There are 6 different and unique Venice neighbourhoods, each with their own highlights and atmosphere. While the borders between them are sometimes clearly defined by the Grand Canal, there are also some very vague break points and all 6 share certain similarities (i.e. atmospheric canals and impressive architecture). Choosing which of the Venice “sestieri” to base yourself in during your visit will significantly shape your visit. We stayed in the Cannaregio neighbourhood this time around and were pretty pleased with ourselves.
This third, and most recent, visit to famous and beautiful Venice was easily our best. Mainly because we had a lot more time – 4 nights and most of 5 days. Plus, we got amazing weather, which is always a huge factor in how fondly we remember a trip. Last time we were in Venice it was for a quick 24-hour stop on our way to Slovenia – so it was rushed – and it was cloudy the whole time and raining most of the time – so it wasn’t great for taking photos or, you know, doing stuff. This time around we left ourselves several days to get over jet lag before heading north to take on the famous Alta Via 1 trek.
That allowed us to fully explore all 6 neighbourhoods of the main island of Venice, plus several islands (Murano, Burano, Torcello, San Giorgio) and spend an evening on the Lido checking out the big Venice Film Festival. The day tickets went on sale I just managed to score a couple of the last seats available for Paul Scrader’s “The Card Counter” (outstanding, especially Oscar Isaac) but unfortunately the venue we managed to get tickets at was not one of those frequented by the apparently dozens of Hollywood celebrities hanging around. At least we didn’t notice anyone famous. There could have been a lesser Baldwin brother or two wandering around, I guess. They do tend to pop up when least expected.
Overall, there were far too many great spots to get into each of them right now but a short list of top experiences would probably include the following.
Fondamente Misericordia, a vibrant street along a canal of the same name, lined with little bars and restaurants.
Any time we sat down on a little square for takeaway pizza and/or beer and an aperol spritz and spent time just watching Venice pass by.
Laynni went out really early a couple of times (long before I woke up) and raved about Venice without the people. Sounded interesting, yet not interesting enough to mess with my hard-won jet-lagged sleep.
Cruising all over the place by public boat taking advantage of an incredible daily vaporetto deal (€20 for 24 hours of unlimited rides).
The Regata Storica – a famous rowing competition that takes place on the Grand Canal once per year and involves traditional boats, outfits and even a parade (of boats, of course).
Eating in and marvelling at how ridiculously good grocery store ravioli is in Italy. Something we became obsessed with during our time in Sicily.
The insane colours and charming canals on the island of Burano.
Any backstreet 100m from one of the main tourist areas where we would suddenly find ourselves all alone. It is easy to see how people on a short visit to Venice can come away less than enthralled because of the massive crowds and really touristy big sites like St. Mark’s Square/Basilica and the Rialto Bridge. However, like almost everywhere we’ve been in the world, if you venture even slightly away from the main spots it is shocking how quickly the crowds disappear.
We were also very impressed with the AirBnB we rented – a spacious 1 bedroom, 2 living room (1 more than we needed, really) apartment perfectly located in the Cannaregio district (more on that later). While it was only a block off the main thoroughfare through Venice (the Strada Nova) it was tucked away down a tiny, quiet alley. Quiet in terms of tourist and bars and such. Although we had windows on both sides to ensure we always had the option of listening in on local Venetians going about their daily lives – arguing, eating, washing, arguing, playing, watching TV, arguing. Or at least that’s how it always sounds to us. Just a more emphatic way of speaking, some might say.
Now, on to descriptions and highlights of the different neighbourhoods. During our planning process we found thorough info on them kind of hard to come by so thought we should share what we learned with those who might be trying to decide where to stay or visit during their future Venice trip.
Venice Neighbourhoods (Sestieri)
While Venice is technically small enough to make hitting the most famous attractions from across the island is theoretically possible, there are dozens of lesser known spots worth checking out in each sestiere. And with most stays typically limited to 2-3 days, you will probably only be able to extensively explore all the back corners and hidden gems of the Venice neighbourhood where you choose to stay.
Of course, everyone is going to find time for the Grand Canal with its 50 palazzi and 6 famous churches. And the lagoon – all 550 square kilometres of it – is an ever-present feature wherever you rest your head at night. But, despite many similarities at first glance, once you get under the surface, each Venice neighbourhood offers a very different experience. From the touristy and spectacular San Marco to the conveniently functional and slower pace of Santa Croce to the rough architecture and authentic local presence of Cannaregio, it can sometimes feel like 6 individual little cities rather than the single chaotic jumble of art, history, bridges and canals it appears at first. And that’s before we even start talking about all the wonderful islands of Venice, such as Murano, Burano and Torcello, but that’s another conversation for another day.
For now, here is a brief overview of each of the 6 neighbourhoods in Venice, with the overall feel and a list of top attractions:
San Marco is surely the most famous Venice neighbourhood, and the area that draws the vast majority of tourists. However, while it features many of Venice’s top attractions like St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace, accommodation in San Marco books up fast and tends to be more expensive than in the other sestieri.
