Tips and ideas to visit Venice’s Districts
It is always assumed that Venice is the ideal place for a honeymoon. This is a grave error. To live in Venice or even to visit it, means that you fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else. – Peggy Guggenheim
If you were to forget how many districts Venice has, you just have to count up the teeth of the decorative iron work on the front of all the Gondolas. They are exactly six. The posterior tooth represents the Giudecca Island, the S-shape is reminiscent of the Grand Canal and the small arc over the last tooth is the Rialto Bridge. The upper part is St. Mark’s Basin, but also the Ducal Hat (the “Corno Ducale.”)
The six “Sestieri” of Venice are the historic districts in which the city is divided. Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce are so called since the days of the Venetian Republic, when they were administrative districts and were represented by the city’s Ducal Counsellors. Each district has its own story to tell, all starting with a central nucleus around which people strived to clean up the surrounding lands, to reclaim square meters from the swamp where to build houses, palaces, and churches.
In this presentation of Venice’s Sestieri, we’ve tried to provide, for each, the largest number of tourist information about museums, palaces and churches to be visited. But also many curiosities and anecdotes, and advice on where to enjoy a drink, a good dinner or where to go to find the main shopping streets in each of the districts, pardon, sestieri of Venice.
Dorsoduro, Venice “touristy” district par excellence
Dorsoduro, which literally means ‘hard back’ is so named because at one time the whole area was covered with compact sand dunes, the ground was less swampy, more stable, hard indeed. The Sestiere also includes the islands of Giudecca and Sacca Fisola. Nowadays, Dorsoduro is one of the most touristy districts in Venice for the presence of museums, palaces and churches, but also restaurants and bars: Campo Santa Margherita is one of the focal points of Venice night life.
After San Marco, this is the district with the highest concentration of museums. These include the Accademia Galleries, in Campo della Carità, with works by Venetian artists from the 14th century to the Renaissance period. The Gallery is a complex that includes the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità, the church of Santa Maria and the Monastery of the Lateran monks. Dorsoduro is also home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, hosted within Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal, one of the most prestigious art collections in Europe, with works by Picasso, Duchamp, De Chirico, Kandinsky, Klee, Magritte, Pollock, and many others.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, in Punta della Dogana, is a permanent exhibition for Francois Pinault’s works. Between an exhibition and the other, it is worth visiting the Dogana Café, a place to relax and enjoy traditional dishes of Venetian and Italian cuisine. Also the Squero San Trovaso is very interesting in Dorsoduro, a place where the traditional Venetian boats called Gondolas are still built, as well as the Scuola Grande dei Carmini, the Confraternity school of laypersons.
Walking around Dorsoduro you will bump into prestigious buildings such as Ca’ Rezzonico overlooking the Grand Canal, with rooms decorated with frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo, the lovely ballroom and the main floor with painted images of everyday life in Venice in the 1700s. Ca’ Foscari is a beautiful Gothic building dating back to the 15th century, seat of the State University of Venice. The Palace stands in one of the most favorable locations on the Grand Canal: from the second floor you have a complete view over the Canal, from the Rialto Bridge to the Accademia Bridge.
Finally, the less superstitious can visit Ca’Dario, known as the cursed palace: all those who have bought it or have lived there, have gone through serious trouble. Today the building is on sale, but no one wants it.
Even Dorsoduro’s religious architectures have great artistic relevance. The Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, near St. Mark’s Basin, is a great expression of Venetian Baroque style and is a much loved place by Venice citizens. The Church of Santa Maria del Rosario hosts a wealth of works by Tiepolo and Tintoretto, while in San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, one of the oldest churches in Venice (century VII) you can admire paintings by artists of the Veronese school.
In the Church of St. Raphael the Archangel (century VII) you must look up to admire the fresco by Francesco Fontebasso on the central nave, while you must be careful when you leave the Church of San Trovaso as it has a double-side exit: on a Campo and on a Rio.
