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La Serenissima (the most serene) might not seem an appropriate name for one of the most visited destinations in Europe – Venice. Packed with tourists at pretty much any time of the year, it's difficult to imagine the city as a tranquil or serene place.

However, Venice is one of those must-see destinations of our era. A unique city of 116 islands, ancient history and endless waterways, it attracts a steady stream of tourists from all corners of the world to view its inspiring architecture and to navigate its mystical canals.

Venice is a never-ending maze of tiny cobbled courtyards and winding back streets, linked by arched bridges and traditional trattorias (restaurants) and obligatory tourist gift shops. But the real attraction of Venice lies in its unique waterways and the magical atmosphere created by its operatic gondoliers at work.

Since the 12th century, Venice has been arranged in six sesteri (sixths/districts) with the Grand Canal dividing them into three on each bank. Slightly further afield is the Lido. The central sestiere San Marco is dominated by the grand Basilica di San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. From five star hotels to expensive shops to tourist trinkets, this is the most visited area of Venice.

Just north of the train station is Cannaregio where one-third of the local population live and where most of the cheapest hotels and restaurants can be found.

Castello, right beside San Marco, is also lined with first class hotels but it stretches east to the less congested and less expensive Arsenale. This area also houses the Giardini, one of the main locations for the famous international art Biennale.

Northwest of the Rialto is San Polo, famous for the important church Santa Maria dei Frari and the Scuola di San Rocco, noted for its collection of Tintoretto paintings.

Santa Croce, north of the San Polo district and across from the train station is the least visited part of Venice and perhaps has the most potential for surprises. It stretches up to Piazzale Roma with the pretty Campo San Giacoma dell-Orio at its centre.

Travellers seeking to escape the tourist crowds for an afternoon of relaxation can head to the Lido di Venezia. With resort-style hotels on offer, it offers a respite from the crowds of the rest of Venice. It is also the only area in Venice that allows motor vehicles and bicycles.

For those wishing to explore further afield, it is easy to use Venice as a base before exploring beautiful Lake Como, stunning Verona or bustling Milan.