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Venice is one of those rare destinations where almost every first time visitor has strong preconceptions about how it will look and feel. Although the miraculous first glimpse of this beautiful wonder on the water matches everybody’s dream of Venice, it’s a vibrant, living city with surprises around every corner too.

The first revelation is that Venice, charming though its iconic gondolas and vistas are, is not all about the water. It’s a treasure trove of historic architecture and gaudy, palatial residences and churches.

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View over San Giorgio from Ca’ Salvioni.

The attractions of Venice guarantee steady visitor traffic throughout the year. It can be extremely hot and crowded in the summer months, although a shady spot offering pizza, Prosecco or paintings is never more than a few steps away. It’s best to embrace the reality that this wonder of the world of on every traveller’s wish list, and that the surges of awestruck admirers around Piazza San Marco and the Ponte dei Sospiri are part of the universal experience of this city. By contrast, Venice by night, particularly in the winter months, becomes a mysterious, incredibly evocative place to explore.

When a whole city looks like a giant film set, finding your own way around is half the fun. There are, however, a few special places that ought not to be missed. One way to get a taste of the grandeur of the Doge’s Palace while bypassing the main line is simply to pay admission to the current art exhibition. It hosted a major Manet exhibition for four months in 2013, all beautifully curated within some of the vast Palace rooms. For twentieth century culture, the Peggy Guggenheim collection has an internationally important cross-section of Modernist, Futurist and Cubist masterpieces, housed in her gleaming former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni.

Given the demand, gondoliers can pretty much charge what they like, and do so. Getting out on the water is a must, but there are constant commuter boats and vessels used by everyday citizens which provide a more cost-effective alternative.

Towards the end of winter, normally February, Carnevale is an interesting time to take small children to Venice. It’s enormously popular and not ideal with a stroller, but little ones adore the parades, masks and atmosphere. By contrast, the decadent “grown-up” balls and parties operate on the mantra “a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale”, which is essentially the Italian take on “what happens in Vegas…stays in Vegas”!

Carnevale di Venezia 2013

Justified and increasing reverence is being granted to the regional specialties within Italian cuisine, signs of an astonishing culinary diversity. The whole Veneto region is strongly associated with polenta and tiramisu. Rixi e bixi, a risotto with peas and ham, is a ubiquitous and much-loved rustic offering which has inevitably been treated to a gourmet upgrade in many smart Venetian restaurants. Venice also demonstrates notable flair in its preparation of local seafood delicacies such as molecche (soft shell crabs), sardines and cuttlefish: Osteria da Fiore in San Polo offers a Michelin-starred take.

It would be a great pity to overlook some other urban highlights of the Veneto region, because Verona and Padua are two of Italy’s loveliest cities, each an easy day trip from Venice. Verona’s ancient arena is a global must for opera lovers, and for all other lovers there is always the kitsch site of the fictional Juliet’s balcony. Romeo may be nowhere to be seen but if you’re lucky you might spot a real life marriage proposal taking place. Padua boasts the fragile, extraordinary Giotto frescoes of the carefully-guarded Cappella degli Scrovegni, a lovely old town, and both Europe’s largest piazza and its oldest botanical gardens.

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Hand made shoes in Veneto by CB Made In Italy.

Of course, back in the Venetian lagoon, there are many islands to explore too. Burano’s multi-coloured buildings and beautiful light are a gift for photographers, and the island has a strong lace-making tradition. Murano has long been synonymous with glass manufacture and still offers appealing purchases for the canny buyers. For many, though, the loveliest island is Torcello. Largely a nature reserve apart from the scenic and ancient Basilica di Santa Maria Dell’Assunta, the cathedral’s campanile, with its fabulous scenic perspective, is the perfect place to take a deep breath before hailing a vaporetto back into the heart of the city.

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Post written by Phileas French.

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