Not to be missed: Dorsoduro district is one of the most exciting nightlife areas in Venice, especially around Campo Santa Margherita. Don’t miss the wine tastings at Al Bottegone in Fondamenta Nani, Margaret Duchamp’s cocktails in Campo Santa Margherita, and the poetic verses dedicated to women at Taverna da Baffo in Campiello Sant’Agostin: Giorgio Baffo was one of Casanova’s best friends, his mentor and inspirer of his life devoted to senses.
Santa Croce, churches and palaces of inestimable value
Santa Croce district is the gateway to the city for vehicles that arrive in Venice from Ponte della Libertà. Santa Croce hosts the Stazione Marittima (the Maritime Station) where cruise ships dock. The Sestiere takes its name from an old church destroyed in the Napoleonic era, and along with the San Polo district it formed the area called Luprio, where the salt pans of the Serenissima were found.
Tronchetto and the Maritime Station were built in the second half of 1900, and in the same period links with Piazzale Roma were enhanced. Tronchetto is a large artificial island used as a parking lot for cars and buses. The other parking lot in Venice is Piazzale Roma, connected to Tronchetto by the People Mover, a cable tram system that runs daily every 7 minutes from 7am to 11pm. Venice Stazione Marittima is the place where cruise ships of more than 30 international cruise lines dock. More than a million and a half passengers stop in Venice during their Mediterranean cruises.
The historic Santa Croce area has many churches, palaces and museums. The most interesting places of worship include the Church of San Stae, with paintings by Tiepolo, and the Church of St. Nicola da Tolentino, close to Piazzale Roma, a building dating back to the late 1500s with an imposing colonnaded façade. The Tolentini Convent, attached to the Church, is the main seat of the Faculty of Architecture of the State University of Venice (IUAV.)
The Church of San Giacomo dall’Orio is pretty different instead. Built in the 9th century, bears a linear, almost anonymous façade. Nevertheless, inside you can admire works by important Venetian masters, from Lotto to Veronese. Those who love crime stories may visit the Church of San Zan Degolà, built at the beginning of the Year 1000 and become the scene of a murder in November 1500. An entire family was massacred and robbed: a priest named Francesco was accused of being the murderer and was executed after having his hand cut off right in front of the unfortunate family’s house.
Ca’ Pesaro is definitely one of the most famous buildings in the Santa Croce District. It has a Baroque façade overlooking the Grand Canal, and is the site of two museums: the International Gallery of Modern Art and the Museum of Venice Oriental Art. The Gallery houses a collection of works from the last two centuries, including paintings by Klimt, Chagall, Kandinsky, Klee and Matisse. The Museum of Oriental Art is the major international collection of Japanese art objects, with over 30 000 items including swords, daggers, armors and porcelain objects. On the Grand Canal there is also Fontego dei Turchi Palace, the Civic Museum of Natural History. The museum hosts reconstructions of natural environments and two dinosaur skeletons found by Giancarlo Ligabue, Venetian explorer and entrepreneur.
The Sestiere is connected to Cannaregio by two bridges, Ponte Scalzi and Ponte della Costituzione, the latter built by Spanish architect Calatrava and inaugurated in 2008: along with the Rialto Bridge and the Accademia Bridge, these are the only links to the Grand Canal.
Not to be missed: Santa Croce district boasts the presence of several bars, restaurants and pizzerias. Right on the border with San Polo district, there is the first Indian restaurant opened in Venice in 1997, Ganesh Ji, with a wonderful terrace on the canals. After lunch or on summer evenings, you can enjoy excellent natural ice cream at Carlo Pistacchi’s, in Rio Terà dei Bari. This venue is famous for the singular ice cream flavors proposed, and because it is one of the sancta sanctorum of Reggae music. The owner is one of the most important collectors of vinyl records of this genre throughout Europe.
