Thanks to its labyrinthine streets and impossible canals, Venice is one of the world’s easiest cities in which to get lost. But with a bit of research, it is also the easiest town to understand. From a bird’s-eye view, Venice is made up of two central islands that look like intertwined hands.
Neighborhoods, called sestieri, subdivide the islands into six characteristic areas, which range from busy marketplaces to quiet communities. Here’s a look at each of these distinct sestieri.
Traverse the wooden Accademia Bridge to arrive in Dorsoduro, known for its charming artsy vibe thanks to a mix of families and university students. Its beautiful palazzi and campi (squares) are picture-perfect, and the area is peppered with bars, galleries and restaurants.
The southern neighborhood spans from Punta della Dogana, the old customs building at the very eastern tip of the island, to the Port Authority in the most southwestern edge and includes Giudecca, the long residential island immediately to its south.
Named for a former fortified palazzo, Castello is the largest of the six sestieri and the greenest. Its western border lines up with the edges of San Marco and Cannaregio, so expect a bustle of tourists and souvenir shops.
Head east down the calle and along canals; the farther afield you go, you’ll find Castello becomes a charming microcosm where the tourist flow trickles down to a near standstill.
Eventually, the eastern half of Castello becomes a large public garden and shipyard — the Biennale Giardini and Arsenale — home of the annual La Biennale festival. The cemetery island San Michele is also part of Castello.
Named for the city’s patron saint, San Marco is the most visited of all Venetian sestieri. The sestiere’s heart is Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), the number-one destination for all visitors to Venice. Here you’ll find tourists taking photos of the inimitable Basilica San Marco or enjoying a spritz at the square’s historic cafés.
The San Marco neighborhood spans from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s Square, so once you’ve visited the piazza, head deeper into the neighborhood. Wander past small-scale piazzas and peek into lavish museums, and keep an eye out for waterfront photo ops across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore island, also part of sestiere San Marco.
To many, this tiny sestiere is the heart of Venetian life. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Venice, San Polo is a dynamic neighborhood filled with families, shops and students who all seem to converge on Campo San Polo, the second-largest square in Venice.
San Polo is also a thoroughfare for tourists walking toward San Marco after visiting the Rialto market, the historic and picturesque fish market.
Cannaregio is the gateway to Venetian life. Starting from the steps of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station and extending eastward on the famed Strada Nuova to the Rialto Bridge, Cannaregio is a vivacious sestiere of boutiques, restaurants, squares and palaces.
The wide Strada Nuova is a busy shopping promenade, while its side alleys lead to niche communities like the Jewish Ghetto, which dates back to the city’s original 4th-century Jewish settlements. Fondamenta Nuova, the northern edge of Cannaregio, connects to the island of Burano via vaporetto (boat).
This sestiere is said to have a dual personality. The southwestern area of Santa Croce is a transport center, with Piazzale Roma as a hub for buses and taxis. Its northeastern area is more typical of Venice, filled with canals and alleys lined with historic palaces. Though tiny, Santa Croce packs a cultural punch with lavish architecture ranging from Byzantine to contemporary.
This article is part of a series which appears Venice travel for Marriott Bonvoy Traveler.