While most cities are broken into quarters, Venice is divided into six districts or sestieri. Although it’s a compact city, each of Venice’s neighbourhoods has its own characteristics, offering you something a little different and distinctive wherever you wander.
Read on to find out the best place to stay if you're keen on cuisine, which neighbourhood will indulge your artistic eye, or where to head for a bit of uncharacteristically quiet Venice.
The Piazza San Marco is the epicentre of Venice, but there is plenty more to this endlessly beguiling city © Claudio Stocco / Shutterstock
Shopping in San Marco
San Marco contains the Venetian crown jewels in the form of the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, located in the eponymous square. For this reason, it is also the most densely populated in terms of tourists and purveyors of souvenirs. Whether you are just visiting or a local, this is definitely the neighbourhood for shopaholics. Via XXII Marzo is the Holy Grail of shopping in Venice, showcasing the biggest and the best of Italian designers. It is the most prestigious postcode in town and the plethora of antique shops, chichi clothing stores and art dealers, as well as the yacht club, are testimony to this. This district contains some of the loveliest hotels and is ideal for first-time visitors and those with little time as the main sights are on your doorstep.
The community of Cannaregio
Cannaregio once had a reputation for being a little rough and it still wears its working-class badge with pride. There is a strong sense of community here and the neighbourhood has managed to retain butcher shops and bakeries, along with other local enterprises that have been priced out of other areas. The sestiere has seen a recent revival of vibrant Jewish cultural life, with shops and kosher restaurants reflecting this.
The district is a pleasing paradox, being both family-friendly thanks to its two parks (the Savorgnan and the Groggia) and swimming pool, as well as the place to go for the best in wine bars and restaurants on the Fondamenta della Misericordia. So stay here if you have kids who need to let off steam, and stay here if you like to let off steam with a late-night tipple or two!
Books make wonderfully thoughtful alternatives to the usual souvenirs © Libreria MarcoPolo
Live your la dolce vita in San Polo
San Polo is very much the middle man in Venice. It’s not as grandiose as San Marco, but boasts the imposing I Frari and the vast Campo San Polo. It is both in the heart of Venice, boasting Rialto Market at its southernmost point, and yet is the ideal district for escaping town, with Piazzale Roma and the train station in easy walking distance. Despite the typical influx of tourists and its many tourist sights, San Polo maintains a laid-back air. It has the bustle of the market and the sleepiness of delightful squares with nary a tourist in sight. This is a great neighbourhood for those wanting some peace and quiet whilst having an authentic Venetian trip. It’s also a must for foodies, as Rialto Market is a gourmand’s mecca.
It's always sunnier in Dorsoduro
The southern backbone of the city, Dorsoduro was once home to cotton mills and factory workers. Those mills and warehouses now contain university classrooms and the area is teeming with students, particularly in Campo Santa Margherita at aperitivo time. With thousands of students, this is the neighbourhood for bookshop lovers, check out Libreria MarcoPolo and Cafoscarina for a solid selection of books in various languages as well as beautiful Italian children’s books.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection cuts a handsome figure on the bank of the Grand Canal © s74 / Shutterstock
As well as housing Ca’ Foscari University and the Architecture Institute, the district has reinvented itself as Venice’s own Soho. Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Pinault’s Punta della Dogana, and keep an eye out for the smaller galleries sprouting up all over the neighbourhood all the time. The district has long been a favourite with foreign second-home buyers, meaning that Dorsoduro doesn’t have the same Venetian feel of nearby San Polo. However, it has beautiful boutique hotels, fine eateries and world-renowned modern and contemporary art. This is a great neighbourhood for art lovers, but it’s also ideal for winter breaks as it’s the sunniest part of the city.
The sheer scale of the entrance to Arsenale evokes how enormous the ships this yard once created must have been © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet
Castello is home to the Arsenale, which in its heyday churned out galley ships using a factory line process, a very sophisticated system for the time. It has maintained its identity as an area of manual workers and labourers, and has a grittier reputation than its posh next-door neighbour, San Marco. Because of this, Castello has pockets that are relatively tourist-free, but don’t be alarmed by its tough exterior: Castello is gorgeous, safe, and an excellent choice if you want a quieter corner of the city. It is also ideal for art lovers as Castello is home to the Venice Biennale. Stay here to avoid the crowds while enjoying an original Venetian vibe and lots of contemporary art.
The Chiesa di San Simeone Piccolo is hard to overlook and makes a visit to Santa Croce well worthwhile © red-feniks / Shutterstock
Get moving in Santa Croce
Santa Croce is the most overlooked of the six districts, but nobody should put this baby in a corner. At first glance, the signs are not auspicious, yet Santa Croce contains some superlative sights whilst maintaining its low-key Venetian feel. Its excellent transport links make it the ideal district for visitors who want to explore the Veneto or who have arrived by car. Once you’ve left the admittedly unattractive bus station behind you, Santa Croce opens up its riches. The sestiere boast a church with a crypt (a rarity in the lagoon city), one of the loveliest and most vibrant squares in Venice (San Giacomo dell’Orio) and plenty of new hotels lining the Grand Canal. It's a good spot to stay if Venice is just one stop on a multi-destination trip for ease of transport and accommodation. You'll still get some quintessentially Venetian sights on your doorstep and Venice is your oyster from this location.
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