a short break in... Venice

The most beautiful city in the world is best seen when it is not drowning in tourists. Mike Gerrard waits until autumn to pay a visit

Why go there?

If you need to be told why you should go to Venice you have obviously never been. Few would dispute that it is the most beautiful city in the world. Indeed, it is so popular that there has been talk this year of limiting the numbers of visitors by issuing permits.

When to go

Venice does pong in the summer, and is even more packed than normal, so autumn and winter are great times to visit. Autumn mists linger over the canals, and in winter the air is crisp and clear. The Festa della Salute is on 21 November, when people move in a procession over the Grand Canal to the Salute church to celebrate their good health - the Salute was built in gratitude for the end of the plague years of 1630- 1631. Mid-November to mid-December is a good time for cheaper deals.

Getting there

With more than a dozen tour operators offering packages to Venice, prices are competitive - usually cheaper than you could arrange yourself. Hotels are expensive if you book direct, and they are usually full. Operators include: Citalia (tel: 0181-686 5533), Cresta (tel: 0161-927 7000), Crystal (tel: 0181-241 5040), Italiatour (tel: 0171-605 7500), Kirker (tel: 0171- 231 3333), Magic of Italy (tel: 0181-748 7575), Thomas Cook (tel: 01733 418200), Thomson (tel: 0171-200 8900), and Time Off (tel: 0990 846363).

Where to stay

Prices quoted here are per room per night, based on two sharing.

Ai do Mori, Calle Largar San Marco (tel: 0039 041 520 4817). Characterful hotel in 600-year-old building, basic but clean, and as cheap as you will get for somewhere so central. From pounds 41 (sharing facilities), pounds 55 (en suite).

Hotel Agli Alboretti, Rio Terra Sant Agnese (tel: 0039 041 523 0058). Simple, old-fashioned hotel with its own restaurant and a small courtyard. About pounds 60.

San Zulian, 534-535 San Marco (tel: 0039 041 522 5872). Well placed for sightseeing, halfway between the Piazza and the Rialto Bridge. Used by several British tour companies. About pounds 86 for a double, pounds 69 for a single.

Accademia, 2467 Santa Maria del Giglio (tel: 0039 041 521 0188). A 17th- century villa by the Grand Canal and the Accademia gallery, a short walk from the Piazza. Pricey but stylish. From pounds 103 for a double, pounds 60 for a single.

Gritti Palace, 2467 San Marco (tel: 0039 041 794611). The hotel, for those (like Woody Allen) who can afford it. Home, 475 years ago, of the Doge Andrea Gritti. All rooms pounds 368 (pounds 425 overlooking the Grand Canal).

A cheaper alternative for a longer visit is to rent an apartment by the week. Contact Venetian Apartments (tel: 0181-878 1130).

Getting around

Book your airport/hotel transfer both ways in advance. It saves a lot of hanging about and lugging suitcases through crowded back streets.

Venice's layout can be confusing for the first-time visitor. It is a city for exploring on foot, though you will get lost at first. Get a good street map, particularly as many street names are duplicated in different districts. The streets are packed so tightly, and some are so tiny, that not all appear on small maps. The most thorough map is published by the Touring Club Italiano.

The water-bus service is cheap and regular. It is not always the quickest way to get around, but it is a typically Venetian experience which will give you views you would not otherwise get. As for gondolas, leave them to the Japanese. They are expensive, and as much fun to watch from a bridge as to be in.

What to see

The Grand Canal Hard to miss, Venice's s-shaped "high street" is best seen from one of the water-buses for ever-changing views. If San Marco is the heart of Venice, then the Grand Canal is its main artery, combining function with beauty.

Piazza San Marco One of the world's great squares, which, at first sight, can take your breath away. Look some more and see the beauty of the Basilica, the Campanile, the elegant arcades, the Ducal Palace: grandeur, grace and history surround you.

Basilica di San Marco Reviled by many for being ugly, Venice's cathedral certainly mixes its styles, but the result is still a truly great cathedral. Its mosaics are incomparable. Try to see them when they are illuminated (for an hour, late morning). Another major draw is the Pala d'Oro, the golden altar screen behind the main altar. Begun in AD976, it contains more than 1,000 jewels.

