Luigi Costantini  /  AP
The Bucintoro, the barge of Venice's ruler, the Doge, leads a parade of historical venetian boats as it sails along the Grand Canal during the Historical Regatta, in Venice, Italy.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/29/2007 11:18:52 AM ET 2007-01-29T16:18:52

The owners of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas spent over $1 billion to re-create Venice in the desert in the late 1990’s. At the turn of the 19th century, a wealthy tobacco mogul named Abbot Kinney, poured his fortune into a marshy plot of land near Los Angeles, hiring over 1,000 workers to create a lagoon, piers and enlarged canals, forming the core of what we now know as Venice, California. And today, any city with a goodly amount of water running through it compares itself with La Serenissima (“The Most Serene Republic”). Hence, Amsterdam is known as the Venice of Northern Europe, Suzhou calls itself the Venice of the Orient, and even Fort Lauderdale wants to be considered the Venice of the East Coast.

But there’s no substitute for the real thing. Venice, Italy trumps them all--in ethereal beauty, in boisterous good spirits, in its luscious, seafood-rich cuisine. It’s one of the ten great, man-made wonders of the world-- a floating city formed on top of an archipelago of over 100 small islands--and should be on every traveler’s “life list” of essential places to visit. Spend just 24 hour here and you’ll understand why so many other places are masquerading as Venice.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: While you could grab an espresso at the Caffe Florian , Venice’s oldest café (it’s been offering up caffeine fixes since 1720), you’ll pay a pretty penny if you do. If you want something a bit more low-key first thing in the morning, belly up to the bar at the Caffe Aurora just next to it, where the espresso is just as potent at a third the price and breakfast next to gondoliers, local policemen and the other Venetians who choose the Aurora as their hang.

9 a. m - 10 a.m.: Cruise down the Grand Canal, the watery main street of Venice, on the slow-drifting Number 1 vaporetto , from the Ferrovia (train station) to St Marks Square. You might want to consider riding this floating bus again in the late afternoon when the warm dusk light burnishes the softly fading ochres, marble whites and rust reds of the buildings; and again at night, when the opulent interiors of the palazzi are lit up, and suddenly visible from the boat. Whenever you go, it’s sure to be a captivating, even astonishing ride, as you pass some 200-plus 14th to 18th century palazzi, churches and bell towers. Truman Capote once wrote that visiting Venice was like “eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” You’ll understand why after this introductory lap through the heart of the city.

10 - noon: Take the elevator to the top of the Campanile de San Marco , the tallest structure in the city, for another view of Venice’s jewel-like palazzi, this time from up top. You’ll also get a marvelous, up-close look at the cupolas of St. Mark’s Basilica , your next can’t miss destination. As much a shrine to piracy as to religion, this spectacularly beautiful Byzantine church is made up of pieces stolen from across the Mediterranean. At its core are the remains of St. Mark himself, smuggled out of Egypt in 828 (legend has it) in a barrel of pickled pork, to escape detection by Muslim guards. The famous lion of St. Mark, the jeweled Madonna di Nicopeia andthe Triumphal Quadriga of four bronze horses (2nd or 3rd century A.D.) were looted from Constantinople during the Crusades; the horses are the only ones to have survived from ancient Rome. And much of the marble, columns, and statuary you’ll see around the church once belonged to other principalities. Of course, some of the treasures you’ll see here were built especially for St. Mark’s, most notably the Golden Altarpiece which is encrusted with a Fort Knox-amount of precious gems (over 2,000 in all) as well as the spectacular mosaics that seem to cover every surface of the interior.

Morning Alternative
Join the Secret Lives of the Doges tour , which traverses the hidden chambers, passages and interior rooms of the Palazzo Ducale. The power of Venice from the Middle Ages up until the 18th century can’t be overstated. It was one of the major forces in the Mediterranean during that long era, its navy dominating much of Italy, Turkey, the Greek Isles and Crete This tour will give you an in-depth look at how the government of that time marshaled its forces. Along with visits to the chambers where scores of bookkeepers and administrators toiled, you’ll tour the jail where Casanova was once interred (and learn about his cunning escape), see the famous torture chambers, and learn about the workings of the Council of 10 and of course, the Doges themselves.

