Exploring Venice with even the best of maps will still sometimes leave you hopelessly lost. Have no fear! While the throngs beat a well-worn path from Rialto Bridge to San Marco led by enigmatic yellow signs that occasionally point two ways at once, you should also leave yourself plenty of time to wander and explore. Here's what you might find along the way.

 

Starting point: ANYWHERE

Surrounded by water constantly threatening to subsume it, no place on Earth does beautiful decay like Venice. Plaster artfully peeling off mismatched brick walls and crooked exposed beams of heavy wood barely holding buildings upright are part of the charm. What better way to experience Venice than to slip off a main thoroughfare, round a corner and find yourself in an empty courtyard staring up at 300-year-old edifices or alone on a deserted bridge that dead-ends in an eerily empty palazzo, water lapping against its foundation?

 

Starting point: GRAND CANAL

Catch a spectacular sunset over the Grand Canal near San Marco then weave through the quiet backstreets of the Castello district to the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Here the fa├žade of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia (Santa Maria Formosa 5252) glows with a dozen cryptic neon expressions. During the day, you can cross the bridge beneath the saying "Mammalian animals and man" to find yourself inside a charming museum and education center. On the ground floor, water from the canal washes into an exhibition space while the restored second floor rooms overflow with art from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including elaborate Murano glass chandeliers.

 

Starting point: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION

Near the Ponte dell'Accademia, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Dorsoduro 704) houses a treasure trove of modern art from masters including Picasso, Alexander Calder and Max Ernst, but don't miss the spectacular outdoor view of the Grand Canal. From there, drop into old-school wine bar Cantinone Gia Schiavi (Fondamenta Nani 992) -- just look for "Cantini del Vino" above the door then step inside for some excellent "cicchetti" (tapas-style small bites) and surprisingly good house wine starting at 1 euro per glass. Another great spot for cicchetti is Un Mondo di Vino (Cannaregio 5984), which features more than 80 wines by the glass in more subdued Cannaregio, a short walk from the Rialto Bridge.

 

Starting point: RIALTO MARKET

For something more substantial, head to the Rialto Market to peruse the day's catch then wend your way to one of the few remaining fish fry spots, Vecio Fritolin (Calle Regina 30135). Though spruced up and fancified in recent years, you can still get a cone of fried fish and vegetables to go for a reasonable 10 euros. From here, follow bridges and narrow streets to the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, with the second-tallest campanile in Venice and a collection of Renaissance art from Giovanni Bellini and Titian, who also is buried here.

 

Starting point: GIUDECCA

Go farther off the beaten path by taking a vaporetto to the island of Giudecca, a sleepy quarter populated by that rare find -- the real Venetian. Enjoy the peace while strolling along the Fondamenta and ponder views of San Marco in the distance. Feeling the heat? Venice even has beaches. Hit the free Blue Moon Beach on Lido. Here you will find those crowds you had so blissfully left behind.