Venice: La Serenissima's beating heart Venice, also known as La Serenissima, has quite a reputation. She was once a strong mercantile power of Europe, a staging area for the crusades and has since been immortalised countless times in canvas, text and celluloid. From Shakespeare?s Merchant of Venice, to cameos in James Bond movies, Venice has appeared as the serene and always achingly beautiful, city backdrop. But she deserves more credit than just being one of the most beautiful (and most touristy, and most expensive) cities in the world.

Some just fail to see past her looks, and don?t get to appreciate the real character of Venice. You wouldn?t guess it, but La Serenissima also hides a heavily beating heart, perhaps (understandably) hidden to the hordes of day trippers that clog her streets. It?s hinted in the ambulance speedboats that race through the canals, a growing bar and club scene, and the shadows of her winding alleyways. All it takes is a good scratch beneath the surface (you won?t need to be that gentle - remember that Venice has lasted for centuries, and despite her sinking status, experts claim that she?ll last for centuries more).

Let?s start with the dry facts. Or wet facts, maybe? Venice is a World Heritage listed city, and you?ll find her on an archipelago of 118 islands in the Venetian Lagoon, at the mouth of Rivers Po and Piave. She?s also famous (regrettably) as a city threatened by rising tide waters and her Acqua Alta. There are about 150 canals that intersect her 6 sestieri and 400 bridges which allow you to navigate them. The 6 sestieri are Cannareggio, San Polo, Dorsoduro, Santa Croce, San Marco and Castello, each with their own characters. From Cannareggio and her Jewish Ghetto, to the tiny streets of charming Dorsoduro and San Marco?s spectacular glory, there are hours of aimless wandering through calli that you can do. In fact, Venice is Europe?s largest urban car-free areas, and wandering her streets, you won?t miss the absence of car fumes or loudly honking Italian drivers.

Venice has become so famous for her beauty, her timeless elegance and her canals that numerous comparisons have been made to other cities all around the world. There?s the Venice of the North (a title fought out between Hamburg, Germany and Amsterdam in the Netherlands) to the Venice of the East (again, Bangkok in Thailand and Hoi An, Vietnam). But it always remains that there is nothing quite Venice?s shadowed streets, the emerald green of her canals, and the candy striped pylons that line her canals. The best way to get to know this beauty is to get lost in her streets, to wander around aimlessly without a map, and go with your instincts. Turn left instead of right, take the local vaporetto instead of the over-hyped gondola ride and just let Venice enchant you.

What to see
Leave the map in your pocket. Wander around aimlessly, and let yourself stumble on the sights - there?s nothing better than coming around a corner and finding in front of you the Bridge of Sighs or the Grand Canal. If you?re lucky, you?ll chance on a quiet canal where the gondoliers park themselves in between charges; or the floating markets near Campo Santo Barnab?.

Of course, there are the obligatory photo snaps - pigeons in San Marco, the gilded dome of the Basilica in San Marco, the panorama of the Grand Canal from the Academia Bridge. Then there?s Dodge?s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto Bridge and her nearby morning markets, filled with colour, scents and sounds. There are museums a plenty, set within buildings that are sometimes more spectacular than the treasures they hold inside. Try the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, hidden in Dorsoduro, or Ca' Rezzonico, a lavish palace that harks back to Venice?s Age of Decadence.

To give your feet a rest, try taking the Vaporetto no.1 along the Grand Canal - a spectacular way to start or end your day, and a great alternative to taking a very expensive gondola ride.

What to eat
Like everything in Venice, this can get expensive. But also like everything in Venice, if you look around a dark alleyway around the corner, you?re also likely to find a great (cheaper!) alternative. Either splash out and blow your budget on establishment Venice restaurants like the Osteria da Fiore or wander the markets in the morning for picnic options. There are the markets near the Rialto Bridge or in Campo Santa Magarita in the mornings, and lots of small squares and steps near canals to enjoy your meals from.

For something in-between, try finding a small hidden trattoria for good lunchtime options and great local specialties. Local recipes are based on seafood options, like spaghetti alle vongole or risotto alle sepie. Early evening, try one of many bacari (wine bars) with a great (and economic) selection of cicchetti (a Venetian version of tapas).

Where to party
Venice is also famous for Carnevale in February, Biennale every two years in June, and the Venice Film Festival in September. Carnevale turns Venice?s beauty into a surreal dreamscape with elaborate costumes and masks, but there?s also the Festa del Redentore in July where small boats crowd St Marks Basin to watch the fireworks above.

Although Venice has been rumoured to be just as serene at night as she is in the day, she has been recently nurturing a growing night scene with trendy bars and music venues. Check out the new late night bars and clubs down (you guessed it) dark alleyways and calli. Try finding Centrale in San Marco, an old cinema and now hip bar and restaurant; or Paradiso Perduto in Cannareggio, which offers everything from art exhibitions to live music performances and a great mix of bohemian and student regulars. The areas you should try wandering around at night include the Campo Santa Magarita in Dorsoduro and the Fondamenta della Misericordia in Cannareggio.

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