Bascilica in St Marks Square
Winged Lion of St Marks the symbol of Venice
Art inside a church
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This fairy tale island is best explored by straying off the beaten path

Venice is a living, breathing fairy tale. A caught-in-time realm like no other on the planet.

We recently rented a flat in the San Polo quarter and made believe we were locals in this still incredibly magical city.

As we meandered from quarter to quarter (often getting hopelessly lost even with our map), we continued to be mesmerized by its incredible wealth of attributes. Its plethora of mind-blowing art (stunning examples of paintings by native sons Tintoretto, Titian, Tiepolo and Canaletto paper the church walls and fill the museums); the hypnotic strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Pachelbel’s Canon are in the air (Venetians, both); its architecturally magnificent churches (164), its awesome palazzos and museums (87) and its ancient, Moorish-inspired façades fronting both sides of the Grand Canal have no equal.

We planned to visit the major sights during their off-hours, substituted crowded and pricey vaporetti [Venice’s water bus system] for our own two feet, took the less travelled side streets, ventured into the far ends of the districts and automatically saw more, felt like we belonged and avoided long lines and the sellers of fridge magnets in the shape of gondolas.

If you decide to brave the throngs and come for a few days or a couple of weeks, your choice of lodgings is varied in all categories (location, price, and type), running the gamut from bed and breakfasts, rental apartments and rooms in cosy converted palaces to incredibly palatial hotels of legendary reputations.

Before you come, pick up a pocket-sized guide by Lonely Planet or DK for lists of accommodations. Or Google to find photos, locations, prices, and reviews of all on offer, some in lovely quiet side streets, others right on the canal, for as little as 85 euros a night.

Our rental flat was near the Rialto fruit and vegetable market and about fifty meters from the ancient and beautiful Campo de Pesceria, or fish market.

After two weeks spent ambling all over the six quarters (San Marco, San Polo, San Croce, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro and Castello) and racking up thousands of steps daily on our Fitbits, we were glad to have selected our colourful and lively spot. We had our pick of fresh produce every day as well as fresh fish and seafood. One night I made a fabulous Zuppa de Pesce (a lagoon-to-table meal) with every single ingredient sourced from this wonderful fresh market.

Speaking of dinner, while Venice never was known for its wonderful way with pasta (as are Tuscany, Milan, Friuli and Rome), times have certainly changed. Simply steer clear of the obviously touristy eateries, and you will be hard-pressed to not have an exceptionally good meal.

We missed the Biennale (odd-numbered years only) but were lucky to be in town for the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish ghetto. (Ghetto is an Italian word for part of the procedure used in the bronze casting process in the foundry that was previously located there.)

Aside from the 650 or so bridges spanning the canals, there are four major bridges in Venice. They are, the one that spans from St Marks to the Accademia (in the Dorsoduro); the Rialto Bridge with its wall-to-wall shops; the new, quite modern Calatrava Bridge that appears to glow at night (not appreciated by many Venetians); and the always busy one leading to the railway station. And aside from hundreds of smaller ones, we are proud to say we climbed their steps and crossed them all.

Over at the sprawling Accademia, you can wander through a staggering twenty-four fabulous art-filled rooms, the contents of which was “gathered” by greedy art-loving Napoleon throughout Italy in his heyday. This magnificent treasure trove, formerly stored in huge warehouses, is happily on permanent display for all to see and enjoy.

A few minutes stroll and you will find yourself at the legendary Peggy Guggenheim’s marvellous art collection, where you can cast your eyes on the best of Picasso, Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Calder, Dali and Man Ray among others of the modernist period. We lunched at its lovely outdoor cafe and shopped at its creatively stocked gift shop.

We knew about the fire at the exquisite opera house, La Fenice, and were eager to see the newly refurbished jewel box of a theatre. Luckily, we were invited to sit in a box at a dress rehearsal of a Commedia dell’arte Rossini opera. What a coup.

Since we were just a few minutes’ walk away, we stopped in at the Fortuny Museum (our first visit) and were astounded and impressed at the breadth and scope of Mariano Fortuny’s eclectic range of talents, tastes, creativity, and possessions. We urge you set aside ample time to cover these four floors of mostly art nouveau era and Bohemian-inspired fabrics, fashions, furniture, chandeliers, lampshades, cushions, sculptures, paintings, and all sorts of fascinating memorabilia, with a view over the city an added plus. The Fortuny is not to be missed.

One evening at dusk, seated at a canal-side table sipping the customary red-hued aperitif of Aperol and soda water (an Aperol spritz), I mentioned one thing that made this city so different from all others – it was the unusual sounds and lack thereof. You could hear birds cooing, an occasional vocal gondolier serenading his smiling passengers, and the gentle sound of water softly lapping on the sides of the canal. But no noisy motorcycles, no cars, no vehicles of any kind. And no chattering day-trippers. Just us locals enjoying the sunset in the peaceful quiet of a typical Venetian evening.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran