Venice’s greatest concentration of sights can be found in these neighbouring districts, at the geographical heart of Venice, having grown around the ancient core of Rialto where the first inhabitants settled. Here, glorious churches, landmark monuments and breathtaking palaces are all saturated in history. Essential sights include Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where Tintoretto demonstrated his genius on sumptuous canvases, and the morning bustle of Rialto market. The squares of San Polo and San Giacomo dell’Orio are both full of cafés and benches for resting weary feet.
Known by all simply as the Frari (a corruption of Frati, meaning “friars”), this huge, plain Gothic church (see Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari) dwarfs the eastern section of San Polo. The first church was built by Fransiscan friars during 1250–1338, but was replaced by a larger building, which was completed by the mid-15th century. The interior is striking for its sheer size and for the quality of its works of art. These include masterpieces by Titan and Giovanni Bellini, as well as Donatello's famous John the Baptist and a number of imposing monuments to famous Venetians. The campanile, set into the left transept of the church, is the second largest in the city.
Campo S Rocco, S Polo 3052 • Open 9:30am–5:30pm daily • Closed 1 Jan, 25 Dec • Adm • www.scuolagrandesanrocco.it
Blinding in the morning sun, the early Renaissance façade of this historic building, home to masterpieces by Tintoretto, is a marvel of intertwined sculpted stone wreaths and crouching elephants dwarfed by stately columns. The Istrian stone facing is embedded with a medley of burgundy porphyry and green-and cream-veined marble inserts. Designed by Bartolomeo Bon in 1517 and added to by Scarpagnino among others, the imposing building with neighbouring church was home to one of the city’s foremost confraternities, established in 1478, and honoured with an annual visit by the doge.
This quintessential picturesque square, well off the beaten track, sports plane trees, benches for relaxing and patches of grass. Modest surrounding palaces are home to Venice University’s architectural faculties. The laid-back air and abundance of eateries and coffee shops make it very inviting, and there’s no lack of subjects for photographers or artists.
Campo S Giacomo dell’ Orio, S Croce • 041 275 04 62 • Open 10:30am–4:30pm Mon–Sat • Adm • www.chorusvenezia.org
Do not miss this unusual church. Founded in the 9th century, its Latin-cross shape boasts a marvellous 15th-century wood-beamed ceiling and a forest of colourful granite and black limestone columns from the Middle East, several of them loot from the Crusades. The floor merits close scrutiny for its multitude of fossils, while memorable paintings include Palma il Giovane’s Descent of Manna (1580–81), left of the main altar, and a painted crucifix (1350) attributed to Paolo Veneziano.
Campiello della Scuola, S Polo 2454 • 041 71 82 34 • Open daily (times vary) • Adm • www.scuolasangiovanni.it
This erstwhile confraternity head-quarters with a high-ceilinged upstairs hall is mostly used for conferences. The monumental staircase was the work of Coducci and the priceless reliquary contains a fragment of the True Cross, presented to the Scuola in 1369. The spectacular Miracles of the Cross cycle of paintings commissioned of Gentile Bellini and associates is now in the Accademia Galleries. The exterior court-yard has a fine sculptured portal screen completed in 1485 by Pietro Lombardo mounted with an eagle to symbolize St John.
Salizzada S Stae, S Croce 1992 • 041 72 17 98 • Open Apr–Oct: 10am–5pm Tue–Sun (to 4pm Nov–Mar); last admission 30 min before closing time • Closed 1 Jan, 1 May, 25 Dec • Adm • www.visitmuve.it
The richly furnished and frescoed rooms of this 18th-century patrician palace have showcases of historic fabrics and costumes, plus a fascinating history of perfumes. The Mocenigo family portrait gallery has a total of seven doges, topped in fame by Alvise I, the victor at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto against the Turks, which was crucial for the Republic.
Chiesa di San Giovanni Decollato: open 10am–noon Mon–Sat
People usually hurry through this square en route to the bus terminal, oblivious to its quiet charm. Interest starts with the curious loggia on the western canal edge, then there’s the attractive plain church named for San Giovanni Decollato or St John the Beheaded, depicted with flowing curly locks in a stone bas-relief on the southern wall. Inside the simple Veneto-Byzantine building are lovely 13th-century frescoes, an unusual survivor for damp old Venice.
A leafy haven of twittering sparrows and flowerbeds close to Piazzale Roma and the car parks, these French-designed gardens date back to the 1800s when extravagant parties for the nobility were held here among exotic flowers and rare animals. Site of a demolished convent, it belonged to Corfu-born entrepreneurs, hence the Greek name. The public park was greatly reduced in size when the Rio Nuovo canal was excavated in 1932–3.
Fondamenta Ca’Pesaro, S Croce 2076 • Open Apr–Oct: 10am–6pm Tue–Sun (to 5pm Nov–Mar); last admission 60 min before closing time • Adm • www.visitmuve.it
This impressive Oriental Art Collection is an eclectic mix of 19th-century curiosities from all over the Far East. Exhibits include armour, porcelain and costumes, lacquerwork boxes and musical instruments. The museum is on the third floor, above the modern art gallery in Ca’ Pesaro. A single ticket grants admission into the gallery and the museum.
