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Venice St Mark’s Square
The Procuratie Vecchie, left, on St Mark’s Square. Photograph: Shutterstock

Where to stay in Venice to experience the city like a local

Want to experience Venice on a deeper level? Make a beeline for these neighbourhoods for some serious authenticity

Written by
Elizabeth Heath
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What does it mean to be a local in Venice? It isn’t as simple as ‘someone from the place’. People have been making a beeline for the city in search of riches and inspiration for centuries, creating a stunningly diverse bloodline and a magical city shaped by the different worlds that made it home. The traders of yesteryear are now the tourists of today, with the latter outnumbering full-time residents by a figure that makes ‘outnumbering’ feel like an understatement.

Anyway, enough waxing lyrical, let’s get down to brass tacks. Experiencing Venice as a local is nigh-on impossible, but visitors can put themselves in the best possible position by picking out these charming neighbourhoods. They offer something different, from cosy restaurants to curious bars and beyond.

Where to stay in Venice

Do you long to take a quiet walk in Venice, among verdant gardens and the twittering of birds? Then cross over from San Marco into the Castello district, and keep walking. Once you’re away from the dense crowds along Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello assumes its low-key, local vibe. It’s an ideal neighbourhood for those who wish to be close to the tourist draws of central Venice but still get a taste of everyday, middle-class life in the floating city.

EAT: 

Whether you’re looking for a bargain or a blow-out, Castello has a restaurant for your budget. Try Corte Sconta for excellent, elegantly plated seafood dishes on a romantic patio, or Trattoria alla Rampa on Via Garibaldi for unpretentious home cooking and egalitarian prices.

DO: 

A shipyard since the 1100s, the Arsenale di Venezia is now primarily a cultural centre and event space, though sections of it are still used by the Italian Navy. You can tour public spaces, and the captivating Naval History Museum and Naval Pavilion. In a city short on green space (algae doesn’t count), I Giardini della Biennale and the Parco delle Rimembranze gardens are veritable Edens. The former is the home of the Venice Biennale art exhibit, held every other year.

DRINK:

With the gardens at its back and the Venetian Lagoon out front, Il Paradiso bar has an unfair advantage. It’s a ridiculously beautiful spot for an Aperol spritz at sunset. To drink where the locals drink, head to the bars along Via Garibaldi.

STAY: 

Several high-end hotels overlook the canals that separate Castello from San Marco; Ca’ Bragadin Carabba is one of our favourites. If you really want to escape the crowds, Yacht Freedom is one of a handful of small, moored boats offering overnight accommodations at Santa Elena Marina.

If you do just one thing... 

The Libreria Acqua Alta calls itself the “most beautiful bookstore in the world,” and we can’t argue. To avoid damage from the frequent “acqua alta” flooding in Venice, books are stacked in boats, bathtubs and the ceilings—and the owner keeps a mental catalogue of the entire collection.

There’s a lot to love about this sestiere, which wraps around the thumb of neighbouring San Marco and connects to it via the Accademia Bridge and numerous Vaporetto stops. From its picturesque canals and palazzos to its young, artsy vibe, Dorsoduro has high energy and more modest, affordable hotels due to the proximity to Venice’s university.

EAT:

A good rule anywhere in Italy is to eat where the locals eat. And that’s very easy to do in Dorsoduro since there’s an abundance of simple, reasonably priced osterias. Estro is a perennial favourite, whether you want a sit-down meal or to share snacks (Cicchetti) over a bottle of wine at the bar.

DRINK:

Venice is not a late-night city, but it tries its hardest on Campo Santa Margherita, in the university quarter. Start your evening with tasty bites and a glass of wine in a bàcaro—a Venetian tapas bar—then come back after dinner for a nightcap on this lively piazza. Or just spend your whole evening bar-hopping and snacking here.

DO:

Art lovers will find manageable crowds and stunning modern artwork at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, plus all those painting from art history class, including several of Hieronymus Bosch’s creepier masterpieces, at the Galleria dell’Accademia.

STAY:

You’ll find plenty of cosy B&Bs in Dorsoduro, and it’s also an area where a little splurge goes a long way. Spring for an old-world room at Hotel Galleria and swoon at your view of either the Accademia Bridge or the Grand Canal.

If you do just one thing...

Walk to the eastern tip of Dorsoduro, at the end of the Punta della Dogana, to marvel at the Venetian equivalent of a superhighway. Ferries, gondolas, water taxis, barges and massive cruise ships—they all navigate past this promontory with ease and precision (and remarkably few collisions).

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San Polo

You’ll have fun getting lost—and chances are you will get lost—in this tiny sestiere of dead-end alleys and lanes that abruptly stop at a canal. San Polo is one of the oldest areas of the city, and you’ll feel that in every brick and stone here. There are a few very well-trod tourist routes here, so venture off them (and risk backtracking) to find the soul of this picturesque area.

EAT:

In a neighbourhood with more charmingly rustic eateries than you can swing a gondola oar at, Cantina do Mori is perhaps the best-known and most-loved. In business since 1462, it claims to be Venice’s oldest bàcaro, or wine and tapas bar, and it practically weeps character.

