Navigating through the labyrinthine streets and canals of Venice can be a daunting task, but with a little research, the city is easier to comprehend. Venice comprises two central islands, which from a bird’s-eye view resemble intertwined hands. The islands are subdivided into six neighborhoods, known as sestieri, each with its own unique character. These sestieri range from bustling marketplaces to tranquil communities. Here’s a closer look at each distinct neighborhood.
Castello is the largest of the six sestieri and the greenest. Wedged between San Marco and Cannaregio, Castello takes its name from a former fortified palace. Head east down the calle and along canals; the farther afield you go, 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. I also love Domus Grimani and the Carlo Scarpa project at Fondazione Querini Stampalia.
Sites not to miss: Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Church of San Zaccaria, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Complesso dell’Ospedaletto
Cross the wooden Accademia Bridge to enter Dorsoduro, a neighborhood renowned for its bohemian atmosphere of families and university students. Its stunning palaces and lively piazzas are truly picturesque, and the area is dotted with bars, galleries, and restaurants. I should know, I used to live here when I was a student and when I worked the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
If Dorsoduro was good enough for Peggy, it’s good enough for you to explore. Extending from the Punta della Dogana (former customs point) in the eastern tip to today’s Port Authority in the southwest,.Dorsoduro has a reputation for being a great place to hang out. And it is, if you are in Campo Santa Margherita, a square filled with bars and restaurants. But I prefer the southeastern part of the sestiere which is more residential. And I love spending the late afternoon taking in the Giudecca, the long residential island directly south. Best sunset views.
Sites not to miss: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Il Redentore, Campo Santa Margherita, Chiesa Le Zitelle, Punta della Dogana, Santa Maria della Salute.
What can I say? San Marco is the busiest part of Venice, and is the mecca for all visitors. Named for the city’s patron saint, San Marco revolves around 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– in fact, I tell everyone that there is nothing quite like enjoyng a drink in St. Mark’s Square (my favorite is Quadri), but expect to pay a premium.
The San Marco neighborhood is a dense area, 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.
Sites not to miss: Basilica di San Marco, Doge’s Palace, Teatro La Fenice, Campo Santo Stefano, Palazzo Grassi, Scala Contarini del Bovolo, Museo Correr, Caffe Florian
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.
For me, it’s a great place to walk around when it rains, it is home to some of my favorite art galleries like Fondazione Prada, Ca Pesaro and Museum of Oriental Arts. I love the Rialto market area for aperitivi. Nothing beats a spritz while sitting by the Grand Canal. Keep in mind that San Polo, in particular near the Rialto bridge, can be tourist thoroughfare as they head back and forth between the historic fish market and Piazza San Marco.
Sites not to miss: San Giacomo di Rialto, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Grande Scuola San Rocco, Campo San Polo.
Cannaregio is the gateway to Venetian life. It begins as soon as you step out of the transtation Venezia Santa Lucia. (Make sure to take in the station’s Fascist era architecture). Head eastward on the famed Strada Nuova, the longest road in Venice at 400 metes. It’s a wide boulevard of boutiques and restaurants. And it will take you nearly all the way to the Rialto Bridge.
Cannaregio is a vivacious sestiere of boutiques, restaurants, squares and palaces.The wide Strada Nuova is a busy shopping promenade, but you want to walk 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). There are several great restaurants and bacari here.
Sites not to miss: Ca’ d’Oro, Museo Ebraico, Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Church of Madonna dell’Orto and the Oratorio dei Crociferi
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, taxis and cars. (Yes, you will see cars here). It’s a big Drop Off/Pick Up point. But if you meander Santa Croce northeastern area, you’ll find those photo moments more typical of Venice.
Though tiny, Santa Croce packs a cultural punch with lavish architecture ranging from Byzantine to contemporary including the famous Ponte della Costituzione (Constitution bridge) designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Sites not to miss: Fontego dei Turchi, San Giacomo dall’Orio, San Zan Degola,and Palazzo Mocenigo
A version of this article appears as part of the series Venice travel for Marriott Bonvoy Traveler.