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Why go now?
Venice bursts into a riot of sound and colour this week, as masked Venetians take to the streets for the city's annual carnival (until 21 February; carnevale.venezia.it). With less tourist traffic than you'll find during the warmer months, the Serene Republic is also the ideal destination for a romantic break.
Marco Polo airport is on the mainland about 12km north of Venice. I travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com), which flies daily from Gatwick and Heathrow and also offers packages, for example £375 per person for two nights at the Palazzina Grassi (1).
Marco Polo is also served by easyJet (0905 821 9000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Bmibaby (0905 828 2828; bmibaby. com) from East Midlands. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from East Midlands, Leeds/ Bradford, Stansted and Bristol to Treviso, with a bus link to Venice.
Bus 5 leaves Marco Polo airport every 15 minutes during peak hours (30 minutes off peak) and terminates at the bus station at Piazzale Roma (2). The journey takes 20 minutes; singles €5. A taxi is about €40 for a 15-minute trip. If you'd rather travel by boat, the Alilaguna ferry (00 39 041 240 1701; alilaguna.it) costs €15 single or €25 return. The two lines, Linea Arancio and Linea Blu, each leave from the airport every 30 minutes and take about 75 minutes to reach the landing stage at San Marco (3). The Linea Arancio also stops at Rialto (4) and several other inner city stops en route. A water taxi takes around 15 minutes and costs about €100.
Get your bearings
Venice is an archipelago, but if you're here for a only few days you'll easily find enough to do in the historic city (centro storico), which is crammed on to a compact island in the middle of the lagoon. The island is bisected by the Grand Canal and divided into six municipal districts, or sestieri. San Marco is the heart of town, with the most famous sights – and the most sightseers. It's also the location of the tourist office (5) (00 39 041 529 8711; turismo-venezia.it) at 71 San Marco (open daily 9am to 3.30pm).
To escape the crowds, cross the Grand Canal at Ponte dell' Accademia (6) and wander through Dorsoduro, San Polo and Santa Croce – three enclaves with more indigenous street life and just as much to see.
Concealed in a side street behind the Palazzo Grassi art gallery, Palazzina Grassi (1) at Calle Grassi 3247 (00 39 041 528 4644; palazzinagrassi.it) feels more like a private members' club than a hotel – no wonder Johnny Depp holed up here while shooting The Tourist. The chic décor is by Philippe Starck but the architecture is 16th-century. Doubles from €320, room only.
The Ruzzini Palace (7) at Castello 5866 (00 39 041 241 0447; ruzzinipalace.com) is a handsome hotel housed in a splendidly restored Renaissance palazzo, overlooking Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of Venice's prettiest squares. The interior design is a striking blend of classic and contemporary. Doubles from €280, B&B.
The Santa Marina (8) at Castello 6068 (00 39 041 523 9202; hotelsantamarina.it) is a homely four-star in an old convent on the picturesque Campo Santa Marina. B&B from €70.
Take a ride
The easiest way to get around town is aboard a water bus (vaporetto). Lines 41, 42, 51 and 52 circumnavigate the island, while lines 1 and 2 chug up and down the Grand Canal. For the best view of this ancient thoroughfare, board a boat at Piazzale Roma (2) and get off at San Marco (3) (or vice versa). You can buy tickets at the tourist office (5) or at most landing stages. Single tickets cost €6.50, but a 48-hour pass can cost as little as €21 online (00 39 041 2424; actv.it).
Take a view
Break your vaporetto voyage along the Grand Canal at the Rialto (4). This beautiful bridge is (and always has been) the centre point of the city. On the left bank is the mercantile city of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, with its atmospheric street market (9). On the right bank is the stately Venice of Othello, with the Piazza San Marco (10) at its hub.
Lunch on the run
It can be hard to find a restaurant in the city centre that isn't overrun with tourists, but at the cosy little Trattoria Ca' D'oro Alla Vedova (11), Calle del Pistor (00 39 041 528 5324), locals still outnumber sightseers. A plate of antipasti costs €6 and a main pasta dish costs €10. Desserts are €5. Try the spaghetti alle vongole followed by a glass of sweet white wine and biscotti.
If you're really rushed, bolt down a delicious polpetti (homemade meatball) at the bar, washed down with a glass of good house red for €2. It opens noon-2.30pm and 6.30-10.30pm. Closed Sunday lunchtime and all day Tuesday.
The Trattoria Ca' D'oro Alla Vedova (11) is just off Venice's main shopping street, the Strada Nova (12), but there are quirky boutiques all over town and a welcome dearth of chain stores.
