The San Polo sestiere ('sestiere' = 'district') is our second favorite – right after San Marco. But San Polo is not a distant second.
< Check out the map at left to see where the San Polo piece fits into the Venetian puzzle.
There is a lot to see and do – and eat – in San Polo. Click on the map and you will see the rather convoluted layout of this sestiere.
First, the term ‘San Polo’. You may remember that ‘San Marco’ refers to Saint Mark; well, San Polo refers to Saint Paul.
San Polo is the smallest of the six sestiere of Venice. It is also one of the oldest neighborhoods, as the highest banks of the mud flats where Venice began were located here. And today, it is one of the liveliest of the six sestiere – there is a lot to do here, both day and night.
Below you can see just a portion of San Polo as it sits across the Grand Canal from San Marco.
Some of our favorite Venetian attractions are found in San Polo.
First, to get to San Polo from San Marco, you will most likely cross over the Rialto Bridge. Because of the need to get to the Rialto Market from San Marco, a wooden bridge was originally constructed in 1255. After being burned in 1310 in a bit of a revolt, and then collapsing (with people on the bridge) in 1444 and then again in 1524, a call went out for a design competition for a more substantial bridge.
In 1591, Antonio de Ponte completed construction of the current bridge based on his winning design -- his bridge has become one of the iconic structures in Venice. I'm not sure if he was born with the name "de Ponte" (translates 'of the bridge') or not, but it was sure a good gimmick to get the bridge job if he wasn't.
Here is a photo of the Rialto Bridge, taken from a romantic gondola ride.
[click any image for a larger view]
You can see that the bridge is composed of two inclined, shop-lined, ramps with a central portico.
And in the next photo, you can see the steps of the inclined portion of the bridge. And you get an idea just how big this bridge is, as the buildings in the distance are at the mid-point of the Rialto Bridge. Those are shops on each side of the bridge, lining its edge.
It is almost unimaginable how many feet have gone over these steps, as most every visitor to Venice for 400 years has been funneled over the Rialto Bridge.
A lot happens on the Rialto Bridge. Here are a couple of images from a photo shoot that I did for a bridal fashion magazine.
Just kidding. Even though I did take the photos, this is actually just a kind of reverse photo-bombing event…rather than me jumping into the background, I just joined the commercial photographer in shooting the false bride.
Another day on the Rialto Bridge, and another bridal fashion shoot. It must be some sort of bride magnet.
And such drama!
Around the bridge is a lot of action. As I’ve mentioned before, everything brought into Venice travels either by boat or foot. Here you can see that the area around the Rialto Bridge is a hub of delivery activity.
And here are a couple more photos showing detail of the Rialto Bridge.
Finally, it was from the Rialto Bridge that I took the photos to create one of my most popular images…”Busy Day on the Grand Canal”.
Moving on just a few feet from the Rialto Bridge you will find the Rialto Market. As I’ve covered this market in detail in another article, you can see that article and photos of the market in “The Rialto Market of Venice”.
One of the most beautiful churches in Venice is Chiesa Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. [‘chiesa’ (key-‘ā-suh) = ‘church’] Also known as The Friari, it is not much to look at on the outside, as you can see here.
But, don’t let the starkness of the outside fool you. Inside are treasures of all sorts, like the almost 20 burial monuments.
Here is a monument to Antono Canova, who is perhaps second only to Michelangelo as a sculptor.
Though his body lies a few miles away in Tempio Canoviano (The Temple of Canova) which he designed and financed, his heart belonged to Venice, so it is enshrined in this monument. It's interesting that this heart tomb was originally designed by himself to be the tomb of Titian. But, there sits Titian’s final resting place (shown below) right across from that of Canova’s heart. It's nice to be famous, isn't it? I guess...wouldn't know.
One of my favorite parts of The Friari is the choir seating. It is made of carved wood, and each of the ‘seats’ is different, and includes both carvings and inlaid marquetry, as seen in these photos. Please click the photos to get see the beautiful detail.
Then there is Titan’s famous altar piece titled “Assumption of the Virgin”, which you can see here…but which we were denied viewing on our last visit due to restoration work…there is always something being restored in Venice…thankfully.
And there are other works, like Bellini’s triptych titled “Madonna with Child and Saints”, which sits in the Sacristy. I absolutely adore this assemblage! Here is its setting and a detailed photo.
You'll see more of Bellini's absolutely gorgeous work when we head to the sestiere of Dorsoduro in the near future.
It is fortunate that you are not prohibited from taking photos in The Frari, as you are in many other Venetian churches.
