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San Polo: Guide to Venice’s Most Lively Neighbourhood

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The vibrant, tiny San Polo is the smallest of the 6 Venice sestieri, covering less than 100 acres. Despite its lack of size, though, San Polo packs a serious sightseeing punch, boasting the world-famous Rialto Bridge, as well as the Rialto Markets and one of the most enticing stretches of canal in the city.

Most of San Polo borders the fabulous Grand Canal on one side and the much quieter Dorsoduro and Santa Croce neighbourhoods on the other side. It is one of the oldest sections of Venice, forming part of the Realtine Islands along with San Marco back prior to the 9th century because it was the highest section and least likely to flood (which means it was still pretty likely to flood, just not AS likely).

Canal in San Polo Venice

The Venice central market in San Polo has, rather incredibly, been around since the 11th century and the streets around Rialto Bridge are a maze of winding lanes and hidden corners.

The neighbourhood was named after San Polo church and the main square, Campo San Polo, the second-largest square in Venice (behind only the iconic Piazza San Marco). The name “San Polo” itself means “Saint Paul” and if, like me, you have only very basic Italian and are confused by the “Polo” part, it turns out that is what “Paul” translates to in Venetian (as opposed to “Paolo” in Italian).

Arch to fish market in San Polo Venice
Street in San Polo Venice
Wandering San Polo

The 6 Sestieri of Venice

San Polo is the oldest neighbourhood in Venice but each of the 6 sestieri has its own appeal.

For a complete overview, check out Where to Stay in Venice: Guide to Venice Neighbourhoods

San Marco is surely the most famous Venice neighbourhood, including such world-class attractions as the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Square.

For all the details, see San Marco: Guide to Venice’s Most Famous Neighbourhood

Cannaregio offers an authentic look at the real Venice, where outstanding sites sit side by side with local shops and Venetians going about their daily lives.

Restaurant lined canal in Cannaregio Venice

For a more in-depth look, see Cannaregio: Guide to our Favourite Venice Neighbourhood

Dorsoduro is the place to go for museums, including the Guggenheim collection, Accademia Gallery and the relatively new Punta della Dogana museum.

Also see Dorsoduro: Guide to Venice’s Best Walking District

Running neck and neck with Cannaregio for the most “real” and local of the sestiere, Castello boasts many excellent trattoria and unique art.

Canal in Venice

For more details, check out Castello: Guide to Venice’s Most Authentic Neighbourhood

Last but not least, Santa Croce includes the Harbor of San Basilio and parking area of Piazzale Roma, serving as the city’s transportation hub.

People standing around barrels at a Santa Croce Venice restaurant

To find the hidden gems of this underrated sestiere, see Santa Croce: A Guide to Venice’s Least-Known Neighbourhood

Map of San Polo, Italy

Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)

Street with tables
San Polo back streets

Best Things to Do in San Polo Venice

Even though it is the smallest Venice neighbourhood, there is still a long list of San Polo attractions and activities worth checking out.

Cross the Rialto Bridge

World famous Rialto Bridge crosses the Grand Canal, connecting the San Polo and San Marco neighbourhoods. It is now one of 4 bridges that cross the Grand Canal but from the time the current Istrian marble bridge was built in 1591 until the 19th century it was the only one. From the 12th century there were a series of wooden bridges in the same spot but, for obvious reasons, they never stood the test of time.

Rialto bridge in San Polo Venice

The name comes from “rivo alto”, meaning “high bank”, and it is the most popular and most photographed bridge in Venice (which is definitely saying something). It is a rather normal 48 metres long, just enough to cross the canal, obviously, but is much wider than most bridges at 22 metres. This is because it features parallel rows of shops facing the middle, with one main walking path between them and then space to walk outside along the edge on each side. The views along the canal are terrific from these spots.

View from Rialto Bridge
View from the Rialto Bridge

It is mainly a functional design, although there are arches up top and some intricate stone reliefs near the bottom on either side – one depicting the Anunciation and the other showing St. Mark and St. Theodore (the dual patron saints of Venice).

Wander the Rialto Market

Lively and raucous, every morning the Rialto Market is filled with locals shopping for, well, just about everything. From fresh fish and seafood to produce to oils, wines and pastas and plenty more. Frequent boats stop in with the latest catch or fruits and vegetables from the island of Sant’Erasmus.

