Lord Byron called Venice (Venezia) "a fairy city of the heart." La Serenissima, "The Most Serene," is an improbable cityscape of stone palaces that seem to float on water, a place where cats nap on Oriental marble windowsills set in colorful plaster walls. Candy-striped pylons stand sentry outside the tiny stone docks of palazzi whose front steps descend into the gently lapping waters of the canals that lace the city.

In Venice, cars are banned -- every form of transportation floats, from water taxis and vaporetti (the public "bus" ferries) to ambulance speedboats and garbage scows. Venice is a place where locals stop at the bacaro (wine bar) to take un ombra (literally "a little bit of shade," in practice, a glass of wine) and munch on cicchetti (tapaslike snacks) or linger over exquisite restaurant seafood dinners.

It is also a city of great art and grand old masters. Venetian painting featured early masters such as the Bellini clan -- Jacopo from the 1420s, sons Giovanni and Gentile from the 1460s. By the early 1500s, Venice had taken the Renaissance torch from Florence and made it its own, lending the movement the new color and lighting schemes of such giants as Giorgione, Tiziano (Titian), Paolo Veronese, and Tintoretto.

So much for Venice the Serenissima. There's also Venice the insanely popular and overcrowded. Certainly, the tourists can seem inescapable, and prices can be double or triple here what they are elsewhere in Italy.

But visitors flock to this canalled wonder for very good reason: Venice is extraordinary, it is magical, and it is worth every cent. Its existence defies logic, but underneath its otherworldly beauty and sometimes-stifling tourism, Venice is a living, breathing, singular city that seems almost too exquisite to be genuine, too fragile to survive the never-ending stream of visitors who have been making the pilgrimage here for 1,500 years.

As barbarian hordes washed back and forth across the Alps during the decline of the Roman Empire (starting in the 4th c.), inhabitants of the Veneto flatlands grew tired of being routinely sacked and pillaged along the way. By the 6th century, many had begun moving out onto the mud-flat islands of the marshy lagoon, created by what was in ancient times the Po River delta, to take up fishermen's lines or trading ships. When they saw that one barbarian horde, the Lombards, had stayed to settle the upper Po valley (still called Lombardy), these Veneti decided to remain on their new island homes and ally themselves instead with the eastern remnant of the old Roman Empire, Byzantium.

Oddly, what we now consider central Venice was the last area settled. After Attila the Hun rampaged through, citizens of the Roman town of Altino moved out onto Torcello and founded a tidy commercial empire under the control of the Byzantine emperor -- ironic, since Torcello's star has long since fallen and it is now the least built-up of all of greater Venice's major inhabited islands. Townsfolk from Oderzo moved to Malamocco and made it the lagoon's political capital (the original site is now underwater, and the Malamocco that survives nearby is a fishing village on the southern stretch of the Lido, near the golf course). After barely defeating Charlemagne's son Pepin there in 810, the capital was moved to the more protected Rialto islands -- now central Venice.

Greater Venice's oldest surviving structure is the cathedral on Torcello, founded in 639, but today's site is largely from the 9th and 10th centuries. In fact, sparsely populated Torcello is one of the best glimpses into what early Venice must have looked like -- scattered buildings and canals banked by waving rushes and reeds, everything outlined by the dotted lines of wooden piles hammered down into the mud. This construction is what underlies all those stone palazzi of central Venice: a framework foundation of sunken tree trunks, hammered down into the caranto (a solid clay layer under the surface of mud and sand) and preserved in the anaerobic atmosphere of their muddy tomb, overlain with Istrian stone.

As its power began to peak in the early 13th century, Venice led the fourth and most successful Crusade, capturing Constantinople itself. It went on to conquer territories across what are today Turkey, the Greek Isles, and Crete -- and eventually became the capital of Italy's inland provinces, now the Veneto, Trentino, and Friuli. By 1300, it was one of the largest cities and the leading maritime republic of Europe and the Mediterranean. Although the Black Death carried off over half the population from 1347 to 1350, Venice bounced back and remained a maritime power until the 18th century, when trade through the new American colonies would increasingly steal much of the city's thunder.

By the end of the 18th century, Venice had run out of steam commercially, not to mention militarily, after centuries spent fighting the Turks (who slowly regained most of Venice's Aegean and Greek territories). By the time Napoleon came along in 1797, the Venetian Republic offered little resistance. Napoleon gave control of Venice to Austria, under whose rule it remained for almost 70 years. Daniele Manin did stage an unsuccessful minirevolution in 1848 and 1849, during which Venice was privileged to become the first city attacked from the air -- by a fleet of hot-air balloons armed with long-fused time bombs. The Risorgimento (unification) movement and its king, Vittorio Emanuele II, defeated the Austrians, gained control of the Veneto, and made it a part of the newly minted state of Italy in 1866.

In its position at the crossroads of the Byzantine and Roman -- later Eastern and Western -- worlds, Venice, over many centuries, acquired a unique amalgamated heritage of art, architecture, and culture. And although hordes of traders and merchants no longer pass through as they once did, Venice nonetheless continues to find itself at a crossroads: an intersection in time between the uncontested period of maritime power that built it and the modern world that keeps it ever-so-gingerly afloat.

It is a great disservice to allot Venice the average stay of 2 nights and 3 days (it sometimes takes the better part of a day just to find your hotel). If you can, stay at least 3 nights and preferably longer -- Venice has the potential to be the highlight of your travels through Italy.

Leave your heels and excess luggage at home, and make sure to toss the map and this guide in your daypack for at least an afternoon, turn left when the signs to the sights point right, and get lost in the back calli (streets) and uncrowded campi (squares) where tourists seldom tread, and you will encounter the true, living, breathing, gloriously decaying side of this most serene city.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.