Jet lag wakes me too early on my first morning in Venice. It's just starting to get light so I set off for a walk, heading for the edge of the jigsaw puzzle of islands that make up the city in the hope of seeing the sun rise over the sea.
The streets are quiet and utterly deserted, the buildings so enchantingly crumbling and crooked they could have been drawn by a child. I cross small bridges over mirror-smooth canals, nodding to enormous seagulls standing on mooring posts. Washing flutters like bunting between apartment blocks. I get lost and find a small park, where I kick off my shoes and wriggle my toes in the soft grass as the morning sun lights up the tops of the trees.
Back in my hotel room, I throw open the tall windows and look down on the square below. I see mothers walking their children to school, couples strolling to work, a man sitting in the sun outside his shop reading Il Gazzettino. There's not a tourist in sight.
How is this possible in one of Europe's most famously overtouristed cities, in June?
It helps that I'm staying in one of the city's most residential and newly-hip neighbourhoods, Cannaregio in northern Venice. My hotel, Kosher House, also happens to be in the middle of the city's Jewish quarter, which dates back to 1516 when it became home to hundreds, and later thousands, of Jewish people fleeing persecution all over Europe. Which explains why, when I set off for another walk after my kosher (not that you'd notice) breakfast, I see boys wearing yarmulke kicking soccer balls and bearded men in Orthodox black walking in pairs, deep in conversation.
It's 20 minutes and a world away from busy St Mark's Square.
At Santa Lucia station that first morning I meet local guide Camilla Feiffer, who was born in Cannaregio, for a three-hour Sweet Taste of Venice walking tour. It's the perfect introduction to a Venice I didn't think still existed.
At our first stop, Pasticceria dal mas, which has been serving pastries and coffee in tiny cups since 1906, we mingle with locals standing at small high tables, downing espressos on their way to work. Camilla teaches me how to order coffee like an Italian – "Un caffe, per favore", which will get you an espresso. If you want a latte, it's "un caffe latte". Asking for just a "latte" will get you a glass of milk, she adds, and standing is cheaper than sitting down. (Only the tourists seem to drink coffee from takeaway cups.)
Between stops for tiramisu and traditional S-shaped cookies inspired by the Grand Canal, she gives me a local's take on the city's history. "There's only one piazza [square] in Venice, Piazza San Marco," she says. The other square-like areas are called "campi", literally "fields" because they were originally green spaces where people would keep livestock, grow and sell produce and draw water from wells. Now they're mostly places to sit on benches under leafy trees and drink cool, clean water from public fountains.
There's nothing like wandering with a local. Whenever we emerge from a lane at a tourist thoroughfare, Camilla leads me down another on a dogleg detour to our destination, chatting all the way, not needing a map, so well does she know the city. She also recommends alternative sights for me to see later, including postcard city views from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore (less crowded than the tower in St Mark's Square) and Palazzo Grimani in Santa Maria Formosa, in Castello, the district next to Cannaregio. "It's one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Venice, and no one knows about it," she says.
It seems incredible that this small island city visited by more than 30 million people a year still has sights no one knows about. It inspires me, in fact, to forgo gondola rides and galleries for the rest of my three-day stay. Instead I take the "untourist" track.
I take slow walks to nowhere in particular, stopping to take pictures of interesting doors, cats sitting like ornaments in sunny windows, fresh flowers in baskets outside antique shops.
At first, it feels like heresy to do this. Then it's liberating, to be relieved of the sense of duty to see and do as much as I can, and I make the most of being there in other ways. I have time to chat to artists and mask-makers at work in their studios and shops. I stumble upon grand, ancient churches whose names I still don't know. Without meaning to, I find the "snail-shell" spiral staircase attached to the Scala Contarini Del Bovolo, a Renaissance, Gothic and Byzantine blend of Venetian architecture tucked away in a side street.
Untourism, paradoxically, might just be the next big thing in travel – or at least an antidote to overtourism, particularly in European cities. The Untourist Guide to Amsterdam was launched recently, for instance. It's a guide book and a website offering offbeat activities to help tourists connect with locals and "give back" to the city, such as "Marry an Amsterdammer for a day" (which involves "honeymooning" at untouristy spots) and "Weed dating" (where you chat to locals while you weed an organic orchard).
There's no Untourist Guide to Venice, yet, but locals and city tourism authorities are moving in this direction [see box].
And Venice happens to be surprisingly untourist-friendly. You can walk across the city in 40 minutes and there's a labyrinth of lanes to get lost in (a core untourist activity). It feels safe and clean, the streets and canals remarkably free of rubbish. Being car-free, it's surprisingly quiet too; in Cannaregio, I fall asleep every night listening to the wind in the trees and Italian conversations drifting in through my open window like a lullaby.
Then there's the calming presence of water everywhere – shining in the sun at the end of every street, splashing up on footpaths at high tide. Even in the middle of the city, you can smell the salt in the air, feel the sea breeze at unexpected moments and hear the cry of seagulls.
One morning, on a whim, I follow the "Per San Marco" signs to St Mark's Square. It's so enormous that despite the large groups of cruise ship passengers I see trailing behind tour guides, it doesn't feel crowded – until I notice the long lines of people waiting to visit the jewel-box-like Basilica and the Doge's Palace.
Following Camilla's example, I duck down a random lane and find myself suddenly alone, the sound of my footsteps echoing against medieval brick walls on either side. It's a reminder that even the world's busiest, most written-about cities have pockets of quiet, places and experiences you won't read about anywhere. How to find them? All you need is some free time, a letting go of the desire to see (or take selfies with) famous landmarks, and enough curiosity to lead you around the next corner into the unknown.
HOW TO BE AN UNTOURIST IN VENICE
1. TRY FAIRBNB
Launched in September in Venice and four other European cities as an ethical alternative to Airbnb, this social enterprise donates half its income from short-term rentals to sustainable community projects. See fairbnb.coop
2. GO "OFF-COURSE"
Part of the City of Venice's Detourism Project, the FuoriRotta ("off-course") map promotes unusual and sustainable attractions in the city such as farmers markets, green spaces and fair-trade shops. Download it at veneziaunica.it/en
3. USE VENEZIA AUTENTICA
Set up by two locals in 2015, "Authentic Venice" aims to reconnect visitors and locals and help tourism have a positive impact on Venice. Their 13-euro Friends' Pass, valid for a year, offers discounts at more than 80 local shops, restaurants and bars. See veneziaautentica.com
4. GET ACTIVE
Paddle canals off-limits to gondolas and larger vessels with local guides from Venice Kayak. Or rent a bike in beachy Lido, head south and catch a boat to the long thin island of Pellestrina to ride past fishing hamlets and pristine sand dunes facing the Adriatic. See venicekayak.com, venicebikerental.com
Venice's official tourism website has 12 responsible travel tips such as: stay a few nights, use the public fountains instead of buying bottled water, keep right in narrow streets and avoid dragging wheeled suitcases over ancient steps. See veneziaunica.it/en
Emirates flies to Venice via Dubai daily from Sydney, Adelaide and Perth, and twice daily from Melbourne and Brisbane. See emirates.com
Kosher House in Cannaregio, 10 minutes from Venice Santa Lucia train station, has 14 stylishly minimalist rooms from 120 euros a night including breakfast. See pardesrimonim.net/en/
Urban Adventures offers city tours led by locals all over the world and has three Venice tours including The Sweet Taste of Venice from $135 per person. See urbanadventures.com
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Urban Adventures and Intrepid Travel.