Fish market in San Polo Venice

The Pescheria is, unsurprisingly, a fish-themed covered hall where you’ll find the seafood. There are also many local shops and bars where you can stop for snacks, drinks or coffee. The main market is open from Monday to Saturday, the fish market Tuesday to Saturday. There are usually some stalls still going late in the day but it is definitely busier and more interesting in the morning.

Check Out the Camerlenghi Palace

The glamorous Palazzo Camerlenghi still hosts Venice’s financial magistrate like it has for centuries and, even more interestingly to us, features an impressive marble façade and a spectacular wall of windows. It is located right on the banks of the San Polo side of the Grand Canal and Volta del Canal, not far from the Rialto Bridge.

Have a Glass of Wine at All’Arco

Few things are quite as prototypically Venetian as drinking some vino or a spritz and watching the world go by at one of the most traditional bars in the city. With a beautiful location on Calle Arco, this is a local favourite for its excellent cicchetti (Venetian tapas).

Empty Street

There is only one tiny table, which you are very unlikely to get, and for everyone else it is standing room only. A great place to mingle with local Venetians.

Check out the Venetian Mask Shops

Venetian masks have been an important part of Venetian traditions and festivals since the 13th century. In those days, the many parties that took place between Christmas and Lent were the only time upper and lower classes co-mingled.

Shop sellin masks

The masks were used to conceal identities and avoid morning-after embarrassment. Today, you will find a large variety of traditional Venetian mask shops in San Polo, many specializing in those from the Venetian carnival.

Visit the Historical Churches

Like every Venice neighbourhood, San Polo has its fair share of outstanding churches. Here are just a few of the most important.

San Polo Church

The very church that gave the San Polo neighbourhood its name, you won’t be surprised to learn this Gothic church is dedicated to the Apostle Paul. There have been churches on the site since the 9th century but the current version has “only” been around since the 15th century.

Square in San Polo Venice

It features a fascinating ship’s keel roof and a bevy of important works of art inside. The Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto is the big highlight but there are also famous works from Paolo Piazza, Jacopo Guarana, Paolo Veronese, Palma il Giovane, Alessandro Vittoria and Giandemenico Tiepolo.

San Giacomo di Rialto

Dating all the way back to 421 AD, many say it is the oldest church in Venice (others say it’s not, but either way, it’s old). This tiny church is also called Chiesa di San Giacometto, meaning “Little Giacomo”, and can be found next to the Rialto Markets.

Front of church

It features a mix of Gothic and Byzantine styles with the classic Renaissance cross design. Directly across from San Giacomo di Rialto the Gobbo di Rialto (Hunchback of Rialto) supports steps up to the Colonna del Bando, where official announcements were made in ancient days.

Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

While relatively nondescript on the outside, the largest church in Venice is one of the best examples in the city of typical Venetian Gothic architecture. It is set up in the style of a Latin cross and built with terracotta and Istrian stone. The original church was built in the 14th century but was almost immediately deemed too small for their needs and soon work began on the current giant. It took over a century to build and was finally completed in 1492.

Church in San Polo Venice

The rather nondescript exterior belies a truly extravagant interior featuring 17 outstanding altars, numerous funeral monuments, famous tombs (of many doges, Claudio Monteverde, Titian, Antonio Canova) and many famous pieces of art, the crown jewel of which is Assumption of the Virgin by Titian.

Relax on Campo San Polo

Responsible for the name of the San Polo sestiere, this irregularly shaped square is the second largest in Venice (after St. Mark’s Square) but also rather basic, often full of locals, kids and dogs. Originally a fruit and vegetable farm, then it became a bustling market in the 7th century and, eventually, a sporting ground in the 16th century.

Large square in San Polo Venice

Today it is a popular place for Venetian families to congregate. Beautiful Palazzo Soranzo sits astride the now-filled Rio San Antonio canal and in summer Campo San Polo hosts an open-air cinema.

Tour the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto fans rejoice – here you’ll find the world’s most important collection of his works. Originally named Jacopo Robusti, in 1564 he was commissioned to decorate this famous confraternity that had been built by Bartolomeo and founded in 1478.

Featuring many of the most famous works created by Tintoretto and his students over two decades in the late 16th century, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is Venice’s equivalent to the Sistene Chapel.

