Some cities are summer belles, never lovelier than when bathed in sunshine, their streets, famous sites, beaches and parks teeming with locals and visitors. Robust Sydney, Rome, Paris and New York spring to mind. Yet Venice is a winter town, melancholy, romantic and mysterious, especially when the chill descends and fogs roll in from the marshes across the lagoon.
Fragile, doomed Venice’s pleasures are best experienced in the less-congested months from October to March, when there's room and peace to stroll and savour the art and architecture. Far better than in the northern summer, when millions of holidaymakers, most, it seems, clutching a chunk of pizza in one hand and John Berendt’s The City Of Falling Angels in the other, invade, clogging the city's delicate arteries like a terminal case of cholesterol.
Yet even as summer turns the grand old city into a theme park for half the year, mass tourism is helping to save Venice. By far its biggest source of revenue, tourism is a lifebuoy to a city literally sinking into the Adriatic. Much of the tourist dollar is channeled into schemes to restrain the inexorably rising waters. Yes, noisy hordes sporting Hawaiian shirts, baseball caps, tanktops and iPods seem shockingly incongruous in a city so steeped in the past and whose residents, among Italy's oldest and courtliest, dress up even to go to the market. Yet the consensus is that the interlopers are a small price to pay for survival and they are welcomed.
You could spend a lifetime in Venice and not scratch its crumbling surface, but on a brief visit it's possible to come to understand why it's renowned as the most beautiful city on earth. Venice is a jewel box of art and architecture both gorgeous and priceless, but the greatest treasure is the city itself, a 457sq km lagoon-bound labyrinth of 118 islands riven by 177 silvery canals and countless cortes (blind alleys) and fondamenti (streets running by canals), and linked by 400 stepped bridges. It's a place of bustling squares and shopping precincts, and of peace (there are no cars) and memories in the making: a tubby cat luxuriating on an ancient windowsill, the strains of Mahler's 5th (so chillingly used in Visconti's Death In Venice) wafting from a palazzo courtyard, or the vista from the single-span wooden Accademia Bridge down the Grand Canal to the glistening dome of Longhena's Baroque Santa Maria della Salute Church.
Venice is a city to get lost in, its intimate delights to be savoured at leisure. Nowhere else can you walk so far in a day without feeling remotely exhausted. As you explore, it's as if the sights of this exquisite city — there seems to be something wonderful around every bend — lift energy levels and spirits as high as the carved winged lions, symbols of old Venice, that preen atop the buildings.
Venice at heart is a time capsule which makes only the necessary concessions to modern life &$151; hotels, trattoria and souvenir shops. Try to ignore all that and you'll see the city almost as Lord Byron, Leonardo da Vinci and Marco Polo saw it, as you walk the passageways or ply the canals.
Get the lie of the lagoon aboard a vaporetto (water bus) or gondola (around $170 an hour, a cliché, but still worth doing) along the Grand Canal. Crammed with other ferries and gondolas, police boats, traghetti (no-frills gondolas rowed by two men that will take you across the canal for around $1.70), produce barges and private pleasure craft, Venice's "highway" snakes four kilometres through the middle of the city.
Its banks are lined with fabled palaces, once glittering with gold and freshly painted scenes by masters, but now a little tarnished by time. Look for the monumental Fondaco dei Turchi, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the Ca' d'Oro, circa 1440, which once gleamed with gold.
The majestic Rialto Bridge, built in 1588-91, spans the Grand Canal at its narrowest point. It is best viewed at a distance and from the water, for today it is covered with shops, selling cheap trinkets and, most of all, masks. There are more masks for sale in Venice than there could ever be faces to wear them, even at Carnevale in February, when they are de rigeur. There's more atmosphere at the Rialto Market, where trestles groan with vegetables, meat and seafood, scaled, gutted and cleaned before your eyes by the flying fingers of the fishmongers.
From Dame Nellie Melba to Madonna, Garbo to Grace Kelly, John F. Kennedy to F. Scott Fitzgerald, it seems more famous people have posed with the pigeons in Piazza San Marco in front of the Moorish glory of the Basilica San Marco than any other landmark. To enjoy this imposing piazza sans pigeons (which outnumber Venetians), go before the sun is on the square and the birdseed sellers have set up shop. It’s like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds to look up to the rooftops and see thousands of perching pigeons waiting to swoop down to the paving stones when the square comes to life.
The Piazza San Marco is best enjoyed over a bellini (sparkling wine with peach puree) at an open-air cafe. Beware, though, if you're there in December, when the Christmas tides bubble up through the square’s grates and in a short time immerse the square in water. That's when shopkeepers break out the duckboards, which are fun to cross — like planks in a pirate adventure — but keep to the right to avoid collisions and a soaking.
The pink and cream Doge's Palace on Piazza San Marco was home to the 120 doges who ruled Venice from 697 to 1797. Many were as cruel as they were pious. On a wall of the Gothic-style palace there remains a wonderful stone lion's head whose gaping mouth was a repository into which citizens popped printed accusations against their enemies. If the doge, who clearly didn't have enough to do, found the charge justified, he'd punish the accused, if not, the tattletale would cop it.
Many of the present-day staff at the palace, curmudgeons who only leave off chain-smoking and reading The Da Vinci Code to bark at visitors, seem to have inherited the people skills of the doges. The Gothic confection's massive halls are home to such works as Tintoretto's Paradise and Veronese's The Triumph of Venice and Rape of Europe. There's plenty here, too, for the children. In the truly scary armoury, they'll take macabre delight at the weapons — crossbows, spears, swords, guns and maces – on display. There's even a metal chastity belt, so have an answer ready when the kids ask — and they invariably will — what it is.
When you’re passing over the forlorn Bridge of Sighs, which crosses from the palace proper to its dungeons, it's easy to imagine the condemned sighing deeply as they gaze through the barred windows for a last look at sky and lagoon.
There are many art galleries, but three must-sees: the Accademia Galleries, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The art in the Accademia spans Venetian painting from Byzantine to Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo, and includes some of the finest works of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Veronese and Titian.
The Guggenheim's contemporary art collection includes works by Picasso, Leger, Magritte, Klee, Henry Moore and Jackson Pollock, and is housed in a palace on the Grand Canal. Peggy Guggenheim, an American mining heiress who made Venice her home, is buried in the back garden with her many dogs. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a shrine to Tintoretto and includes his masterpiece, The Crucifixion (1565).
Venice is generally less renowned for food than for its art. Great dining exists — carpaccio, seafood, risotto and pasta con il nero di sepia (pasta with cuttlefish in its black ink and tomato sauce) are delicacies — but you have to seek it out and pay for it. Avoid restaurants with a menu turistico at the door. This virtually guarantees gunky pizza, cardboard pasta and limp salad. Better by far to graze on delectable cakes and ice-creams from a cafe, or fruit and nuts from the Rialto Market, then go somewhere special once a day. Say, to, Da Fiore, Vini da Gigio (in the city) and Bussa Alla Torre on the island of Murano.
The best way to get from the airport to the Piazza San Marco is by private water taxi. At around $153, it's not as cheap as the sardine cans of the Alilaguna ferry line, but the whip across the water, past San Michele and the walled cemetery, as gulls wheel above, and on to the lagoon to dock amid a flotilla of bobbing black gondolas at the piazza is a justifiable luxury. When it's time to return to the airport, don't rush, brave the ferry (less than $10), which meanders from stop to stop, soaking up your last glimpses as you chug across the steely Adriatic, back to the real world.