Off-season is the best, most relaxed time to visit the Queen of the Adriatic, as Sharon Stephenson discovers.
The first thing I do in Venice is the first thing everyone does when they visit Venice — get hopelessly, ridiculously lost.
In the snarl of ancient, cobbled alleyways, I blunder into dead ends and watery ends. I trace and re-trace my steps trying to find a 13th century church my guide, a barista and the hotel doorman told me was a must-see. I criss-cross the same square so many times I'm on nodding terms with the hipster pizza seller who really should be on a Gucci runway, not flogging greasy carbs to bored schoolchildren.
But that's the beauty of La Serenissima, a city whose map seems to have been drawn by a lunatic with a twisted sense of humour. "Getting lost is the only place worth visiting," Venetian novelist Tiziano Scarpa wrote, no doubt while watching confused tourists walk past him for the umpteenth time. Thankfully there are so many unexpected treasures hiding around every blind corner, that getting lost is probably the best way to enjoy this city's embarrassment of Gothic, Byzantine, Rocco and Neo-Classical riches.
Visiting out of season is the second. My Insight Vacations Best of Italy tour is the last of the year and although I have to spend more on a pair of buttery-soft leather gloves than I'd like, winter is the best time to enjoy the Queen of the Adriatic. I've only ever been here in summer when the city resembled a Disneyfied theme park full of hot and cranky tourists, queues and endless cruise ships. But winter is a revelation: yes it's cold and there's rain (fortunately not enough for the famous acqua alta floods) but there are fewer tourists to ruin the view and we get to enjoy a quieter, more relaxed city where the locals go about their business in much the same way as they have for centuries.
Our guide Mark explains that Venice is actually a mosaic of 118 islands, joined together by more than 400 bridges. "Every time you cross a bridge, you're moving to a different island," he says. The suitably named Grand Canal cleaves the city in two, demarcating it into different quarters or "sestieri". Visitors will spend most of their time in the labyrinth of streets that make up the historic centre, where the centrepiece is one of the most photographed locations on the planet, St Mark's Square and its ornate Basilica.
I don't have the word count to do this gobsmackingly beautiful church justice: if you've been there, you'll know what I mean. If you haven't then imagine a 1000-year-old cluster of onion domes, Gothic spires, more than 500 columns and solid gold mosaics, wrapped up in a fascinating history (the body of St Mark the Apostle, housed here, was said to have been nicked from Egypt and smuggled back).
Next door is the Doge's Palace, the equally breathtaking building which once contained the courts of justice but is now a museum thick with priceless art that you get to enjoy through a forest of selfie sticks.
Connected to the Palace is another Venice "must-do" — the Bridge of Sighs. This iconic Baroque arched bridge has had a grim past: after being sentenced in the Palace, criminals were led across the bridge to a prison that they would eventually leave in a coffin. It was said they would sigh as they crossed the bridge because they were seeing their beloved city for the final time.
We need cheering up after that, so do the cheesiest of Venice things — jump in a gondola steered by a bloke in a striped top and straw hat. We're serenaded by an opera singer as we make our way through the city's liquid arteries, marvelling at how different life looks from the water.
We pass smartly dressed Venetians on their way to wherever it is smartly dressed Venetians go to at 11am on a Thursday, glide past the 16th century Rialto Bridge, high enough to allow a galleon to pass underneath, and see so many gracious old buildings, gently tilting into the water, I feel as though I've fallen into the pages of a Gothic novel.
But a girl can't live on architecture alone, so I head to the 920-year-old Rialto Market, which bears the sign "No pizza, no lasagne, no menu turistico". It would be rude to come this far and not sample the local speciality — squid ink pasta, which uses the ink sack of the cuttlefish to colour the linguine a gloriously sticky black.
There's just time for one more stop: the iconic Harry's Bar, where the prosecco/peach puree cocktail, the Bellini, was invented in the 1930s. Harry's was said to be Ernest Hemingway's favourite bar — although the drinks were considerably cheaper in his day and the best tables probably weren't hogged by loud tourists — but it's a fitting way to say goodbye to this beautiful city.
Insight Vacations' 11-day Best of Italy tour starts in Rome and takes in some of Italy's grandest attractions, including Assisi, Venice, Florence and Capri. Departure dates from April. Priced from $4825 per person twin share with savings of up to 7.5 per cent or a flight credit of up to $650 for bookings and payments prior to February 28. Includes sightseeing, guides, accommodation, many meals, transport, airport transfers and the services of a travel director.