You’ve finally planned your trip to Venice—now the fun part begins. Where will you stay? What will you see? How will you fill your glorious days in La Serenissima?
Your first step is getting acquainted with the layout of this grand old city. Impossibly situated in an inky lagoon, Venice is made up of six wards, or sestiere. It sounds romantic, although the layout is actually based around tax customs of the 12th century.
If you’re ready to visit the most romantic city in the world (forget Paris!), here’s what you need to know about the neighborhoods of Venice.
Get your bearings on the six sestiere.
There are two ways to get to Venice—flying into Marco Polo airport or arriving by train at the Santa Lucia station in Cannaregio, one of the six sestiere. The S-shaped Grand Canal, or Canalazzo, snakes through the city, neatly separating the neighborhoods three to a side. The Lido lies to the south of Venice, a sort of barrier island.
If it sounds simple—it is, on paper. In practice? Expect to get lost...in a beautiful way. There’s nothing so exciting, romantic even, than losing yourself in the calli and campi where tourists rarely go to experience the authentic side of this charming city.
There are no cars in Venice; you’ll walk or take water transportation wherever you want to go. Venice’s equivalent of a bus system is the vaporetti, which link the sestiere. They generally ply the Grand Canal and can be very crowded in summer—walking may be the best way to go.
There are also six water taxi stations, although the taxis will pick you up anywhere in the city. They can be quite pricey, however.
Whatever you do, don’t cheat yourself out of at least one gondola ride—it’s every bit as romantic and exotic as it looks.
You’ll love the local flavor—and the train station—in Cannaregio.
Cannaregio stretches from the train station to the Rialto Bridge and includes the Jewish Ghetto, a 500-year-old neighborhood that plays a role in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” This is a quiet, residential neighborhood, unspoiled by much of the tourist crowds in other sestieri.
Cannaregio is marked by a series of fondamente, or canal-front sidewalks, running east to west. The Fondamenta Misericordia is a lovely place to wander in the evening and find a charming osteria to enjoy authentic Italian food and wine.
The magnificent Ca’ D’Oro Palace is located in Cannaregio on the Grand Canal, a 15th century palace open to the public. You can see artwork there by Venetian masters such as Carpaccio, Bellini, and Titian.
Take a walk on the quiet side in Castello.
Castello is the largest of the sestiere, stretching from the Rialto Bridge on the west to the Arsenale on the east. It’s one of the quieter neighborhoods; many of the most luxurious hotels are located here.
Via Garibaldi, the widest street in Venice, runs through Castello. Lined with shops and cafes, it’s a lovely place to explore and sample Venetian street food—there’s even an outdoor food and produce market every weekday morning.
If you’d like to visit the islands of Murano and Burano, you can find boats on the Fondamenta Nove to take you there. Castello’s giardini, or gardens, are some of the most beautiful in Venice and extend right to the tip of the island.
People-watch in San Marco, Europe’s “drawing room.”
For over a thousand years, San Marco has been the cultural, religious, and political heart of Venice—the largest and by far the most famous of the city’s sestieri. Bounded by Castello and Cannaregio to the east and connected to San Polo by the Rialto Bridge, San Marco is the most visited (and most expensive) of Venice’s neighborhoods. Some of the most prestigious hotels in the city are located here.
St Mark’s Square, Europe’s grand drawing room, is home to Caffe Florian, the most famous Venetian coffee house—definitely treat yourself to a cup of coffee or a glass of prosecco and enjoy the parade of passersby.
The 11th century St. Mark’s Basilica is located in St Mark’s Square, as is its striking bell tower. You can also walk over the Bridge of Sighs here, and explore the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace. There’s also wonderful shopping in San Marco—everything from traditional leatherworks and accessories to Italian haute couture.
Art and authenticity—that’s Dorsoduro.
Cross the Accademia Bridge from San Marco and you’re in Dorsoduro, where the Accademia Museum and Guggenheim Art Collection is located. It’s a quieter, more authentic neighborhood, known for excellent restaurants and the lovely Fondamenta delle Zattere, which runs along the Giudecca Canal. It’s a breathtakingly picturesque part of Venice—the perfect spot to enjoy a gelato and watch the sun go down.
The Campo Santa Margherita is a popular place to hang out. There’s a lively fish and vegetable market and some of the most interesting nightlife in Venice here. There’s even an accessible gondola workshop in Dorsoduro so you can see how these iconic boats are made.
There’s nothing like the markets and bacari in San Polo.
This is the tiniest of Venice’s sestiere, bordering the Grand Canal, Dorsoduro, and Santa Croce. Don’t let its small size fool you, however—it’s absolutely packed with the best open-air markets, restaurants, and bacari, the popular Venetian wine bars. The Rialto Market at the foot of the venerable bridge, has flourished here for centuries.
The Church of San Giacomo di Rialto, perhaps the oldest church in all of Venice, corners the Rialto Market—grab your camera for some memorable shots of this gothic and Byzantine structure.
Avoid the tourists and the crowds in laid-back Santa Croce.
Santa Croce is one of the oldest neighborhoods; it sits along the Grand Canal across from the train station and stretches all the way to the Piazzale Roma. It’s less visited by tourists, making it a great neighborhood if you’re curious about what “real life” looks like in Venice.
Ca’ Pesaro, a 17th century palace housing two fascinating art museums with over 30,000 pieces of art, is in Santa Croce, as is the opulent Palazzo Mocenigo with its interesting collection of period costumes.
Don’t overlook la dolce vita on the Lido.
The Lido probably doesn’t turn up on many “must-see in Venice” lists, but if you’re looking for something relaxing, charming, and far from the madding crowds in Venice proper—a place where you can ride a bike to the beach for a casual afternoon of sun and sand, dine at family-owned restaurants, and enjoy a bit of peaceful wilderness, the Lido is the place for you.
The island is pursuing a piece of the tourism pie with new initiatives promoting sustainable travel, farm-to-fork cuisine, and authentic experiences. Looking for a place to unwind after a whirlwind tour of Venice? Spend a night or two on the Lido.
Is La Serenissima calling your name?
We’ve got some amazing Venice tours and itineraries lined up this summer—get in touch today and let’s put your plans in motion! Not quite ready to talk? Sign up for our free email course to learn everything you need to know about planning your tour of Italy.