The mixture and justaposition of medieval and renaissance, religion and trade, dandyism and populism that make Venice what it is must be seen to be believed. And there's no better way to experience the city's reality than to follow the winding path of the main canal at sunset. The vaporettos – the water buses – follow the Grand Canal from the Santa Lucia train station to the Rialto bridge, zigzagging through the heart of the city. As dusk falls, the sun touches the stones of the palazzos and churches that rise from the water, and tints them in shades of rose and gold. And once darkness comes, the swarms of tourists scatter and the lights from the windows dance in the canals, bringing a new magic to the city.
From the bell tower of San Marco, just before sunset, the view shows this city at its most bustling and beautiful. Below, in the square, the tourists do what tourists do: they stand in queues and exclaim in wonder at the great Byzantine magnificence of the monument along with crowds of other tourists and a similar number of pigeons. In one corner of the square the legendary Harry’s Bar is tucked away: here it's de rigueur to sample the signature Bellini cocktail, a heady mix of wine, champagne and peach juice enjoyed by many great artists – and great drinkers – including Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Truman Capote and Hemingway. On the island of La Giudecca, on the other hand, sunset from the heights of the San Giorgio Maggiore is a somewhat calmer affair.
It's important at some point to leave the vicinity of San Marcos if you want to explore the delicious mystery of the Venetian night, silently skimming in a gondola through the tiny aquatic alleyways. One of the best places to lose yourself is the sestiere – the neighbourhood – of Dorsoduro, home to the oldest gondola makers in the city, the Squero di San Trovaso boatyard. Here you'll find plenty of tempting places to enjoy a Campari aperitif or a full-blown romantic dinner. La Piscina, on the Giudecca canal is a bar and restaurant that caters for both. Then, meandering through a maze of streets that all lead down to canals, you'll reach the Campi de Santa Margherita – or, more prosaically in English, St Margaret's Square – for a cocktail at the bar Margaret Duchamp.
The Teatro La Fenice is one of the most famous opera houses in Europe. Its name translates as 'phoenix', sadly appropriate for a building that has burned down twice since it originally opened in 1792 as the home of an opera company that had lost its original base through fire and legal disputes. Like the city of Venice itself, though, La Fenice has withstood the times of hardship and since its latest re-opening at the very end of 2003, it has hosted a first-class programme. This marvellous nineteenth-century style monument is the perfect setting for one of the fine Italian operas, or perhaps one by Wagner, a composer who loved the city of Venice and who died here at the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi. This magnificent building, on the banks of the Grand Canal, dates from 1500; it now houses the Wagner Museum and is the winter home of the Venice Casino which in summer transfers to the nearby Lido, another attractive destination.
The Lido is a sandbank island some ten kilometres long and has close connections to the world of the silver screen. Visconti's masterful Death in Venice starring Dirk Bogarde was filmed in the Hotel des Bains, a luxury hotel popular with wealthy tourists in the early twentieth century. It was here that the author Thomas Mann saw the original Tadzio, the young boy in the story of obsession and degradation on which the film is based.
The nightlife of Venice is not exceptional except during important festivities. The most famous of these is no doubt Carnival, the party par excellence with a history dating back to the seventeenth century. One of the most celebrated of the Carnival masked balls is Il Ballo del Doge - the Doge's Ball - held in the Palazzo Pisan Moretta. Here, after paying the exorbitant price of a ticket, the fortunate guest will see first hand the elaborate creations of the organiser Antonia Sautter. The mortals among us may have to settle for admiring the costumes and masks at Maison Sautter, in Frezzeria street.
The intriguing atmosphere of the masked Carnival extravaganza is such a tourist draw that it endangers the very foundations of the watery city. This makes it very worthwhile considering an alternative festival, less well-known, but perhaps more dear to the hearts of the Venetians themselves: the feast of the Redeemer, held in July. The celebrations start at sunset and go on into the wee small hours, centred around the church Il Redentore which was constructed in thanksgiving after the terrible plague that ravaged the city in the sixteenth century. On the Saturday night, the city sky is lit up by a pyrotechnical display watched by thousands from gondolas on the Giudecca canal where the dark waters reflect the bright fireworks creating a wonder of rippling lights.
Although there are a number of low-cost flight alternatives available, there's little doubt that the Venice Simplon Orient Express from Paris offers the most romantic and luxurious travel option.
Where to stay:
The boutique Ca Maria Adele, in a refurbished fifteenth-century palazzo in Dorsoduro, is a romantic choice; the Venetian Gothic facade of the five-star Centurion Palace, conceals an elegant interior with modern facilities; the Palazzina Grassi, right on the Grand Canal, prides itself on its balance of tradition and modern design.
Where to eat:
Da Fiori, in San Polo, is an old tavern that has been transformed into an exclusive restaurant. The Fortuny Restaurant at the Hotel Cipriani on the tip of Giudecca island, offers fine cuisine with exceptional views of the lagoon. The simple rustic elegance of the Locanda Cipriani in Torcello is a pleasant setting where family classics are served as well as a daily assortment of pastries and sweet snacks.
When to visit:
The feast of Il Redentore is held on the third weekend in July, while the exact dates of Carnival change each year between February and March and will need booking well in advance. The traditional Historical Regatta, in which the city's best gondoliers take part, is the first Sunday in September. The prestigious Venice Biennale, which includes the Film Festival, takes place every second year in September. The best times to visit if you want to avoid the crowds, is in November or January.
Venice Tourist Board