Venice comprises six sestieri (districts), with three on each side of the Grand Canal, and is flanked by the separate, elongated islands of Giudecca to the south and Lido to the east. While it may give the initial impression of a city frozen in time or a playground for tourists, that’s far from the truth. Wandering down the alleys and along the canals, you’ll discover that there’s a different side to Venice tucked away in each of the island’s neighbourhoods. Here are the city’s most interesting areas.
Steeped in history and bustling with life, Cannaregio is Venice at its most real. The former industrial hub sits in the northwest part of the city and is home to a world-renowned architecture school, the only train station and the city’s Jewish community, as well as the busy shopping avenue Strada Nova. As the sestiere most densely populated with Venetians, it’s also one of the more affordable areas to stay as a visitor – and one of the most fun.
For history buffs, a visit to Campo di Ghetto Nuovo is a must. The area was home to the world’s first Jewish ghetto, and is actually the origin of the word – the word ghetto originates from gheto (the local word for forge or factory). Medieval Venice gave Europe’s persecuted Jewish community an area to call home, but only on the proviso that the gates were locked at night.
Like many similar areas in Europe, Venice’s Jewish quarter has a complicated past that is still being untangled today. The best place to learn more about this is at the Jewish Museum of Venice; don’t miss its tour of the surviving synagogues for a glimpse of astounding Baroque interiors and some history lessons.
Cannaregio is a trendy and artistic part of town, where you’ll find gallery spaces, cultural centres, a cinema and cafés galore. It’s an area known for its nightlife, with bars and restaurants lining the Fondamenta Misericordia and its adjoining stretch, Fondamenta dei Ormesini, where you can drink the small hours away with Venetians in popular haunts Vino Vero, Birreria Zanon and Al Timon.
For something other than the ubiquitous spritz, head to Cannaregio’s best cocktail bar, TiME Social Bar, which serves up concoctions of home-made bitters, purées, syrups and quality booze. For the next morning’s sore head, make your way to Torrefazione Cannaregio. This charming spot just across the bridge from Campo di Ghetto Nuovo sells hundreds of teas, pastries, sweet pies and cake, as well as an array of international coffee beans that will impress any caffeine fanatic.
Castello is an excellent area to base yourself if you’re looking for a quieter, more relaxing stay while still being close to the sites. It borders the San Marco sestiere, which is within walking distance of the world-famous Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, but without the same crowded streets.
Additionally, while neighbouring San Marco is known for being an expensive watering hole, you can eat and drink for increasingly moderate prices in Castello the farther east you go. A walk through this neighbourhood is festooned with colourful, freshly laundered washing hanging out across the canals and alleys, scented with wafts of fresh pastries from corner bakeries and the ever-alluring aroma of pizza from the small, local osteria.
Unpretentious Castello is steeped in culture, being home to colossal exhibitions in the Arsenale and Giardini for six months of each year. The art and architecture biennales alternate in taking over these repurposed historical spaces to host the world’s most cutting-edge art or architectural design. The sestiere carries this honour well. Being at the farthest reaches of the city from the transport hubs and traditionally touristy areas, it is comparatively uncrowded and can handle the influx of culture seekers during the day. This dichotomy makes for lovely evenings in little bars and local restaurants, where on a walk home after a few spritzes, you’ll find you have the streets to yourself.
The Arsenale was the beating heart of Castello; in its 16th-century heyday, a force of builders working in a highly advanced method created a production line that could churn out a new ship every day. Small wonder, then, that Venice’s maritime empire once stretched down the Croatian coast and as far as Istanbul. The Italian Navy is still visibly present in the area, having a base next door to the exhibition centre, with the Naval History Museum and fantastic dockyard gates serving to remind you of the area’s former nautical power.
By far the most vibrant sestiere of Venice, Dorsoduro is home to Ca’ Foscari University, one of the top universities in Italy, and a host of world-class art museums. These include the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the impressive contemporary works in François Pinault’s Punta della Dogana and the city’s finest collection of old masters, the Gallerie dell’Accademia. It is hardly surprising that Dorsoduro is a magnet for students and young creatives who choose to live here.
As any Venetian will tell you, Campo Santa Margherita should be your first stop whether you arrive morning, noon or night, as this busy square is host to a food market by day and packed-out bars by twilight. It’s also aimed at budget-conscious students. You’ll find the tastiest and cheapest spritz available on the island in Caffe Rosso, Margaret Duchamp and Orange Bar, and when hunger strikes, you can take your pick of the restaurants and takeaways that line the much-loved campo.
A day in Dorsoduro might involve crossing the Ponte dei Pugni to grab a healthy snack from the fruit boat or strolling through Campo San Barnaba to find Osteria Ai 4 Feri, one of the best fish restaurants in the city. You might also pass Ca’ Macana, Stanley Kubrick’s favourite mask shop, and wander along the San Trovaso Canal where the bars serve incredibly tasty cicchetti (small bites) and fantastic wine.
A stay in this area will guarantee you world-class art exhibitions in the day served with a real slice of Venetian nightlife after dusk; listen for the sound of the students singing. ‘Dottore’ is the traditional Venetian graduation song and is guaranteed to grace your ears during the weekend – and you may even learn enough of the lyrics to be able to join in.
