The Hidden Corners of Venice
Venice is magnificent.
Surprised? Have you heard too many stories about the heat, the crowds, the expense and the “smells?” Those things do exist, but only for people unwilling to look beyond the obvious glories of Piazza San Marco. For wanderers, explorers, and anyone willing to get thoroughly lost, Venice is an atmospheric maze of cobblestoned paths and winding waterways.
Venice is divided into six sestieri, or neighborhoods, each with its own personality and purpose…San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio, and Castello.
San Marco is the heart of Venice.
The stunningly beautiful Piazza San Marco is framed by St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and many elegant, expensive cafes. This square is often the first (and only) place day-trippers visit in Venice and can be brutally crowded and touristy. If you enjoy high-end shopping, expensive restaurants, shoving your way through legions of lanyard-hung cruise passengers and getting pooped on by pigeons, this area is for you.
That’s admittedly a bit harsh, but this was my least favorite sestiere. Go to San Marco and enjoy the view, but consider pre-booking the popular sights during high season to have more time elsewhere in Venice.
is across from San Marco via the Ponte dell Accademia. It is distinctly less touristy and holds the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the Gallerie dell’ Accademia and the lovely Campo Santa Margherita. Ezra Pound, John Ruskin, Cole Porter, and Robert Browning were residents at one time, and the area still attracts students, artists, authors, and musicians, many of whom attend nearby universities. The wide, sunny Fondamenta Zattere is the perfect place for a sunny morning, afternoon or evening walk along some of the loveliest parts of Venice. Dorsoduro is for wandering, sitting in sunny squares, poking through art museums and having a peek over the wall at Tramontin & Figli gondola makers at work.
Stay: For a lux and somewhat swanky stay, try Ca Maria Adele. A more budget-friendly option is Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli, a renovated monastery offering excellent hospitality and comfortable, basic rooms at reasonable rates.
Eat: Il Profeta Dorsoduro 2671, 30123 Venice +39 041 5237466 is a solid choice, family friendly and reasonably priced. Call for reservations. For gelato, try Gelateria Il Doge in Campo Santa Margherita. Drink wine canal-side wherever/whenever you can.
San Polo and Santa Croce
stand adjacent to each other in a magical, ancient part of Venice. The narrow, winding pathways and canals lead to some of the loveliest spots in Venice. My first evening in Venice, I went out to practice night photography and ended up completely and utterly lost. I couldn’t read my map in the dark and had to play a game of bridge and canal roulette to find my way back home. It took me two hours, and I never found some of my favorite night time photography spots again. It was a fabulous evening.
The Rialto Bridge, the most famous bridge in Venice, connects San Marco to the far eastern edge of the San Polo sestiere. The Rialto markets are a visual feast and journey through Italian culinary traditions. Even if you don’t spend a euro (you will), stand near the tables and listen to the conversations between vendors and customers, absorb the atmosphere and practice your Italian by asking questions about the bizarre sea creatures squirming in containers along the tables and ordering something to snack on as you walk along the canal. San Polo and Santa Croce offer fantastic opportunities for exploring artisan shops and bustling markets, sitting in sunny squares and nomming on gelato in every flavor. It’s also a great place to take long, romantic walks in the evening or early morning.
Stay: Try Hotel Al Duca di Venezia, a former palace hidden in a quiet corner of Santa Croce, yet close to the Grand Canal and transportation. If you prefer a more contemporary vibe, try the Palazzo Barbarigo with its Art Deco glamor and sultry, romantic overtones (contemporary is relative. The Palazzo was built in the 16th century.) The Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo has a private bridge and courtyard, an attentive staff and convenient, lovely location.
Eat: Il Refolo, a canal-side restaurant serving casual Italian fare near a pretty square. Cantina Do Mori is an atmospheric wine bar offering great wines and small bar snacks (cicchetti). It is supposedly the oldest wine bar in Venice. If you need a quick jolt of caffeine, squeeze your way to the counter in Pasticceria Rizzardini and enjoy an espresso and one of their lovely pastries. Osteria La Zucca is a popular choice for locals, tourists, and vegetarians. Book ahead.
is the most Northern sestiere and a part of Venice most tourists never see. The back alleys and sunny church squares offer a beautiful taste of local life…shopkeepers rearranging the vegetables along the sidewalks, children racing down the alleyways to school, dogs waiting patiently outside the coffee shops for their owners.
