We arrive in Venice towards the end of August, pretty much peak tourist season, and the Rialto Bridge, St Mark's Square and the main Riva degli Schiavoni quayside are a heaving mass of humanity with all the subsequent irritants and errant elbows.
The queues to get in to the Doge's Palace and St Mark's Basilica are the stuff of legend and trying to even catch a glimpse of the famous Bridge of Sighs is an exercise in (sigh) futility.
This is what people talk about when they dismiss Venice. "Oh, I hear it's a nightmare, just full of people, jammed with tourists."
Venice, though, is so much more than the sum of a few of its more popular parts. Take the time to wander a few blocks back from these tourist traps and it's a very different story. Follow your nose away from Piazza San Marco and soon you find yourself in a rabbit warren of hushed lanes, tranquil canals and the graceful arc of bridges leading to leafy squares dotted with trattorie serving simple Italian fare.
This is true no more so than in the old working-class area of Cannaregio, which has all the charm of the rest of the city but without the crowds. Only 2.5 kilometres from St. Mark's Square – a meandering 30-minute walk – Cannaregio is the northernmost of the six Venetian sestieri (districts). It's also the biggest, the most populated (about 20,000 people at last count) and one of the least visited.
Created initially in the 11th century when the land was drained and local canals dredged, Cannaregio remained resolutely a working-class neighbourhood despite the grand palaces built on the banks of the Grand Canal on the area's southern border. It was also the site of the world's first ever ghetto when in 1516, the authorities forcibly segregated the Jewish population into an area on the site of an old foundry.
I first spent time in Cannaregio 10 years ago when I rented an apartment for a month in freezing January. This, by the way, is to my mind the perfect time to visit; there are no crowds anywhere so you can stroll into any of the main destinations without queueing; it's after new year but before Carnevale so there are bargains; and dog poo (Venetians are famously poor at picking up after their pooches) is quickly frozen solid.
This is my first time back since, so when it transpires that our Country Roads of Northern Italy tour includes two nights in a hotel in Cannaregio, it is all I can do not to order another prosecco in celebration.
We arrive at the mainland car park in our luxury coach via the Verona-Venezia freeway. This cuts through a flat industrial landscape which gradually begins to improve as the factories give way to more agriculture and the little exclamation points of church towers in the distance.
From the car park, we board a fleet of beautiful wooden speedboats which take us to the Eurostars Residenza Hotel at Calle dei Riformati, set in a former monastery and with several rooms and suites overlooking the Rio di Sant'Alvise canal. After a quick spruce-up, we are met by a guide for a walking tour of the district.
Cannaregio might not have the pale pastel perfection of the Doge's Palace or the pull of the Rialto Bridge but neither is it crammed with people. It pulls off the perfect tourism trifecta by being low-key, unloved and lovely. "Nobody comes here," says our guide. "It's just too far from St Mark's Square."
It is, however, full of life without being over-full. There is a main artery (a road, not a canal) which wends its way from the main Santa Lucia train station right through the district to the Rialto. This series of streets hugs the north bank of the Grand Canal and contains all the high street shops, supermarkets and souvenir stalls you can poke a gondolier's oar at.
It's away from this thoroughfare, though, that the real magic is to be found. It's here you'll find the old Jewish ghetto, captivating churches, quiet residential areas festooned with laundry lines and a breathtaking maze of bridges and canals leading to secretive dead-end quays that beg to be sat upon with a bottle of prosecco.
At night there are buzzy canals peppered with the bright lights of small, family-run trattorie where locals and the more adventurous tourists alike sit by sparkling waters eating cheap pasta with good red wine.
And if the pull of the bright lights of St Mark's Square does prove impossible to resist? Head on down regardless, as we do after dinner in one of the Cannaregio restaurants. The crowds are gone, the cafes around the square are empty and the waiters bored.
Order an Aperol Spritz. According to our guide, it was invented here but must always, to be an authentic Venetian spritz, come with a slice of orange and an olive. And who am I to argue? Saluti.
All the major airlines operate frequent, one-stop, flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Milan's Malpensa airport.
Insight Vacations operates throughout Europe and Britain. The 10-day Country Roads of Northern Italy guided holiday costs from $3595 a person twin share. Prices include some meals, airport transfers, an expert travel director as well as local specialists along the way. The Venice portion of the tour includes a gondola ride and glass-blowing demonstration. The walking tour and a lunch on Burano Island are optional extras. See insightvacations.com
Keith Austin was a guest of Insight Vacations.