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Venice is known by a number of nicknames: the city of water, the city of bridges, queen of the Adriatic, and the city of light. This range of names points to the difficulty of trying to capture the intangible quality of this most unique of cities. Indeed, Venice has been performing something of a magic trick for well over a millennia: built on 118 tiny islands, with a marshy lagoon as its base, the city has managed to defy gravity for more than a thousand years.
Even if you haven't visited Venice, you've probably already seen images of its classic highlights: gondolas on the Grand Canal, the gothic Doge's Palace, and the pigeons on St. Marks Square. You can rest assured that the reality of these places is every bit as majestic as the postcard pictures make them out to be.
More than just a series of famous snapshots, however, Venice is a mesmerizing, mysterious city laced with hints of melancholy. Once a major maritime power, Venice continues to survive largely because of the tourist trade, with the number of actual residents dwindling year after year. Ever-increasing flooding wreaks havoc on architecture, while the summer's heat can make the city feel almost swamp-like. Decadent palaces stand next to decaying houses, glorious restoration next to gloomy ruin, making the city nothing short of a floating museum - but in many ways this is also its barrier to modernization.
This profound mix of contrasts makes Venice a fascinating destination. As it struggles to find a balance between preserving the rich cultural heritage on which it depends and carving out an identity as a still-living city in the 21st century, Venice remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The reputations of the signature tourist 'musts' are well-deserved, but the discoveries you make by getting lost in Venice's winding streets and canals are equally rewarding. Exploring your extraordinary surroundings is sure to make you sigh in disbelief. One of Venice's most famous bridges, in fact - just one of over 400 bridges connecting Venice's islands - is called the Bridge of Sighs.
Even the light in Venice is different; the reflection off the water has provided inspiration for many artists. The Accademia Gallery holds several Venetian masterpieces, and you'll notice the play of light in many of its painting. The unusual light is far from being the city's only special quality. Visit during Carnevale and you'll see a glamour you thought no longer existed. Also well worth a visit is Venice Biennale, Europe's classiest international forum for contemporary art.
Cars aren't allowed in Venice, so you'll get to know the city by walking or riding vaporetti (public water buses - an alternative to the more expensive water taxis or gondolas, although it's worth splashing for a romantic evening out). Venice is notoriously crowded (and expensive), but people come for good reason. There is no other city like it in the world - its culture and canals, basilicas and bridges continue to leave visitors marveling. Despite its uncertain future, Venice hasn't lost its magic.