Vacation rentals in Italy (villas, farms, estates, agriturismo, apartments)
Venice Sestieri - the neighborhoods and where to stay
Shannon Essa (Shannon)
This is a guide for visitors who plan to rent apartments in Venice. It points out what neighborhoods are like in terms of people and life and food shopping rather than major sights (though I have pointed some of those out too.) It's pretty hard to go wrong in any of Venice's Sestieri, but hopefully these notes will guide you to one that fits you, and your visit, best.
Venice is shaped like a fish, with the tail in the East and the lips in the West, the head in the North and the belly in the South. Remember though, you can get anywhere in Venice by foot or Vaporetto pretty quickly; if you stay in the brain, you can easily visit the tail.
Venice is divided into the following districts (called "sestieri"): San Marco (belly), Dorsoduro (fins), San Polo (heart), Santa Croce (heart), Cannaregio (brains), Castello (tail).
San Marco - The Belly of the Fish
When I think of San Marco, I first think of the splendor and magic of Piazza San Marco and the view from the Piazzetta to the lagoon. Then I think of vibrant Campo San Stefano and my favorite campo in Venice, Campo San Angelo, with its leaning campanile. The first four times I visited Venice I lived in San Marco, very happily.
In San Marco you are centrally located, you are always just a couple minutes walk from the Grand Canal, and you are close enough to Piazza San Marco to visit, on a whim, any time of the day or night. With care, you can even eat well, and inexpensively, in San Marco but here more than anywhere you have to pay attention.
San Marco is the most touristy sestiere, and the crowds at times can be brutal. Unless you stay close to Campo San Stefano and the Accademia Bridge, I would advise staying in San Marco only during less crowded times - October through April, and forget about Carnivale.
If you are renting an apartment, you will find San Marco is the hardest sestiere for finding a market to buy food, but you can always take the vaporetto up to the fish and vegetable market in the Rialto for that. San Marco doesn't have too much of a residential feel, but if you are into Fendi and Bruno Magli and the like, you will find these stores in San Marco, just as you'll find Harry's Bar and a gazillion shops selling the same "Murano" glass souvenirs. San Marco abounds in nice bookstores and there are some other unique shops to be found.
So while I don't completely agree with the people who say "never stay in San Marco" I do agree that you should never stay in San Marco in the high season or if you want to hang out with residents instead of tourists.
Dorsoduro - The Fins of the Fish
Dorsoduro is a sprawling sestiere that starts way up by Piazzale Roma, where the cars and buses are, down to where the Grand Canal meets the southern lagoon. This sestiere is one many travelers choose as a base, and for good reason. The eastern part is very charming and beautiful and both the Accademia museum and the Guggenheim museum are located there. The Zattere, a wide walkway along the Guidecca canal, is a wonderful spot to spend an entire afternoon, and many Venetians and students do exactly that.
Venice's University, Ca' Foscari, and the Architecture University are in the heart of Dorsoduro. The surrounding areas have a student crowd and the bars and stores that fulfill their needs. If you are a night owl, you'll find more places stay open late around Campo Santa Margherita than anywhere else in the city. The Campo itself is a fun and lively place, constantly crowded with children playing and Venetians socializing.
If you decide to rent an apartment in Dorsoduro, I recommend you only do so if it is south of Campo Santa Margherita; closer to Piazzale Roma, much of the sestiere's charm is lost. You'll find everything you want or need for your apartment around Campo Santa Margherita: there is a fish market in the morning, a vegetable market all day, a supermarket on the southern tip of the campo (go to the bottom of the Campo, towards Accademia, and make a left; the supermarket is on the left), a wine shop, and the famous Tonolo bakery. There is also the big Billa supermarket on the Zattere.
Dorsoduro is full of good restaurants and pizzerias in every price range. It's a wonderful sestiere to stay in.
San Polo and Santa Croce - The Beating Heart of the Fish
It is magical staying in San Polo, the oldest and most medieval part of Venice. San Polo is a maze of tiny streets all eventually leading to some part of the Grand Canal.
Tourists shop in San Marco; residents shop in San Polo. Here you will find the famous fish market of Venice, with stall after stall of fresh fish and shellfish and other creatures from the Adriatic Sea and the lagoon, and a large open vegetable market. Around this, a merchant society. You'll find butchers, bakeries, wine shops, florists, a record store, a linen shop; if a resident might need it, you'll find it near the fish market.
There are bars everywhere and the wine is quaffed at a much earlier hour than in other parts of the city. Some of the best, and most famous, Venetian restaurants are in San Polo.
