Venice was surprising. Endlessly written about and photographed, forever referenced in history, perpetually emulated for its art and architecture, I was apprehensive that Venice would be all cliché: gondolas clogging canals, tourists jostling on tiny streets, an unfortunate large-scale theme park of itself.

The Venice we found was romantic, intriguing, and real. Just like any major city, Venice sees a significant amount of tourist traffic (estimates of 20 million a year). But tourist culture is the same no matter if you're in New York, Paris, or London: the bulk of visitors go to the same places, and they do so in giant selfie-stick wielding clumps. If you want to avoid tourists, it's easy: don't go to those places. And if you really want to go to a specific site, it's still possible to carve out a space for yourself. One day, we visited the Doge's Palace, a spectacular piece of architecture that's meticulously preserved, glittery, and extensive. A thorough visit requires attention and time, something that many cruise ship visitors simply don't have – their allotted day in Venice only allows them time to wander the outside or speed through quickly. Thus, even in a destination like the Doge's Palace, we frequently found ourselves standing in rooms entirely alone. In Venice, you're most likely to become overwhelmed by people in Piazza San Marco and around the Rialto Bridge. But as soon as you step aside onto a side street, the clumps of people nearly disappear.

A few weeks after our trip, my memories of Venice have been solidified into a few main themes. First, I'm already wistfully remembering the relative lack of ambient noise. There's a quiet that coats the city in a filter of peace and calm. Venice is a city of canals, not roads. This means there are no cars, no buses, no mopeds, no honking, no revving of engines, no squealing of brakes. Through airbnb, we stayed on the top floor of a 14th century palace, complete with two patios that offered 360 degree views. We would go out on the patios, or open the windows, and instead of being blasted back inside by city noise and honking, we frequently couldn't hear anything except for sporadic church bells, idle conversations in Italian, and children playing. At night, it was as quiet outside as if you were camping in the middle of a forest.

This lack of cars translates into a very compelling reality: every single part of Venice is a pedestrian street. I always enjoy Europe's various pedestrian streets and walking without fear of getting run over by a moped or honked at by a stressed driver. To have a few pedestrian streets multiplied into an entire city was an unimagined dream come to life. Many of Venice's streets are windy, narrow, guiding you over various side canals only to double back onto a street you just left. Venice is a city to get lost in – the guidebooks agree! – but it's not as if you're ever really lost: the Grand Canal will orient you to your relative position on the interconnected islands. In this case, "getting lost" really means embracing the concept of letting your legs take you where you need to go, while remaining open to the possibility of discovery along the way.

Unsurprisingly, water transport and aquatic cuisine dominate Venice. You can walk many parts of Venice without ever needing to get on a boat, but their boat-bus system (vaporettos) are the ultimate site-seeing vehicle. One day, after wandering around the Castello Sestiere and back towards Piazza San Marco, we took a boat over to San Giorgio Maggiore and went to the top of the bell tower for panoramic city and lagoon views. From there, we could have taken a more direct boat back to our sestiere (San Polo), but instead elected to take the scenic route – and for the cost of a bus ticket, we sailed beside Giudecca and around Tronchetto before wrapping back into the Grand Canal. It's the kind of boat ride that you'd pay serious money for in another city, but in Venice it's a daily commute for many.

We also took a boat out to several other lagoon islands, stopping in Mazzorbo to eat at Venissa, before walking to Burano and boating to Murano. Burano was colorful and cute, but because of its diminutive size, it was overrun by tourists, all of whom seemed to be snapping photos of hanging laundry. We learned that the typical order to visit these islands is to boat from Venice to Murano, visit the glass stores, eat lunch, and then spend the afternoon on Burano. We did the opposite, and so when we arrived in Murano, it felt like a ghost town. Many of the glass shops were still open, but we wandered through the stores almost entirely on our own.

We found a few spectacular restaurants close to our apartment and decided to stick with what we liked – enjoying the neighborhood feel of both and the exceptional sourcing of seafood, vegetables, and wine from nearby Veneto. The seafood is fresh, seasonal, and local – all the buzzwords we want to hear, brought to life without too much pomp or pretense in Venice.

Actually, that lack of pretense is a good way to sum up the Venice we experienced. The city is magical, influential, and unique, but it's still a functioning city – garbage boats boating along side water taxis. For me, the magic of Venice is the result of normal life lived in such a unique way.