There are few more appealing sights to wake up to than the vision of the serene San Giorgio Maggiore basking in early-morning sunshine across the Venice lagoon. From our base at the stylish waterfront Hotel Londra Palace, we were bang opposite this stunning Palladian church set on a little island at the mouth of the Grand Canal. Opening the curtains in our room, my wife and I decided to make it our first port of call.

One of the joys of this intriguing city is that you’re never far from the the main attractions and a little exploration can reveal many other treasures. The view from the top of San Giorgio’s is among them. It’s a great way to get your bearings, so we caught a vaporetto waterbus across to the church and took the lift up the bell tower.

And what a vista awaited us! Our 360-degree panorama gave us St Mark’s Square, the Basilica and Doge’s Palace in all their glory and a fine view of the canals and countless islands.

Nowhere in the world is quite like Venice. Its magnificent buildings were built on timber piles driven into a swampy lagoon and the network of tiny streets and winding canals has changed little over the centuries.

Venice has changed little over time. Photo Inghams

From the Middle Ages the city was at the heart of a great naval and trading empire and the nobility and well-heeled merchants built the grand houses, or palazzi, we see today. Some date back to the Byzantine period of the 12th and 13th centuries, with Gothic, Renaissance and ornate Baroque styles arriving later.

For the best view of these historic gems, we hopped on a No. 1 vaporetto to meander along the length of the Grand Canal. This is the main thoroughfare, buzzing with vaporetti, barges and gondolas.

gothic masterpiece

Stepping off at St Mark’s, we visited Venice’s two mustsee sights. The Doge’s Palace is a Gothic masterpiece with sumptuous decorations and lavish artworks by Tintoretto and other Italian masters.

The awe-inspiring Basilica San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica) dates back to the 11th century, its interior an extravaganza of mosaics, marble and gold. We went up the church’s adjacent bell tower for another fabulous view across St Mark’s Square below and city rooftops.

Bagging a table outside Caffe Florian in the piazza, we had a cappuccino and slice of cake and listened to the orchestra. It cost a robust 20 euros but was worth it.

The local tourist board used to advise visitors to “get lost in Venice”. We did just that, wandering around the maze of narrow streets and over canal bridges, stopping off for the odd ice cream or refreshing beer at tiny bars favoured by the locals.

It was always a pleasure to discover you had not the faintest idea where you were. We explored the quiet waterways and shopping streets of Cannaregio, in the northwest of the city, and Castello, one of the oldest parts.

At every turn we encountered a Baroque church, faded palazzo, delightful square or bar serving drinks and food at a fraction of the city-centre’s high prices.

When you’ve had your fill of the history, head for the beach. It’s easy to forget the city has its own stretch of sand, but a quick dip at Venice Lido is a great reviver after a day’s footslog.

Only 10 minutes by boat from St Mark’s, the beach isn’t the greatest but it’s a good place to relax. Afterwards, admire the grand Hotel des Bains and other Liberty-style buildings dating from when the Lido was a fashionable watering hole of European royalty.

families

Venice may not be a natural first choice destination for families, but there are attractions for youngsters apart from the beach.

Most kids find it exciting to travel everywhere on water, and feeding the pigeons in St Mark’s Square is great for a family photo. There are play areas with swings and slides in a couple of parks, such as the waterfront Giardini in the Castello area.

If your older children find Renaissance art heavy going, they might find the surrealist Magritte paintings and other modern works more fun at the Guggenheim Gallery near the Accademia Bridge. Outside there is a sculpture garden and a patio on the Grand Canal suitable for families.

If you’re shopping, look out for unique items of hand-blown Venetian glass vases, tableware and ornamental pieces from Murano and delicate lace from Burano. Silver and glass jewellery can be good value, while carnival masks are novel.

Fashionistas should head for the streets winding between Campo San Fantini and Piazza San Marco where they’ll find Gucci, Prada, Valentino and the rest. Beware, though, of street traders selling designer knock-offs. You could be hit with a huge fine for buying counterfeit goods.

Few young people can afford to live in Venice, so don’t expect a riotous nightlife. Evening entertainment revolves solely around the restaurants and bars. You can eat very well here, though the cost can be frightening if you’re not careful.

Carnival masks. Fototeca ENIT/Vito Arcomano

view

Frequented by Hemingway and countless celebs since, the legendary Harry’s Bar is famous for its Bellini cocktails – and eye-watering prices. For a touch of glamour and some of the best food in Venice try the Villa Cipriani Hotel restaurant, or the Danieli Hotel terrace
where you can enjoy a great view of the lagoon.

More easily affordable are places serving traditional Italian cuisine, such as the San Trovaso Taverna in Dorsoduro, near the Accademia Bridge, and the Serenissima, near Ca D’Oro. The modern Cavatappi wine bar in San Marco is ideal for an inexpensive simple
pasta or risotto lunch.

Alla Madonna is a favourite for its fresh fish at reasonable prices. Owned by the same family since 1954, this time-warp trattoria near the Rialto Bridge was heaving when we visited. Service was fast and friendly as we tucked into wonderful squid-ink pasta and fish platters washed down with a delicious local Veneto white wine.

A ride on one of those famous gondolas after dinner would have been the romantic thing to do. But being a tight-wad unwilling to part with 80 euros or more for a 40-minute ride, I resisted the temptation. But if you succumb, negotiate a price in advance with the gondolier and be prepared to pay extra if he bursts into song!

venice facts

when to go

Venice gets hot, humid and crowded in high summer, so the best times to visit are generally the spring and autumn. Winter has its own appeal, but between November and March there is occasional flooding.

getting there

Several airlines fly from London. Check out www.skyscanner.net for the best deals. Tour operators featuring Venice include Italy specialist Citalia (www.citalia.com), Kirker
(www.kirkerholidays.com), Cresta (www.crestaholidays.co.uk) and self-catering specialist Interhome (www.interhome.co.uk).

accommodation
For a stylish canalside base, try the four-star Canal Grande hotel (www.canalgrandehotel.it) or, for a Lagoon view, the Londra Palace (www.londrapalace.com). Dormivenice (www.dormivenice.com) has hotel deals.

getting around

The best way of exploring is on foot, or by inexpensive vaporetti waterbuses. The no. 1 service runs the whole length of the Grand Canal. Water taxis are fast but pricey, gondolas slow but pricey (though romantic).

tourist information

Venice Tourism: www.turismovenezia.it Italian State Tourism Board (ENIT):
www.italiantouristboard.co.uk; 020 7408 1254

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Venice.