There are a number of neighborhoods, sestiere, in Venice. Here are the things we loved most in each of them.
Dorsoduro is full of art galleries, the Accademia, the Peggy Guggenheim. At Christmastime, the Christmas market is here, and the Ponte de Accademia, a wooden bridge that spans the Grand Canal.
San Polo has the Rialto bridge and markets. We wished we spent more time here.
Cannaregio is where the original Jewish ghetto was — the German Jews who lived and worked in Venice were required by law to be locked into the city’s foundry (geto, in Italian) at night. They couldn’t pronounce “geto” correctly, so their mispronunciation became the word we all know. There are three different synagogues in Cannaregio, for their German, Italian, and Levantine Jewish communities who lived (and some still live) there, a Jewish museum, some Judaica shops and kosher restaurants. But Cannaregio is not only a Jewish neighborhood; it’s where most Venetians still live. There are quiet streets, ordinary shops that don’t cater to tourists (marine repair shop, anyone?), and lots of bacaros, quiet trattorias, and magical storefronts with artists at work. My favorite street in Venice was the Fondamenta della Misericordia in Cannaregio. In Cannaregio, have the 10 euro lunch special at any little trattoria that advertises one on its chalkboard outside, then spend the afternoon at the Jewish museum. See the gorgeous synagogues, try the traditional Jewish pastries in the gift shop, and stop by David’s shop in the square outside the museum for the best prices on Murano glass jewelry anywhere in Venice, including on Murano itself. Then, when it gets dark, admire the giant menorah if you’re there during Chanukah like we were, and wander along the Fondamenta della Misericordia for cicchetti and spritz.
Cannaregio is also where the Fondamente Nove is, on the banks of the Venetian lagoon. Walk through the hospital, which looks like no other hospital you’ve ever seen, and look at the ambulance boats. Wander by the several furniture restoration shops until you get to the water bus stop.
From here, you can take a ferry to Cimitero (the Venetian cemetery, on an island), Murano and Burano, both stunningly lovely and also obviously touristy. Murano gets sleepy in the afternoon — go in the morning if you want to see glassblowers at work. Burano is like walking through a storybook: Shopkeepers spill out of the colorful storefronts speaking four languages, hands full of lace and glass and cookies. Wander away from the commercial streets to find quiet parks, medieval churches, December roses, and that incomparable red-gold-blue Mediterranean sunlight.
San Marco is the most touristy part of Venice. The streets are full of designer chains (Ferragamo, Chanel) and souvenir shops. Scam artists in San Marco have Venetian romance — if a man falls before you on bended knee and insists you take a spray of gorgeous roses, free, just because you are that beautiful, he is looking to extort a handful of euros from your boyfriend. (Just say no thank you and keep walking.)
Every bridge has its gondolier, and you have to do that, of course, preferably at night, and paying extra for singing. We asked our gondolier what was his favorite part of Venice, a question he found too personal and ducked. But he did say that he always gives tourists the same advice: Go to San Marco and then get lost.
Getting lost is indeed the best part of Venice, in San Marco or elsewhere. Some of the streets are so narrow that only one person can just walk between them, and the stone walls of the buildings are seamless and high. Walking in Venice is like walking in a maze, that is pockmarked with loveliness. An ornately carved ancient door here, a brilliantly colored stained glass window there, shining shop windows full of magical objects, warmly lit bays where you can stop to buy a drink or a snack to carry as you walk. It’s like a scavenger hunt, a maze full of endless magical little corners to discover, and you’re wandering through it nearly alone in December, only sometimes running into other people doing that same thing: Venetians, smoking and carrying keys, tourists, looking down at their phones for a clue.
All you have to do is walk. Walk, look, take pictures. Stop to buy a cappuccino, a Prosecco, a snack. Listen to the guy playing Sinatra standards on saxophone in the square. Step inside a church and buy a candle. Consider a mask, or a journal, or a handbag, or a feathered pen. Cross another bridge. Wander into a church full of priceless instruments. Listen to the quiet, to the miracle of footsteps on stone.