The famous San Marco carved horses are in the museum upstairs, the ones on the balcony outside being replicas. It is open daily from 6.30am, but visitors are requested not to enter until 9.30am to allow time for worship. Closes at 5.30pm. Admission free, but charges for the museum and the Pala d'Oro.

Campanile di San Marco Also on the Piazza, this bell-tower, at 324ft, is the tallest building in Venice. A lift whisks you up to the top for a great view of the Piazza and the city's rooftops, but surprisingly, you cannot see a single canal from there. Admission: 5,000 lira (pounds 2).

The Doges' Palace Allow plenty of time to explore the many vast rooms of the Palazzo Ducale, just off the Piazza. And don't miss the chance to walk across the Bridge of Sighs, the route prisoners took from the Palace courts to the dungeons across the canal. Admission: L14,000.

Rialto Bridge What news on the Rialto? Well, this bridge has been one of the main crossing points on the Grand Canal for more than 400 years, linking the San Marco and San Polo districts. Venice inspires many superlatives, and here is yet another one: this is probably the loveliest bridge you will ever see.

Art Galleries The Accademia, on Campo della Carita in the Dorsoduro district, is home to the finest collection of Venetian art in the world (admission L12,000), while the Guggenheim Collection, extensive and varied, is the place for modern art (admission L10,000).

Food and drink

People will tell you that you cannot eat cheaply or well in Venice. Nonsense. Avoid the pricey places on and around the Piazza and head for the back streets for wonderful, inexpensive Italian cooking. The fresh fish is especially good. Many bars also serve meals that put our pub grub to shame.

Chat Qui Rit, Angolo Frezzeria in San Marco (tel: 522 9086). Despite a French name, this is a self-service pizzeria, serving excellent, cheap meals. The queues of locals testify to its good salads and stews, tempting desserts and fill-your-own-carafe wine. Under pounds 10.

Vini da Pinto, Campo de le Becarie (tel: 522 4599). A bar near the Rialto fish market frequented by market traders and fishmongers - what better recommendation for the freshness of the fish? Pasta cooked in squid ink is a local speciality. From pounds 10-pounds 20.

The Rivetta, by the Ponte San Provolo (tel: 528 7302). Great, lively trattoria, where you might be invited to sample some snacks while you wait for a table. Fish/pasta dishes are best. From pounds 10-pounds 20.

Trattoria da Remigio, Salizzada dei Greci, Castello (tel: 523 0089). A smart-casual place full of locals, so booking is advised at weekends. Noted for gnocchi as well as the local fish. From pounds 20-pounds 30.

Corte Sconta, Calle del Pestrin, Castello (tel: 522 7024). A good restaurant without pretensions. Booking advised and take a hearty appetite for the fresh fish. There is no menu so listen carefully when the waitress reels off the day's dishes. Around pounds 30.

Nightlife

The place that stays open the latest is the all-night chemist, as Venice's population is relatively elderly. People dine early, and late-night meals can be hard to find. There are some bars and discos, such as the Club el Souk, 1056a Accademia (tel: 520 0371), and the Acropolis at Lido di Venezia, 22 Longomare Marconi (tel: 526 0466).

Out of town

Among the other islands in the lagoon, the gem is Burano, with its brightly coloured fishermen's houses. It looks like Venice in miniature - the original Little Venice. Take the number 12 vaporetto from the stop at Fondamente Nuove, which stops at the glass-making island of Murano first, or, to go straight there on the 14 from San Zaccaria.

Deals and packages

Cresta (tel: 0161-927 7000) offers a two-night stay at the San Zulian (see above) for pounds 274 between 8 November and 23 December, with scheduled flight and breakfast. Stay four nights mid-week for pounds 339 and a fifth night is free. Kirker (tel: 0171-233 3333) offers three nights at the friendly Rialto Hotel for pounds 439 from 19 November to 31 December, including flights, breakfasts and transfers.

Further information

The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (tel: 0171-408 1254). In the city, the tourist office is near the Piazza in the Casino da Caffe, open Mon-Sat 9am-1pm and 2pm-4pm (tel: 522 6356).

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