The Sant’Elena neighbourhood intrigued me for the first time when I read ‘In the company of the courtesan’ from Sarah Dunant. The clue of this story is when Fiammetta and Bucino (the principal characters) have to get to the east side of Venice to find La Draga, a young and blind healer. To be honest, at that moment, I hadn’t been so far out of the historical centre, so I had no idea where Sant’Elena was.
On our first trips (like many first time visitors), we wanted to be in the middle of the action to make sure we didn’t miss a thing. So, we stayed near San Marco (but we found the area too crowded) and near Ospedale (a very relaxed neighbourhood). However, on the next trip, inspired by this book and in combination with the fact that we wanted to be close to the Venice Biennale grounds, we booked a hotel in Sant’Elena. Since then, we always stay in that area, even if there is no Biennale ongoing.
So why would you want to stay in Sant’Elena?
If you immediately think it’s too far out, I’ll give you some counter-arguments later on. But let me first describe why I love this area:
- It is out of the tourist centre. I consider this a big positive, as it means that you are not swallowed by herds of tourists the second you get out of the hotel. Therefore you don’t have to look left and right first to see if it’s safe to set a foot outside. When you return in the evening, you will feel the pressure of the crowds fall off your shoulders and the noise will be reduced to the water, boats and quiet murmurs of conversations – instead of groups of people trying not to lose each other.
- It is ideally located if you visit Venice for the Biennale. To reach the Giardini and Arsenale grounds of the Art and Architecture Biennale, you only have to cross respectively one and two bridges. For the Venice Film Festival (Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica), it is just one stop to Lido with the vaporetto.
- It is a totally different Venice. In contrast to the rest of Venice, it’s very green with a lot of nature. It’s a residential area with only 1 hotel and mainly locals. There is a large park (called Rimembranze) next to the laguna, a playground with a soccer field and basketball court, a small port, the Pierluigi Penzo soccer stadium of Venezia FC and there are wide streets (but still no cars). (If you want to know more about Venezia FC, follow this link to my post ‘Attend the major sports events in Venice’). For local children, it’s the place where they learn to ride the bike. It is for me the ideal location to relax after a full day in the often-hectic historical centre of Venice.
- There are several good restaurants in Sant’Elena or nearby in Castello, so there’s no need to walk back to San Marco for dinner if you don’t feel like it.
- You can browse through books donated by passers-by and leave your own book in the bookshelf attached to one of the trees in the park. I certainly can’t resist looking in it every time I enter the park. Last week, there were books in Italian, German and in Russian.
The main comment I get when I make this suggestion, is that it’s ‘too far’. I agree that it’s a 20-30 minute walk to San Marco and that it’s not the ideal location if you have just 2 days and only have time to see the obvious landmarks. In that case, I won’t even try to convince you. However, if you have been to Venice before and have enough time to wander around, here are some additional arguments for this sestiere:
- It is not in the middle of nowhere. You can walk along the Riva and enjoy the views of San Giorgio Maggiore, Punta della Dogana, the San Marco campanile, and many more while you get to the historical centre. Or you can take the bridge at the other side of Sant’Elena and wander through the hidden streets of Castello (check my post Castello: mark these hidden treasures on your Venice map) to get to the centre. One thing I’ve learned is that getting to know Venice is not about visiting San Marco or the Rialto Bridge. It is mainly about discovering new canals and calle (small streets), beautiful buildings (from churches to palazzos), and shops and restaurants targeted at the locals and not at tourists.
- Venice is not New York or London. Being out of the centre doesn’t mean the same thing. You can easily walk everywhere if you want (as long as you wear comfortable shoes and stop from time to time). However, if you don’t feel like walking, there is a vaporetto stop to take you wherever you want. We always walk from Sant’Elena all across Venice, to Zattere, to Rialto or even to Cannaregio. I can count the number of times I have taken a vaporetto (not including the journey from the airport or to go to Giudecca or one of the islands) on one, maybe two hands, but that’s a personal choice.
Convinced? Here are some tips to enjoy the Sant’Elena sestiere
- Hotel Sant’Elena: This is the only hotel in this part of Venice. It used to be a monastery and is now a four star hotel and part of the Best Western chain. It has an enclosed garden where you can have breakfast, enjoy a drink or read a book on the sunbeds. The rooms are modern, so don’t expect the typical Venetian chandeliers from Murano glass. They also have a restaurant (Valentine) where you can enjoy the copious breakfast buffet or have a fine dinner. The service is very good, so I can certainly recommend the hotel. (Calle Bucari 10)
- Al Diporto: This family-run restaurant is hidden at the back of Sant’Elena, so not many tourists get that far. Locals from the area come here, either to have dinner with their family and friends or to take home some of the food. The menu is rather limited, but they serve typical Italian food with very good fish and shrimps. When the weather is nice, you can sit outside on their large terrace. (Calle Cengio 25; closed on Monday)
- Osteria da Pampo: This small restaurant is very close to the park and the laguna, so it attracts (a few) more tourists. They also offer typical Italian food. The new owners, a young couple, acquired the restaurant in 2016 and are very friendly. You have the choice to sit inside or outside. Next to the restaurant, they also have a small bar if you would have to wait for your table. (Calle Generale Antonio Chinotto 24; closed on Tuesday)
- Vecia Gina: Next to the Rimembranze park and with a view on the waterfront, you will find this very local bar/pizzeria. You can sit outside under the trees for a coffee in the morning or a nice spritz (or other aperitif) later in the day, to eat a small snack or try one of their many types of pizza. It closes rather early (certainly by Italian standards) so it is mainly suited for lunch or an early dinner or for a stop on your way back to or from the hotel. (Via IV Novembre 54; closed on Wednesday)
Of course, each one of the sestieri has its typical characteristics, with its own positive and less positive sides. You can find an overview of the different areas via this link. I suggest you follow The Venice Insider to discover all of them and define your own favourite. And if you decide not to stay in Sant’Elena, it’s certainly worth a detour on your discovery around Venice.
PS: More novels that are based in Venice can be found on the page with my favourite books in English and Dutch. If you have read any good books on or in Venice, feel free to add them to the comments below. I always love to read about this city.
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(This article was first published on November 21, 2015.)