“Venice is an island city,” explains Europe for Visitors -- “the centro storico or historic centre is a tightly-integrated cluster of 118 small islands that are linked by more than 400 footbridges … every time you cross a canal, you’re stepping onto another island.” The historic centre is connected to the mainland via a long causeway which connects the mainland suburb of Mestre to Piazzale Roma. From here the Grand Canal “snakes through the city toward St Mark’s Basin and Venice’s famous Piazza San Marco.”
It’s a configuration based on a tradition dating from the 12th century, says Frommers -- 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” and the Canalazzo (Grand Canal) “neatly divides them into three on each bank.”
“Each sestiere has its own unique character and tourist sites,” notes Trip Savvy. “The train station is in Cannaregio. On the same side of the Grand Canal are San Marco and Castello. Santa Croce, across the Grand Canal from the train station, is closest to the bus and taxi arrivals at Piazzale Roma. San Polo and the Dorsoduro are across the canal from St. Mark's.” If you arrive by car over the causeway, you leave your vehicle in parking at Piazzale Roma or the parking island of Tronchetto. Trains also run to the historic island centre along the causeway, terminating at Santa Lucia train station in Cannaregio, while Marco Polo airport sits to the north of the city in the mainland suburb of Tessera. From there, boats, buses and taxis connect to the islands. Check out the Europe for Visitors aerial map to orient yourself.
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