Jet lag awakened me at 4 a.m., denying further sleep. Things could be worse. After all, I'm in Venice, the most magical, romantic city in the world. Anxiously awaiting a day of Italian sites, culture, vino, and cuisine was like torture. Nearly a restless hour passed in my room near the Accademia Bridge, and with the dawn I decided to get out and wander around town until a café opened. But what this magnificent city was about to offer was unexpected.

Venturing out into the early light on this June morning, the air was comfortable enough for shorts and t-shirt. Crossing over the Accademia en route to San Marcos Square, I first noticed the pervading quiet. With nary a sound heard and not a soul seen, it suddenly dawned (literally and metaphorically), I have Venice to myself! The canals and bridges, the web of narrow walkways, the stunning architecture "“ all mine! And with sunrise, the early morning light was ideal for photos, casting long, dramatic shadows and bright colors even the most seasoned of photographers could appreciate. Snapping pictures continually as I wandered in amazement, it seemed every corner yielded yet another glorious shot. Brilliant colors illuminated by rays of sunlight, open windows flanked by green shutters, window boxes spilling over with a plethora of blooming flowers. Bella Venezia!

Emerging from a tunnel, I arrived upon San Marcos Square. Aside from the flocks of pigeons and a few workers sweeping up after diners from the evening prior, the square was mine, as well. The Campanile bell tower's shadow stretched the length of the square. Grand Canal was calm and shone bright like diamonds on the water. Photos of such a place sans the scores of tourists are a true rarity!

Perhaps you've visited Venice amongst the throngs of day-trippers, finding yourself overwhelmed by the crowds and unable to truly savor all this magical city has to offer. Venetians say there are two tides "“ the tide of the sea, and the tide of tourists who train-in by the thousands for the day. Both tides are low in the early morning and evening, and high midday. Spend those midday hours getting lost in the back streets, away from the crowds, where pubs and cafes are frequented by locals, scenery is as exquisite, and Italian culture is rich. And should you find yourself lost amongst the tangle of walkways and canals of this tiny island (which is half the fun), ask anyone "Dov'e (doh-vay) San Marcos?" (Where is San Marcos), and you'll be pointed in the right direction.

I continued meandering my way through a morning never to be forgotten, until the aroma of fresh-brewing coffee led me to the nearest café for a cappuccino con croissant. Sitting and sipping in amazement, I felt deeply rewarded for something I hadn't planned or asked for. Italy has a way of making gracious visitors feel so welcomed. Although this extraordinary moment of savoring Venice to myself lasted hardly an hour before Venetian life awakened, it remains an absolute favorite travel highlight.

Often, moments like these are stumbled upon. When traveling, I maintain an open mind and remain eager for unplanned moments. Waiting out a rainstorm in a bar chatting with locals can turn a day of touristy sightseeing into new friends. There's undiscovered culture in those local haunts. And instead of staying in expensive hotels, I opt for a room in a family-run pensione, where I get personal hospitality, my own Italian mama, and accepted as family. Indulge in the culture, speak some local language, connect with people and I can connect with myself. And I recommend, wherever your travels lead, see the town at dawn. It's truly an awakening, in more ways than one.

Photo by Michael Henderson