Venice

To say that Venice can get awfully crowded with tourists much of the time is to state the bleeding obvious: Most afternoons the crowds will drive you nuts. Kids crashing into your legs, people bumping and jostling you in crowded passageways next to the ubiquitous canals, some inadvertent obstructionist ALWAYS in your photo when you do not require their presence. What’s a visitor to do?

The answer is to choose wisely when it comes to when and where you go in this unique people magnet. Here are some tips:

1. Yes, you can visit Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), one of the most famous squares in the world, surrounded by historic buildings, cafes, and the impressive Campanile tower. Just get up early and beat the crowds. We enjoyed an early breakfast and arrived at just past 8 am on a warm October day. A note of warning: The cafes right on the square will happily charge you A$15 for a cup of coffee simply for the view. Eat and drink elsewhere.

2. The same goes for nearby Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, once the residence of the Doge of Venice and now a museum showcasing Venetian history and art. Go early or late and while you will not have the place to yourself, you’ll have a much more serene experience wandering amongst the exhibits and ornate palace rooms decorated with vintage portraits of Doges past.

One exhibit that stayed with me for years was a false book with pages carved out to make room for a tiny derringer. Tools of the assassins’ trade.

3. Seek out the lessen-known sectors of the city for a more realistic look at the lives of the dwindling number of actual Venetians. Cannaregio is in the city’s northwest and contains more than its share of canal views, local restaurants serving superb fish caught out in the lagoon that morning, and handicrafts where the items for sale were decidedly NOT made in China.

We stayed at a lovely (and reasonably-priced manor in Arsenale on the island’s eastern fringe. The manor offered spacious and comfortable rooms just off a large common room with a super-comfy couch. The district is well serviced by water taxis and felt quite safe to wander about at night.

4. Dorsoduro is a quiet neighbourhood of small squares and narrow alleys. Campo Santa Margherita is at the centre of Dorsoduro and is renown for its market stalls in the morning and nearby chapels like Santa Maria dei Carmini and San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, two of the most charming and superbly decorated Catholic sites in Italy.

5. Carnival, held annually before Lent, is famous for its elaborate masks and costumes, attracting visitors from around the world to its vibrant parades and festivities.

But we discovered that a delightful number of folks here dress up pretty much anytime and wander about just for their own pleasure. Do yourself a favour and plan for at least one day of people watching, interspersed with moments to take in the crumbling details of this lagoon city build entirely on the sea.

6. Most visitors make a boat ride over the lagoon to the island of Murano, famous for its glass-making tradition, with artisans producing intricate glassware and art pieces that have been a hallmark of Venetian craftsmanship for centuries.

We quite literally ran out of time for this excursion but did manage an afternoon on Burano.

Good choice: Here is a world of vividly-coloured homes alongside tiny canals, trattorias serving delicious fresh fish, and small shops selling local lace.

You must enjoy a concert or two while you are here. All over town you can buy tickets for the Vivaldi concerts held on Mondays and Thursday nights at La Pieta, an elegant church where Antonio Vivaldi himself directed musical groups from 1703 to 1740. Naturally, the night we went along, The Four Seasons was on the program, along with some lesser-known Vivaldi works. It was a packed church full of classically smitten enthusiasts the night we attended. To my ears, the standard of play was first-rate and the musicians (who must have played this work myriad times) seemed to be having a good time performing it once again.

7 If it is ABSOLUTELY necessary to have a gondola ride, then go ahead. It’ll cost you, though. Latest prices are €90 for a 30-minute ride during the day and €110 for a 35-minute ride after 7pm. (This price accommodates groups of up to five passengers, so if you meet some other folk who will share, the price per person drops dramatically for the 30-minute ride. The charge will be much more if you go at sunset (the best time) or if you want your gondolier to sing. We avoided the temptation to perform this most touristy of Venetian rites, opting instead for lots of cheap rides on the ever-present vaporetto.