The Venetian Scuole Grandi (literally “great schools”) were charitable institutions of medieval origin, almost Masonic in organization. Some were religious-orientated lay confraternities, while others functioned as trade guilds. Up to 500 once operated, covering everyone from sausage-makers to cobblers. Several have survived, namely San Rocco and Carmini.
Drink your fill of Tintoretto’s dynamic paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco before wandering east to Campo San Polo. Coffee is a must in the square, either at one of the local bars or at the attractive Antica Birraria La Corte.
It’s not far from here to Rialto Market for late-morning bargains of fresh produce, often nearing half-price when stall-holders are in a hurry to shut up shop. If this has worked up an appetite, a Grand Canal-side lunch is worth consideration at this point. There is a string of eateries spread along the sun-blessed Riva del Vin, close to the foot of Rialto Bridge. Each displays live lobster and fish and has multilingual menus. In winter diners sit in see-through “tents” so that views of the canal and the procession of boats are ensured.
Head north and explore the craft and gift shops, lace, scarf and T-shirt stalls along Ruga Rialto and the old red-light area of Rio Terrà Rampani.
Try to end up in pretty Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio for a pre-dinner drink at Al Prosecco wine bar (Campo S Giacomo dell’Orio, S Croce 1503; 041 524 02 22; closed Sun). Ask for a delicious glass of the fruity red Refosco from Friuli and bocconcino con mortadella di cinghiale (bite-sized roll with sliced wild boar).
Calle Seconda dei Saoneri, S Polo 2681
A visit to this workshop with beautiful wooden models of traditional Venetian boats is a real treat. Many crafts come in DIY kit form.
Campiello S Tomà, S Polo 2807
Papà Piero has been making beautiful leather bags that last a lifetime since 1963. His family helps him in the workshop.
Calle dei Nomboli, S Polo 2800
The result of 20 years of creating elaborate papier-mâché and leather masks and brocade costumes for Carnival, as well as theatrical productions, can be appreciated in this spectacular craft shop, where staff explain the significance of pieces.
Ponte di Rialto, S Polo 11
Beautiful hand-bound diaries and address books can be purchased from this tiny shop, which is situated right on the Rialto bridge.
Calle del Scaleter, S Polo 2236
Two goldsmiths create contemporary jewellery pieces and replicas of antique rings. For a special souvenir, they will also make something tailored to your specifications.
Calle dei Nomboli, S Polo 2768/A
Customers come to this boutique to purchase pottery, candles and other trinkets from Japan and Italy.
Sottoportego degli Orefici, S Polo 74
In an old covered passageway that has long been home to the Rialto Market goldsmiths, Attombri is run by two designer brothers who make limited-edition jewellery.
Calle del Tagiapiera, S Polo 2599/A
A mix of ceramics, designer wares and fabrics created by local and foreign artisans are sold at Dinamo.
Corte Canal, S Croce 659
Eggcups, teapots and platters are some of the delightful hand-turned objects available here.
Calle Regina 2262, S Polo
Choose from handmade beads, photo frames and colourful Murano glass creations.
Ponte del Megio, S Croce 1762 • 041 524 15 70 • Closed Sun
Delicious vegetarian fare is served here, and there is also the promise of unforgettable chocolate desserts.
Campo S Giacometto, S Polo 122 • 041 523 20 61 • Closed Mon • €€
This is a trendy restaurant-bar along the Grand Canal serving a variety of quality Italian vintages and tasty nibbles.
Calle del Scaleter, S Polo 2202/A • 041 721 308 • Closed Sun & Mon, 3 weeks in Jan, Aug • €€€
The exclusive Da Fiore is possibly one of Venice’s best restaurants. For great views, reserve the outdoor table on the balcony. Book in advance.
Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, S Croce 1459 • 041 524 00 16 • Closed Mon, Tue lunch • €
Diners come to this great canal-side spot for inexpensive pizzas in a magical surrounding.
Salizzada San Stae, S Croce 1919 • 041 523 17 03 • Closed Mon • €
Don’t miss the cestino al parmiggiano, a crisp fried pastry and cheese basket filled with prawns.
Campiello dello Spezier, S Croce 2048 • 041 524 16 28 • €
Order steak or fish here – Antipasto Muro is a great seafood selection.
Campo S Polo, S Polo 2168 • 041 275 05 70 • €
Pizzas named after the city’s bridges are served at this ultra-modern eatery set in a former brewery. There is also a tree-shaded patio.
Calle Larga dei Bari, S Croce 1159 • €
Unforgettable ice cream is made by a true maestro, Carlo the owner. This is the real deal – 100 per cent natural gelato with ginger, spearmint, rose petals, pistachio or green tea.
Campiello Sant’Agostin, S Polo 2346 • 041 524 20 61 • €
Seek out this tranquil square for a light lunch with a glass of Belgian beer or crisp Friuli wine.
Campiello dei Meloni, S Polo 1415 • Closed Tue, Aug • €
This old-style pastry shop serves thick hot chocolate and divine fruit tarts, almond slices and peanut toffee.