Welcome to Venezia… the world famous city of Venice is a must visit for anyone who enjoys art, culture and history. An unusual city in that it was built quite literally on marshy islands, that was once the centre of trade for Europe and had enormous political power.
Venezia is divided into six districts or neighbourhoods, known as Sestieri. Each sestiere has its own distinct personality and charms, making it well worth venturing beyond the tourist centre of San Marco.
So whether you are just thinking about visiting Venice and the Veneto region (if you need help deciding – read my list of reasons why you should visit), or are in your planning stages, this guide will help you understand the different areas of this gorgeous city.
Named for the patron saint of Venice, San Marco is the heart of Venice where the main tourist highlights reside.
For over a thousand years, Piazza San Marco has been the political and judiciary centre of Venice. In the famous square alone is the awe-inspiring Basilica di San Marco with its golden mosaics, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and the towering Torre’s dell’Orologio with its views across Venice.
Take a seat at one of the cafes lining the square and watch the theatre show that is the Piazza or indulge in some luxury shopping at one of the many designer stores that line Via XXII Marzo.
Home to: Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, Museo Correr, Torre’s dell’Orologio, Bridge of Sighs, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
Experience: Climb the campanile at San Giorgio for a birds eye view of the city
While San Polo is the smallest sestieri of Venice, it sits in the very centre of Venice and is one of the most important areas – the Rialto area.
Highlights here of course are the Rialto Bridge, the San Giacomo di Rialto Church and the Rialto market. The Rialto bridge was one an old wooden footbridge, before it was replaced in 1594 by the now world-famous stone bridge. Whilst the Rialto market was established in 1097 and is still extremely popular shopping destination for locals and tourists alike.
Being slightly more local than the tourist centre of San Marco, the food and shops here cater more to the local Venetians. This is the perfect spot to sample cicchetti, small snacks or antipasti that are served in Venetian bacari (eateries). Great for those who like to try as much local cuisine as possible, without committing to large meals.
Home to: Rialto market, Basilica dei Frari, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Rialto Bridge
Experience: Explore the Rialto market while sampling cichetti in a local bacari
On the other side of San Polo is Santa Croce, with its connection to the mainland (and the only section where cars are allowed) it certainly has a less touristy feel to it. But don’t let that fool you, there are plenty of landmarks and sites for you to see, and charming streets to explore.
If you drive to Venice, the artificial island of Tronchetto was purpose built as a car park for Venice, and the central bus station is here as well.
Home to: San Giacomo dall’Orio, Natural History Museum, Ca’Pesaro museum, Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna (International Gallery of Modern Art, and the Museo d’Arte Orientale (Oriental Art Museum), Palazzo Mocenigo, San Stae church
Experience: Visit the intriguing San Giacomo dall’Oria church and admire the stunning examples of Venetian art inside
The Dorsoduro sestiere is home to students and galleries galore. The University and Architecture Institute are housed here, which means there are also plenty of cafes, pubs and bars around.
You can easily spend days here exploring the various museums and galleries, however if you are limited on time, then make sure you visit the Peggy Guggenheim collection in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. While the collection is no-where near the size of other Guggenheim collections around the world, it is no less impressive, with works by Kandisnky, Piccaso and Dalí (just to name a few).
Home to: Ca’ Foscari University, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Ca’Rezzonico, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Santa Maria della Salute church, San Sebastiano church
Experience: Promenade along the Fondamenta delle Zattere, and watch the sunset over the Giudecca Canal
Once home to a fort which was believed to be founded during the Roman Empire, Castello is now home to the Arsenale (a former shipyard). If you love to get off the beaten track and away from the tourists, then this is the area in Venice to do it.
Full of sleepy squares, green spaces, shopping and great local restaurants, Castello provides some breathing room for you to slow down. In May of every odd-numbered year, the Venice Biennale is hosted in the Arsenale.
Home to: San Zaccaria, Arsenale di Venezia, Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Museo Storico Navale (Naval Historical Museum), Giardini (gardens), Ponte di Quintavalle, Church of San Pietro di Castello
Experience: Buy fresh fruit from the popular produce boats which line Via Garibaldi (just like the locals do)
Cannaregio is a beautiful residential neighbourhood which is also the largest of the six sestieri. Home to Venice’s Jewish Quarter, which is believed to be one of the oldest in Europe, there is a real authentic feel to this district compared to some of the others in Venice.
Strada Nuova is the long street and canal that leads directly from the train station to the Rialto bridge, so you will find it constantly busy with tourists and commuters making their way through the islands.
Unexpected for an island city of limited space, there are also two large parks to be found, which are a great for when you need a break from exploring!
Home to: The Jewish Ghetto, Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Ca’d’Oro, Fanchetti Gallery, Ponte delle Guglie, Ponte dei Tre Archi
Experience: Walk along the Strada Nuova before stopping for lunch in one of the many fine restaurants along the Fondamenta della Misericordia
** Stepping Outside of Venezia **
THE LAGOON ISLANDS
If you have a few days to explore Venice, then a visit to one of the many islands in lagoon is a must.
Each island has its own charms and tend to be quieter and less crowded than the busy main islands.
Watch the glass makers in Murano as they create works of art using techniques that are centuries old, before visiting Museo del Vetro (glass museum) with its collection of over 4,000 pieces.
Wander through Burano with its brightly painted buildings that look like candy; and admire the stunning lace needlework that Burano is world famous for. Watch for local women as they sit together quietly stitching away.
Torcello was once the most important of the Venetian islands, sadly due to several unfortunate events (Attila the Hun being one) its population was decimated, and what we now call the main islands became the centre of Venice. It is much more rural and will make you feel like you have stepped back in time.
Lido di Venezia, the beach of Venice is one of the most popular holiday destinations of northern Italy. While the tourists cram the walkways of San Marco, bring your bathing suit and have a day trip at the beach instead with the locals and watch the sunset over Venice.
Home to: Redentore Church, Torcello, Murano, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Burano Lace museum, Scuola di Merletti (lace making school), Attila’s throne, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Santa Fosca Church
Experience: Explore Venice’s history with a visit to Torcello, and admire the Byzantine mosaics found in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (the oldest building in Venice)
THE VENETO REGION
The Veneto region is filled incredible art, archaeological sites, wineries, historical cities, and ancient thermal spas. Often overlooked for Venice, these towns and cities are well worth your time whether you hire a car or visit by train.
Explore the Palladian villas along the Brenta riviera, go bird watching in the Po delta, learn about the origins of modern medicine in Padua, visit Juliet’s balcony in Verona, sample grappa in Bassana del Grappa, admire the usual checkerboard piazza of Marostica, go skiing in the dolomites, or simply relax in one of the many thermal spas throughout the region.
There is no end to what you can see and do in the varied landscape that is the Veneto region.
Home to: Cappella degli Scrovegni, Teatro Olimpico, Villa Rotonda, Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Verona Arena, San Zeno Maggiore, Sirmione Peninsula, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Titan’s Birthplace, Belluno
Take a leisurely boat trip down the Brenta Canal