San Marco Highlights
St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) – gorgeous, crowded and unforgettable
St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) – 850 mosaics, 800 years of history and exceptional Byzantine architecture
Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) – impressive to look at, plus famous stairs, paintings and prisons
Museo Correr – experience the vast and vibrant history of Venice through this historical masterpiece
National Archaeological Museum – focused on the fascinating architecture that has made Venice famous
Procuraties – connected buildings with arcades and great terraces to enjoy a “bellini” (prosecco and peach nectar)
Teatro La Felice – a stunning theatre where the biggest operas and musicals take place in front of the world’s elite and most important critics
The Bridge of Sighs – originally connected the Palazzo Ducale with the prison across Rio di Palazzo, and if you kiss on a gondola under the bridge you will earn eternal love and happiness (although something about that seems a bit too easy)
San Servolo – this island on the vaporetto route between San Marco and the Lido used to house one of the very first insane asylums but now features the Venice International University and the Museo del Manicomio (Museum of Madness) – there has to be a joke in there somewhere (I’ll get back to you when I think of it)
Stay in San Marco if:
You want to be in the thick of the action, as close as possible to Venice’s most important sights and famous locations.
San Polo isn’t far behind San Marco in popularity, with bragging rights as the oldest neighbourhood in Venice and home to the wildly popular Rialto Markets. Roughly mirroring San Marco on the west side of the Grand Canal, it is usually the first place visitors head after getting their fill of the attractions around St. Mark’s Square.
San Polo Highlights
Rialto Bridge – technically also part of San Marco as it connects these two fantastic Venice neighbourhoods, it is the oldest of the 4 Grand Canal bridges and one of the most photographed bridges in the world
Camerlenghi Palace (Palazzo dei Camerlenghi) – a gorgeous Renaissance palace that faces onto the Grand Canal next to the Rialto Bridge
Campo San Polo – the largest campo in Venice features a fountain and is the most likely place to host festivals, concerts and special events
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (St. Mary of the Friars) – the largest church in Venice is often referred to as just “Frari”, and the nondescript exterior of this intriguing basilica on the Campo San Polo hides an incredible interior featuring Titian’s famous altarpiece painting, “Assumption of the Virgin”
Scuola Grande di San Rocco – dedicated to the patron saint of the plague-ridden (the Black Plague killed roughly 1/3 of the population of Venice), it features 50 extraordinary ceiling scenes by Tintoretto
Ponte Storto – the “twisted bridge” can be found in one of most beautiful corners of Venice
Stay in San Polo if:
You want to be in the heart of the action but can’t find a place to stay in San Marco, can’t afford one or would simply prefer a place that is a slightly less busy.
Named for the second-largest waterway in Venice, the Canal Regio (Royal Canal), this large and largely authentic Venice neighbourhood spans the north side of the island from the train station to Rialto Bridge. Among its maze of quiet side streets you are far more likely to encounter locals heading to work or school than tour groups posing for Instagram shots. This is where we stayed and we were thrilled with that decision (unlike my decision to power through eating that banana that was way underripe).
Ca’ d’Oro Palace (Golden House) – a remarkable Gothic palace, one of the oldest in Venice, best seen from the canal
Jewish Ghetto – established early in the 16th century it is considered by many to be the first Jewish ghetto in the world, and along with controversial and provocative history it features 3 of the oldest Venetian synagogues
Church of Santa Maria di Miracoli – a beautiful marble church with a picturesque bridge in front
Cannaregio Canal – the second-largest canal in Venice offers a much roomier, quieter experience than the Grand Canal, and features the:
Bridge of Three Arches – a photogenic wonder and the only one of its kind in Venice
Campo de Mori – charming little square with three fascinating sculptures, one of which has an iron nose to rub for good luck (if you can reach)
Calle Varisco – the narrowest street in Venice, need I say more?
Santa Maria di Nazareth Church – despite its surprising location right next to the train station it is one of the most beautiful churches in Venice
Isola di San Michele cemetery – this picturesque little island is closest to Cannaregio and boasts nice scenery and an impressive list of famous (although dead) residents
Fondamente Misericordia – a terrific canal lined with bars and restaurants
Stay in Cannaregio if:
You want an authentic neighbourhood close to the big highlights but without the crowds and long canals you can walk along.
Running neck and neck with Cannaregio for the most “real” and local of the sestiere, Castello has many excellent trattoria and loads of unique art.