A walk through San Marco, Venice’s Heart
It’s hard to know where to begin to describe San Marco District. It would be natural to start from the Basilica, but the Bell Tower (the “Campanile”) is the true master of the house here, as Venetians say. The Sestiere also hosts the Doge’s Palace, the Correr Museum, Caffè Florian, Harry’s Bar and the “Mercerie,” Venice’s luxury shopping streets. And La Fenice Theater. For all these reasons, Let’s proceed in an orderly fashion.
San Marco has this name because in 828 two fishermen, Buono da Malamocco and Rustego da Torcello, stole in Alexandria the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, and conveyed it to Venice. The Saint, whose remains are still kept in the Basilica, became the Patron Saint of the city. The District was originally called Rivoalto: it was already the heart of the city with the Church of St. Theodore on the main square, who was the first Patron Saint of Venice. St. Theodore was then demolished and St. Mark’s Basilica was built in its place. The square was expanded: this is the only “Piazza” in Venice, the others are called “Campi” and “Campielli.” Even the island of San Giorgio Maggiore is part of San Marco District.
So let’s start our journey through San Marco District with the Basilica and the Palaces of political and judiciary power. St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the symbols of Venice, dates back to the 11th century. It contains numerous works of art, including the Pala d’Oro (the “Golden Pall”) an altar decorated with more than 30,000 precious stones, a masterpiece of Venice goldsmith’s art in Gothic-Byzantine style. The Doge’s Palace was the site of the city’s political power, it was the residence of the Doge and the seat of Venetian magistrature, and now houses the Civic Museum of Palazzo Ducale.
St. Mark’s Square is surrounded by magnificent buildings called Procuratie, where the representatives of the legal power used to sit at the time of the Serenissima. They are divided into three wings: the Old Procuratie to the north, the Napoleonic wing to the west and the New Procuratie to the south. Under the arcades, luxury shops line the way and there is also Caffè Florian, Venice’s historic cafè, which will turn 300 years old in 2020.
St. Mark’s Bell Tower has a symbolic importance for Venetians, they call it “el parón de caxa,” the master of the house. The original structure collapsed one morning in 1902. Rebuilt in ten years, it is now possible to go up by an elevator and enjoy a unique view over the whole city. To the right of the Basilica stands the Clock Tower, built in 1499: it shows the hours in Roman numerals, the phases of the moon and the Zodiac. The two Moors that hit the bell with hammers to mark the time are actually two shepherds, but the weather made darker the bronze they’re made of and so in the eyes of Venetians, and the world, they are the two Moors. St. Mark’s Square hosts even the Libreria Sansoviniana, home to the National Library of St. Mark, the Biblioteca Marciana, with a heritage of over 900 000 volumes.
Also the Correr Museum is on St. Mark’s Square, with collections by Teodoro Correr, Venetian nobleman dead in 1830. His paintings tell the story of Venice’s military, political and social life from the time of the Republic to the last century. On the opposite side of the Basilica stands the National Archaeological Museum of Venice, with collections of Greek and Roman sculptures, coins, gems, as well as Egyptian and Assyrian-Babylonian artifacts.
You can enjoy a pleasant stroll from St. Mark’s Square to the Rialto area walking along the Mercerie, the commercial heart of Venice. This is the main shopping street of the city: full of precious fabrics stores in the past, nowadays it is dotted with showrooms, jewelers, leather goods shops, footwear and luxury apparel stores.
This Sestiere also hosts La Fenice Theater. Destroyed and rebuilt several times (the last episode dates back to 1996,) it has always been one of the most famous opera theaters in the world. Don’t miss out on a visit to Palazzo Grassi, overlooking the Grand Canal, converted into an art exhibition venue.
Other famous buildings in the San Marco District are Casinò Venier, a meeting point for nobles after the theater, and Palazzo Fontego dei Tedeschi on the Grand Canal, mooring location for commercial vessels from Germany. The lovely Palazzo Bembo is a classic building in Venetian-Gothic style, while Palazzo Dolfin Manin (century XVI) is a Renaissance style palace. In 1800, the parlor of Palazzo Giustiniani Lolin aroused great resonance in Italy, and was frequented also by Gabriele d’Annunzio.
