Venice – The Floating City
Venice became a thing when Attila the Hun’s crew scared the living daylights out of mainland Italians with their curly beards and funny pony-tail hats (I get all my History facts from Night At The Museum 1 & 2 [Number 3 went a little off-topic I feel]) Land dwellers found refuge in the marshlands off the coast and built an empire out of the fact that nobody could invade easily. So there they sat on their 117 islands making hay while the sun shone and the rest of Italy were hard-pressed by Huns, Goths and Popes.
But Venetians were made up of Princes and Paupers, Lecturers and Electricians and so districts were established in time – each having a part to play in Venice’s history. All of the six neighbourhoods have a story to share and are a maze of antiquity, so how do you decide where to stay on your trip to the floating city? What can you expect? And which areas are worth a visit?
Let me break down Venice for you.
Once the main route into the city from the mainland due to a large arterial canal flowing straight to the Grand Canal itself, this area developed primarily for the working classes and industry, including a Jewish Ghetto which was originally gated and guarded to keep the Jews locked away from sunset to dawn. Today Cannaregio is lined with palaces along its section of the Grand Canal but inside the maze is residential and relatively tranquil, save for the bustling canal-side of Rio Della Misericordie in the north of Cannaregio – a great spot on a weekend to soak up the Italian Cool as you watch 30-something Fonz-like Venetians and young local families make a lot of noise as they articulate their week to their friends over Bellini’s and shared plates of antipasto in some of the cities best canal-side bars.
Cannaregio is also home to a popular, wide shopping street – Strada Nova, a collection of High Street stores, souvenir stalls and tourist-grade restaurants.
Hotel Ca’ Gottardi is a little gem of a place in Cannaregio; Venetian classic style mixed with the right amount of contemporary where the staff pay attention to the details and don’t act like they hate tourists as in many other establishments, their warm welcome is heartening in this oversubscribed city.
- Good location – quick access to train station but also fairly close to main central tourist sites like the Rialto and Grand Canal.
- Excellent nightlife and cafe culture along Rio Della Misericordie
- Pretty Churches
- A more neighbourhood feel.
- Easy access to Burano and Murano (#12 leaves from Fondamente Nuova)
- Not as pretty as other areas of Venice
The largest of Venice’s 6 Sestieri (districts) and sitting to the East of the Island. It stretches from the Rialto bridge to the edge that overlooks the Lido (the island adjacent to Venice with a long stretch of sandy beaches) Personally, this is my favourite, if you just ignore the Southern shore-line with its masses of cruise-ship tourists that are vomited ashore in the morning with pit-stop itineraries and climb back aboard at dusk with bellies full of overpriced pasta and a creepy carnival mask for the grandkids.
The area of Castello closest to St Marks Square is home to some smaller artisan shops, little ornate bridges and quaint squares, whereas the east of Castello is definitely more residential. Tourists are everywhere in Venice but they are definitely more outnumbered by locals in this neighbourhood district. Old men shout at the football on the TV in little corner bars, and washing blows in the breeze above the canals. The further from St Marks you walk the more humble the buildings become but the atmosphere is gentle yet spirited – this is where a lot of Venetian history was made and the locals still wear their honour on their faces.
The area to the far east of Castello actually has a large park! Locals jog, walk their dogs and let their kids play uninterrupted by water – not a gondola in sight!
- Experience authentic Venice and live amongst the locals
- Museums for old-art lovers (works by Bellini, Tintoretto, Tiepolo etc)
- Slightly cheaper accommodation
- Picturesque canals and bridges
- Lots of prominent historical references
- Some of the best local restaurants
- A drop off spot for huge cruise-liners and their bum-bag wearing members
Another authentic neighbourhood of Venice where you can perhaps escape the hustle a bit, but especially if you’re channelling your inner Art student. Home to the Peggy Guggenheim and the Academia – if you’re coming to Venice to see the greats and the modern masters then this is your spot.
Although Dorsoduro is territory for many older-generation Venetians, with their top hats, smart shoes and little dogs, it is more known for its studenty vibe and lively nightlife. Campo Margherita is where its all at when the kids take a break from their dissertations : laid back bacari (bars) that serve great value Cicchetti (small snacks) bring a relaxed mood that is a welcome break and also less strain on the purse strings than central areas.
