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Venice, Italy

To enjoy the watery delights of one of Italy's most romantic cities without the tourist crowds, visit in the winter months, says Harriet O'Brien


WHY GO NOW?

Venice in winter is magnificent. If the weather is bright and cloudless, as it was last week, the light has a magical, intense quality. If it's cold and wet, you'll find acres of space in the glorious galleries and museums. At this time of year, there are barely any tourists in this beautiful city - even though the place is arguably looking its best.

TOUCH DOWN

Venice's Marco Polo airport is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Bristol, Gatwick, and Nottingham; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow. The airport is on the mainland about 11km north of the city. The tourist office in the arrivals hall is open daily 9.30am-7.30pm. Buses connect with Venice's Piazzale Roma (1): the ATVO direct service costs €3 (£2.15) and takes about 20 minutes; the ACTV stopping service costs €2 (£1.40) and takes half an hour. You can also make a water connection: the Alilaguna fast ferry costs €12 (£8.50) and departs every hour for an hour's journey to the ferry stop for Piazza San Marco (2) via Lido. Alternatively, private water taxis can be hired for around €80 (£57). Treviso airport, 35km north of Venice, is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Liverpool and Stansted. Flights connect with an ATVO Eurobus service to Venice's Piazzale Roma (1): the journey takes an hour and costs €5 (£3.60).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city is divided into six districts. San Marco, in the middle, is the biggest magnet for visitors and contains the leading sights, as well as the greatest number of hotels and restaurants. San Polo, immediately to the west, is the old commercial centre and is home to the Rialto markets. West again are the tiny and less trodden streets of Santa Croce; north is Cannaregio, where the old Jewish ghetto is set. South is Dorsoduro with the city's major art collections. To the east is Castello with some fine churches and palaces. The most central tourist offices (00 39 041 529 8711; www.turismovenezia.it) are at Piazza San Marco 71/F (3), which is open daily 9am-3.30pm; and in the Venice Pavilion just off the Royal Gardens (4), open daily 10am-6pm. At either office, you can pick up a tourist map of Venice for €2.50 (£1.80).

CHECK IN

For exclusivity and atmosphere, book into the Hotel Gritti Palace (5), right on the Grand Canal west of Piazza San Marco at Campo Santa Maria del Giglio (00 39 041 794611; www.hotelgrittivenice.com); doubles from €430 (£307) including breakfast). This 16th-century palace became a glittering hotel in 1948 and has hosted celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway and Greta Garbo. The 82 opulent bedrooms creak with antiques and wooden ceilings - although only a few offer Grand Canal views. However, you can also stay in style nearby at half the price.

Just off Piazza San Marco at Calle dei Fabbri 4680 stands the Palace Bonvecchiati (6) (00 39 041 296 3111; www.llhotels.com), a sleek boutique hotel that opened in 2004. Doubles from €190 (£100) including breakfast. As well as 70 contemporary-chic bedrooms with black marble bathrooms, the hotel offers a "wellness" centre with Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room. Further south, in the Dorsoduro district, an excellent budget option is Pensione La Calcina (7) on Fondamenta Zattere ai Gesuati (00 39 041 520 6466; www.lacalcina.com); doubles from €99 (£70). It was at this delightfully old-fashioned 29-room inn that John Ruskin wrote at least part of The Stones of Venice.

TAKE A VIEW

The tallest building in Venice is the Campanile (8), standing 98.5m high on Piazza San Marco. You can go to the top daily 9.30am-4.15pm for €6 (£4.30). At this time of year you'll get instant access to the lift that whisks you up to the viewing platform.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Get into the festive spirit atCampo Santo Stefano (9) with its Christmas market. The Alpine stalls sell specialist foods from across Italy, wooden crafts and decorations.