DRINK:

Campo San Polo, the second-largest piazza in Venice (after San Marco), functions as the living room of the sestiere. In the evening, there’s little finer than an outdoor table at Birraria La Corte, where you can stick with craft beer on tap and even order a pizza to go with it.

DO:

San Polo is home to the Rialto Market, so you’d be remiss to stay here and not wander through this colourful, bustling daily market, which runs Monday-Saturday from 7:30am to 1pm. Arrive early, before the thick of the crowds, and don’t miss the fish market, with more varieties of waterborne creatures than you knew existed. Note that the fish market is closed Sunday and Monday.

STAY: 

Hotels aren’t as numerous in San Polo as in other districts, and for us, that’s just fine. Ca’ Angeli is a cosy six-room guesthouse, with some rooms overlooking the Grand Canal. Locanda Sant’Agostino sits near the Rio di San Polo and has rooms with characteristic Venetian gilt.

If you do just one thing...

If you’re considering springing for a gondola ride in Venice, you’re better off hailing your boat here than anywhere near San Marco. Your ride through San Polo will take you on smaller, less-trafficked waterways, and if you get a chatty gondolier, you may get a nice little narrated tour – and discover some of the city’s best-kept secrets.

Giudecca

Although it’s technically part of Dorsoduro, Giudecca – with the namesake canal separating it from the rest of Venice – has its own distinct personality. So, why stay on an island with no bridges connecting it to Venice’s more touristy areas? Because on Giudecca, residents outnumber tourists, and a working-class ethos pervades. Not only that, but there are a handful of interesting places to stay and eat, and San Marco is a mere 20 minutes away by boat.

EAT: 

You won’t be bombarded with restaurant choices on Giudecca; there are a handful of simple pizzerias and a few modest to upscale restaurants. A stand-out, as much for the food as the setting, is Trattoria Ai Cacciatori, where tables are perched alongside the glistening Giudecca Canal.

DRINK:

If ever there’s a place to spring for a pricey cocktail, the Skyline Bar at the Hilton Molino Stucky is it. Consider it the price to pay for achingly gorgeous nighttime views of La Serenissima all aglow. Watch the Vaporetti (waterbus) come and go from waterside Bar da Matteo on Fondamenta Zitelle, where the vibe is as casual as they come.

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Designed by famed 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, Il Redentore, or the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, was commissioned by the city of Venice to give thanks to God for lifting the Black Death, which killed more than 25 percent of the population in the 1570s. Today, its domed profile is an essential part of the Venice skyline.

STAY:

For an island known for its working-class roots, Giudecca boats some of Venice’s most elegant hotels, including the legendary Hotel Cipriani. If you’re looking for a budget sleep in an industrial-chic setting, try the Generator Hostel, with private rooms and dorms in a former warehouse.

If you do just one thing... 

Modern architecture may seem like a fish out of water on the Venetian Lagoon, but Guidecca has a surprising amount of it, from reclaimed warehouses and factories to innovative new construction. Don’t leave the island without checking out the bold, blocky designs of Junghans, a mixed-use residential and commercial zone in a former munitions factory.

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With the busy Santa Lucia train station and Vaporetto stops at its western edge, Cannaregio might not seem like the quiet side of Venice. But once you’re off the well-worn paths from Santa Lucia to the Rialto area, this sestiere’s real personality starts to shine. This is Venice’s most populous district, meaning you’ll find streets lined with butchers, bakers and florists rather than chain stores and fast food joints (though these are never very far away). Cannaregio is convenient if you’ve got a train to catch, yet still just a 20-minute walk or boat ride to the city’s tourist centre.

EAT:

Cannaregio is a great area for finding wallet-friendly, unpretentious meals, particularly the farther north you venture from the Grand Canal. Stand-outs include Il Paradiso Perduto, where heaping platters of fresh seafood are served in a convivial setting. For down-home cooking and an only-in-Italy experience (no menu; you get whatever’s being served that day), head to Trattoria dalla Marisa.

DRINK: 

In the wine bars and bàcari along Fondamenta della Misericordia, you’ll mingle with Venetians young and old. Join in the early evening ritual of aperitivo, or before-dinner drinks with snacks, or Cicchetti as they are known in Venice.

DO:

Cannaregio was once the site of Venice’s Jewish Ghetto and is still the spiritual heart of the city’s Hebraic community. The Museo Ebraico di Venezia chronicles the area’s complex history and offers guided tours of synagogues normally not open to the public.

STAY:

Your Euros go a long way in Cannaregio, where hotels, B&Bs and vacation rentals are plentiful and cheaper than in other parts of the city. A 10-minute walk from the station, Ca’ Dogaressa is one of the prettiest options on this end of town.

If you do just one thing... 

Visit one of the world’s most uniquely situated cemeteries on the Isola di San Michele. It’s an Italian tradition to bury the dead outside of town, and in Venice’s case, that means over water. Luminaries buried on the island cemetery of San Michele include Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound.

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