Some other great features of the area are the beautiful palaces which line the Grand Canal (Ca’ Rezzonico is a much more manageable sized museum than some of the more famous palazzo’s near St Marks square) and the working gondola boatyard where you can sip a prosecco from one of the adjacent bars and watch the skilled craftsmen sweat for their ciabatta and parma ham.
You know, if you’re going to do Venice in style and pretend like you’re all Johnny and Angelina in The Tourist then I have the absolute perfect hotel for you; Hotel Nani Mocenigo Palace is the best accommodation you will ever find in this area. It is expensive but it won’t break the bank completely, however, the cost is well and truly justified – I mean, just take a look and you’ll see exactly where I’m coming from.
- more lively, local night-life
- cheaper food and drink
- authentic neighbourhood culture
- great art and palaces
- quite a way from the Rialto Bridge and St Marks square
- run down in parts
You may dream of arriving in Venice on a gondola, with your hair gently flapping in the wind and a doorman helping you alight with a gloved hand, calling you ma’am and taking your luggage. I’m sorry to tell you this but it’s possibly more realistic to assume you will disembark your coach or train with a thin layer of travel-grease on your brow in the grubby, noisy district of Santa Croce. Hard fact. Santa Croce is Venice’s main transport hub and although it has a few tourist attractions like the Natural History Museum and the church of San Giacomo, you probably want to leave it behind to explore the rest of Venice as soon as.
- Some unexpected restaurant and bar ‘gems’ – great for your last meal before you leave for the airport maybe.
- Cheaper accommodation and close to transport links for quick get-aways
- No need to get your camera out here – ‘nothing to see, move along!’
If you’re James Bond and need access to an extremely busy square with a nearby ornate bank for Caymen Island transfers and a good old fashioned shoot-out that destroys baroque marble columns and decades of grand architecture then you’ve found your hangout. Or if you simply have money to burn and don’t mind eating substandard pizza amongst thousands of other tourists with selfie-sticks then San Marco will suit you down to the ground.
Personally, I would never choose to stay in this area but it has to be visited. This is what you came to Venice to see after-all : San Marco’s square, the Doges Palace, the Rialto Bridge, St Marc’s Basilica and the Bridge of Sighs, all items on your bucket list and all things you should make the effort to see. Hotel prices require you sell a lung and restaurants are known to be rude to tourists – quite a cheek when you consider it’s them that are paying their wages! But, it is stunning. And if time is of the essence and you only have 24 hours to see it all then maybe you could turn a blind eye to the commercialism for once and just soak up the grandeur and magnificence.
Hotel Ai Due Principi is the most sumptuous of hotels, as if Versace, Valentino, Dolce and Gabbana all had a hotel baby. If you’re after Italian luxury then this is the place to stay and very affordable too.
- central location
- just beautiful
- extortionate hotels
- expensive substandard restaurants
- soooo many people
- not much authentic Italian culture
San Polo is a feast for the eyes everywhere you turn – the food stalls at the Rialto markets, the souvenir shops (which are definitely less tat and more artisan than around St Marc’s), really pretty canals and quaint little squares. The area near to the Rialto Bridge is heaving with tourists but you only have to walk a few lanes in to escape the throngs and take a quieter breath. San Polo is the smallest district but has plenty of interest for such a small area – it’s the oldest bit of Venice, along with San Marco (9th century) and still holds a few traditional festivals (and a few new too) in its large square Campo San Polo. Once the place for bullfighting and masquerade balls, now the spot for open cinema and theatre in the summer months.
- central location
- very old and pretty
- great food markets
- good choice of souvenir shopping
- great restaurant choices
- the smallest sestieri so not as much choice
- not many hotels – more b&b’s
So there you have it – my break down of Venice. Have you decided yet which one suits you the most? Wherever you choose I am confident you will have a fantastic time – Venice is a beauty spot that should be on everybody’s bucket list. And, it may not be there one day! So, get booking!
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