GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from the United States to Venice, but there are possible connections from many major European cities. From Marco Polo Airport, on the lagoon to the north of the city, you can either take a water taxi for about $50 a group or a much more prosaic land bus for $1 a person. For those arriving by train, the station is centrally located at the western end of the city, on the Grand Canal. Motorists can park in a large garage next to the station, which is the furthest inroad cars have made to Venice.
GETTING AROUND: Venice is set in the middle of its lagoon, about two miles off the mainland of northern Italy. The city is set on more than 100 individual islands, separated by 150 canals and joined by 400 bridges. It might be small in area, but it still involves quite a bit of walking, including up and down the bridges. The vaporetti, however, cover most of the important points in the city, and larger boats go to various islands in the lagoon, including Murano, Burano, the Lido and Torcello. Service is as regular as bus service would be in a mainland city.
Unfortunately, the only assured way to visit many lesser known spots -- such as the Canale Orphano, a channel in the lagoon that was the site of the judicial drownings in the Middle Ages; or San Giorgio in Alga (St. George in the Seaweed), a small islet reportedly offering one of best views of Venice; or the island monastery of San Francesco del Deserto -- is to rent a motorboat and driver. This can easily cost several hundred dollars a day.
WHEN TO GO: Timing is everything. The city is most crowded when the weather is best: in May and June and from mid-September to late October. If you arrive without reservations during these times -- and if tourist facilities at the airport or railroad station can't help you secure a last-minute room -- you may end up spending the night in Mestre, the nearest city on the mainland. This is like going to Manhattan and staying in Jersey City.
* Winter in Venice can be an alluring experience. Under a mantle of snow, the city takes on an imperial air, reminiscent of Vienna. The cold also drives away the crowds, so you can have the city almost to yourself. The negative side of this, of course, is that some restaurants are closed, the gondolas are gone for the season, and the tides overflow the Piazza San Marco with disturbing regularity.
In the summer, the tourist machinery is operating at full bore, your fellow tourists are often American, it can be unpleasantly hot, and the canals might smell a little fetid -- but the city is a touch less crowded than in the spring and fall.
WHERE TO STAY: The Danieli, the Cipriani and the Gritti Palace, along with the Excelsior on the Lido, are four of the world's grand hotels, with prices to match: $200 and up for a night. In a more modest range are three eminently comfortable hotels: the 15th-century Saturnia and International; the Monaco and Grand Canal, which has a beautiful open-air terrace restaurant facing the lagoon; and the smaller La Fenice et des Artistes, next to La Fenice theater with an appropriate clientele. All are in the $100 to $150 range for a double; reservations are strongly suggested. Of course, the city also has a range of budget hotels, most of them near the railroad station. More information is available from the Italian Government Travel Office: 630 Fifth Ave., New York. N.Y. 10011, (212) 245-4822.
GONDOLAS: "If you are staying in Venice for any length of time, it is better to hire a gondola and gondolier by the month than by the day. One only pays five francs a day, and when off duty the youth makes an excellent servant in the house."
That may have been true for author Mortimer Menpes in 1904, but the situation's a little different now. The average price is about $30 for an hour trip, and it's a very good idea to establish that fee beforehand. You can find clusters of gondoliers near the major hotels.
There are also "Venice by night" tours, which involve about 30 people in five gondolas, one of them equipped with a guitarist and a singer. These trips are Venice at her most gimmicky and sentimental, and only a few dollars cheaper than hiring a solo gondola. Much cheaper is a traghetto, a gondola that ferries passengers from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. This is what the Venetians take; the cost is about 25 cents.
Why, indeed, bother with a gondola at all? Well, even though the expense is great, the experience can be charming, especially for a nighttime trip. The city takes on a different perspective from this watery angle, and intriguing glimpses are provided into the apartments and palaces, some of which seem to require only one more push to fall into the canals. Furthermore, gondolas themselves are fascinating boats, requiring great dexterity to maneuver.
WHERE TO EAT: You don't go to Venice to eat, and the best general recommendation for restaurants is to stay away from the places that offer "tourist menus." In the less-visited quarters, small neighborhood trattorias can be found in abundance. These offer honest if unspectacular cuisine. On the upscale end, the legendary Harry's Bar, around the corner from the Piazza San Marco, will cost about $100 for lunch for two. The food is excellent, but the setting tends to be cramped. Corte Sconta, on the Calle del Pestrin, has received widespread acclaim in recent years for its engaging combination of sophistication and simplicity. Count on $60 for two, and make a reservation as far in advance as possible. For those bound to Torcello, reservations at either the Ponte del Diavolo or the Locanda Cipriani are necessary. The first will cost about $50 for lunch for two; the second is more expensive.
SPECIAL EXHIBITS: The inaugural exhibit of the restored Palazzo Grassi will be on futurism, the early 20th-century art movement that sought to eliminate conventional form and stress the speed and violence of the machine age. The show, which is designed to document the influence of futurism on painting, music, literature, architecture, photography and film, will run from May 3 through Oct. 12. Related events, including futurist concerts, films and shows, will also be held in Venice during this period.
READING: There are two kinds of books about Venice -- those by Jan Morris and those by everyone else. Morris' "The World of Venice" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), originally published in 1960 when the author was still James Morris, is not so much a guide to the city as an evocation of it. Sometimes it seems every famous author has written about Venice; Morris' work is the best because she has read all of them, gone through all the old documents, visited everywhere in the lagoon and is a superb writer besides.
Morris should be read before your trip. A book that is almost as good and can wait until you get there is J.G. Links' "Venice for Pleasure" (Farrar Straus Giroux), which has the advantage of being small and easy to carry. Published last year in a fourth edition, this is a wonderful guide that takes the reader to different points in the city -- not so much to arrive at a museum or a church, but simply for the pleasure of the journey.
The standard guidebook to the city is Hugh Honour's "Companion Guide to Venice" (Scribner's), which is strong on the museums but light on practical information such as hotels and restaurants. For the really dedicated, John Julius Norwich's "History of Venice" (Knopf) is the best history available in English, while English editions of Giulio Lorenzetti's 1,000-page guidebook "Venice and Its Lagoon" can be picked up on the scene.