Venice bursts into a riot of sound and colour, as masked Venetians take to the streets for the city's annual carnival (until 21 February; carnevale.venezia.it). With less tourist traffic than you'll find during the warmer months, the Serene Republic is also the ideal destination for a romantic break.
Venice is an archipelago, but if you're here for a only few days you'll easily find enough to do in the historic city (centro storico), which is crammed on to a compact island in the middle of the lagoon.
The island is bisected by the Grand Canal and divided into six municipal districts, or sestieri. San Marco is the heart of town, with the most famous sights – and the most sightseers. It's also the location of the tourist office at 71 San Marco (open daily 9am to 3.30pm).
To escape the crowds, cross the Grand Canal at Ponte dell' Accademia and wander through Dorsoduro, San Polo and Santa Croce – three enclaves with more indigenous street life and just as much to see.
Take a view
Break your vaporetto voyage along the Grand Canal at the Rialto. This beautiful bridge is (and always has been) the centre point of the city. On the left bank is the mercantile city of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, with its atmospheric street market. On the right bank is the stately Venice of Othello, with the Piazza San Marco at its hub.
Lunch on the run
It can be hard to find a restaurant in the city centre that isn't overrun with tourists, but at the cosy little Trattoria Ca' D'oro Alla Vedova, Calle del Pistor, locals still outnumber sightseers. A plate of antipasti costs €6 and a main pasta dish costs €10. Desserts are €5. Try the spaghetti alle vongole followed by a glass of sweet white wine and biscotti.
If you're really rushed, bolt down a delicious polpetti (homemade meatball) at the bar. It opens noon-2.30pm and 6.30-10.30pm. Closed Sunday lunchtime and all day Tuesday.
The Trattoria Ca' D'oro Alla Vedova is just off Venice's main shopping street, the Strada Nova, but there are quirky boutiques all over town and a welcome dearth of chain stores.
Venice's speciality is fine glassware, made on the nearby island of Murano. An especially good place to browse is Vecchia Murano at Castello where you can spend thousands... or buy a pretty pair of glass earrings for €10.
Most foreigners flock to the bars and cafés around the Piazza San Marco. For a cheaper drink in more authentic surroundings head for Café Noir on the Crosera San Pantalon in Dorsoduro. As the name suggests, the decor is dark, but there's nothing gloomy about the atmosphere. A young arty crowd lends this nightspot a lively, cosmopolitan air. A Bellini here (the classic Venetian cocktail – peach nectar and prosecco) costs €3.50, a fraction of what you'd pay in Harry's Bar on Calle Vallaresso, where it was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani in the Thirties (harrysbarvenezia.com).
Dining with the locals
Hidden in a quiet square beside the Santa Marina Hotel, L'Osteria di Santa Marina at Castello is a smart, intimate restaurant decorated in timeless, traditional style – dark wooden panelling, white tablecloths, tiled floors. It's renowned for its classic Venetian dishes (black barley risotto, lemon sorbet with liquorice). The five-course tasting menu costs €80, without wine.
Go to church
The Basilica di San Marco on Piazza San Marco (basilicasanmarco.it) is a spectacular relic of Venice's medieval links with the Orient. Throughout the Middle Ages, much of the city's trade was with Constantinople (Istanbul) and the cathedral's lavish interior feels more Orthodox than Catholic.
Early morning mass is the best way to experience its Byzantine splendour. A multilingual mass is held at 10