With its 150 canals, 400 bridges and magnificent 16th- and 17th-century palaces and piazzas, it is no surprise that Venice is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Gloriously romantic in spring, triumphant in summer, noble in autumn and seductive in winter, it is a popular city break destination year round.

One of Venice’s most characterful open spaces is the campo Santa Maria Formosa: literally, ‘the Square of Buxom Saint Mary’. Locals hurry through (it is located halfway between the ferry hubs of San Zaccaria and Fondamenta Nuove) while unfocused tourists dawdle and look up at the charmingly uneven architecture of the palazzi that line the square, ranging from the grand to the homely. This is the place to come for people-watching: sit at a pavement table outside the Bar Orologio, order a spritz (see Nightlife) and enjoy the show.

Park? In Venice? It’s not really what you come for, but those who are desperate for a blade of grass should head to the Giardini Pubblici at the far-eastern end of island Venice, just across the water from the Lido (take vaporetto lines 1, 51, 61 or 82 from the station or San Zaccaria). Dusty gravel walks, a few swings and climbing frames, mothers giving their toddlers a workout on their way back from the shops – as an antidote to the dreamlike unreality of historic Venice, it’s hard to beat. Unless, that is, you happen to come here when the Biennale of modern art is on (in summer), which takes over a normally closed section of the Giardini. Then, the real world can seem even further away.

Crossing the Grand Canal in a gondola traghetto is a great way of doing the obligatory tourist thing. At certain times of day (varying widely from route to route) traghetti – large, unadorned gondolas in which passengers ride standing up – cross the Grand Canal at fixed points between the bridges. The most useful are the services between Santa Sofia and the Pescheria, between Ca’ Garzoni and San Tomà, and between San Marco and Punto della Dogana.

The Festa del Redentore, on the third weekend in July, is the oldest continuously celebrated holiday on the Venetian calendar. It commemorates the city’s delivery from an outbreak of plague in 1575. On the Saturday, a procession crosses the wide Canale della Giudecca on a bridge of boats that stretches from the Zattere, the southern quayside of the Dorsoduro, to Andrea Palladio’s thanksgiving church of Il Redentore. Venetian families take to their boats, which are stocked with food and wine and illuminated by little coloured lanterns. At midnight, fireworks light up the sky; traditionally, revellers then make their way to the Lido to watch the sun rise. If you don’t have a boat, bring a picnic and watch the show from Zattere quay.

The sestieri are the six districts into which the main part of Venice is divided. Each has its own character: San Marco and San Polo are the busiest, Dorsoduro (which overlooks the island of Giudecca) the most elegant and expatriate, Santa Croce and eastern Castello the most working-class. Cannaregio is one of the largest, but also, in parts, one of the least known. The Ghetto (the term was coined in Venice) is a fascinating enclave of tall houses around a central square, with five synagogues, a good museum and a growing sense of vitality as the local Jewish community rediscovers its roots. Nearby is the church of Madonna dell’Orto, packed to the gills with Tintorettos.

By day, via Giuseppe Garibaldi, a wide thoroughfare at the eastern end of the Castello district, is one of the few places in town where tourists are outnumbered by locals. It is a busy street full of restaurants, food shops and bacari wine bars; at the top end, past the entrance to the Giardini Pubblici, a colourful morning market spills over onto a couple of moored barges. In the evening, the bars of campo Santa Margherita fill up with students from the nearby university. Another lively, pocket-sized area of bars, clubs and ethnic restaurants is the inaptly named fondamenta della Misericordia in Cannaregio.

Together with the marshy islands that surround it, frequented only by the occasional clam-gatherer or duck-hunter, the island of Torcello gives a real feel of the lagoon’s pre-urban state. Torcello was the first island to be settled, in the fifth century; by the 15th it was mostly abandoned, as malaria and the rivalry of Venice led to a mass exodus. Its glory days are represented by two remarkable churches, little Santa Fosca and the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, with its glorious medieval mosaics and frescoes. The Locanda Cipriani, where Hemingway stayed in 1949 while writing Across the River and into the Trees, is still here. The Locanda’s restaurant (see Where to Eat) is no longer near the top of the culinary ladder, though its prices might suggest otherwise. But for a tête-à-tête meal, it’s still undeniably romantic. To get there take a motonave number 12 which serves Burano and Torcello, leaving from Fondamenta Nuove, Venice’s northern ferry quay; the journey takes 45 minutes.

(www.labiennale.org). The prestigious Venice Biennale has attracted and promoted a plethora of international artistic talents, both upcoming and established, since it was founded in 1895. The world-renowned event, which takes place every two years, includes the annual International Film Festival (August/September), the International Art Exhibition (from June to November) and the International Architecture Exhibition (from September to November), plus the Festival of Contemporary Music (September/October) and Theatre (September), more recently joined by the Festival of Contemporary Dance (June/July).

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