Deboning the “Fish”: The Sestieri of Venice
Venice is shaped like a fish, with the tail in the east and the mouth in the west. The head of the fish is north and the belly is south. Don’t believe me? Check out a satellite photo of Venice, or browse this short, entertaining book by a local Venetian. The lagoon city is divided into six districts called sestieri: San Marco (belly), Dorsoduro (fins), San Polo (heart), Santa Croce (heart), Cannaregio (brains), and Castello (tail). Each sestiere has its own distinct vibe so read on to find the neighborhood that is right for you!
San Marco: The Belly of the Fish
Piazza San Marco and its magical basilica are the namesake sites of this district where you are always just a couple minutes walk from the Grand Canal. The Doge’s Palace and La Fenice opera house are here, too. Fashionistas will adore San Marco for its serious designer shopping, but it’s the most touristy sestiere. The crowds at times can be overwhelming. Unless you stay close to Campo San Stefano and the Accademia Bridge, I’d advise staying in San Marco only during low season (October through April) and forget about Carnivale.
Dorsoduro: The Fins of the Fish
This sprawling sestiere starts way up by Piazzale Roma, where the rental car places are, and ends where the Grand Canal flows into the southern lagoon. Dorsoduro’s eastern part is very charming. Both the Accademia and Guggenheim museums are located here. Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University is in Dorsoduro and the neighborhood caters to a student crowd. It’s full of good restaurants and pizzerias in every price range. Night owls should head towards large and lively Campo Santa Margherita. More places stay open late here than anywhere else in the city!
San Polo & Santa Croce: The Heart of the Fish
San Polo is the oldest and most medieval part of Venice. Its maze of tiny streets all eventually lead to some part of the Grand Canal. Tourists shop in San Marco; residents shop in San Polo. The famous Rialto fish market and open-air fruit & veggie market are not to be missed! Some of the best, and most famous, Venetian restaurants are in San Polo. It can get crowded in high season though, especially on the main drag that runs from the Rialto Bridge to the Accademia.
More off-the-beaten path is Santa Croce, San Polo’s sister sestiere and the least touristy one in town. My pick for top spot to people-watch is Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. There are two great bars to view the action from and one of the best (and most inexpensive) restaurants in Venice, La Zucca. Santa Croce is within walking distance of the cruise ship port and Piazzale Roma. Don’t stay here if you have limited time in Venice, or you don’t want to walk much or take the vaporetto.
Cannaregio: The Brains of the Fish
It’s pretty hard to get lost in Cannaregio, with its wide, straight streets and canals. This is a beautiful and relatively quiet sestiere, with areas of bustling commerce. Cannaregio’s main drag 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. Among the most picturesque piazzas is Campo Santa Maria Nova, with the tiny jewel-like Church of the Miracoli and the Jewish Ghetto, a special and haunting place. Foodies will love the Fondamenta Misericordia. Come here for Mexican and Syrian food, along with some great Venetian restaurants.
Castello: The Tail of the Fish
If you long to see green grass and trees once in a while, Castello is the place to be. The sestiere hosts the Biennale of Contemporary Art and Architecture in pavillions scattered throughout the Giardini gardens. Some events take place in the Arsenale, the giant shipyard where Venice’s warships were built when she was a world power. More centrally located is the area around Campo Santa Maria Formosa, a six-minute walk to Piazza San Marco. The Campo is also a short walk to the Fondamenta Nove. Boats for Murano and Burano leave from this walkway along the northern lagoon.