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Venice Venice Sestieri

This is a guide for visitors who plan to rent apartments in Venice. It points out what neighborhoods are like in terms of people and life and food shopping rather than major sights (though I have pointed some of those out too.) There are unique features in each location, and hopefully these notes will guide you to one that fits you, and your visit, best.

Venice is shaped like a fish, with the tail in the East and the lips in the West, the head in the North and the belly in the South. Remember though, you can get anywhere in Venice by foot or Vaporetto pretty quickly; if you stay in the brain, you can easily visit the tail.

Venice is divided into the following districts (called "sestieri"): San Marco (belly), Dorsoduro (fins), San Polo (heart), Santa Croce (heart), Cannaregio (brains), Castello (tail).


Map of Venice showing the districts (sestieri).

San Marco - The Belly of the Fish

When I think of San Marco, I first think of the splendor and magic of Piazza San Marco and the view from the Piazzetta to the lagoon. Then I think of vibrant Campo San Stefano and my favorite campo in Venice, Campo Sant Angelo, with its leaning campanile. The first four times I visited Venice I lived in San Marco, very happily.

In San Marco you are centrally located; always just a couple minutes’ walk from the Grand Canal, and you are close enough to Piazza San Marco to visit, on a whim, any time of the day or night. With care, you can even eat well, and inexpensively, in San Marco but here more than anywhere you have to pay attention.

San Marco is the most touristy sestiere, and the crowds at times can be truly brutal. Unless you stay close to Campo San Stefano and the Accademia Bridge, I would advise staying in San Marco only during less crowded times – November through March (also avoiding Christmas through January 6 and the Carnivale festival which usually takes up a chunk of February.)

If you are renting an apartment, you will find San Marco is the hardest sestiere for finding a market to buy food, but you can always take the vaporetto up to the fish and vegetable market in the Rialto for that. San Marco doesn't have too much of a residential feel, but if you are into Fendi and Bruno Magli and the like, you will find these stores in San Marco, just as you'll find Harry's Bar and a gazillion shops selling the same "Murano" glass souvenirs. There are some other unique shops to be found.

So while I don't completely agree with the people who say "never stay in San Marco" I do agree that you should never stay in San Marco in the high season or if you want to hang out with residents instead of tourists.

Dorsoduro - The Fins of the Fish

Dorsoduro is a sprawling sestiere that starts way up by Piazzale Roma, the point of entry for buses and cars, down to where the Grand Canal meets the southern lagoon. Parts of this sestiere are popular with many travelers as a base, and for good reason. The eastern part is very charming and beautiful and both the Accademia museum and the Guggenheim museum are located there. The Zattere, a wide walkway along the Guidecca canal, is a wonderful spot to spend an entire afternoon, with a number of restaurants and cafes with gorgeous views.

Venice's University, Ca' Foscari, and the Architecture University are in the heart of Dorsoduro. The surrounding areas have a student crowd and the bars and stores that fulfil their needs. If you are a night owl, you'll find more places stay open late around Campo Santa Margherita than anywhere else in the city. The Campo itself is a fun and lively place, constantly crowded with children playing and locals socializing.

If you decide to rent an apartment in Dorsoduro, I recommend you only do so if it is south of Campo Santa Margherita; closer to Piazzale Roma, much of the sestiere's charm is lost. You'll find everything you want or need for your apartment around Campo Santa Margherita: there is a fish market in the morning, a vegetable market all day, a Punto supermarket on the southern tip of the campo (go to the bottom of the Campo, towards Accademia, and make a left; the supermarket is on the left), a wine shop, and the famous Tonolo bakery. There is also a big supermarket on the Zattere. Note that many people now stay in the area close to Piazzale Roma, because you can get great deals there. If you do find an apartment you are interested in, post on the Sloweurope.com forums to get some feedback about the location.

San Polo and Santa Croce - The Beating Heart of the Fish

It is magical staying in San Polo, the oldest and most medieval part of Venice. San Polo is a maze of tiny streets all eventually leading to some part of the Grand Canal.

Tourists shop in San Marco; residents shop in San Polo. Here you will find the famous fish market of Venice, with stall after stall of fresh fish and shellfish and other creatures from the Adriatic Sea and the lagoon, and a large open vegetable market. Around this, you will find a merchant society. Sadly, you can no longer find just about anything in the Rialto market (when I lived there in 2001, you literally could) but you will still find butchers, bakers, linens, and now, lots of take-out shops with decent offerings.

There are bars everywhere and the wine is quaffed at a much earlier hour than in other parts of the city. There are some good restaurants too.

It can get very crowded in San Polo, especially on the main thoroughfare that runs from the Rialto Bridge to Accademia. Get a map and learn the hidden routes the residents use. Alternatively, stay in Santa Croce, San Polo's sister sestiere and the least touristy one in Venice.

