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 10.30am. Otherwise, the cathedral is open 2-4pm Sunday (9.45am-5pm Monday to Saturday; free).
Out to brunch
Venetians don't really do brunch, but the next best thing is cicchetti. A good spot to sample these tasty bar snacks is Aciugheta, a sleek restaurant on Campo Santissimi Filippo e Giacomo. A rich cross-section of finger food (from fried sardines to polenta) costs €17.
Just a short walk from the Basilica di San Marco, this place is popular with sightseers, but it's not a tourist trap. You're just as likely to see a group of gondoliers at the next table.
Take a hike
From the Basilica di San Marco walk east along the seafront, down the Riva degli Schiavoni, Riva di Ca di Dio and Riva dei Sette Martiri. Despite the varying street names it's all the same stretch of promenade, so (unlike virtually everywhere else in Venice) you won't get lost along the way. Carry on along Viale dei Giardini Pubblici and Viale Vittorio Veneto to the Santa Elena landing stage. From here you can retrace your steps back to San Marco.
A walk in the park
Built on water, Venice is inevitably a bit short of parkland. The best it has to offer is the Giardini Pubblici.
Created by Napoleon when he conquered the city, it's perfectly pleasant, in a modest, unassuming sort of way – but the best thing about it is the view across the water of Giudecca and the smaller islands in the lagoon.
Returning to the Piazza San Marco the Palazzo Ducale (visitmuve.it) presents a fascinating picture of Venice at its most flamboyant.
For more than 1,000 years it was the residence of the Doges, the elected dukes who ruled this city state from the 8th to the 18th century.
There are sumptuous paintings by Venetian masters such as Titian and Tintoretto, but the most striking thing about this building is its sense of omnipotence. Open 8.30am-5.30pm daily, €16.
Admission also includes entry to the adjoining Museo Correr which tells the history of the city through fine art and ancient artefacts. Open 10am-5pm daily.
Icing on the cake
If you're visiting the Palazzo Ducale, for another €4, you could buy a Museums Pass (€20), which covers admission to 10 attractions (museicivici veneziani.it). Even if you visit only one or two, it's still a bargain.
Pick of the bunch are Ca'Rezzonico, with its predominantly 18th-century works at Santa Croce (visitmuve.it) and Ca'Pesaro, with 19th-and early 20th-century art (visitmuve.it). Both are open daily 10am-5pm. What's really special about both collections are the magnificent palazzi that contain them.
Wandering through their marble corridors you get a vivid sense of how wonderful it must have been to be a rich Venetian during the Renaissance, with a lifestyle that today's tourists can only dream of.