Via Garibaldi – while Cannaregio claims the narrowest street in Venice, Castello has the widest one, a great place to stroll lined with restaurants, bars, cafés and shops
Giardini – a large, expansive green space (rare in Venice) featuring 30 permanent pavilions
Church of San Pietro di Castello – this 16th century gem was formerly the official church of Venice and is worth a visit to see the famous throne of Saint Peter
Campo di Giovanni e Paolo – one of largest squares in Venice, it has another impressive church and the Scuolo Grande di San Marco
Floating Market – a unique shopping experience just off Via Garibaldi
Libreria Acqua Alta – a crazy cluttered bookshop that has achieved a certain level of Instagram fame (and the corresponding crowds)
Porta Magna – the picturesque main gate of the Arsenale di Venezia (a huge ship-building area)
Campo Santa Maria Formosa – another extraordinary campo surrounded by palazzos
Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo – the 2nd oldest professional football (soccer) stadium in Italy was built in 1913 and is currently undergoing renovations to celebrate Venezia FC’s return to the Serie A (Italian top flight) for the first time in 20 years
Ponte di Quintavelle – a 45-metre bridge that connects Castello to the island of San Pietro
Ocean Space – we didn’t make it inside but this new art installation in Campo San Lorenzo supposedly illustrates climate change in a fun, campy manner (ok, I made that last part up, I’m sure it’s all pretty grim)
Palazzo Grimani – features amazing frescoes and a huge Graeco-Roman art collection of Cardinal Grimani that recently returned to the palazzo after 430 years (the collection, not the cardinal)
Stay in Castello if:
You like exploring slightly off the beaten path, finding unique places with interesting stories and more subtle charms.
Dorsoduro is the place to go for museums, quiet walks along the relatively peaceful Giudecca Canal and a vibrant university town atmosphere.
Galleria dell’Accademia – this famous gallery features the most important collection of paintings in Venice, including Veronese’s scandalous “Last Supper” and Titian’s “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple”
Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute – spectacular domed Baroque church on the Grand Canal
Peggy Guggenheim Collection – more modern but no less captivating, the Guggenheim collection showcases many of the most influential artists of the 20th century
Punta della Dogana Museum – this outstanding art museum in the old Venice customs building is a more recent addition to Dorsoduro’s cultural scene
Ca’ Rezzonico – a beautiful baroque palazzo that gives a glimpse into the lives of rich Venetians in past centuries
Giudecca Island – the Giudecca Art District is Venice’s first permanent art quarter
San Giorgio Island – enjoy panoramic views from the bell tower (Campanile San Giorgio), which include great looks at the Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, and a compelling hedge maze
Fondamenta delle Zattere – this popular strolling street along Guidecca Canal is often referred to as the “Walkway of the Venetians” because of the nightly parade of locals enjoying their evening constitutional
Scuola Grande dei Carmini – an impressive 13th century confraternity originally built to serve pilgrims and travellers
Campo Santa Margherita – one of the best spots in Venice for bars, restaurants and nightlife
Squero di San Trovaso – visitors aren’t allowed inside it as one of the few remaining gondola workshops in Venice, but you can still get a good look from the Fondamenta Maravegie across the canal
Campo San Barnaba – a nice church made even more interesting by its starring role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Stay in Dorsoduro if:
You want to take a deeper look into the art and history of Venice beyond the famous tourist sites.
Last, but not least, as the transportation of hub of Venice, Santa Croce includes the Harbour of San Basilio and parking area of Piazzale Roma. It is the most convenient base for getting to and from the island. The western section is mostly modern and functional but, like all the sestieri in Venice, Santa Croce has its fair share of compelling attractions as well.
Santa Croce Highlights
Natural History Museum – a great place for kids and a surprising find in a city not known for its natural charms (dead or alive)
Calle Ca’ Zusto – this tiny street is just 68 cm wide, leaving it an unheralded second in the “narrowest street in Venice” competition behind Cannaregio’s Calle Varisco’s 53 cm
Ca’ Pesaro – the architecture of this gorgeous 17th century Baroque palace facing the Grand Canal is fascinating and it includes both the Modern Art and Oriental Museums
Ponte Degli di Scalzi – impressively large white bridge that is the main crossing point of Grand Canal
Parco Pubblico Papadopoli – close to Piazzale Roma it is one of the few green spaces in Venice, with many captivating statues and a relaxed atmosphere it is a good place to start or end your visit
Palazzo Mocenigo – a luxurious palazzo located on a small canal, it is filled with decorative furnishings, classic fashion and family paintings, not to mention the restless ghost of philosopher Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake after being reported for heresy by Giovanni Mocegino (keep in mind even ghosts take siesta from 1-3 pm)
San Stae – facing onto the Grand Canal, this baroque Italian church dedicated to San Eustachio was built as a crypt by the Moceginos in the 17th century
San Giacomo dall’Orio – a pre-10th century church with mysterious origins, impressive green columns and intricate ceiling paintings
Stay in Santa Croce if:
You like to have easy connections to mainland highlights such as Padua and Verona, plus more authentic squares and cafés that are mostly occupied by locals.
Venice Neighbourhoods Summary
While all 6 neighbourhoods in Venice share some similarities – elegant architecture, charming bridges, riveting canals – each has its own personality and highlights. If you have lots of time you can wander them all for a broad look and deeper understanding of Venice and its complex history. Or maybe you’d rather pick just one and explore it extensively to really get under its skin. Either way, hopefully this guide can help you choose the right place to stay during your visit to one of the world’s greatest cities.