Not to be missed: the last stop, to relax after this plunge into culture, can only be Harry’s Bar in Calle Vallaresso. Here you must try the legendary Bellini cocktail, invented by Giuseppe Cipriani, the owner: it is prepared with Prosecco wine and white peach juice and purée. Stirred slowly, to avoid losing the sparkling.
Castello District, discovering the Arsenale and the Biennale
Castello is the largest of Venice’s Sestieri. It extends like a peninsula to the east of the city. The name derives from the presence of a medieval fort built on the Island of San Pietro. This Sestiere hosts the Arsenal, the imposing complex of shipyards now headquarters of the Italian Navy, the place where the Venetian Republic built its ships in the 17th and 18th centuries. In this District there is also the Venice Biennale, with its Exhibition Offices and Gardens, but also Riva degli Schiavoni and Riva dei Sette Martiri, overlooking the Grand Canal. Actually, the Castello district is also host to Hotel Danieli, the quintessential luxury hotel in Venice.
Some of the best places of tourist interest in the Castello district include the Church of San Zaccaria (century IX) with works of art by Giovanni Bellini, and the nearby Church of San Francesco della Vigna, one of the most beautiful Renaissance churches in Venice. In Fondamenta dei Mendicanti you can visit the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo started in the first decades of 1200 and completed a couple of centuries later. It is a Gothic style church with two other buildings built on each side: the Ospedaletto – a little hospital created to care for the homeless poor and sick – and the great Civic Hospital, named after Saints John and Paul. Walking towards the Fondamenta Nuove area, you will reach the Arsenal, which hosts Venice’s Naval Museum, the most important of its kind in Italy. Inside you can admire historic ship models such as the Bucintoro as well as ships used by the Italian Navy.
Walking along Fondamenta degli Arsenali you go back to the Grand Canal, reaching the point where Riva degli Schiavoni becomes Riva dei Sette Martiri. From here you can easily reach the Giardini della Biennale, where there are pavilions and structures of one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. Indeed, the Biennale organizes the famous Venice Film Festival. Continuing towards the historical centre, you run across the Church of Mercy, built in the 15th century, a stylish building decorated with frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo.
Not to be missed: the southern area of the Castello district is occupied by the Island of St. Elena, a very green area, full of tree-lined streets that open onto the large Parco delle Rimembranze. Venice Football stadium, named after Pierluigi Penzo, is located within this huge park. The area is one of the most peaceful and relaxing in the city, where you can rest in the shade of large trees, or sit at one of the many bars along Fondamenta Sant’Elena. The Castello district is also famous for the presence of several workshops where artisans craft Venetian masks, which can be purchased along Via Garibaldi, the main shopping street in this Sestiere.
Cannaregio, host to one of the most attractive casinos in the world
Cannaregio is the most populous districts in the city, lies along the north side of the Grand Canal and is crossed by the Cannaregio Canal, where water buses (vaporetto) run throughout the day. The name is probably due to the presence of reeds (“canne” in Italian) before the reclamation of the area during the 12th century.
Cannaregio is home to the Santa Lucia train station, which dates back to the 19th century. The main street of this Sestiere connects the station to the Rialto area, a walk of about 25 minutes, starting from the Scalzi Bridge and ending at Campo dei Santi Apostoli. This is the Strada Nuova (New Street) also known as Via Vittorio Emanuele II. The heart of Cannaregio is also home to the Jewish Ghetto, the place where the Jewish Community lived in Napoleonic times.
Among the buildings to be visited in Cannaregio, worth a mention: the splendid Ca’ d’Oro, built in 1400, a Gothic museum overlooking the Grand Canal which houses a collection of art and furniture from the Renaissance period. Also the city’s Casino overlooks the Grand Canal, it is located inside Ca’ Vendramin Calergi Palace. Since 1959, it has been the home to the Municipal Casino, one of the most beautiful casinos in the world.
