made, law was administered and love was pledged. As such it’s Venice’s only official piazza—all the other squares are called campos. With some of the city’s most important buildings, San Marco is a priority for today’s visitor, too. But in high season, from April through November, amid the crowds, pigeons and cruise traffic, it’s difficult to see the piazza as “the finest drawing room of Europe” (a metaphor coined either by Alfred de Musset or Napoléon). The square is best in the off-season, or the early morning, when its highlights can be squeezed into 60 carefully curated minutes. This does mean skipping the Doge’s Palace, but its frescoed pomp lacks the human touch of some of the piazza’s other sights.
Built in the 16th century as offices and courts, Museo Correr is the most Venetian of Venice’s museums: Its maps, statues, model ships and artworks (commissioned by or bequeathed to the city) recount the history of the Serene Republic up to 1797. There are four highlights: Canova’s frigidly beautiful sculptures, displayed amid the neoclassical splendor of the museum’s Napoléonic Wing; the Sale Monumentali in the Marciana Library, designed by Jacopo Sansovino and decorated like an outsized jewel box; and upstairs, in the picture collection, two must-see paintings—Antonello da Messina’s ethereal Pietà with Three Angels and Vittore Carpaccio’s slyly satirical Two Venetian Noblewomen. At 52 Piazza San Marco; museiciviciveneziani.it.
The 85-year-old jeweler Nardi is known for its Moor’s head brooches, called moretti, which were popular in the twenties and thirties—Diana Vreeland was a fan. Each piece—ebony face and precious stone–encrusted gold and platinum turban and tunic—is unique, with vintage ones fetching high auction prices. Nardi also does a range of contemporary jewelry and desirable silver tableware. At 69 Piazza San Marco; 39-041/523-2150; nardi-venezia.com.
Sitting at an alfresco table or in an ornate room at the 290-year-old Caffè Florian is delightful, but Venetians hit the cute back bar, where prices are less than half the steep table rates. Leather stools give privileged views of barmen Daniele and Maurizio’s formidable Bellini-mixing skills—even in the morning. At 56 Piazza San Marco; 39-041/520-5641; caffeflorian.com.
Though the inside of the Doge’s Palace is being skipped, it’s worth finding the column, three in from the left on the waterfront façade, that juts forward. Local kids attempt to inch their way around it without falling off its base, all while keeping their backs against the marble cylinder. It’s harder than it looks and fun to give a try. At 1 Piazza San Marco.
Entry to the ravishing Basilica di San Marco is free, but there’s a small charge for three special sections: the Chancel, with its Pala d’Oro altarpiece; the Treasury, full of Byzantine relics plundered from Constantinople; and the Loggia and Museo Marciano. The last is the one to opt for when pressed for time. Above the entrance, the Loggia has magnificent views of the piazza, and the museum houses San Marco’s proudest crusader booty: four graceful, life-sized bronze horses that once topped the entrance to the Hippodrome in Constantinople. (The ones facing the piazza today are modern replicas.) At 328 Piazza San Marco; basilicasanmarco.it.
The bell tower can be missed; San Giorgio Maggiore’s campanile, a short vaporetto-hop away, has quieter but equally impressive views. Instead, the finishing point is Da Bonifacio, a tiny bar-pasticceria with a marble mosaic floor and antique fittings, for a pizzetta, a flaky-pastry mini-pizza with toppings like tomato and mozzarella, artichokes or mushrooms. It also makes one of the best spritz cocktails in town. At 4237 Castello, Calle degli Albanesi; 39-041/522-7507.
The Basilica is most peaceful during 6:45 a.m. Mass, when sacred music is often performed by visiting choirs. Outside regular hours, a handful of travel specialists can secure private visits as well as events and concerts (see “Top Venice Travel Specialists”). And if skipping the Doge’s Palace seems too great an oversight, an advance booking for the Itinerari Segreti tour is a must. It covers parts of the building usually closed to the public, like the attic prison cell from which Casanova made a dramatic escape in 1756.