TAKE A HIKE

Meander down to the Ponte dell'Accademia (10) to begin a walk in an area popular with locals for a passeggiata. Cross the bridge and turn left at the Accademia (11) and then right down the side of the gallery until you reach the waterfront, with Santa Maria del Rosario ai Gesuati (12) on the corner; open 10am-5pm daily except Sunday, €2.50 (£1.80). This fine building by Giorgio Massari contains works by Tintoretto and Giambattista Tiepolo. Turn right along the Zattere, a busy quay with wonderful views across to Guidecca island. Turn right again down Rio Trovaso (don't cross over the canal) and, as you walk along the canalside, look left to see the little shipyard of Squero San Trovaso (13) where gondolas are repaired and built. Cross over the Ponte San Trovaso and turn left past San Trovaso church (14), which opens 8-11am and 3-6pm daily, admission free, and houses paintings by Tintoretto. Continue over the next bridge and back down to the Zattere where you turn right. Take the next turning right up Calle Trevisan over Rio Ognissanti and up Fondamenta di Borgo. Turn right and then right again into Calle Toletta, cross Rio Trovaso and return to the Ponte dell'Accademia (10) along Calle Corfu.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Two of the city's most atmospheric baracos (traditional bars) are just north of the markets by the Rialto bridge. In the narrow street of Calle do Mori (15), behind the church of San Giovanni Elemosinario, choose between the Do Mori bar and All-Arco Calle dell'Occhiale where the cicheti, or bar snacks, include veal liver, and ricotta and ham rolls.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Palazzo Ducale - the Doge's Palace (16) - gives an intriguing insight into the workings and wealth of the Venetian Republic, particularly if you take a 90-minute Secret Itinerary tour of rooms not usually open to the public. It opens 9am-5pm daily. The admission fee of €12 (£8.60) also gives access to all the museums in Piazza San Marco; or €13 (£9.30) for a Secret Itinerary tour for the palace only, to be booked at the ticket office the day before. The Accademia (11) (00 39 041 520 0345; www.gallerieaccademia.org) houses an amazing collection spanning five centuries of Venetian art. Among the star attractions are Giorgione's The Tempest, a Pieta by Titian and Paolo Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi. It opens 8.15am-7.15pm Tuesday-Sunday and 8.15am-2pm Monday, €6.50 (£4.60). Further south down the Grand Canal is a superb display of modern art. During the 1950s, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (17) was home to the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim, who opened her art collection to the public. After her death the palace became a museum showing her works by Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky and Max Ernst (to whom she was married). It opens 10am-6pm daily except Tuesday, €10 (£7) (00 39 041 240 5411; www.guggenheim-venice.it).

AN APERITIF

Step into the wonderfully panelled and frescoed Caffe Florian (18) on Piazza San Marco. Order a spritz - a traditional Venetian aperitif of white wine with soda and a shot of Campari - and relish the atmosphere of Proust's and Byron's former haunt. To avoid spending a small fortune here, don't sit at a table but stand at the bar.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

The Agli Alboretti restaurant (19), at Rio Terra Foscarini 884, (00 39 041 5230058; www.aglialboretti.com) - once a favourite of Peggy Guggenheim - was reinvigorated this year with the arrival of new chef, Pierluigi Lovisa. He serves dreamy, innovative dishes such as carpaccio of John Dory scented with liquorice (€16/£11) and swordfish and scallops sprinkled with ginger (€26/£19).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Two outstanding churches in the Castello district offer Sunday mass at 10am. In a quiet residential area to the north is the huge San Francesco della Vigna (20) (also open to visitors 8am-noon and 3-7pm from Monday to Saturday, admission free) - it was once surrounded by vineyards, hence the name. The striking façade is by Palladio, while inside are works by Paolo Veronese. But best of all is a stunning Virgin and Child by Giovanni Bellini in a chapel off the cloisters. Further south, the pretty exterior of San Zaccaria (21) (also open Mon-Sat 10am-noon and 4-6pm, admission free) is currently under repair, but the interior remains unaffected. Walking into the church is like entering an art gallery: the walls are coated with works by Bissoni, Pellegrini, Tintoretto, Veronese and more. Once again, the star of the show is a Bellini Virgin and Child.

OUT TO BRUNCH

At the charming Campo dell'Angelo Raffaele (22) is an unpretentious trattoria housing an outlet of the small and excellent Pane Vino e San Daniele chain (00 39 041 5237456; www.panevinoe.it), which specialises in cuisine from the Friuli region. On any day, except Wednesday, you can linger over the likes of tortelloni di zucca - pumpkin or butternut squash - or a plate of San Daniele ham washed down with a glass of fine Friuli wine.

TAKE A RIDE

See the most glorious of Venice's palace façades from the Grand Canal aboard a vaporetto, the local waterbus. An hour's ride costs €5 (£3.60). Vaporettos 1 and 82 run between the railway station at one end of the canal and Santa Maria della Salute at the other.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Stand on the Rialto bridge and gaze southwards. With the view of palace façades and boats and bustling gondolas, coupled with the effect of light refracted from the water, it is like a living Canaletto painting.

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