Castello is the largest sestiere in Venice, but not necessarily the best known one. The majority of the tourists only wander through the section closest to San Marco and along the Riva dei Sette Martiri, whereas the visitors of the Biennale know well the area around the Arsenale and Giardini grounds. However, the districit is much larger than just this and there are several hidden treasures which are worth visiting, or places where you can stop for a nice drink or something to eat.
Castello spans the whole area to the right of the canal under the Bridge of Sighs (Rio de Palazzo o de Canonica), from the Riva dei Sette Martiri at the bottom up to the Fondamente Nove at the top. Even though it’s the largest sestiere, it is the only one which doesn’t border the Canal Grande.
DID YOU KNOW? The Riva dei Sette Martiri was originally called the Riva dell’Impero. The name was changed to commemorate the death of the 7 partisans who were executed by German troops in World War II (more information in my post ‘A secret itineary from Palazzo Ducale to Giardini‘). The statue on the picture above also remembers the Venetian partisans and can be found near the Biennale vaporetto stop.
Castello is the perfect area to get lost and forget about time. As soon as you get closer to the Arsenale or to the hospital, it becomes less crowded and you will enjoy very quiet squares, small shops and meet more locals than tourists. I have already stumbled upon a large sports centre hidden between the houses, upon the offices of the Order of Malta, and …. upon the house of my dreams. I’m sure you’ll also discover many unexpected things while walking around Castello.
1. San Pietro di Castello
The church and bell tower of San Pietro are completely hidden in the north of Castello, on a small island. Few people get this far, even though this used to be the basilica of Venice until 1807, while the current basilica of San Marco was still the private church of the Doge.
The earliest structure on the site dates from the 7th century, but the current building dates from the 16th century. According to one version of the legend, Saint Peter (San Pietro in Italian) appeared in a vision to Saint Magnus and instructed him to build a church in a place where he saw oxen and sheep grazing side by side. In the 16th century, Palladio designed plans for the restoration of the façade and the interior, but he didn’t finish the works himself. They were done by another architect and, unfortunately, due to a lack of funds, the Palladio plans were modified and made less ambitious. Take your time to wander around or take a seat in the park in front of it. You will immediately notice the silence compared to the current basilica at the San Marco square.
TIP: The San Pietro church belongs to the parish of the Salesian (the disciples of Don Bosco, an Italian priest who dedicated his life to the youth). At their premises between Via Garibaldi and Giardini, you can rent a room for your stay in Venice. It is quite basic, but if you’re just looking for a place to sleep and have breakfast, I suggest you take a look at their website. And don’t worry, you are not expected to wake up early for the morning prayers.
(Campo San Pietro, Castello 70)
If you’re in Venice on a rainy day, a visit to the Querini Stampalia Foundation is certainly a good option to spend a couple of hours.
The Querinis were amongst the first founders of the city of Venice. At the end of the 13th century, the Querini family was one of the richest lineages. Over the centuries they have been involved in the political, artistic and economic issues of the city. When Count Giovanni, the last descendant of the Querini Stampalias, died in 1869, he left all his possessions to the city of Venice and to the world, in order to create a Foundation that promotes “studies and useful disciplines”, and that would be open to visitors especially when the other cultural institutions are closed. The historic residence of this noble family has been further redeveloped thanks to the famous architects Carlo Scarpa, Valeriano Pastor and Mario Botta. You can discover other projects from Carlo Scarpa in Venice in my post ‘Explore Venice in the steps of Carlo Scarpa’.
You can start with a visit of the museum, which shows the interior as used by the Querini families. The ancient collections contain precious furniture, paintings, porcelains, globes, fabrics and sculptures in a refined atmosphere, with the luxurious rooms covered with plasters and frescos. This house-museum is already on display since Count Giovanni died. After you have completely immersed yourself in the right historic context, you should go to the library to relax and take some time to read. You have access to about 32.000 books and more than 350 magazines and journals, as well as 20 local, national and international newspapers every day. Alternatively, you can surf the internet for free with your own device. In the spirit of Count Giovanni, the library is open until midnight (except on Sunday when it closes at 7 PM). This is only one of the stunning libraries in Venice. You can discover more in my post ‘7 authentic libraries that will amaze you in Venice‘.
(Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5252)
This building is probably the best known hidden gem from my list, but I really think it deserves a place in this list. The interior was closed for a long time but has now been reopened to the public after the restoration.
The Scuola Grande di San Marco was one of the six major Scuole Grandi of Venice (more information in my post ‘The scuole grandi combine social history and art‘). The edifice was built by the Confraternity of San Marco in 1260, but had to be rebuilt in 1485 after it was destroyed by a large fire. It was designed by architect Pietro Lombardo and completed by Mauro Codussi. From the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, you can admire the façade with its delicately decorated niches and pilasters, and white and polychrome marble statues. It features magnificent trompe l’œil panels by Tullio and Antonio Lombardo representing two episodes from the life of Saint Mark and his faithful lion. In 1819 it became an Austrian military hospital and it is now a civil hospital. The building has now been restored and since 2013, it is also possible to visit the interior, such as the main entrance hall, the ancient library and a medical museum. The rooms are beautifully decorated with paintings and an impressive ceiling in blue and gold colours.
