A gondolier takes passengers for a ride on the Grand...

A gondolier takes passengers for a ride on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. In the background is the Rialto Bridge. (March 27, 2006) Credit: AP File

Now is the time to explore one of the world's most popular tourist destinations without the ridiculous crowds, high prices and oppressive heat of high season. Venice in winter is Venice at its best -- atmospheric, bustling but manageable, authentically local.

There are downsides, to be sure. You'll have to bundle up to do your sightseeing (temperatures typically rise to the mid-40s during the day in January and February, and can drop below 30 at night). Pack your rain boots (at this time of year, there's the threat of occasional flooding, sometimes caused by exceptional winter tide peaks), and plan to dine indoors (romantic outdoor dining is limited to a few tourist cafes with heat lamps).

These were all trade-offs my family and I happily made as we waltzed into popular tourist attractions without waiting in line, booked tables at the city's most exclusive restaurants hours before dinnertime, and lost ourselves in Venice's quiet, sometimes spooky maze of walkways and bridges during a magical week in late December.

 

THINGS TO DO 

ST. MARK'S BASILICA AND THE DOGE'S PALACE

One of the perks of visiting Venice during the offseason is quick and easy entry into the major tourist attractions. It takes minutes instead of hours to get into the Basilica and its museum. Tours of the "secret" chambers of the Doge's Palace (tickets are about $23 and include entry to the Palace and Museum, palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en) are offered in English three times a day. In the summer, you have to reserve weeks in advance, but in January and February (with the exception of Carnivale weekend), you can walk in and join the next scheduled tour.

Be forewarned, parts of the Palace are exceptionally chilly at this time of year because its lead roof was designed to keep prisoners cold during the winter. In fact, the time I spent inside its "secret" rooms was the only time during the trip that I noticed the low temperature.

SACRED ART IN SACRED PLACES

The abundance of historic churches is a godsend for art lovers who want to view Venetian masterpieces in situ, and for winter tourists who want to walk all day but need to duck inside periodically to keep warm. Buy a 17-church pass (about $15 a person or $25 for a family pass, chorusvenezia.org) and you can explore every sestiere, stopping to view Titian's famous Pesaro altarpiece at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in San Polo, Tintoretto's Last Supper at the Church of Santo Stefano in St. Mark's and Tiepolo's frescoed ceilings at the Church of Santa Maria Del Rosario in Dorsoduro. Rest assured that where there is a church in Venice, there is a cafe on the piazza selling hot chocolate.

VIVALDI IN VENICE

Evening concerts are an appealing winter alternative to outdoor cafes when it comes to after-dinner entertainment. The works of Antonio Vivaldi, a Venice native and local hero, are performed at venues all over town. Advised by a friend to avoid the cheesier shows with musicians dressed in 18th century garb, we went to hear Interpreti Veneziani perform Vivaldi's Four Seasons in the Church of San Vidal (interpretiveneziani.com) and were not disappointed with the music or setting.

MISCELLANEOUS WINTER FUN

It's a little chilly for the classic gondola tour, but for half a euro you can jump on a gondola at a designated traghetto stop along the Grand Canal and ride to the other side. The trip takes a few minutes, plenty of time to snap photos of your gondolier.

The outdoor skating rink set up in Campo San Polo (invernoveneziano.it) until the end of February is "like a mini-Rockefeller Center," one shopkeeper boasted to me. Too bad our American rink isn't surrounded by food stalls selling wild boar salami from Tuscany and artisanal licorice from Calabria.

SHOPPING

Colorful and inviting shops offer another respite from the weather. At Perle e Dintorni (perle-e-dintorni.it), my daughters designed their own beautiful Venetian glass jewelry, choosing from the enormous selection of beads in the store. Single beads cost about 30 cents to $2.50 each; stringing is included in the price. My husband complained that we spent more time here than at the Accademia!

At Venetian Dreams (Calle de la Mandola, San Marco 3805/a), a tiny shop where owner Marisa Convento stocks lovely locally made items such as damask-covered masks, I picked up a bauble for myself, a stunning art glass bead on a cord (about $76).

