Based on a tradition dating from the 12th century, for tax-related purposes, the city has officially been divided into six sestieri (literally, "sixths," or wards) that have basically been the same since 1711. The Canalazzo or Canale Grande (Grand Canal) neatly divides them into three on each bank.

San Marco -- The central sestiere is anchored by the Piazza San Marco and the Basilica di San Marco to the south and the Rialto Bridge to the north. This is the most visited (and, as a result, the most expensive) of the sestieri. It's the commercial, religious, and political heart of the city and has been for more than a millennium. It is also its musical heart, home to the legendary La Fenice Opera House. Although you'll find glimpses and snippets of the real Venice here, ever-rising rents have nudged resident Venetians to look for housing in the outer neighborhoods: You'll be hard-pressed to find a grocery store or dry cleaner here. But if you're looking for Murano glass trinkets and mediocre restaurants, you'll find an embarrassment of choices. This area is laced with first-class hotels -- so we give you suggestions for staying here in the heart of Venice without going broke.

Cannaregio -- Sharing the same side of the Grand Canal with San Marco, Cannaregio stretches north and east from the train station to include the Jewish Ghetto and into the canal-hugging vicinity of the Ca' d'Oro and the Rialto Bridge. Its outer reaches are quiet, unspoiled, and residential ("What high-season tourist crowds?" you may wonder); one-third of Venice's ever-shrinking population of 60,000 is said to live here. Most of the city's one-star hotels are clustered about the train station -- not a dangerous neighborhood but not one known for its charm, either. The gloss and dross of the tourist shop-lined Lista di Spagna strip continues as it morphs into the Strada Nuova in the direction of the Rialto Bridge.

Castello -- This quarter, whose tony Riva degli Schiavoni follows the Bacino di San Marco (St. Mark's Basin), is lined with first-class and deluxe hotels. It begins just east of Piazza San Marco, skirting Venice's most congested area to absorb some of the crowds and better hotels and restaurants. But if you head farther east in the direction of the Arsenale or inland away from the bacino, the people traffic thins out, despite the presence of such major sights as Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the Scuola di San Giorgio.

San Polo -- This mixed-bag sestiere of residential corners and tourist sights stretches northwest of the Rialto Bridge to the principal church of Santa Maria dei Frari and the Scuola di San Rocco. The hub of activity at the foot of the bridge is greatly due to the Rialto market that has taken place here for centuries -- some of the city's best restaurants have flourished here for generations, alongside some of its worst tourist traps. The spacious Campo San Polo is the main piazza of Venice's smallest sestiere.

Santa Croce -- North and northwest of the San Polo district and across the Grand Canal from the train station, Santa Croce stretches all the way to Piazzale Roma. Its eastern section is generally one of the least-visited areas of Venice -- making it all the more desirable for curious visitors. Less lively than San Polo, it is as authentic and feels light-years away from San Marco. The quiet and lovely Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio is considered to be its heart.

Dorsoduro -- You'll find the residential area of Dorsoduro on the opposite side of the Accademia Bridge from San Marco. Known for the Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim museums, it is the largest of the sestieri and was known as an artists' haven until rising rents forced much of the community to relocate elsewhere. Good neighborhood restaurants, a charming gondola boatyard, the lively Campo Santa Margherita, and the sunny quay called le Zattere (a favorite promenade and gelato stop) all add to its character and color.

La Giudecca -- Located opposite the Piazza San Marco and Dorsoduro, La Giudecca is a tranquil working-class residential area where you'll find a youth hostel and a handful of hotels (including the deluxe Cipriani, one of Europe's finest).

Lido di Venezia -- This slim, 11km-long (6 3/4-mile) area is the city's beach; separating the lagoon from the open sea and permitting car traffic, its concentration of seasonal hotels (its landmark hotels serving as home base for the annual Venice Film Festival) makes it a popular summer destination, but it is also quite residential.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.