Some of you may recognize this golden angel from a recent family Christmas card.
Finally, there’s this poor gentleman, whose fate it is to hold up a good part of the church, whilst being eternally pestered by that seriously macabre figure behind him. Could that be hell, itself?
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Then there is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Shown here is its grand room.
San Rocco (or Saint Roch) was known for his plague healing miracles, which is what got him institutional recognition in this city which was hit hard by the plague. There are a number of ‘scuola’ in Venice. A scuola is a Christian association of lay people that promote special works of charity…maybe like a lodge in the U.S. that takes on charitable work.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is chock-a-block full of Tintoretto paintings. Both walls and ceilings hold his huge masterpieces. The most famous being his “Crucifixion”, which is 40 feet across, and is shown here.
As one cannot take photos within the Scuola, I harvested these from the official Scuola San Rocco website here.
And for a more entertaining view of the inside of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, just watch the Woody Allen movie, “Everyone Says I Love You”, where he just happens to bump into Julia Roberts in the Scuola.
My feet are already hurting from all the walking we’ve done thus far. Let’s move on to eating in the sestiere of San Polo.
I will focus on the premier restaurant of San Polo, and all of Venice, in most people’s opinion…and I can’t argue.
Da Fiore is a culinary experience. I can’t put my finger on why that is. They are not into the culinary chemistry thingie that so many top-rated restaurants are want to put out these days (and yes, we've experienced a 22 course meal of these delights, where upon leaving the restaurant, my wife said to me, “I’d sure like a hot dog”). The dining room is not opulent, though it is charming and has the look of a ships galley to me for some reason…I think it is the curvature of the ceiling, perhaps?
What you get here is really great food…Italian, of course…featuring seafood, of course…serving great wines, of course. And the service is friendly, not overly stuffy, and attentive, of course. Here are a couple of our friendly wait staff.
One of the internationally recognized food critics puts Da Fiore in the top 5 restaurants in the world. ‘Nough said. Here are some photos from some of our visits there.
Here are a couple of photos from a visit on a cold January night in 2004. The grappa was to warm us for our journey back to our hotel in San Marco.
Of course, there are other fine restaurants scattered throughout the San Polo sestiere…and we’ve eaten at several. Poste Vecie is particularly nice. Our traveling companion Mike picked this one out years ago, and we were not disappointed. You get to it by passing between the two red-striped barber poles and over the small bridge…
…or by going down this narrow calle [‘calle’ (‘cä-lay) = ‘street’].
Poste Vecie is said to date from the 1500s and like many restaurants in Venice, it claims to be the oldest.
Ristorante Terrazza Sommariva
And there is very nice alfresco, canal-side dining just south of the afore-mentioned Rialto Bridge. Here is the quaint Ristorante Terrazza Sommariva. It is skinny and long enough that we had no idea that our traveling companions Debbie and Scott were eating at the other end during our ‘on-your-own’ time. Here are some lunch-time photos.
I would have to say that the shopping for high-end fashion goods is not as prolific in San Polo as it is in San Marco…and personally, I like that. I like to find those little, out of the way gems. Here is one of those shops where the craftsmen carve wood into fabulous works of art, like these in their window. I stopped in for a chat one trip and got invited to visit the workshop. Fascinating.
And on the Rialto Bridge, we were so charmed with the fine jewelry in Jovon that we got my lovely wife a beautiful 35th anniversary ring. This shop, which specializes in carved coral cameos, has been on the Rialto bridge for 83 years, and is still owned and run by the same Jovon family. Again, friendly shop keepers are the rule in Venice!
I can’t give you any personal experiences regarding staying in San Polo. There are a number of well-regarded hotels here, though. We find TripAdvisor to be an excellent source of user-reviewed lodging.
I would say stay here if you want to be close to some great food and want to be off the beaten path. But realize that San Polo does get lots of tourists seeing the marvelous things I’ve pointed out above, so you might not get the tranquility you seek if you are near the main thoroughfare between the Rialto Market and the Accademia (which will be covered in an upcoming article on the sestiere of Dorsoduro).
I found a lot of families out and about in San Polo.
I'll close with a few more photos taken within the sestiere of San Polo. Please click and enjoy!
And I say goodbye by presenting these two lovable characters. We love Venice, and we especially love its people!
I hope to bump into you as we walk the calle of the sestiere of San Polo.
Ciao for now,
ps: A reminder once more that language will not be a barrier in your Italy travels...you speak English...they speak English...everyone happy!