Situated north and east of the train station, Cannaregio is the first neighborhood that tourists experience when arriving by train. You descend the steps from the station, Grand Canal in front of you, and hang a left, following the swarm of tourists that snakes through the neighborhood, spiraling around toward San Marco.
While many tourists think of Cannaregio as a neighborhood to “get through” on the way to San Marco’s gold, it offers its own charms, including the Jewish Ghetto, a list of fabulous churches, and some of Venice’s finest palaces, among them the breathtaking Ca d’ Oro, whose original façade once gleamed in solid gold.
Sleeping in Cannaregio: For budget travelers, Cannaregio makes a very practical home base, as it offers not only quick access to the train station, but some of the city’s cheapest hotels and restaurants. While many of these sleeps and eats are also pretty forgettable, there are some real gems among the lot. Our favorite hotels in the neighborhood include the Hotel Villa Rosa and Hotel Santa Lucia (both very close to the station), and the Hotel Bernardi Semenzato, closer to where Cannaregio meets San Marco.
The largest of the six "sestieri", Castello borders San Marco and becomes more residential (and, we think, interesting) the farther away from the packs of San Marco’s tourists you go. The district is dominated by its naval shipyards, the Arsenale, which were once the largest on the continent (and today has an excellent museum). Other sights include the impressive Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, the tranquil Campo Santa Maria Formosa, and the Biennale Gardens. We find the district’s biggest draw, however, to be the tranquility of its narrow streets and hidden courtyards, and the clusters of locals chitchatting on the street and corner bars.
Sleeping in Castello: Hotels in the Castello district are often a better value and a bit more relaxed than those in the dead center of Venice, and this is especially true the farther you get into Castello. Note that most of the picks below are located on the border with San Marco, and thus they’ll be convenient to central sights, although more expensive and busier. However, we think that the charms of Castello really become apparent the deeper you get into the district. Even if you don't sleep deep inside Castello, try to visit it during your stay—you'll be surprised how suddenly you escape the crowds.
Our favorite hotels from the list below include the Albergo Doni (cheap, with character), the Al Leon (a lovely splurge), and the Locanda Silva (art-filled and simple), all located near the border with San Marco. Another interesting option is the Casa per Ferie Santa Maria della Pieta, a mouthful and former orphanage with large rooms.
Located across the Accademia Bridge from San Marco, Dorsoduro is the largest neighborhood in Venice, not to mention the centuries-old home to starving artists and romantic hipsters. Ha! These days, Dorsoduro rents are so pricey that artists are starving elsewhere.
Despite the absence of real live artists, Dorsoduro still boasts the must-visit Accademia art museum, the Peggy Guggenheim museum, numerous galleries and romantic waterfront cafés. The University Ca’ Foscari is smack dab in the middle of Dorsoduro, and the city’s late night scene, dominated by students, is clustered around Campo Santa Margherita.
Sleeping in Dursoduro: As many visitors to Venice spend much of their time wandering around San Marco, choosing a hotel in Dursoduro allows you to exhale when you come home at night, returning to a quieter neighborhood of tiny canals and less crowded Campos. Our favorite budget hotels in this area include the Hotel Galleria (charming, with a stunning location at the base of the Accademia Bridge), Antica Locanda Montin (delicious restaurant with simple, art-filled rooms upstairs), and Casa Rezzonico (a cozy B&B with friendly owners).
Located to the east of the Grand Canal, the San Marco neighborhood is the city's commercial, tourist and religious core. The magnificent Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) and Saint Mark's Basilica rightfully attract wandering tourists (and hungry pigeons) like a magnet. The area around the glorious Rialto Bridge on the north side of the district is a beautiful, bustling mess, where boats unload, tourists amass and stores and street vendors hawk everything from upscale fashions to €1 Carnivale masks and snowglobes.
Between the landmarks, countless churches, restaurants, shops and sights make San Marco the busiest neighborhood in Venice. Things calm down a bit around the southern part of San Marco near the Accademia Bridge, in the area surrounding Campo San Stefano. Dominated by the San Stefano church, the streets on the southern end are filled with performers, little shops, restaurants and far fewer tourists.
Sleeping in San Marco: Although the district is packed with hotels, most of these aren’t really on our radar as they tend to be either four- and five-star numbers housed in former palaces or uninteresting chain hotels with predictable rooms (and unpredictable rates). Most budget travelers, therefore, look to neighboring Castello for a better deal.
However, there are a few notable hotels in San Marco that still offer a great value. Our favorites from the list below include the Hotel Ai do Mori (a Cheapo classic literally across the street from St. Mark’s Square), and the Albergo San Samuele (budget boutique near San Stefano).
North of the Rialto Bridge, Venetian life is a bit more relaxed in San Polo. Streets are not as packed, restaurants have more local flavor, and prices tend to be more affordable in general. By day you’ll find open-air markets and fish markets ("herbaria"), decked out in frescoed porticos. By night the area is home to local hipsters enjoying late-night "cicchetti" and great wines by the glass. You can easily walk to and from the area around the Rialto Bridge to San Marco in 10 minutes.
Sleeping in San Polo: Like its neighbor, Santa Croce, hotels in San Polo can be some of the best deals in the city. It might take you a little longer to find them, as streets can be confusing, but they’re worth finding. The area is also quite nice to come home to at night, with more locals and fewer tourists hanging out in the restaurants and bars. Favorite budget hotels from our list below include the Pensione Guerrato (lovely, antique spot near the Rialto Bridge) and the Locanda Ca’ San Polo (charming spot with a rooftop terrace).
Located just across the bridge from the Santa Lucia train station, Santa Croce is easy to get to and relatively simple to navigate. The east side is mostly medieval—architecturally speaking, that is—while the west side of the neighborhood is quite modern. This part of the neighborhood is home to Piazzale Roma, which houses the city’s bus terminal and parking complex.
Sleeping in Santa Croce: The neighborhood has a quiet charm about it that seem a thousand miles from the tourist-packed streets of San Marco. There are some great hotel deals to be had here, including the Hotel dalla Mora (family-run hotel with great canal views), Locanda Salieri (cheap and charming), and Casa Peron (friendly, cheap and with a parrot).