48 Hours In: Venice

Free of crowds but full of charm, 'La Serenissima' is at its most atmospheric in winter, says Simon O'Hagan



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In... Venice map

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Winter is when La Serenissima is at its most hauntingly atmospheric, largely free of summer crowds. Current points of artistic interest include an exhibition of Venice paintings by Maurice Prendergast at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (1) (00 39 041 240 5411; guggenheim-venice.it ; 10am-6pm daily except Tuesdays and Christmas Day) until 3 January, and, in the Church of San Barnaba (2) until 31 December (daily 9.30am-7.30pm), an exhibition of machines constructed to Leonardo da Vinci's designs.

Touch down

Venice's Marco Polo airport is about eight kilometres north of the city. From Gatwick and East Midlands you can fly on easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ). British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow. The tourist office in the arrivals hall is open daily 9.30am-7.30pm. The most pleasant way to get into the city is by water. While a water taxi will set you back about €100, Alilaguna ( alilaguna.it ) operates a service from the airport to the Piazza San Marco (3), taking just over an hour and costing €12.50. The most convenient tourist office (00 39 041 529 8711; turismovenezia.it ; open 8am-6.30pm daily) is in this square – which is known to anglophones as St Mark's.

A speedier alternative to the boat is the blue ATVO ( atvo.it ) bus, from outside the terminal every 20 minutes (€3), or the slower yellow ACTV bus 5 (€2.50). Both arrive at Piazzale Roma (4) on the city's edge.

Get your bearings

Very roughly speaking, Venice is the shape of an egg on its side, with an S-shaped crack that is the Grand Canal running from top left to bottom right. The island of Giudecca lies to the south. To the south-east is the Venetian Lagoon and beyond it, the Lido and other islands. Most of the tourist action is concentrated in the central southern part of the main island, where the biggest draw is St Mark's Square (3), in which the architectural stars are St Mark's Basilica (5) and campanile and the adjoining Doge's Palace. Farther north, a 15-minute walk away, is the Rialto Bridge (6), where Venice is at its most Shakespearean.

Walking on hard stone is tiring, which is where the vaporetti water buses that ply the Grand Canal come in handy – as well as the traghetti (retired gondolas) that shuttle across it. The standard one-ride fare for a vaporetto is €6.50, valid for an hour; better value is the range of ACTV travel cards, ranging from €16 for 12 hours via €28 for 48 hours to €50 for a full week.

Check in

For quiet grandeur and impeccable service look no further than the Danieli (7) (00 39 041 522 6480; danieli.hotelinvenice.com ), only a few yards from St Mark's. Doubles start from €325 including breakfast.

An interesting alternative is the renovated flour mill on the Giudecca waterfront that is the Hilton Molino Stucky (8) (00 39 041 272 3311; molinostuckyhilton.com ), with doubles from €189, excluding breakfast.

Back near St Mark's is the elegant Villa Igea (9) (00 39 041 241 0956; hotelvillaigea.it ), where doubles range between €155 and €280, including breakfast. Or, on the other side of St Mark's, there's the Messner (10) (00 39 041 522 7443; hotelmessner.it ), which has doubles from €90.

Day one

Take a hike

Walking – and getting lost in – the tangle of alleys, punctuated by piazze, is what Venice is all about. Head off from St Mark's in any inland direction and beauty and fascination is all around. Of the two main bridges that cross the Grand Canal, the Rialto (6) is busier than the Accademia (11), the latter about a 20-minute stroll west of St Mark's that takes you past La Fenice (12) opera house.

Alternatively, walk the half-mile length of the Giudecca waterfront from Le Zitelle (13) all the way up to the Molino Stucky (8). This is the Venice of ordinary locals, and if you're lucky, then about halfway along you might catch a meeting in full cry in the office of the local Communist party. The Alla Palanca café next door is recommended.

