Venice in winter is utterly magical – my first visit was in February 40 years ago, when I arrived on Valentine's Day in thick fog with my husband, a photographer. We stayed in a small, basic pensione on one of the narrow canals, and the surrounding streets seemed deserted. Exploring the city was a bit like starring in a black-and-white thriller, the mist swirling around the vaporetti (waterbuses) as we chugged up and down the Grand Canal and out to the empty beaches on the Lido wrapped up in thick coats and scarves. We feasted on pasta, sat in deserted churches and marvelled at the exquisite proportions of St Mark's Square. Unforgettable.
Since then, I've partied big-time during the Biennale, swam fully clothed at 5am out at the Lido, swanned around the Grand Canal in water taxis from one happening in a palazzo to another. Sadly, the Biennale starts in June, the height of the tidal wave of tourists that inflicts as much damage on the city as the seasonal flooding. I loathe being jostled by tourists marching in crocodiles over the Bridge of Sighs. I hate mime artists and loud-mouthed Yanks filming everything that moves around the Doge's Palace. I can't stand penniless backpack-wearing students clogging up the Rialto Bridge. Human flotsam, the lot of them.
The winter is when the city really charms. Just before Christmas we took an early Friday morning flight and borrowed a friend's apartment on Giudecca, a wonderfully atmospheric place in winter, deserted except for residents living in the working-class neighbourhood around the boatyards. We walked through the yard and climbed the stairs of one of the warehouses to Mistra, an unpretentious restaurant with some great views south over the water.
There are few places to stay on Giudecca, apart from the swanky Hotel Cipriani. But at the other end of the island is the fantastic Molino Stucky, the largest industrial building in the city. This massive gothic warehouse – built in 1896 – has been converted into a luxury Hilton, and its location is sensational. In between there's a youth hostel on the northern quayside, a few bed and breakfast places and that's about it. Although Harry's Bar has opened a restaurant here and trendy eating places are appearing, this remains one of the least-visited and most atmospheric parts of Venice. Another terrific place to eat outside is Altanella, on the Rio del Ponte Longo.
Giudecca was a place where criminals and troublesome members of the aristocracy were exiled, then for hundreds of years it was a rural retreat, gradually becoming covered with warehouses and prisons (there are still two), as well as homes for the workers. Although many of the convents and warehouses are being converted into luxury flats, you can still walk through squares where the washing is hanging outside and everyone eats under the trees on long tables in the summer.
I love taking a morning walk from one end to the other along the quayside, stopping for lunch or a coffee. There I took a boat northwards to the Dorsoduro and the Zattere quayside, where, armed with a copy of JG Links' Venice for Pleasure, it's possible to wander through back alleys discovering churches, delicious delicatessans, traditional restaurants and wine bars all set among delightful little backwaters. There's the grim throng to endure on the Rialto Bridge, and a brief busy patch on the north bank of the Grand Canal, but then I managed to walk through backstreets right to the Fondamente Nuove on the northern edge of the city facing Murano where a 40-minute vaporetto trip goes around the Arsenale, back to St Mark's Square and on to the peaceful charms of Giudecca.
* Follow in the footsteps of great explorers and discover the world with escorted tours from the US-based National Geographic Society, which offers travellers such perks as private access to museums and travels with experts in culturally awe-inspiring locations. 0800 988 5174; national geographicjourneys.co.uk
* Watch Puccini in the new open-air theatre near his Tuscan home with the cultural tours specialist Martin Randall. This group holiday visits art and architecture sites associated with Puccini. From £1,740 pp, departing 9-23 August 2009. 020-8742 3355; martinrandall.com
* With Obama newly inaugurated there's no better time to visit America's capital. Beyond the White House, there are tens of art galleries and museums, mostly free, including the National Archives which houses the Constitution. Washington.org
* Lithuania's elegant capital takes up the mantle of European City of Culture for 2009 (along with Linz, Austria). From its Unesco-listed old town littered with grand churches to the more arsty Uzupis neighbourhood, Vilnius packs a punch. Culturelive.lt