The intrepid visitor might opt to stay on the city’s neighbouring island of Giudecca, just south of the centre and a quick five-minute vaporetto ride away. The island is a haven for creatives, with artists studios, excellent galleries like the Casa dei Tre Oci and affordable housing. With upcoming initiatives such as the Giudecca Art District, the area is sure to attract property developers and Airbnb prospects.
For now, though, a stay here is still relaxing, comparatively cheap and will reward you with peace and quiet among an oasis of Italian normality, such as easy-to-find post offices, pharmacies and playgrounds. While you will likely want to dine in the main city, Giudecca does have excellent places such as Trattoria Altanella and La Palanca Bar, a waterside establishment with fantastic views of Venice. Don’t forget to stroll to Harry’s Dolci (sister of Harry’s Bar) for dessert.
For the majority of visitors to the city, Santa Croce is the first port of call, as all buses terminate at the only permitted spot, Piazzale Roma. This transport hub itself isn’t exactly scenic, but if you turn a corner, you’ll see a host of charming cafés, pizzerias and lively bars and Venetians walking their dogs. Bacareto da Lele is a local favourite and a prime example of a typically Venetian barcareto (gastro-bar), serving fine wine and excellent cicchetti.
Staying in this often overlooked neighbourhood is a real treat, and you’ll find it incredibly convenient for transport links in and out of Venice, as well as waterbus routes around the city.
Santa Croce is also home to some well-loved, affordable trattoria (restaurants) that you’ll want to frequent in the evening. Everyone raves about the pumpkin flan at La Zucca for a reason, and traditional spots Osteria Trattoria Al Nono Risorto and Bacarretto will serve you some of the best plates of pasta on the island. These dining establishments are also ideally located near the Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art, the Oriental Art Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Fondazione Prada.
Nothing prepares you for the grandeur of San Marco. Venice’s most famous area has captivated visitors for centuries and still does so today. The sestiere’s namesake, Piazza San Marco, is a wonder to behold; its sheer scale and beauty make it one of the most impressive spaces in the city, if not the whole of Italy. The area was the political, social and spiritual core of the Republic of Venice, and it remains the city’s emblematic centre point, full of iconic buildings that reveal Venice’s illustrious past to its visitors.
At the top of the square, glinting gold no matter how grey the sky may be, is the Basilica San Marco, one of Venice’s most visited attractions. Dedicated to the patron saint of Venice, it has some of the country’s finest Byzantine mosaics lining its domes. A visit here is free, but you can buy a queue-jump ticket should you be short on time.
Next door, the home and workplace of the doge (the elected leader of Venice) gazes out over the lagoon. The Doge’s Palace is a wonder of Medieval architecture, and to learn the somewhat dark history behind the Gothic arches, book yourself on to a behind-the-scenes tour to discover secret passages, gilded ceilings and attic dungeons.
Art lovers should head to the opposite end of the square to visit Museo Correr, which shows excellent temporary art exhibitions. The sestiere is also home to an impressive cluster of small contemporary art galleries such as Victoria Miro, Espace Louis Vuitton Venezia, Caterina Tognon and Bel-Air Fine Art, all showing works by international names.
Undeniably, as the most crowded part of the city, getting from point A to point B in this neighbourhood can be a challenge that requires patience and serenity, as legions of cruise-ship residents flock into the area for a turn around the square. To avoid these groups, head to Piazza San Marco in the early morning as the sightseeing doors open, or at the very end of the day when the majority of tourists will be heading to dinner.
It should also be noted that most restaurants and cafés in this area charge more than the rest of the city, which often catches the unsuspecting visitor off guard. For those on a budget, come prepared with water and snacks (but don’t eat in the square itself, as it’s forbidden). However, if you’re in the mood to treat yourself, stop for refreshments at Caffè Florian or Harry’s Bar; look out over the square and sip a spritz, just as the famous poets, actors and artists of the past did while visiting Venice.
The small but mighty sestiere of San Polo is home to Venice’s oldest settlement, the Rialto. This area can trace its roots back to the 11th century when Veneto communities fleeing Attila the Hun sought refuge on the islands and began to trade in fish from the lagoon. This livelihood survives even today beneath the canopies of the illustrious Mercati di Rialto; this market sells fish, fruit and vegetables to Venetians and visitors alike daily from 7am to 2pm. Pop along for an assault on the senses and a slice of living history.
The Rialto area is also full of fantastic bars serving excellent cicchetti, including Osteria Bancogiro, Naranzaria and Bar All’Arco. For a taste of culture among the nibbles, pay a visit to the oldest church in the city – the charming San Giacomo di Rialto.
The neighbourhood’s namesake, Campo San Polo, is the second-largest square in Venice after San Marco and is dotted with fantastic bars and restaurants. Pay a visit to Birraria La Corte, a pizzeria in a former brewery, and stop off for dessert at the incredibly tasty Amo Gourmet ice-cream vendor.
Campo San Polo is also a cultural hub that hosts outdoor cinema on summer nights, making the most of its vast space. Just beyond the square, you’ll find the biggest church in the city, Basilica dei Frari. This impressive Gothic structure holds a number of old-master paintings as well as being the final resting place of the painter Titian. Next door to Frari is the entrance to the enchanting Leonardo da Vinci Museum, which focusses on the Renaissance man’s scientific prowess, with interactive displays to entertain and enlighten the whole family.