FOR AT LEAST THE LAST THREE CENTURIES Venice has been the world's most foolproof destination: no other city has so perfectly geared itself to tourism. But that very success can work against Venice's appeal-- especially in summer. Although the city has only 85,000 permanent residents, it draws 10 million visitors a year. Conventional wisdom has it that Venice should be visited off-season, ironically causing the once quiet ChristmasNew Year's holidays to become almost frenetic in recent years.
Yet those who truly know Venice have no fear of visiting even in July or August. For beyond the twin epicenters of mass tourism-- the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto-- the city can be a place of remarkable calm and solitude, living up to its poetic nickname: La Serenissima, "the most serene one."
Founded 1,300 years ago on a coastal Adriatic island, Venice was by the turn of the last millennium one of the Western world's richest cities, Europe's gateway to trade with the East. Its concentration of wealth, power, and civic pride created a dense collage of styles and civilizations. A stroll along a single calle (narrow street) can still yield treasures on a par with those found in whole quarters of larger cities. For the visitor who slips just past the outward layer of plastic gondola souvenirs and pigeon photo ops, Venezia segreta-- "secret Venice"-- will gladly reveal itself.
Although the city has perhaps the most enjoyable public transportation system anywhere-- the vaporetti that ply the Grand Canal, circumnavigate the town, and drift across the lagoon-- it is only by walking through the lesser-known quarters that Venice's richness and complexity can be properly appreciated. Pressing into unfamiliar terrain offers a further dividend: prices-- whether for an espresso, a roll of film, or a hotel room-- drop remarkably. The permanent inhabitants can't afford to pay through the nose, so why should you?
Here are two walking-tour itineraries, each manageable in a single morning or afternoon. (For phone numbers, the country/ city code is 39/41.)
The print version of this article includes five walking tours; you can find them all in the January 1998 Travel + Leisure