48 hours in ... Venice

Whether you're dodging gondolas on the Grand Canal, or exploring its cobbled streets, Italy's famous city on water has picturesque treats galore.
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

There is never a time when you can visit Venice and expect to be the only tourist there, but the weeks immediately before and after Christmas tend to be as quiet as any in winter. You also avoid Carnival, the film festival, the Biennale, the regatta or any of the other events for which visitors swarm into the city.

Beam down

Currently, the cheapest fare is with Go (08456 054321), which has just started a service from Stansted at a cost of pounds 80 if you stay two nights and travel before 11 February. Marco Polo airport is a mere boat ride from the city centre; choose between the water taxi, a de luxe option at pounds 50, or the regular waterbus, or motoscafo, which stops several times during the hour it takes to reach St Mark's Square. A one-way ticket on the latter costs pounds 6.20.

Get your bearings

The city is made up of 117 islands, which somehow slot together to form a mosaic of canals and cobbled streets in the lagoon. A bridge sticks out from the mainland to offer a connection with reality, but the trains and cars which cross it have to stop as soon as they reach the Piazzale Roma at the edge of the city. From there, the Grand Canal sets off in a sort of S shape, with a bridge round each bend - first the Rialto and then the Accademia - before the Grand Canal merges into Canal de San Marco in front of the Doges' palace.

Watch out for...

Flooding, particularly at this time of year. But although it can come as a shock to wake up and find St Mark's Square under water, it is unlikely that the citizens of Venice will be caught by surprise. Wooden staging is kept piled up in the most vulnerable areas and put out to form a raised walkway when the water level gets too high.

Check in

Unless your hotel is accessible by water the only way for you and your luggage to reach it is on foot. As watertaxis can be expensive, it is best to aim for somewhere which can be reached easily from the vaporetto stops of the Grand Canal. A small place which fits the bill is the Due Fanali, (00 39 041 718490), tucked away in the Campo San Simeon, in a courtyard beside the canal. Singles start at pounds 55 and doubles at pounds 65. Another possibility is the friendly Pensione Al Gazzettino (00 39 041 5286523), in the Sottoportico delle Acque, just off the Mercerie, an equal distance between St Mark's Square and the Rialto bridge. Here singles start at around pounds 36, and doubles at pounds 55.

Take a ride

Take half an hour or so to ride the length of the Grand Canal on vaporetto number 1, from St Mark's Square to the railway station. Not only does this offer a panoramic view of some of the city's most stylish buildings, but you also glimpse life on the water: delivery boats, emergency services and private craft all buzz back and forth, dodging the traghettos, or gondolas, which ferry passengers from one side of the water to the other. A single journey costs pounds 2.20, but at pounds 6.50, a day ticket is better value; it is valid for 24 hours, and it allows you to hop on and off.

Take a hike

When you have taken in the city from the canal, the only way to explore it is on foot. You will never get seriously lost as there are yellow signs on many street corners which direct you towards the main orientation points - San Marco, Rialto, Accademia and the Ferrovia or railway station. One of the charms of Venice is that wherever you go you never seem to walk down the same street twice.

Lunch on the run

There are plenty of places to eat near the Frari, but offering something slightly different from the usual Italian fare is the Frari Bar (00 39 041 720050), an Arab restaurant across from the main entrance to the church.

Cultural afternoon

Familiar even to anyone who has never visited Venice, the most striking thing about St Mark's Square is that it is exactly like every picture that has ever been painted of it. The basilica itself is usually overrun with tourists, and is best visited in the early evening, but there is plenty to explore around the attractive arcades of the square itself. The Campanile, Old Library and Correr museum are all worth a look, but the highlight of the piazza is the Doges' Palace, built in the 12th century for the rulers of the city state.

Window shopping

The nicest shops are mostly hidden in the backstreets, and are so small there is barely room to go inside. If you want designer clothes, try the Mercerie, between St Mark's and the Rialto. Otherwise, the best area to search for interesting purchases - whether it is paper, Venetian masks, pasta or leather - is the warren of streets in the San Polo district, just behind the tourist traps of the Rialto bridge.

An aperitif

If you decide that the price of champagne, or its Italian equivalent, in the upmarket Florian or Quadri on St Mark's Square is prohibitive, go and have a glass of wine in Do Spade (00 39 041 5210574), one of several bars hidden away in the alleys around the Calle Beccarie.

Demure dinner

Alla Madonna (00 39 041 5223824), down a side street off the Fondamenta del Vin is extremely popular and lively; the food is typically Venetian, with the emphasis on fish, fresh from the nearby market; and the waiters are rude. Book in advance, or be prepared to queue for some time. A quieter, politer alternative, with a cosy log fire in the winter, and a shady garden in summer, is the Trattoria Poste Vecie (00 39 041 721822) next to the fish market.

Sunday morning: go to church

From the outside, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is unremarkable, built as it was for the austere Franciscans. Inside is one of the most stunning collections of art in Venice, including a colourful Assumption by Titian over the main altar, which was so shocking to the friars who commissioned it that it took them 30 years to agree to pay him for it. Go to a service or a concert here, or just go to look, but the Frari, as it is known, is not to be missed.

Perfect pizza

Da Sandro (00 39 041 5234894) is two halves of a pizzeria on opposite sides of the Campiello dei Meloni in San Polo. Don't enter the main restaurant, but go through the frosted-glass door opposite, to a tiny annexe which only has a handful of tables. The excellent pizzas are made in here, and ferried across the road when necessary; in return, everything else comes over from the other side, and there is a constant flow of food in each direction.

A walk in the ghetto

Venice pioneered the appalling practice of confining its Jewish population into a designated area which could be closed off at night. The Jewish community is now very small, but the New Ghetto is still a distinctive and interesting part of the city to explore.

At the northern end of Venice, and easily reachable from the San Marcuola vaporetto stop, the centre of the district is the Campo Ghetto Nuovo, a large, leafy square which was once the centre of community life. The buildings in this area are taller than in most other parts of Venice; space for the Jewish community was at such a premium that they were forced to keep building upwards to accommodate the population. The sign marking one of the old pawn shops, Banco Rosso, is still visible on a doorway under the arched passageway.

Several of the buildings in the surrounding streets could be mistaken for churches; only the Hebrew lettering over the doors marks them out.

The icing on the cake

When you have had enough of Renaissance art, take a trip out to the islands of the lagoon. Avoid the tourist boats, which are expensive; instead take the ordinary vaporetto service from the Riva degli Schiavoni or the Fondamenta Nuove and visit the cemetery of San Michele, the glass blowers of Murano, or best of all, Burano, with its brightly painted houses, where the women sit in the windows making lace, and the men spend their days mending their fishing nets.

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