In Santa Croce you'll find Campo San Giacomo dell' Orio, which is a riot of color and life in the early evening. There are two great bars in this campo to watch the action from and one of the best restaurants in Venice, La Zucca. It's an easy walk to the Rialto markets to buy food for an apartment here, and there is also a supermarket in Campo San Giacomo dell' Orio. And since Santa Croce doesn't have quite as much for the tourist and is a little off the beaten track, you'll find some real deals on apartments; you'll be happy when you get the bill for your pizza dinner, too.

Cannaregio - The Brains of the Fish

It's pretty hard to get lost in Cannaregio, with its wide, straight fondamentas and canals. Cannaregio is a very beautiful and relatively quiet sestiere, but with areas of bustling commerce. In other words, if it is shopping or people watching you want, there is plenty of that, but if it's a total escape from the modern world you want, then Cannaregio has that too.

Cannaregio's main thoroughfare runs from the train station to the Rialto Bridge. The name of this thoroughfare changes a few times, but you'll know it when you see it. Shops, bars and restaurants line it the whole way. My favorite wine bar, La Cantina, is in Campo San Felice on the Strada Nova section, and, in case you decide to drink there, I'll let you in on a little secret. From the wine bar, walk across the Strada Nova, and look to your right, across the canal there. You'll see the back of the tallest, skinniest, coolest building, one that NO ONE ever sees.

Cannaregio has some of the most picturesque canals and campi. It is impossible to not fall in love with Venice in the Campo Santa Maria Nova, where you will find the beautiful Santa Maria dei Miracoli church. The Jewish Ghetto is a very special and haunting place, one that fewer tourists bother to see, and the area around the Ghetto, with its wide canals and colorful buildings, is exceptionally picturesque even for a city like Venice.

Many of my favorite places to eat and drink are in Cannaregio. Ai Promessi Sposi (always fantastic, they serve a mix of Venetian classics and fusion fare,) Osteria da Alberto (traditional Venetian,) Casa Mia (wonderful family-owned pizzeria) and so much more. Do post on the Sloweurope.com message board when you travel so that members can guide you to even more great places.

Castello - The Tail of the Fish

Our final sestiere, Castello, has a split personality. Part of Castello is the ultimate tourist hell. The other part? Truly Venetian, with some major historical spots that are not even known, much less visited, by most travelers to Venice.

The part of Castello running along the Riva Degli Schiavoni and the back of St. Mark's Square is to be avoided when it comes to renting an apartment, especially in the high season. But if you find an apartment in Northern Castello, that is a superb base.

I also recommend staying near Via Garibaldi but only if you don't mind walking; it is a bit of a trek to get anywhere else from there. Via Garibaldi is a wide (for Venice) street and the street life here is very Venetian. Many of the residents here probably rarely leave the area. Close to the end of Via Garibaldi, on its own little island, is the once very important church of San Pietro di Castello, where you can sit for some time totally alone. Just to the north of Via Garibaldi is the Arsenale, the giant shipyard where Venice's warships were built when the city was a European power. During the months of the Biennale art and architecture exhibitions, which are held in the Giardini area of Castello and Arsenale, there are more people staying in the area – particularly in the first weeks of the exhibition (May. ) It never gets tremendously overrun, but if you are going in May it is better to book lodgings way in advance.

The area around Campo Santa Maria Formosa is also a good base. It is very centrally located and anything you need you can find there. One final consideration for Castello: Fondamente Nove, the walkway along the Northern lagoon. The boats for Murano and Burano leave from there, and the quay is usually less congested than the Riva degli Schiavoni or the Zattere. You can sit along Fondamente Nove and look out to the cemetery island of San Michele and motorboats whizzing by and it is very easy to get to the airport via the Alilaguna ferry from here as well.

No matter where you stay, you'll be happy (except maybe Western Castello or San Marco in high season!)

So, how do you choose?

I have stayed in all the Sestieri and I have always liked my location with the exception of the "heart of tourist hell" Castello apartment that I rented. On many of my visits I have stayed in very crowded areas near the Piazza San Marco or in the heart of the Rialto market and these areas were fine, but I would never in a million years stay on the Doge's Palace backside again.

To sum up, here is another way to look at it:
  • Best location for fashionable types who like to shop: San Marco
  • Best location for people who live for the night: Dorsoduro and San Polo
  • Best location to see more locals than tourists: Northern Cannaregio
  • Best location if you want to cook all your meals at home: San Polo
  • Best location for arty types without tattoos: Dorsoduro
  • Best location for arty types with tattoos: Cannaregio
  • Best location if you want to hang out at the Basilica at 2 AM and be able to find your way home after: Eastern San Marco or Western Castello
  • Best location if you must see green once in a while: Castello
  • Best location if you like to drink wine a lot: everywhere!!
About the Author
Shannon Essa takes small groups to Spain, Italy, Croatia, and more with GrapeHops.
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