VENICE, Italy (AP) - For centuries, Venice has captivated travelers with an array of romantic images: gondola rides through glistening canals at sunset, homes painted in vibrant hues of periwinkle and plum.
It's also known as an expensive city. But you can see the basic sights on a budget. For a little over $40, a friend and I spent a glorious day in Venice sampling food, streetscapes and architecture.
There's no better way to start your day in Venice than with an Illy or Lavazza espresso, which will leave you charged for hours. No one in Europe enjoys their coffee quite like the Italians, who huddle around the barista's counter and yell "Buon giorno!" to one another while sipping their high-octane espressos.
I tried a frothy cappuccino from Brek Ristorante - an inexpensive Italian chain - on Cannaregio for $1.60, and picked up a bag of fresh fruit from nearby vendors as we made our way to Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square.
Skip the pricey gondola ride and hop on the No. 1 waterbus. For around $8.75, the bus-boat (called a vaporetto) takes about 45 minutes to traverse the Grand Canal - the main waterway that winds through Venice. The waterbus offers the same views of the city that the gondola ride does.
We found St. Mark's Square a bit lonesome since officials passed an ordinance in April banning tourists and locals from feeding the pigeons that used to flock to the piazza by the thousands. (The birds' filth was blamed for damaging the city's facades and monuments.) Still, no visit to Venice is complete without a stop here.
Next, we made our way to St. Mark's Basilica for a free self-guided tour. The marble floor is decorated in beautiful, intricate mosaics. St. Mark the Evangelist is buried underneath the altar.
A word to the wise: Many churches in Italy have a dress code and won't let you in unless you are dressed appropriately. Count on getting stopped if you're showing too much skin. On a warm day, we saw women wearing tank tops scramble quickly to transform a garbage bag into a shawl to cover their bare shoulders.
From there, we wandered to the Bridge of Sighs, which connects an old prison to Doge's Palace - the seat of Venice's government for many centuries. According to legend, criminals traveled over the enclosed bridge on their way to prison. Before arriving at their cells, they would get one last look at Venice in all its beauty before heaving a breathtaking sigh.
It's not uncommon for Venetian visitors to let out their own sigh of pleasure - over the city's marvelous food and drink.
One of the best things about Venice is its cicchetti bars, where you can get munchies and appetizers alongside a glass of wine for a couple euros. It's a great way to sample a bit of this and that without spending a fortune. Plus, it's how the locals do it. Just be advised that many cicchetti bars close in the early evening.
We tried Cantina do Mori, a speakeasy-looking joint west of the Rialto Bridge popular with locals since 1462. Dozens of old brass pots and bottles of wine decorated the walls, and a blackboard behind the counter displayed red and white wines by the glass. We showed up just as the bartender was closing shop, but he still welcomed us with a half-smile and offered wine. The cost? About $4.50 a glass. We closed the door behind us as we left.
We found a handful of similar establishments nearby, including Osteria ai Storti, which has a fun area for mingling outdoors, and Antica Osteria Ruga Rialto, affectionately known as "the Ruga."
Not wanting to call it a night, we headed toward the Grand Canal. A crowd of young, good-looking Italians were drinking outside in a fairly crowded square near Muro Vino e Cucina, a chic wine bar with a restaurant upstairs. I couldn't muster the "when in Rome" attitude to try a cocktail infused with Campari and prosecco, but opted for more wine - this time two glasses for under $6.
Nearby Venetians mingled and flirted in their trendy Dolce and Gabbana hip-hugging jeans. Around the corner, on a pier next to the Grand Canal, locals sat shoeless, dangling their feet over the edge while taking in the sunset.
As dusk approached, we slowly wandered back to our hotel near Ferrovia to experience Venice at night. With most of the tourists and vendors in for the night and not a car or Vespa in sight, the only sound was the click-clack of our shoes against the cobblestone streets as we navigated the labyrinth of narrow alleyways. Warm light emerging from windows illuminated balconies with flowerpots and clotheslines, introducing a more romantic, peaceful side of the city.
But the darkness made it difficult to read the rusty signs tacked onto the walls with arrows offering direction through the kaleidoscope of Venice's streets, bridges and canals. Suddenly a female voice from above yelled, "Signora!" An elderly Italian woman on her balcony pointed in the opposite direction. Turned out a dead end lay ahead.
"Grazie!" I yelled gratefully.
Near the hotel, we stopped for a slice of pizza at L' Angolo Della Pizza on Cannaregio. For $3.65, I sat at the counter, and ate a margherita-style slice - with red sauce, white cheese and green basil leaves, the colors of the Italian flag - in honor of my Italian grandfather and Queen Margherita, for whom the pizza is named.
Dessert was a couple of scoops of gelato - dense, richly flavored Italian ice cream. With options like strawberry, tiramisu and coconut, the decision wasn't easy. For under $3, I got a couple scoops of stracciatella - vanilla ice cream with chocolate shavings - and hazelnut-flavored Nutella. I wasn't sure the flavors would go well together, but one taste quickly proved me wrong and had me thinking I couldn't have picked a better way to say "Ciao!" to Venice.