Venice boasts 150 canals, 400 bridges and numerous magnificent 16th- and 17th-century palaces and piazzas across its six sestieri. Each of the sestieri are stunningly beautiful, in fact the entire city can be described as an extraordinary architectural masterpiece, but each one also has its own story to tell. Our guide breaks down by Venice by district and outlines the treasures each has to offer, ensuring that by the end of this article you will have no doubts about where in the city to book your city apartment.
Cannaregio is an authentic, down-to-earth district where visitors can mingle with locals as they go about their daily business. The best way to travel around Cannaregio is by foot. It would be a shame to miss out on winding alleyways characterised by the charm of ancient buildings – such a combination forms a sort of magical labyrinth that one can only truly experience in Cannaregio. There are some tourist streets with some souvenir shops and fast food outlets, such as Lista di Spagna and Strada Nova, but time is better spent enjoying canalside walks. Follow the canals to find stunning churches including Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Madonna dell’Orto and Oratorio dei Crociferi. Another top tourist tip in the district is the Jewish Ghetto which was made famous by Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
Cannaregio is scattered with restaurants, bars and cafes where visitors are more likely to rub shoulders with the locals rather than a bunch of fellow tourists. Although situated in the old Jewish Ghetto, MQ10 is a sleek, modern establishment serving killer cocktails, and if you are lucky, you might nab a table overlooking the busy Canale di Cannaregio. Dodo Caffè is another local haunt run by Dodo himself who can be found serving customers with a big smile. Al Timon is also popular with locals but more so students. Young Venetians from all over the city like to gather here to drink from a fine selection of regional wines.
Booking an apartment in San Marco will guarantee a central location right next to Venice’s major tourist attractions. However, staying in a district priding itself as the home of St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace does mean the streets will be busier and filled with more tourists that the other five sestieri. Again, there is another flip side as St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace, in addition to Harry’s Bar, the Palazzo Dandolo, San Moisè, the La Fenice theatre, the Palazzo Grassi and much more can be visited on a whim, day or night. San Marco also hosts many elegant historic buildings and expensive cafes, some of which offer live music in the evening.
Dorsoduro is the most authentic of the city’s sestieri and is the perfect place to experience local Venetian life in all its glory. The streets that wind through the district are so narrow that residents hang their washing on lines from window to window. However, the gleaming whites of the Venetians are not all that Dorsoduro has to offer. In fact, some would say that it rivals San Marco in terms of tourist attractions, which is a viable argument considering it is home to Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, which is mostly known as the home of Michelangelo’s ‘David’. Also worth a visit are the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the grand selection of churches in the area.
The charming streets of Dorsoduro also offer a selection of nice shops. Visitors looking for tasteful souvenirs can find a good selection on Calle Sant’Agnese. Various cosy bars and restaurants can also be found in the area. Cantina del Vino Già Schiavi is a great place to go for some small snacks (cicchetti). A relaxing space by day, the streets of Dorsoduro transform by night to present guests with a buzzing nightlife.
The smallest of the sestieri, San Polo can be described as having a rustic vibe due to the artisan shops and family run cafes which line its streets. Its main attraction is probably the Rialto Bridge which is the oldest bridge across the canal, and once the dividing line for the districts of San Marco and San Polo. Another historic attraction worth visiting is Ponte della Donna Onesta where there is a stone face on wall with a number of stories behind it. One legend tells the story of a man who was attracted to a swordsmith’s wife. He commissioned a dagger to be made in the swordsmith’s shop. Using the excuse of going to pick the dagger up, the men went and raped the woman, who, being an honest person, took her own life with the same dagger as a result of the shame. Another legend tells of two friends who spoke about the fidelity of the woman and one of them, pointing to the picture on the wall of stone, said that this was the only honest woman existing on earth.
Castello can be described as the ‘fish tail of Venice’ due to its interesting shape, and is probably the most varied of all of the city’s districts. Its differences can ultimately be broken into two parts: the west side of Castello is all about glamour and houses some of the most exclusive art, architecture and monuments, while over east it is all about working-class residential areas more interesting to those looking for a glimpse of ‘everyday’ Venice. The best way to see the contrast between the east and west is to take a walk along the canal. This way, a view of Sant’Elena Pine Forest and the public gardens (Giardini Pubblici) can be enjoyed, as well as fantastic views along the shore towards the Palazzo Ducale and St. Mark’s Square.
Castello has some historic pockets which are certainly worth exploring, even if they can sometimes get busy with tourists. Some of the best attractions include the Gothic-Renaissance San Zaccaria Church, Santi Giovanni e Paolo which is one of the most important churches in Venice, and Arsenale, Venice’s historic shipyard.
Santa Croce is not as sight heavy as the other districts, but it is worth crossing the borders of San Polo and Dorsoduro to see a Venice not necessarily considered part of the tourist track. Considered more as a transportation hub than anything else, Santa Croco does have many lively squares, including Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. There are also some tourist attractions worth seeing. For instance, Baroque Ca’ Pesaro Palace which houses Venice’s Museum of Modern Art. Plenty of historic buildings can also be viewed including the almost demolished monastery of Santa Chiara and the Church of San Giacomo Dall’Orio which is one of the oldest of the city. Visitors can step back in time by heading to Palazzo Mocenigo. Open to the public, it features displays of historic costume.
Santa Croce is also not without some nice places to eat. For a varying but quality menu, head to La Zucca and enjoy a tasty tagliatelle dish sat within its cosy, wooden decor,and with a bit of luck overlooking canal and bridge.
Have you been to Venice? Where did you stay? How many of the sestieri did you explore?
(Header: Venice Canal in Dorsoduro. Photo by Diana Robinson via FlickrCC.)