Of all the cities in the world, only Paris comes remotely close to matching Venice in terms of sheer beauty and romance. You’ve seen it in photos and films, but there’s no substitute for the reality — the shimmering Grand Canal, the gondolas slipping down watery alleyways, the elegant palazzos emerging straight from the sea.
Venice once ruled the Mediterranean as a shipping power, amassing vast wealth and producing some of Europe’s greatest artistic and cultural treasures. But over the centuries Venice has declined a bit and now has less than half the population it had at its peak. (It’s also literally declining: the watery city is sinking up to two millimeters per year.) What remains of its former grandeur — the crumbling palaces, the sumptuous art in its museums and churches, the fantastic rituals of Carnevale — makes Venice a living tribute to the past.
Aside from a number of charming squares, such as the famous Piazza San Marco, Venice mostly comprises a warren of narrow canals and streets spread over more than 100 islands. These tangled passageways are an attraction among themselves. There are few better cities to simply get lost in, particularly if you want to escape the tourist hordes that clog the main arteries around San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.
So once you’ve seen the major sights, fold up your map and set off on foot. You’ll discover pretty, residential neighborhoods with colorful flowerboxes in the windows and clean laundry billowing in the breeze. You’ll discover tiny trattorias where the locals enjoy the catch of the day. And, away from the vaporetti (water taxis) and motorboat traffic on the Grand Canal, you’ll discover one more pleasure of this place, aptly dubbed La Serenissima — the unexpected quiet of a city without cars.