Venice's speciality is fine glassware, made on the nearby island of Murano. An especially good place to browse is Vecchia Murano (13) at Castello 4392 (00 39 041 271 8410; vecchiamurano.it) where you can spend thousands... or buy a pretty pair of glass earrings for €10.
Most foreigners flock to the bars and cafés around the Piazza San Marco (10). For a cheaper drink in more authentic surroundings head for Café Noir (14) on the Crosera San Pantalon in Dorsoduro (00 39 041 710 925). As the name suggests, the decor is dark, but there's nothing gloomy about the atmosphere. A young arty crowd lends this nightspot a lively, cosmopolitan air. A Bellini here (the classic Venetian cocktail – peach nectar and prosecco) costs €3.50, a fraction of what you'd pay in Harry's Bar (15) on Calle Vallaresso, where it was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani in the Thirties (00 39 041 528 5777; harrysbarvenezia.com).
Dining with the locals
Hidden in a quiet square beside the Santa Marina Hotel (8), L'Osteria di Santa Marina (16) at Castello 5911 (00 39 041 528 5239) is a smart, intimate restaurant decorated in timeless, traditional style – dark wooden panelling, white tablecloths, tiled floors. It's renowned for its classic Venetian dishes (black barley risotto, lemon sorbet with liquorice). The five-course tasting menu costs €80, without wine.
Sunday morning: Go to church
The Basilica di San Marco (17) on Piazza San Marco (10) (00 39 041 270 8311; basilicasanmarco.it) is a spectacular relic of Venice's medieval links with the Orient. Throughout the Middle Ages, much of the city's trade was with Constantinople (Istanbul) and the cathedral's lavish interior feels more Orthodox than Catholic.
Early morning mass is the best way to experience its Byzantine splendour. A multilingual mass is held at 10.30am. Otherwise, the cathedral is open 2-4pm Sunday (9.45am-5pm Monday to Saturday; free).
Out to brunch
Venetians don't really do brunch, but the next best thing is cicchetti. A good spot to sample these tasty bar snacks is Aciugheta (18), a sleek restaurant on Campo Santissimi Filippo e Giacomo (00 39 041 5224292; aciugheta-hotelrio.it). A rich cross-section of finger food (from fried sardines to polenta) costs €17. Just a short walk from the Basilica di San Marco (17), this place is popular with sightseers, but it's not a tourist trap. You're just as likely to see a group of gondoliers at the next table.
Take a hike
From the Basilica di San Marco (17) walk east along the seafront, down the Riva degli Schiavoni, Riva di Ca di Dio and Riva dei Sette Martiri. Despite the varying street names it's all the same stretch of promenade, so (unlike virtually everywhere else in Venice) you won't get lost along the way. Carry on along Viale dei Giardini Pubblici and Viale Vittorio Veneto to the Santa Elena (19) landing stage. From here you can retrace your steps back to San Marco (3).
A walk in the park
Built on water, Venice is inevitably a bit short of parkland. The best it has to offer is the Giardini Pubblici (20). Created by Napoleon when he conquered the city, it's perfectly pleasant, in a modest, unassuming sort of way – but the best thing about it is the view across the water of Giudecca and the smaller islands in the lagoon.
Returning to the Piazza San Marco (10), the Palazzo Ducale (00 39 041 271 5911; visitmuve.it) presents a fascinating picture of Venice at its most flamboyant. For more than 1,000 years it was the residence of the Doges, the elected dukes who ruled this city state from the 8th to the 18th century. There are sumptuous paintings by Venetian masters such as Titian and Tintoretto, but the most striking thing about this building is its sense of omnipotence. Open 8.30am-5.30pm daily, €16.
Admission also includes entry to the adjoining Museo Correr (00 39 041 240 5211; visitmuve.it), which tells the history of the city through fine art and ancient artefacts. Open 10am-5pm daily.
Icing on the cake
If you're visiting the Palazzo Ducale (10), for another €4, you could buy a Museums Pass (€20), which covers admission to 10 attractions (museicivici veneziani.it). Even if you visit only one or two, it's still a bargain.
Pick of the bunch are Ca'Rezzonico (21), with its predominantly 18th-century works at Santa Croce 2076 (00 39 041 241 0100; visitmuve.it) and Ca'Pesaro (22), with 19th-and early 20th-century art (00 39 041 524 0695; visitmuve.it). Both are open daily 10am-5pm. What's really special about both collections are the magnificent palazzi that contain them. Wandering through their marble corridors you get a vivid sense of how wonderful it must have been to be a rich Venetian during the Renaissance, with a lifestyle that today's tourists can only dream of.