Walking is the best way to see Venice, especially if you go during Biennale season where stumbling upon free contemporary art exhibitions in abandoned houses, palazzi and lesser known churches is quite common. The best piece of advice anyone one can give you is to not be afraid to literally get lost. On the other hand, vaporetti (water buses) while convenient are often filled to the brim with tourists. But they can make for a good break when you are tired from ascending and descending bridges. They can also be a great way to take some excellent shots of the island itself and are a lot more affordable than Gondolas (over 80 Euros for about a ten minute ride as opposed to the 6 Euro Vap Pass that is valid for about an hour).
Note that Venice is made up of six sestieri, or districts, such as the boroughs of New York City or arrondissements of Paris. The word derives from the figure six, Venice having been historically cut up in six quarters in the 11th century: Cannaregio, San Polo, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro, San Marco and Castello. These sestieri are connected by an intricate network of 3000 calli (the term for street in Venetian), rio or rii in plural (small canals), 420 bridges and three official canals: Grand Canal, Cannaregio and Giudecca. Beware wanderers that only three bridges cross the Grand Canal: Scalzi, Rialto, and the Accademia.
1. Dorsoduro: Spritz blitz!
When you land in Piazzale Roma bus station or the Santa Lucia train station you are closest to Sestier Dorsoduro. This has become a very student-ritch area because the humanities university Ca’ Foscari and the Architecture University has many of its buildings located in this area. It is also now recognized for Campo San Margherita (or as it is written in Venetian Campo San Margarita).
This is where many flock to enjoy the typical drink of choice in the Veneto, namely Spritz - a special Venetian aperitivo based on white wine, a bitter and seltzer water. There are five choices to be made ranging from the sweetest to the most bitter: Bianco, Aperol, Campari, Select, or Cynar. Note that if you sit down, drinks will cost 2.50 euro. If you go during Happy Hour (roughly between 5-7) drinks will be served with patatine and olives.
Heading towards the edge of Dorsoduro is Zattere, a long walkway that overlooks the island known as Giudecca. There one can enjoy an aperitivo at Bar El Chioschetto while watching a truly remarkable sunset. It is easy to see why Tintoretto was called the painter of light when his inspiration came from a city where the sun seems to brighten the colour palette of each building.
If you follow the length of Zattere all the way to Punta della Dogana this is the ideal point to watch the sunrise light show since it overlooks Piazza San Marco, Lido and Giudecca. Sitting at the point, one can watch all the buildings from a distance slowly change colour. If you do this on a Sunday you can later attend mass at Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. The dome of the building is now emblematic of the city and was a constant inspiration for Canaletto, the Venetian artist known for his views of Venice.
2. San Polo: Walk-in cinema
Turning over to a new district, San Polo can be thrilling in terms of the film festival and its very own Cinema Aperto. Starting from the end of July to the end of August, nominees from the last Cannes film festival can be viewed in both English and Italian. Later in the season, movies from the Venice Film Festival can be seen.Watching a movie will never be the same again when your black backdrop is replaced by a 500 year old church and several typical Venetian styled palazzi.
3. Cannaregio: More cicchetti please!
Before heading out to watch Clooney’s latest hit, you may consider having some cicchetti and, of course, some aperitivi with some friends. Cicchetti are small snacks or side dishes, typically served in Venice. Common cicchetti include tiny sandwiches, plates of olives or other vegetables, halved hard boiled eggs, small servings of a combination of seafood, meat and vegetable ingredients laid on top of a slice of bread or polenta. Like Spanish tapas, one can also make a meal of cicchetti by ordering multiple plates. They are usually accompanied by a small glass of local white wine, which the locals refer to as an "ombra" (shadow).
Try heading out to Taverna del Campiello Remer, a small tavern tucked away in Sestier Cannaregio. Easily missed by most tourists because of its secluded location, the restaurant will not only serve you with a delicious meal, but will also provide you with an excellent view of the Rialto Bridge and Grand Canal from its private dock.
4. Castello: Overlooked gems
Once in Castello, have a peak at the Scuola Grande di San Marco (Ospedale Civile), one of the six scuole grandi - the confraternities of Venice - now occupied by the city hospital. Often overlooked, it features magnificent trompe l'oeil panels by Tullio and Antonio Lombardo representing two episodes from the life of St. Mark and his faithful lion.
If you are looking to head to a good restaurant in the evening, the historical Ai Promessi Sposi is located in this district. The cuisine is simple and they are known for their mixed antipasto plates. Try their polpette and their cipolle dolci al forno! Most importantly, do not forget to order some of their house wine.
5. Santa Croce: Eating vegetarian in Venice
La Zucca is not exclusively a vegetarian restaurant, but it continues to satisfy all those looking for a place in Venice to eat dishes made, created and inspired by seasonal vegetables. The atmosphere of the room is warm and modern, with oak cladding on the walls and a small kitchen from which you can observe preparation of the dishes. The specialties range from pumpkin custard baked potato and broccoli with ricotta and a smoked vegetarian dish with rice or couscous. Do not pass on any of the dolci, especially the Panna Cotta whose toppings changes again according to the season. The restaurant is small, with 35 seats inside and 12 outside (only during the summer) and is located a few steps from Campo San Giacomo Dall'Orio, a site where many of the citiy’s Sagras (a local festival, very often involving food, and frequently a historical pageant) take place. The namesake festival occurs in mid-July.
6. San Marco: House of the rising Phoenix
The most famous and crowded of all the sestieri is San Marco since it is the district that is home to Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale. Expand your repertoire of historical sites by checking out Teatro La Fenice (“The Phoenix”). It is one of the most famous theatres in Europe, the site of many famous operatic premieres, such as Verdi’s La Traviata. Its name reflects its role in permitting an opera company to "rise from the ashes" despite losing the use of two theatres (to fire and legal problems respectively). Since opening and being named La Fenice, it has burned and been rebuilt twice more.
Did you know?
The finishing touch of any Gondola is the ferro, the ornament that adorns the bow of the boat. According to Venetian lore, the ferro’s “S” curve is meant to mimic the bends of the Grand Canal, the six prongs - the six sestieri and its rounded top – the shape of the Doge’s (chief magistrate) hat.