Window shopping

Immediately to the west of St Mark's (3) is where you'll find designer shops such as Valentino and Fendi. For food head for the Rialto market (14), full of life and colour, and great if you're renting an apartment and want to eat in. It's held every day except Sundays. Mask shops are everywhere in Venice, but a good one is Ca'Macana Venezia (15) (00 39 041 277 6142; camacana.com ), which proudly declares that it provided masks for the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.

Lunch on the run

The Caffè dei Frari (16) (00 39 041 524 1877) in the San Polo district is a typically lively Venetian café, on two floors, offering tasty fare such as stuffed aubergines for €8 and 50cl of house white for €5. It opens 8am-8pm daily except Sundays and is right opposite the magnificent Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church, which is a good starting point for a...

Cultural afternoon

The Frari (17), as the church is generally referred to, is a 14th-century masterpiece in the Italian Gothic style. Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, it contains, above the altar, a huge painting of the Assumption by Titian – one of the greatest works of art that Venice has to offer. For a different kind of artistic experience, walk on to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (1) for a taste of some 20th-century masters – Picasso, Braque, Miró et al – and an extraordinary room full of Jackson Pollocks.

An aperitif

Cicchetti are a Venetian version of tapas, washed down by a glass of wine known as an ombra ("shadow"). A great place to sample these delights is the bar that is reputedly Venice's oldest, the Cantina do Mori (18) (00 39 041 522 5401), close to the Rialto market with entrances on Calle Galeazza and Calle do Mori. The whole place – dark and mysterious – reeks of history, but then it has been going since 1462. There's no seating, but just consider that another indicator of authenticity.

Dining with the locals

On the edge of the relatively untouristy Castello district, but still only a 10-minute walk from St Mark's, you'll find the Al Mascaron Osteria (19) (00 39 041 522 5995), where Venetians might very well outnumber visitors. It's a proper neighbourhood restaurant, not flash, very welcoming, and genuine in every way. Fish dominates the menu, and two people can eat and drink well for €80 or so. A similar experience is on offer on the Giudecca at L'Altanella (20) (00 39 041 522 7780), which is in Calle delle Erbe and has an attractive terrace overlooking a canal.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Hop on to water bus 2 at San Zaccaria, right outside the Danieli (7), and cross the Giudecca Canal to the monastic island of San Giorgio Maggiore (21) (00 39 041 522 7827), which is dominated by its 16th-century church. There's a restrained beauty and an airiness about this church that takes some beating. Sunday Mass is at 11am. The campanile can be accessed by lift and affords fabulous views in all directions. It's open 10am-12.30pm and 2.30-5.30pm daily, admission €3.

Out to Brunch

The "Deux Magots of Venice" is the Caffè Florian (00 39 041 520 5641; caffeflorian.com ) in St Mark's (3) and go there if you must. But why spend €8.50 on a Florian cappuccino when for just €1.30 you can have the same thing in the rather more authentic surrounds of, say, the Pasticceria Targa (22) in Rughetta del Ravano, accompanied by a delicious pastry?

Write a postcard

If you can't stay in the Danieli (7), at least try the cocktail lounge to the side of its opulent, triple-height lobby – all marble and huge antique rugs. Just the kind of palazzo atmosphere that a postcard-writer would wish for.

Take a ride

Vaporetti numbers 1 and 2 offer the best views of the opulent palazzi lining the entire Grand Canal. And quite a fun thing to do is to take one from San Zaccaria, just beside the Danieli (7) that goes up the Giudecca Canal and round the grittier end of Venice – the freight depots and marshalling yards. Then back into the city via the top of the Grand Canal, where you go under the Ponte della Costituzione (23), completed only in 2008.

The icing on the cake

The Fondazione Querini Stampalia (24) is a museum, art gallery and library in the Castello district, just next to the church of Santa Maria Formosa (00 39 41 271 1411; querinistampalia.it ). Included in the €8 price of entry is the chance to attend a short chamber concert in a second-floor drawing room, at either 5pm or 7pm on Fridays and Saturdays. For half an hour you are imbued with the true Venetian spirit and reminded that the city's great flowering was as much musical as artistic.

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