TIP: The Ospedale itself is in principle not open for tourists, but if you behave appropriately (i.e. no noise or pictures), you could get in by the entrance at Fondamente Nove, walk through the premises whilst admiring the building and the inner garden, and get out at the Campo. Then, take a seat on one of the terraces and you won’t be able to take your eyes of the beautiful façade. There is a third entrance for emergencies by boat, but let’s hope you don’t need that one during your stay.
(Ospedale SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Castello 6777)
4. Libreria Acqua Alta
Visiting this bookshop is an experience in itself. The second you enter, you will be overwhelmed and your mind will need time to absorb what you’re seeing. It feels like entering the house of a collector who can’t throw away anything, and you will have to make your way through small aisles in between walls of books until the ceiling. On top of that, books are also displayed in gondolas and in a bath tub, and are used to build an outdoor staircase. You are allowed to climb it so you can peep over the wall at the canal. The shop sells tourist guides and loads of fictional and non-fictional books on all possible topics. I don’t know how he does it, as it seems like total disorder to me, but if you are looking for something specific, the owner will be able to tell you in which room and which pile the book can be found. If you like nosing in books, you can easily spend a couple of hours in there. I certainly try to go there whenever I’m in the neighbourhood.
(Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5176/B)
5. Cuore di Mattoni
Finally, the best hidden secret of Castello is without doubt the little red brick heart on the back of the Sotoportego dei Preti. The legend says that when you touch it, all your dreams of love will come true in the next year. There’s no harm in doing it, so why not touch it when you’re around just to be sure? You never know what magic can happen in Venice.
The legend relates to Orio, a fisherman who lived in this sotoportego. On one of his fishing trips, he heard a voice calling for help and found a mermaid in his net. Her name was Melusina. They fell in love, but she had been hit by a curse and every Saturday, she turned into a snake. The only way to overcome the curse was to get married. Orio and Melusina got married and had three children, but a few years later she became ill and died. Orio was desperate, but when he would return home from fishing, he would find that his house had been mysteriously tidied up. One day, he found a snake in the kitchen and killed it. Unfortunately, the snake was Melusina who returned from the death to help her family. Since that moment, the house was always a mess.
(Sotoportego dei Preti, Castello)
Once you’ve discovered all these treasures, you will very likely be thirsty or hungry. Below you can find my 5 favourite places to relax and have a drink or meal in Castello.
1. New Strani
This is a popular bar in Via Garibaldi, where locals meet in the early evening to drink a spritz and eat cichetti. It has recently changed owners, hence they added the word ‘new’ to their name. There is a large choice of these apetizers (warm and cold) and they taste very good. You could go there for an aperitif or, why not, skip dinner and just stay there while ordering new drinks and cichetti from time to time. It’s a fun way to spend your evening in Venice. You can sit outside so you can watch the activities on the street, but there’s also plenty of room inside. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and you’ll certainly feel at home.
(Via Garibaldi, Castello 1582)
2. In Paradiso
At the entrance of the Giardini and in front of the lagoon, you will find this bar/ restaurant. If you have ever been to the Biennale, you will certainly remember its coloured seats. They have a nice terrace, where you can choose to sit under the trees or more on the outside looking at the lagoon. Inside, they often organize temporary exhibitions of modern art. It’s a good place to stop when you come back from the Biennale, or if you’re walking across the Riva, as a turning point before you return to the San Marco district. In the early evening, there’s always a happy hour for spritz. If you are organizing an group event (or a wedding, as I did), you can rent the roof terrace from which you have a splendid view.
(Giardini della Biennale, Castello 1260)
This is a very small but very good pizzeria, which is completely hidden from the main streets and mainly frequented by locals. There’s a large choice of pizza and they are very tasty. As it is so small, it is best to make a reservation or to arrive very early. The first time you go, you will certainly need a map to find it. When walking into the Via Garibaldi from the riva, you need to take a right after you passed the floating vegetable booth and then turn left. Make sure to check the number, as there are two Tosi restaurants in the same street.
(Secco Marina, Castello 738)
4. Da Remigio
If you love to read the adventures of commissario Brunetti (written by Dona Leon), you will certainly recognize this name as it is one of Brunetti’s favourite restaurants. This fish restaurant serves typical Venetian food and Jef, my husband, strongly recommends the scampi fritti as a starter. The restaurant is located near the Ponte dei Greci, on the west side of Castello, so it is quite close to San Marco. It is quite popular, so reservations are necessary.
(Salizada dei Greci, Castello 3416)
5. Al Covo
For a special evening out, I can certainly recommend this fancy restaurant. It is owned by an Italian-American couple, who are extremely friendly, and they serve an exquisite cuisine. They are not only attentive to the presentation of the dishes, but even more so to the quality of the ingredients and their freshness and fragrance. The products they use are almost exclusively of local variety, with the fish coming from the lagoon or the Adriatic Sea and the fruits and vegetables from Cavallino, Treporti (near Lido di Jesolo), Sant’Erasmo or the Vignole gardens. They have a small terrace outside, but plenty of room on the inside. Prices are at the higher level and reservations need to be made a couple of weeks in advance.
(C. Pescaria, Castello 3968)
There are of course plenty of other interesting things in Castello, so take your time to wander around and discover your own hidden treasures.
If you want to see more pictures of Castello, make sure to watch my video on YouTube. Also, I have already described the Sant’Elena part of Castello (the most eastern side) in the post “Sant’Elena: the perfect place for your stay in Venice”, or you can also choose to watch the video version of it.
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