Venice is not a food city, in Italy or not. Especially not in San Marco, but even in general: It’s a small town that has spent centuries catering to the anxious bellies of the world’s tourists: the food is overpriced (especially if you have the temerity to want to sit at a table) and bland. Actual Venetians, as far as I can tell, live on a diet of coffee, cigarettes, ombre and conversation, fortified only by the kind of snacks you eat standing up — cicchetti (bar snacks). gelato, pastries, kebabs. These things are the most delicious things in Venice. So walk out in the morning and get coffee and pastry, and whenever you’re hungry, stop at an open window or a back alley bacaro and have a snack. Stay open to the secrets and conversation. We wandered down a quiet back alley late one night until we were embraced in a circle of light and conversation outside Bacaro Da Fiore Too late for their amazing-looking cicchetti, we ordered tiramisu instead, eaten standing around a little barrel while the owner clapped his guests on the back with apparently genuine joy at having company. Love letters dangled on strings from the ceiling, and it was hard to tell whether dessert or decor or company were sweeter. Venice is a convivial place.
Also, you have to see the cathedral for which San Marco is named, from the outside at least, and at Christmas there’s an enormous tree in San Marco square. Dress up and go have a drink at Caffe Florian, the oldest cafe in the world. Go to the bar in the back and order a drink; much cheaper than a table, and the bartender’s flair is continental and unmatched. The glasses are elegant, and there are free bites with your cocktail. Try the perfume at the gift shop counter: for tourists, sure, but the scent is evocative and memorable.
In San Marco we also went to our palace ball, at Musica a Palazzo, a private, members-only opera appreciation society (you can join, and buy opera tickets, at the door, but must make reservations in advance). We saw La Traviata, done here with relentless romance as a chamber opera that takes place in a 15th century palace, and that places the audience right into the text. You’re a guest at Violetta’s party; she’ll kiss your cheeks and pour you Prosecco. You’ll hold her hand in the drawing room while she cries and writes her fateful letter to Alfredo. You’ll be sitting bedside as she and Alfredo say their last goodbyes. In between acts, you’ll drink bellinis under the chandeliers and look over the grand canal. Walking home after that adventure, we looked up at all the chandeliers winking out through the windows of half the palaces in Venice and felt as if the whole city was a fairy tale.
Castello is the largest sestieri in Venice, centrally located, and has both touristy parts (where it abuts San Marco and along the Grand Canal) and more residential areas. We stayed here, first in a lovely, simple, inexpensive airbnb, which had everything we wanted including charm. Everything in Venice is full of art and history, and our apartment was no exception. It was on a peaceful, quiet street that immediately felt like home, with the canal and gondoliers right out our bedroom window.
The last night in Venice we splurged on much more luxurious Castello accommodations: the Damascus suite in the Metropole hotel. I’d been turned on to this place years ago by (sadly now offline) Luxirare; it was this room that made me want to go to Venice in the first place, so, although staying there was absolutely not in any sane budget I could draw up for us, we had to find a way. The rack rate on this room was upwards of 4,000 euro; luckily, in the Christmas offseason it was available for 660, which is still absolutely insane for my little family. Still, for a once-in-a-lifetime-surprise I booked it.
The degree of luxury we enjoyed in this little hotel was almost too rarefied to be tolerable to ordinary mortals like us: My teenager took one look at his private room and bath in the suite and changed into a suit just to feel comfortable sitting in it. The bellman monsieur and madamed us charmingly up to our rooms, gave us elegant, heavy keys that weighed down our hands with their antique charms (what hotel still uses keys?), and left us to enjoy the stunning view of the lagoon and the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore and our ridiculous rooms.
We were welcomed with a tray of treats and a note from the hotel’s owner — elegantly-wrapped chocolate, biscotti, Christmas cake, and six clementines so absolutely perfect in scent, appearance, and flavor that eating them required a meditation.
The room was tiled in mirrors and iridescent Murano glass tiles; there was an enormous Moroccan-styled bathtub in the center of the space, with an honest-to-god gargoyle-spitting fountain in it. There are three more bathrooms besides in the two bedroom suite, including a steam room and needle shower with a ceiling lit up with pinprick lights to look like the stars of the night sky. Breakfast in the lush, romantic garden of the hotel includes everything you could ever dream of wanting on a giant buffet, and the common spaces are full of antiques and collections of mystery objects, crucifixes, handbags, cigarette cases in vitrines, like a museum. Moroccan furniture and giant Murano glass chandeliers. The scent of incense and camellias. It’s the kind of place that allows you to briefly convert money into fantasy. Worth every penny.