Cannaregio, home to Marco Polo, Wagner, and Titian, is where I fell in love with Venice.
Find the stunning, marble-clad church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and admire its spectacular ceiling before settling in for wine or coffee in Campo Santa Maria Nova.
Join the bustle of Venetians stopping for a quick morning coffee on the way to work, sit at a canal-side table in the sun with a glass of wine and absorb the beauty of Venetian daily life.
End the day by wandering through the historic Jewish Ghetto and along the Fondamenta della Misericordia and Madonna dell Orto, a perfect spot for an evening meal. Cannaregio has something for everyone.
Stay: We stayed at our first Airbnb, a bright, comfortable flat in a gated garden on Fondamenta Savorgnan, which was a great choice for us and a good choice for families. Al Ponte Antico is renovated, waterside palace hotel with very traditional Venetian decor, excellent service, and a private wharf.
Eat: Restaurants in Venice can be a hit or miss experience, but we found consistently good value, excellent meals in this area. Al Timon, a local wine bar and restaurant served excellent cicchetti and an outstanding steak platter for two. We wandered past Al Parlamento every day until our last day. It is a great little bar with solid, unpretentious menu. We enjoyed dining with the local business lunch crowd at La Colonna Ristorante near the Campiello Del Pestrin. It was a small, lovely restaurant with friendly, attentive service and good food.
is an interesting sestiere. We walked it end to end one afternoon. Each area within Castello had its own flavor. The walk along the canal from Bridge of Sighs to the Giardini Pubblici is busy, but beautiful. One turn away from the canal onto via Giuseppe Garibaldi and the vibe changes to a road lined with floating markets and tiny coffee shops filled with pastries and locals. Another left turn brings you to Venice’s ancient shipyard and military site, the Arsenale.
Castello is blessed with some of the most interesting campos in Venice. We stumbled onto San Zanipolo Church and the stunning library hidden away upstairs in the La Scuola Grande di San Marco (now a public hospital. Yes, you can go in), crossed the bridge and found Libreria Acqua Alta , a bookstore furnished with new and used books stacked to the ceiling in retired gondolas. A bibliophile’s paradise.
Stay: I am sure there are places to stay in the Castello area, but I didn’t see any that inspired (or allowed) me to stop and nose around inside. If you know of any, please let me know.
Eat: El Refolo is not easy to find, but worth the effort if you’re in the mood for a light meal, bar snacks and a glass or two of wine.
I hope this information is helpful. My best advice is to buy a good map, a comfortable pair of shoes and plan on getting lost.
Things to Know About Visiting Venice
Some of the post sections are uneven for a reason. I only included hotels that I saw/walked by/investigated and liked and I only included restaurants I thought were good value and enjoyed. We had many meals in Venice, and while none were truly bad, most were unexceptional.
Notes about accommodation in Venice:
Venice is notoriously expensive, and people are often disappointed because they expect 4* accommodations when faced with a 4* bill. A little mental adjustment re: expectations is advised.
I found the decor in many of the hotels overwhelming…kind of “elegant, wealthy, crazy Nana’s sitting room x 10” but that’s just me. Your mileage may vary.
When choosing a hotel, keep in mind that Venice is car-free, walkable and has approximately 409 bridges. Choose your hotel and luggage poorly, and you’ll find yourself hauling big suitcases up and over 399 of them. Consider small, rollable luggage. If you are visiting Venice as part of a ’round Europe tour, consider having two bags…a larger one you store at the train station/airport and a smaller one for the Venice leg of your trip.
You don’t have to book a hotel in San Marco to be conveniently located. We were in the northern Cannaregio sestiere and walked to San Marco in 20 minutes. Slowly. With a stop for coffee.
**The tiny, black plastic bags that line the sidewalks in Venice are not party treats. Venice *does* have a dog-poo on the sidewalk problem. Ick. **
Do you have a favorite, hidden place in Venice? A lovely hideaway or favorite cafe? Tell us all about it in the comments below…