The gondola epitomises Venice, but avoid the temptation of going on an impossibly expensive journey around the canals with a gondolier who looks like an extra from a stage set. Instead, use the gondola as the locals do, as a ferry across the Grand Canal for literally a few pence. Don’t sit down, stand up like the locals do.
The Grand Canal
For peace and tranquillity, visit the islands. There are 118 in the archipelago, but many are flat islets in the lagoon. Take the vaporetto to Torcello, the original settlement that was Venice. This now largely abandoned island was once home to 20 000 people, but now only a handful lives here after decimation by invaders, plague and the gradual silting up of canals into marshes.
To walk the path from the vaporetto landing stage across the ancient bridge with no parapet, the Ponte del Diavolo, is to feel the melancholia of this abandoned place. The original cathedral from the 11th century has a bare simplicity not usual in Venetian churches, but is a place of great calm. This peaceful island has paths along ancient silted-up canals that peter out in grassy fields and thick undergrowth, where the only sounds are that of birdsong and whispering reeds.
In contrast, the island of Burano, once famous for its lace making, is a scaled down version of Venice with small canals, and brightly coloured houses. Keep the church campanile in sight and it is impossible to get lost here, so wander at will and enjoy the sights of fishing vessels moored outside the houses.
The island of Murano, famous for its glass making has organised tours around the factories even to the extent of free rides out to the island, but beware the hard sell. Instead, go on your tourist ticket on the No 52 Vaporetto and enjoy the island without buying what you don’t need and don’t want.
If you care about the Venetian cityscape at all, you really ought to visit the city's churches. They are a showcase for Venice's unique architectural and artistic heritage and a good way of getting close to it without the mad crush of the Accademia, the Guggenheim or San Marco.
The only problem is that the churches sometimes want you to cross their palms with a little silver. So unless you want to disguise yourself as a nun, it's worth investing in a Chorus Pass. It costs about a fiver, is valid for a year, saves you the effort of finding a lot of change and gets you into around 16 of the city's best ecclesiastical monuments. My personal favourites: Madonna dell'Orto, Santo Stefano and the Frari which is full of masterpieces. Knockout stuff.
If you find the time head for Torcello cathedral. It's got to be one of the most sublime buildings in the lagoon. See if you can make friends with the local cats.
You can buy the Chorus pass at any of the participating churches
Take a map with you (a detailed map) but forget about it until the moment you decide you should be turning towards home - wander the streets (preferably at dusk) - explore the non-tourist areas (which are many and you'll find that, contrary to myth, Venice isn't always crowded and noisy) by 'feeling' your way.
If you want to be a little more organised then some great places to get lost are the surrounding streets of the Frari Basilica or the area behind the Cà d'Oro (fabulous museum) near the casino and leading out towards the church of the 'Madonna dell'Orto (literally the madonna of the vegtable garden - apparently her Brussel sprouts were second to none) where there is, as with many small chuches, a breathtaking collection of artworks. But the important thing in all this is the washing lines, the balconies, the kids playing football and the women in their curlers in the grocers, the tiny bars and bakery shops.
Oh, and one more tip, in Venice look upwards. And one more: for lunch look for places to eat that are full of workmen - they'll be the most economical and there you'll find the best food.
Don't go to the Doge's Palace, the Correr Museum, St Mark's Cathedral, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or any other place purporting to be any kind of cultural establishment especially the Accademia. If you want culture go to the Biennale or the Film Festival.
Equally, don't bother with Harry's Bar, the Cipriani, the Lido, the Giudecca or Burano.
There is, however, one island I went to years ago. It is a tiny monastery and has a fantastic library with real Egyptian mummies in it. It's called San Lazzaro.
Go to the glass factory in Murano. Get off the vaporetto turn right, head along the canal over the first bridge and double back. You get a free tour and load of hard sell. It's a good morning's entertainment disappointing the salesman of uniformly hideous glass. Then it’s back across the bridge to the nearby bar for a freshener.
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