Cannaregio district is also host to the Church of Our Lady, the Church of Madonna dell’Orto, an excellent example of Venetian Gothic architecture, built by the congregation of the Humiliated in the middle of the 14th century. In front of the church, beyond Campo dei Mori, you can visit the Mastelli Palace, erected by the Mastelli brothers, aka the Three Moors, who arrived from the Peloponnese in the 12th century. When in Cannaregio, don’t miss the spectacular Fondamenta Nuove, 16th century streets and “calli” that reach the northern end of the Sestiere, with views over the islands of San Michele and Murano. To the south of the district, instead, you can visit the beautiful church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (late 1400,) with a white marble façade and interiors decorated with pastel colors bathed in soft light.
Not to be missed: Cannaregio’s most famous bars and restaurants are located to the north, between the Jewish Ghetto and Fondamenta Nuove. The main shopping streets in Cannaregio are Lista di Spagna, near Santa Lucia Station, and Strada Nuova, with bars frequented by young people and loads of trendy stores. In the 80s, a major redevelopment project has given a new face to the district, making it one of the most popular leisure spots in the city today.
San Polo, where the Rialto Bridge and Venice’s Souk dominate
In the past, San Polo and Santa Croce Districts formed a single area called Luprio, which was covered with salt pans. The name of this Sestiere derives from Campo San Polo, the largest square in Venice after San Marco. San Polo’s most popular area is Rialto, which boasts the presence of major landmarks like the Rialto Bridge, the Market and the Church of San Giacomo. The Rialto Bridge was built in the late 1500s. From the bridge, lined with stores and souvenir shops, you can enjoy a magnificent view over the Grand Canal.
At the beginning of the bridge there is the small Church of San Giacomo, which the locals nicknamed San Giacometto. This is considered to be the oldest church in Venice: the first foundations date back to 421 BC. The Rialto Market, the souk of Venice, commercial heart of the city, has developed around this church. This is the market place where you can find fish caught in the lagoon and fruits and vegetables from the Island of St. Erasmo. Here, in the 17th century, goods from all over the world were sold.
Campo San Polo has always been a place of the people, since the time when the markets where held in the 17th century and public holidays with the battles of the bulls took place on the square. Nevertheless, the square is surrounded by prestigious palaces, including Palazzo Soranzo, a striking 14th century Venetian-Gothic style building. In Campo San Polo there is also the Church of San Polo (century IX,) rebuilt in the 15th century, with an eerie Last Supper by Tintoretto.
Some other interesting churches in San Polo are: the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, with the monumental monks’ choir and Titian’s Assumption over the main altar; and the Church of San Rocco, whose white façade is similar to that of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The Scuola dates back to the 1500s and is an exhibition hall where works of art are exhibited in rooms with frescoes by Tintoretto. Well worth a visit is also the other Scuola in San Polo, the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, with impressive works by Gentile Bellini and the Sala Capitolare with a painting on the ceiling depicting the Apocalypse.
Many of the buildings in San Polo are private homes, so you can only watch them from the outside. Among these: Ca’ Bernardo (century XV,) Palazzo Albrizzi near Ponte delle Tette, and Palazzo Barbarigo della Terrazza, home to a private art gallery. Many prominent characters have stayed at Palazzo Pisani Moretta, like Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife, and Joseph II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and Duke of Milan and Mantua.
Not to be missed: the Rialto area is one of Venice’s most lively shopping areas. Erbaria, the area of the pier overlooking the Grand Canal, becomes a nightlife hub when the weather gets nice and is very popular among tourists and young locals. In the Sestiere there are also some famous clubs like Do Mori in Ruga Rialto, or Muro Rialto, popular from the aperitivo through after dinner time. Famous pubs and restaurants in the area include Osteria Sacro e Profano, owned by Valerio Silvestri, former trumpeter in the Venetian reggae group Pitura Freska, and Nono Ristoro, which serves typical Venetian cuisine to be enjoyed under a beautiful pergola.