Slideshow: City of Water

Noon to 2 p.m.: Make a light lunch of cicchetti, the scrumptious bar food that is Venice’s answer to Spain’s tapas. Dig into a plate of baccala  montecato (dried fish whipped into a fluffy mousse), cuttlefish sauteed in its own ink, calf’s liver with onions, or octopus salad, among many other dishes. One of the best places to try cicchetti is at Vino Vino , a quick ten-minute stroll from St. Mark’s Square. This low-priced wine bar shares a kitchen with the famous (and quite expensive) Antico Martini Restaurant, a couple of doors away, so you can be sure the food is top-notch…as is the wine, by the by.

2 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Give thanks to Napoleon as you tour the splendid Accademia Gallery . It was the “Little General” who gathered all of this remarkable art here (much to the dismay of the local population at the time, as he plundered churches all over town to build this museum). In Napoleon’s defense, seeing the works of these superb artists (Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Bellini and others) laid out in chronological order, offers an extraordinary education in Venetian art.

Afternoon Alternative
If modern art’s more your thing, head to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Mondrian, Brancuso, Miro and countless other big names of the 20th century are displayed in this world-class collection, set in a lovely palazzo (once Guggenheim’s home), right off the Grand Canal.

6 p.m. - 8 p.m.: Grab a “spritz” or two (Venice’s signature cocktail: Proscecco and bitters) and sit at a café watching the world pass by. Zanzibar is a cool place to indulge, with its canal-side location, and hip, local clientele.

8:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.: Escape the tourists at Ai Tre Spiedi a homey, unpretentious little trattoria that serves a cuisine just as flavorful as you’ll find at the more famous gastronomic temples of Venice, but at half the price. Expect uber-fresh fish, garlicky pesto sauces, perfectly cooked pastas, and service that borders on the familial, it’s so friendly and kind. A real find.

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Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

The Caffe Florianis located right in the Piazza San Marco and it’s difficult to miss it’s outside tables. No reservations are necessary, though for more information you can phone 041/5205641; www.caffeflorian.com.

Caffe Aurora, San Marco 49, Piazza San Marco

Tickets for the Number 1 Vaporetto cost €3.50.

Campanile de San Marco, on the Piazza San Marco, phone 041/5224064. Admission is €6, hours vary by season with the Campanile staying open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer months and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the rest of the year.

St. Mark’s Basilicais located on the Piazza San Marco, 041-522-5697.  Admission to the Basilica is free, but you’ll pay €1.50 to visit the on-site St. Mark’s Museum and €2 to visit the Treasury. Hours also vary by what you’re visiting. For the Basilica, Tesoro, and Pala d'Oro: summer Mon-Sat 9:45 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sun 2-5 p.m. (in winter usually closes an hour earlier). Museo Marciano: summer daily 9:45 a.m. - 5 p.m. (in winter usually closes an hour earlier). 

The Secret Itineraries tour takes place at different times throughout the year. To book, call 041/5209070. The cost is €15.

Vino Vino, San Marco 2007 on Ponte delle Veste near La Fenice and Piazza San Marco, phone 041-241-7688; www.vinovino.co.it/. Open Wednesdays to Mondays noon-3:30 p.m. and 7-10:30 p.m.   

Galleria dell’Accademia, Dorsoduro, at foot of Accademia Bridge, phone 041-5222247; www.gallerieaccademia.org/. Admission 6.50€, hours are Monday 8:15 a.m. - 2 p.m.; Tuesday through Sunday, 8:15 a.m. - 7:15 p.m.; last admission is 30 minutes before closing (winter hours may be shorter). 

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Dorsoduro 701 on Calle San Cristoforo, phone 041/2405411;  www.guggenheim-venice.it/.  Open Wednesdays through Mondays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Saturdays April through October).  Admission is 10€.

Zanzibar, Castello 5840, phone 339/2006831.

Ai Tre SpiediCannaregio 5906 on Salizzada San Cazian, in Cannaregio, phone 041-5208035 (reservations not accepted).

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now.

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