It can get crowded in the high season, especially on the main thoroughfare that runs from the Rialto bridge to Accademia. Get a map and learn the hidden routes the residents use. Alternatively, stay in Santa Croce, San Polo's sister sestiere and the least touristy one in Venice.
In Santa Croce you'll find Campo San Giacomo dell' Orio, which is a riot of color and life in the early evening. There are two great bars in this campo to watch the action from and one of the best (and most inexpensive) restaurants in Venice, La Zucca. There are plenty of great pizzerias in Santa Croce. It's an easy walk to the Rialto markets to buy food for an apartment here, and there is also a Coop Supermarket in Campo San Giacomo dell' Orio. And since Santa Croce doesn't have much for the tourist, you'll find some real deals on apartments; you'll be happy when you get the bill for your pizza dinner, too.
Cannaregio - The Brains of the Fish
It's pretty hard to get lost in Cannaregio, with its wide, straight fondamentas and canals. But that's pretty much the only drawback to staying here. Cannaregio is a very beautiful and relatively quiet sestiere, with areas of bustling commerce. In other words, if it is shopping or people watching you want, there is plenty of that, but if it's a total escape from the modern world you want, then Cannaregio has that too.
Cannaregio's main thoroughfare runs from the train station to the Rialto Bridge. The name of this thoroughfare changes a few times, but you'll know it when you see it. Shops, bars and restaurants line it the whole way. My favorite wine bar, La Cantina, is in Campo San Felice on the Strada Nova section, and, in case you decide to drink there, I'll let you in on a little secret. From the wine bar, walk across the Strada Nova, and look to your right, across the canal there. You'll see the back of the tallest, skinniest, coolest building, one that NO ONE ever sees.
Cannaregio has some of the most picturesque canals and campi. The Campo Santa Maria Nova, where you wil find the Church of the Miracoli, is quiet and residential. It is impossible to not fall in love with Venice in that campo. The Jewish Ghetto is a very special and haunting place, one that hardly any tourists see, and the area around the Ghetto, with its wide canals and colorful buildings, is exceptionally picturesque even for a city like Venice.
The best restaurant street in the sestiere, if not the whole city, is Fondamenta Misercordia. On this street you can find Mexican and Syrian food as well as some great traditional restaurants. The crowd here is eclectic, a mix of graduate student types, young families, and grizzled Communist party members.
Renting an apartment in Cannaregio, you will be able to find anything you need on the main train station - Rialto thoroughfare (regardless of name) and in many small stores all over the place.
Castello - The Tail of the Fish
Our final sestiere, Castello, has a split personality. Part of Castello is the ultimate tourist hell. The other part? Truly Venetian, with some major historical spots that are not even known, much less visited, by most travelers to Venice.
The part of Castello running along the Riva Degli Schiavoni and the back of St. Mark's Square is to be avoided when it comes to renting an apartment, especially in the high season. But if you find an apartment in Northern Castello, that is a superb base.
I also recommend staying near Via Garibaldi but only if you don't mind walking; it is a bit of a trek to get anywhere else from there. Via Garibaldi is a wide (for Venice) street and the street life here is very Venetian. Many of the residents here probably rarely leave the area. At the end of Via Garibaldi, on another island completely, is the once very important church of San Pietro di Castello. Just to the north of Via Garibaldi is the Arsenale, the giant shipyard where Venice's warships were built when she was a world power. While most visitors are getting pooped on by pigeons in Piazza San Marco, you can be sitting in San Pietro, totally alone.
The area around Campo Santa Maria Formosa is also a good base. It is very centrally located and anything you need you can find there. One final plug for Castello: Fondamenta Nove, the walkway along the Northern lagoon. The boats for Murano and Burano leave from here. The walkway is usually fairly deserted compared to the Zattere and especially compared to the Riva degli Schiavoni. You can sit along Fondamenta Nove and look out to the cemetery island of San Michele.
No matter where you stay, you'll be happy (except maybe Western Castello or San Marco in September!)
So, How do you Choose?
I have stayed in all the Sestieri except Dorsoduro and Santa Croce and I have always liked my location with the exception of the "heart of tourist hell" Castello apartment that I rented. On many of my visits I have stayed in very crowded areas near the Piazza San Marco or in the heart of the Rialto market and these areas were fine, but I would never in a million years stay on the Doge's Palace backside again.
To sum up, here is another way to look at it:
Slow Travel Italy - Food/Restaurants: Shannon's Venice Restaurant List, Shannon Essa
Slow Travel Italy - Food/Restaurants: A Different Type of Meal - Cichetti in Venice, Shannon Essa
© Shannon Essa, 2004
Map from Venere - our hotel booking affiliate. Used with permission.
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