A grand design

A weekend guide to Venice. While Italy's 'floating' city remains a marvel of engineering, it is also filled with some of Europe's finest art and architecture.

828, Venice, Italy --- Domes of Basilica of San Marco --- Image by © Mark Bolton/Corbis
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Venice is not only the most romantic city on Earth but also one of the most artistically and culturally diverse. Best of all, with direct flights leaving Dubai it's close enough for a perfect long weekend. Beauty and majesty exist in Venice in omnipresence. Stroll down an alleyway or through a square and, before long, you are likely to cross a stone bridge over a canal flanked by ochre-painted buildings. Some streets end at a waterfront where you are met with a wide vista across the lagoon. Towering everywhere are church domes, spires and terracotta-tiled roofs.

The capital of northern Italy's Veneto region has remained largely unchanged for centuries. It was founded in the 5th century, when fishermen escaping marauding tribes on the mainland retreated to the isolation and security of the lagoon's low-lying marshy islands. On scraps of land barely above sea level, they constructed a city that has become one of the world's most recognised, most ornate and best loved.

Throughout the ages Venice has inspired numerous artists, musicians and architects who have each left their mark. Today's visitors can take their pick from magnificent churches, mighty bell-towers, wonderfully preserved paintings and galleries of classical, Renaissance, neoclassical and contemporary art.

First of all, walk. Venice is a perfect place for getting lost and discovering secret passages and hidden cafes. Second, get set for a cultural overload. The sheer amount of amazing art can be overwhelming so don't frustrate yourself trying to learn all of its history - after all, it's the beauty that matters. The Accademia gallery which was founded in 1750 as a school of painting, sculpture and architecture has a stunning collection but it's an even bigger thrill to hop between churches. Start at the church of San Zaccaria in a small square behind the Riva degli Schiavoni promenade. The paintings cover the walls, from floor to ceiling, and include the Madonna and Child with Saints by the 15th-century artist Giovanni Bellini. Sticking with Bellini, head to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in San Polo to check out his tranquil Madonna Enthroned with Saints in the sacristy.

For a change of scene, walk south to the Dorsoduro area and take in the modern art gems of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, including paintings by Picasso, Dalí and Kandinsky, and sculptures by Giacommetti. Esteemed architecture is all around you. The Piazza San Marco includes the rich, exotic Basilica, the mighty redbrick campanile and an impressive clock tower where two animated statues strike a bell with their hammers every hour. Get a 12-hour travel pass (US$19, Dh69) and take the public water bus, or vaporetto, from Piazza San Marco all the way up the Grand Canal to the train station while you gaze at the palazzi and museums along one side of the canal and then travel all the way back again admiring those on the other side, with their columns, their stone balconies and reflections in the water.

Then take a gondola ride out on the Bacino San Marco - for 45 minutes at about $87 (Dh320) it's pricey but worth it - to look back at the lovely cityscape. Or take a table at the famous Caffe Florian in the Piazza San Marco and enjoy a well-deserved coffee and panini. Or head into the streets to the west of the piazza to shop for carnival masks, handmade writing paper and notebooks and perhaps even those expensive Botega Veneta shoes you have dreamed of. Really, no matter where you go and what you do you will be surrounded by Venice's unrivalled splendour.

Budget The pleasant Hotel Florida, near the train station, is one of the best bargains in town. The rooms are fairly basic but many have been refurbished and have air conditioning and free Wi-Fi. The hotel is also close to the Grand Canal. Catch the vaporetto from nearby Ferrovia and you'll be at Piazza San Marco in about 30 minutes. Double rooms cost from around US$105 (Dh385) per night.

Hotel Florida, 106 Calle Priuli dei Cavaletti, Cannaregio (www. hotel-florida.com; 0039 041 715253). Mid-range The three-star Hotel American has good-sized rooms, many with balconies and impressive period-style decor. The hotel's distinct yellow-painted walls make it a landmark on the Dorsoduro It also overlooks the quiet Rio de San Vio canal and is a short walk from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. A double room over the canal costs from $130 (Dh475) per night, including breakfast.

Hotel American, Fondamenta Bragadin, Dorsoduro (www.hotelamerican.com; 0039 041 520 4733). Luxury The Londra Palace is the most charming and welcoming high-end hotel in Venice and one of the least pretentious. It is also perfectly positioned, away from the tourist throngs yet only a five-minute stroll to Piazza San Marco. The views from the rooms positioned alongside the Riva are stunning - right across the Bacino San Marco, the Palladian church of San Giorgio Maggiore sits on its own island. In 1877, this view moved one of the hotel's residents - the composer Tchaikovsky - to write part of his Fourth Symphony in Room 106. A classic double room costs from $347 (Dh1,275) per night, including breakfast. The hotel will reopen after refurbishment on March 1.

Londra Palace, Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello (www.hotelondra.it; 0039 041 520 0533).

Breakfast An espresso and a chocolate and almond pastry is the perfect way to kick-start a big day walking around Venice. First-time visitors should savour the grandeur of the Piazza San Marco by taking a table at Florian's or Gran Caffè Ristorante Quadri. It's about $16 (Dh60) for coffee and cake for two. If you've experienced this joy, then head north through Castello to the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo and check out Rosa Salva, a café that also makes its own gelato, at a cost of $16 (Dh60) for two for coffee and a delicious ice cream. Lunch Work up an appetite trying to find a bistro called Dogue Due. There's no sign outside but the address is 2604 Rio Terra, a cable just east of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in San Polo. It is a popular locals' hangout and fairly unglamorous, but both the pizza and the espresso are out of this world and costs around $32 (Dh125) for two people. Dinner Vino Vino is one of the liveliest and cosiest eateries in town. It's not fine dining but the food is good and local and the waiters are helpful and friendly. The small room gets crowded so try to come around when they open at 7pm. The sea bass and the meatballs are both superb. From ?35 (Dh172) for two, including drinks.

Or, if you really want to flex the credit card, book at table at the spectacularly good Do Leoni restaurant on Riva degli Schiavoni in the Londra Palace. This is one of the best places to try fegato, a Venetian speciality of fried calf's liver with onions; from $97 (Dh370) for two people. How to get there Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies daily non-stop to Venice from Dubai for $1,120 (Dh4,110) return including taxes. A public water bus takes 75 minutes to reach Piazza San Marco $16 (Dh60) one-way, per person - or splash out on a private water taxi for $126 (Dh470). You can buy tickets in the airport arrivals hall.

Recommended reading Francesco's Venice by Francesco Da Mosto (BBC Books, $25, Dh92) provides a lively and engaging view of the city by a native Venetian.