A gondolier skillfully maneuvers his black vessel down a canal. “Buona sera!” calls the resident of a waterfront home. Asked to name the place, you’d likely roll your eyes and say Venice. But you’d be wrong.
This scene plays out in Newport Beach, CA, where locals really do greet passing gondolas in Italian for kicks, according to Greg Mohr, president of Newport’s Gondola Adventures, Inc. “Some Realtors even mention ‘having gondolas pass by’ as a selling point when showing homes on the canals,” he says.
While our fascination with Venice-style canals shows no sign of abating, there are gorgeous (and less tourist-clogged) water worlds across Europe, South America, Asia, and even northern Africa. Each destination built around canals is beautiful in its own way, whether amid a tropical backdrop, a city’s historic heart, or in a tranquil outlying neighborhood.
St. Petersburg, Russia, is at its most captivating during summer’s White Nights Festival. Tour boats and speedy hydrofoils ply the museum- and palace-lined canals by day, and revelers spill out of bars after midnight to gather along the waterfront and cheer as illuminated bridges rise to let tall ships pass.
The right approach in southern India’s Kerala region, meanwhile, is to rent your own jackwood-and-rattan houseboat for a languorous ride past women scrubbing clothes in the shallows, cormorants resting on wood pilings, and rice paddies. Further east, the water towns outside Shanghai, with their ancient stone houses and stuck-in-time temples, look like a watercolor come to life.
In Annecy, France, you can swap stories with locals and hikers just back from the Mont Blanc passage over glasses of Savoie wine at canalside restaurants. Or swing by the local morning market to pick up wheels of Reblochon cheese and baguettes for a picnic in the Jardins de l’Europe between the Thiou River and the Canal du Vassé.
And if you just can’t quit the concept of Venice—which novelist Thomas Mann described as somewhere between “a fairy tale and a tourist trap”—put a fresh spin on your visit by taking a gondolier class with Art Viva.
Check out our photos of the world’s most beautiful canal cities and regions, and get more tips on how best to enjoy them.