When in Venice you're sure to end up in St. Mark's Square at least once. Glittering with gold and bronze, the square is simultaneously deeply impressive and completely overwhelming. Beyond the huge crowds, you have to weigh the cost of long lines (St. Mark's Basilica) or high prices (Doge's Palace and any of the fancy cafes.) But if you have the time and the means, a nice way to spend a few hours in Venice is a drink at Cafe Florian followed by a visit to the Basilica.
One of the oldest cafes in all of Europe, Florian was once frequented by the likes of Casanova and Lord Byron. Its easy to see why. The gilded cafe is over the top romantic. But you pay out the nose for the atmosphere. When the weather's amenable a string quartet plays in the courtyard, and it's not free. Not only is a cover charge added to your bill if you sit outside, but indoor diners are charged too. Those big, beautiful windows let in the light and the music from the square after all.
Nothing on the menu is less than 5 euros, plus the cover charge of around 6 more. I was expecting the high prices and more than willing to pay, so I found an open table inside and ordered the 'Casanova' a peppermint hot chocolate. The chocolate was thick and luxurious, topped with minty green whipped cream, it was the kind of sweet that makes you want to linger. And it came with water, hurrah!
I hear the best way to do Florian on the cheap is to grab an espresso at the bar (no cover charge!) After you finish your drink, and perhaps wander slowly through the space, taking a peak in every room, at every gilded frame and marble surface, venture back outside. In the square you can find a seat on the steps just beyond the restaurant to take in the music and the atmosphere - no cover attached.
Any guidebook will tell you that St. Mark's Basilica is a can't miss site. There are dozens of churches in Venice, many of them worth a visit, but St. Mark's really is one of a kind. Many of Venice's other big attractions are located right around the church, so it's easy to fit it into an itinerary. All the hype means the line is almost always long. Though it moves pretty quickly, a better option is to skip the queue altogether by checking a bag.
The bag check is separate from the cathedral, follow the confusing signs to a little office in a nearby alley. But don't try checking anything too small. I attempted to drop off my relatively large satchel and was rejected. But when I came back a few days later with a backpack I had no trouble at all picking up a pass and bypassing the line.
The Byzantine church is mainly lit from arched windows and candlelight. This means much of the space feels dark and very very old. But when you look up, or come upon a candelabra, the centuries old mosaics glitter with sunshine and warmth. It's unlike any other church I've visited. Entrance to the main basilica is free, but there are charges for the chapels and sacristy.
Before or after viewing the Basilica, you must people watch in the square. Sure, the crowds can be overwhelming, but it wasn't as packed as I'd expected. There was plenty of room to move around and take photos. Though I didn't want to get my hands dirty, it was fun to watch kids ecstatically feeding and chasing pigeons. Their happiness was contagious. And it helped balance out the second hand embarrassment from the many happy couples getting a little too romantic in public.