Check Out Campo Sant’Aponal

This historic square is home to its beautiful Gothic namesake church and the impressive Sotoportego de la Madonna covered walkway. Legend has it that Pope Alexander III hid from Emperor Barbarossa here in 1177 and as a token of his appreciation the Pope granted “plenary indulgence” (i.e. a spiritual get out of jail free card) to anyone saying just one Hail Mary and one Our Father while standing under the sotoportego.

Front of church

A carving of his holiness can be found at the sotoportego entrance so you’ll know you’re in the right place. A good place to visit after indulging in the next activity on this list.

Try out the Nightlife

San Polo is one of the more lively neighbourhoods in Venice and is where most of the city’s young people come to party. There are many bars to choose from on most of the main streets or you can head to the Erbaria dock area overlooking the Grand Canal.

Have a Drink and Watch the Grand Canal

All along the Grand Canal there are exceptional bars and cafés that overlook the most famous waterway in Venice. The best place to enjoy your wine, beer, coffee, spritz or prosecco while enjoying a view of the canal is between Rialto Bridge and the Rialto Markets.

Wander the West Side

Despite the diminutive size of San Polo and long list of attractions, almost all the main sites are concentrated along the Grand Canal and in the east section of the sestiere.

Canal in Venice

If you are looking to explore away from the crowds, you can head just a few blocks west where you will often find yourself entirely alone among the maze of alleys.

Pay Homage to Nini at Caffè dei Frari

Cafés aren’t exactly in short supply in San Polo but the lovely Caffè dei Frari is one of the most famous, mainly for legendary “Nini”.

Cafe in San Polo Venice

Nini was a cat. Specifically, a white cat who lived at Caffè dei Frari in the late 19th century and was so beloved that people came by specifically to meet and pay homage to him, including, apparently, famous visitors such as the king and queen of Italy, the Pope and the Russian czar (Alexander III). Nini had his own guest book, poems were written about him and when he died in 1896 his wake was a major Venetian social event.

He loved killing mice.

Best San Polo Hotels: Where to Stay

Here are some great choices of San Polo hotels. Whether you are looking to splash out a little, want a B&B or are looking for something a little more budget-friendly, there is a hotel in San Polo Venice that will be perfect for you.

H10 Palazzo Canova

Locations don’t get much better than this! H10 Palazzo Canova is on the Grand Canal and only steps from the Rialto Bridge in the San Polo district. If your budget doesn’t stretch to the canal view rooms then head up to the rooftop bar to soak in the views with a cocktail at the end of a busy day. The rooms are modern and comfortable and the quality windows will ensure a quiet sleep.

Click here for H10 Palazzo Canova prices

Locanda Sant’Agostin

The Locanda Sant’Agostin is on the first floor of a 16th-century building. Try to get one of the rooms with a view of the San Polo and Sant’Agostin canals. The friendly staff will make sure you get the most of your stay in Venice. The hotel is situated on a lovely little street, an excellent central location that still feels low-key and private away from the busy main streets in San Polo.

Click here for Locanda Sant’Agostin prices

Pensione Guerrato

If you are looking for something more affordable, Pensione Guerrato is a great choice. Room prices will depend on whether you choose a private, external or shared bathroom. You can feel the history in this 13th century building and it is extremely conveniently located, only 100 metres from the Rialto Bridge.

Click here for Pensione Guerrato prices

Great San Polo Restaurants: Where to Eat

Narrow street

There are lots of good choices to eat at in San Polo but the following two options stand out.

Cantina Do Mori

One of the oldest restaurants in Venice, legends claim that Casanova occasionally stopped by for lunch. These days it is a local favourite, known particularly for its imaginative cicchetti and local wine poured directly from enormous demijohns (glass carafes).

Birraria La Corte

Famous for having some of the best traditional pizzas in San Polo, it is located right on the main square and also have lots of other great dishes. As a birraria they also have really good beer, as you might guess, and they make their own gin, so there’s that.

San Polo Summary

Boredom should never be an issue in San Polo. Whether you are interested in the many historic buildings, important churches and famous works of art or want to bounce from café to bar to restaurant to piazza enjoying the atmosphere or really just want to see the Rialto Bridge from all angles and wander the Rialto Markets, San Polo can appeal to just about anyone on the right day. Featuring some of the only real open spaces along the Grand Canal, it isn’t surprising it has become one of the most social places in Venice.

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