None of us could resist the furlane, traditional velvet gondolier slippers with soles made of recycled bicycle tires, $32 a pair at Pied a Terre (piedaterre-venice.com), a tiny jewel box of a shop tucked behind the market stalls just over the Rialto Bridge in San Polo. We warmed ourselves by trying on pairs in every color before deciding which ones to take home. 

 

WHERE TO EAT 

Venice did not disappoint with its abundance of sandwich bars, osterias and upscale seafood restaurants. And in winter there are plenty of tables to go around. Casual places offered the best value. Near the Academy in Dorsoduro we liked the family-run Antica Locanda Montin (Fondamenta delle Eremite, Dorsoduro 1147) for its homestyle pasta dishes, which ran about $19. Café Impronta (impronta cafevenice.com) in San Polo, serves a killer club sandwich made with tasty porchetta for $9.

Nearer to St. Mark's were Cavatappi (Campo della Guerra, San Marco 525), a wine bar and trattoria filled with off-duty gondoliers in striped sweaters, and Bar al'Angolo (Campo Santo Stefano, San Marco 3464), where we had spectacular made-to-order braesola and arugula sandwiches for less than $6.50 each.

After long days of walking and sightseeing, we splurged on dinners at several restaurants belonging to the Associazione dei Ristoranti della Buona Accoglienza (venezia ristoranti.it), an organization devoted to preserving the culinary traditions of Venice. Even in winter, reservations are necessary at these popular places, but calling in the morning can usually secure you a table for the same night. The food at each one was uniformly fantastic, while the service varied from extremely warm (Al Covo), to respectful and professional (Il Ridotto), to chilly bordering on rude (Corte Sconta). Not a member of this group but deserving special mention was the wonderful Osteria Santa Marina (Campo Santa Marina, Castelllo 5911), where a fatherly waiter brought us complimentary little dishes of squid cooked in its own ink and admonished the children to eat up as part of their culinary education.

We did manage to snack between meals, even though it wasn't gelato season. My favorite discoveries: Fiorimenu (Rio Santissimo SRL, San Marco 2787), a fashionable bakery with fabulous Venetian cookies, pastries and freshly baked focaccia by the slice; and Vizio Virtu (viziovirtu.com), an artisanal chocolate shop that sells hot chocolate so rich and thick that it must be consumed with a spoon. 

 

IF YOU GO 

WHEN TO GO The winter months are quiet in Venice, with the exception of Carnevale, which officially runs Feb.11-21 but really gears up beginning on Friday, Feb. 17. Hordes of tourists will descend upon the city for the weekend. If you dare travel to the city during this time, expect to pay a premium for hotel rooms and plan to make restaurant reservations and buy museum tickets in advance.

GETTING AROUND From the airport, you can take the Alilaguna waterbus (alilaguna.it) across the lagoon, with stops at a number of places. If you don't mind the 60- to 90-minute trip, and your hotel is within reasonable walking distance of one of the stops (remember, you'll have to carry all of your luggage), this is the economical choice at $16.50. More convenient but expensive is a private water taxi, which will get you to Venice in about 20 minutes. Book ahead at motoscafivenezia.it to pay $115 instead of the $152 that you'll pay if you don't reserve.

WHERE TO STAY Some of Venice's most expensive hotels sit on the lagoon east of St.Mark's Square. Five minutes from the legendary Danielli, on the same strip, is the Hotel Bucintoro (hotelbucintoro .com), sparklingly renovated a few years ago so the rooms look like fancy yacht cabins. Every room looks onto the water. Booking early and online paid off -- we paid $159 a night for junior suites, breakfast included. 

 

READER TIP 

Anyone traveling to Venice should center at least part of their stay around St. Mark's Square. It is the hub for most of Venice's fleet of gondolas -- sharing a ride with others won't have to break the bank. Culturally, St.Mark's Square has easy access to the renowned Murano glass factory and cathedrals and is the site of many free classical concerts. The Ca' Dei Conti is an 18th century hotel that's within walking distance of the square -- it's not only charming but affordable (cadeiconti. com).

--SUBMITTED BY Vincent Casale, Seaford

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME