Although a relatively small city, Venice, Italy is home to a number of vibrant neighborhoods, each of them with its own character and history. Administratively the historical center of Venice is split into six areas called “sestiere” (which means a “sixth” in Venetian dialect), a tradition that has held up since the 12th century. The present sestieri map dates back to 1711. Besides the six sestieri, Venice actually includes Giudecca, the Lido, Murano, Burano, and a few other islands in the Venetian Lagoon. While staying in Venice’s historic center is expensive, we highly recommend it for anyone who wants to get an authentic experience in Venice and values a chance to get to know the city and its people beyond the museums, the tacky souvenire vendors, and the crowds.
It is indeed a hard choice of accommodation between the different areas of Venice, each home to its own set of traditions and cultural features. It’s possible, however, to make an educated decision based on various factors that we will help you uncover in this article.
To start off, it is worth noting that while some neighborhoods are more central than others, all have their attractions and advantages, and the entire city can be traversed from East to West in about an hour and a half on foot. The number of residents in Venice’s historical center keeps declining every year and is currently below 60,000. Today for better or worse the city is largely home to businesses and is a hub of tourism activity thanks in part to the huge cruiseships that dock in its port. There are lots of hotels, hostels, B&B’s and rental apartments in all areas of Venice, and those visiting Venice will be pleased to know that the city is largely welcoming and has no “bad” or dangerous areas.
Santa Croce: The Gateway To Venice
Santa Croce takes its name from the church that once stood here but was unfortunately demolished by Napoleon. With the bus terminal at Piazzale Roma, the multi-story parking garages, the so called “people mover” and the ship dock at Stazione Marittima, Santa Croce has established itself as a commuting area of the city and the transportation hub for tourists. This neighborhood of Venice has the most connections to mainland Italy, and is therefore buzzing with activity all day long.
The only bridge that connects Venice to the mainland, Ponte della Libertà, was built on Mussolini’s order in 1933. It connects Santa Croce area of Venice with Mestre for car traffic, which, unlike in the rest of Venice, is partially allowed in this neighborhood, albeit only in a very small part of it – and with strict limitations. However, for those interested in exploring other neighboring towns in addition to Venice by car, while being a a 40-minute walk away from Piazza San Marco, Santa Croce is an excellent choice. Despite its transport links, Santa Croce maintains its identity as authentic Venetian neighborhood with its fair share of bars and restaurants, art galleries, and attractions such as Ca’ Pesaro, a former palazzo hosting International Gallery of Modern Art, and Fondaco dei Turchi, a magnificent palazzo dating from 1225 that was subsequently owned by Dukes of Ferrara before being given to Ottoman merchants for use as a community center and a warehouse, which currently houses the Venetian museum of Natural History.
San Marco: The Heart Of Venice
Best viewed as the opposite end of the spectrum to Santa Croce, San Marco is the largest tourist destination in the city, and home to all the world-famous attractions that tourists typically associate with Venice. This neighborhood is where San Marco square, the most visited spot in Venice, is located, along with Basilica di San Marco hosting the holy relics of Saint Marc, Palazzo del Doge (Doge’s Palace), Museo Correr, and the famous Piazzetta with its two columns marking the gateway into Venice from the Lagoon. Iconic Rialto bridge is also here, connecting San Marco with another less famous sestiere across the Grand Canal, called San Polo.
Piazza San Marco is also the lowest area of Venice and therefore the one that is the first to flood during high tides. Oftentimes tourists see the raised walkways neatly stacked around Piazza San Marco in anticipation of the flood. If the flood happens the walkways are quickly put together rising about a foot above ground to help people walk around the most popular areas of the city without getting their feet soaked.
If you’re interested in having quick and easy access to the most iconic part of Venice, and aren’t fazed by big crowds and high hotel costs, then San Marco is certainly a neighborhood worth considering for your stay. While the hotels are expensive and book fast, and the area is densely populated during both night and day, this neighborhood is the height of convenience.
In San Marco you have a top tourist destination at your doorstep, and an endless number of stores and restaurants to choose from. Unfortunately the quality of the restaurants here varies as many eateries in this area cater mainly to one-time visitors off the cruise ships and day-trippers, serving lower quality non-local dishes at high prices. Thus, you have to be careful if you are in San Marco and looking for good quality fresh authentic cuisine. Do not go to restaurants that have large menus with pictures of food, or people actively trying to get you in that are standing outside the restaurant. Try to avoid restaurants placed in large touristy squares or other big tourist thoroughfares. Choose instead smaller places tucked away on little streets with no big bright signs or uniformed staff.
Dorsoduro: The Cultural Delight
Literally translated, Dorsoduro means ‘hard ridge’, and this neighborhood was named as such for a reason. This was the only area of Venice to be built on solid rock, as opposed to the swampy marshlands that most of the rest of Venice is based on. The area includes the neighborhood directly across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco, as well as Giudecca Canal and the largely residential and less-known to tourists Giudecca Island. This is the southern-most neighborhood of the city that is home to a large number of museums and landmarks. There is a balance here between a cultural neighborhood and authentic residential neighborhood with the feel of ancient Venice, best suited to visitors seeking a balance between the highly touristic and the more authentic. Thanks to the Accademia bridge, one of the three spanning the Grand Canal, this neighborhood is an easy walk to Piazza San Marco, yet it is sufficiently isolated to escape huge crowds.
Thanks to the various museums and galleries in the area, Dorsoduro has a lot to offer to tourists seeking cultural thrills. There is plenty of art for you to explore here that doesn’t involve long walks or vaporetto trips. One of the most famous Venetian museums located in Dorsoduro is Gallerie dell’Accademia, which hosts an amazing collection of Venetian renaissance art by local painters with worldwide fame such as Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, and Canaletto. For fans of modern art there is well-known Peggy Guggenheim museum in a lovely palazzo on the Grand Canal with unmatched collection of 20th century avantgarde works, as well as recently restored Punta della Dogana exhibition space owned by billionaire François Pinault with contemporary artworks.
The highlight of Dorsoduro is of course magnificent Santa Maria della Salute church which has been defining Venice’s landscape for centuries with it gorgeous dome and stately baroque design. This church built in appreciation of Madonna’s miracles in ridding Venice of the deadly plague is still one of the best-known landmarks in Venice and Italy.
Despite all the museums and cultural attractions, this sestiere is not overwhelmingly busy. It’s less central, less accessible from the cruise ships and the train station, and has fewer hotels and restaurants than San Marco, which means that you’ll find a little peace and tranquility here at the end of the day.
Cannaregio: Accessible Yet Authentic
Cannaregio is the first neighborhood that many tourists encounter upon arriving in Venice. This sestiere is home to Venice’s train station- Santa Lucia. Thanks to its proximity to the station, this is one of the busiest areas of the city, and one that houses a vast number of hotels. Because of the sheer amount of lodging and the ensuing hotel competition, along with the fact that it is not very close to Piazza San Marco, Cannaregio is often one of the cheapest neighborhoods to stay in.
However, Cannaregio isn’t just for lodging. There are plenty of interesting sights here to take in, including the Jewish Ghetto, the first Jewish ghetto in Europe and the sight of Shakespeare’s famous “the Merchant Of Venice”. The Ghetto is the neighborhood that was once densely populated with Jews from many corners of Europe who sought relative tolerance of Venice, and that witnessed multiple upheavals and misfortunes of the Jewish people over the centuries. This area is also home to famous Ca D’Oro palace which is open to visitors, as well as magnificent Santa Maria dei Miracoli church and less famous yet very interesting church of Madonna dell’Orto. Cannaregio with its easy connection to the mainland is home to many Venetian residents, who use the train station to commute daily, which means that your experiences in restaurants and bars will hold a touch more authenticity. Cannaregio with its access both to the Grand Canal and to the Lagoon also has stops of all major vaporetto lines, making it the perfect place to stay if you intend to visit the surrounding areas and the other lagoon islands such as Murano and Burano.
Castello: The Home Of The Biennale
Castello literally translates to “castle”, hailing back from the medieval time when a big castle really stood here, and the grandiose nature of the name is an indication of the neighborhood itself. Home to the largest structure in Venice, the Arsenale shipyard, Castello neighborhood was once buzzing with ship-building activity, churning out record numbers of ships to defend the might of the Venetian Republic. Although the ship builders are long gone, the area is still generating the buzz now mainly from the high-end hotels and high-profile cultural events such as the Biennale of Venice. Dspite being the farthest from the mainland connections, this is one of the best areas of Venice to stay in thanks to having the only park in Venice, the Giardini (also the spot of the famous Biennale of Venice), and the long promenade area called Riva Degli Schiavoni that runs along the Grand Canal, both built by Napoleon.
Castello is also where the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo is located, which is worth checking out for its art, its importance (it is one of the city’s largest churches where 25 Venetian Doge’s are buried), and its historical significance. An area of many authentic restaurants and hotels, Castello is also a residential area preferred by many locals and will likely be the one where you see many Venetian families with kids.
San Polo: The Foodie’s Paradise
San Polo is a neighborhood smack in the middle between Dorsoduro and Santa Croce, and is the one you hit immediately upon descending from the Rialto Bridge after you walk its length from San Marco. San Polo is a relatively small sestiere that takes its name from Campo San Polo, the biggest square of Venice after San Marco. This is an obvious choice of a neighborhood to stay for those looking to reside in a highly authentic area of the city that is close to both the magnificent landmarks of San Marco and the transport links of Santa Croce.
Home to the gastronomic delights of the famous Rialto fish and produce market, as well as cultural delights such as a magnificent gothic church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the burial place of Titian, San Polo is an excellent place for those looking to immerse themselves in Italian culture. It’s also home to the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto, which is noted for its interesting mix of architectural styles, that include a Gothic Portico, Byzantine columns and a unique 15th century clock.
Numerous artisanal shops and bars made San polo their home, giving you a choice of authentic souvenirs and local products from the highly skilled masters. A number of gastronomic tours, which recently enjoyed lots of publicity, stop in the small baccaros (Venetian bars) and various authentic eateries in this area.
For these reasons, San Polo is recommended for those looking for a very venetian experience in a convenient location.
Venice is a Compact and Well-Connected City
Each of Venice’s neighborhoods have their own set of unique qualities, that you should consider when you decide where to stay in this beautiful city. Depending on your interests or needs, you may want to be as central as possible and close to shopping and main museums in San Marco, be a bit more authentic yet close to cultural attractions in Dorsoduro, enjoy the colors of Rialto market and the foodie scene in San Polo, save a bit on lodging and be close to the mainland connections in Santa Croce or Cannaregio, or go the most authentic route and watch real Venetians go about their business in Castello. However, Venice is a well connected city, meaning that wherever you choose to stay, it’s easy enough to explore the whole city and you won’t be limited to the neighborhood you choose to reside in. Regardless of where you choose to stay, our advice to you is to explore the city to its fullest, venture out into the different neighborhoods, immerse yourself into the local food and wine scene, and enjoy everything that Venice has to offer to people curious enough to go beyond the few top sites.