World's Most Beautiful Canal Cities
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.
Sweden’s capital is built on 14 islands with 57 connecting bridges, and a bike ride along the major Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen canal will bring you to the Vasa Museum, with its intact 17th-century warship. Canalside beaches like Rålambshovsparken draw families for picnics and twentysomethings out to people-watch, while the trendy island of Södermalm offers cool-kid bars, vintage shops, and a great view, across Riddarfjarden canal, of the gabled houses of Kungsholmen island.
How to Do It Right: Rent your own wheels at Stockholm City Bikes (110 pickup and drop-off points). In winter, smaller canals freeze over solidly enough for ice-skating.
China’s Water Towns
These six towns are a tranquil break from Shanghai, an hour’s drive away. Imagine stone bridges built during the Ming Dynasty that arch over canals streaming from the Yangtze River Delta, auspicious red lanterns that sway in the wind, and temples with roof eaves that curve upward like wings. And the secret’s out: towns like Zhouzhuang or Tongli can get crowded with visitors, many of them Chinese.
The capital of West Flanders is lovely and underrated (you don’t hear about your cousin honeymooning here or a family friend making it her 65th birthday trip). The well-preserved city center of brick Gothic architecture was once the stomping ground of the Flemish old master painters. Of the canals that make up a moat around the old town and snake out to the ocean, Dijver runs between antique shops and the Church of Our Lady; Groene Rei is tree-lined and tranquil; and Spinolarei has stepped gable houses.
How to Do It Right: Book a stay at the quirky, cool Hotel De Barge moored just outside the city center in the Bruges-Ghent canal.
Take the train from Buenos Aires to Tigre, and once you arrive at the waterfront—all tile, iron railings, and old-timey street lamps—you’ll start to appreciate that life here is oriented around el agua. Instead of museums or libraries, the lovely old buildings are canoe clubs. And that’s only the beginning. Tigre, built on the delta of the Paraná River, is a hodgepodge of islets with elegant vacation homes, ramshackle fishing abodes, and camp-style resorts. Some waterways are big enough for water taxis and private boats while others, thick with pussy willows and ceibo trees, accommodate only a single skiff.
How to Do It Right: Spend a night or two at the Delta Eco Spa on an island 20 minutes from Tigre’s main boat station.
When the light hits the canals of Annecy just right, they gleam startlingly green-blue like sea glass. Find your vantage point among the canalside restaurants and bars that fill up with locals and tourists swapping stories over plates of delicate lake fish like féra and glasses of Savoie wine. Must-take photo: on a triangular islet in the Thiou River, the Palais de l’Isle has been reimagined as a residence, a courthouse, a jail, and, currently, a museum.
How to Do It Right: Stock up at the market that happens on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings for a picnic in the Jardins de l’Europe between the Thiou River and the Canal du Vassé.
Newport Beach, CA
The harbor area of this chilled-out community comprises 1930s-era canals separating seven islands, including Balboa with its famous dunked-in-chocolate, rolled-in-nuts ice cream bars. The waterways are lined with grand mansions and salty old beach cottages, and, further on, you’ll spy hidden parks and pocket beaches like Pirate’s Cove. Just about everyone has a boat; dock and dine at waterfront restaurants like Woody’s Wharf.
This go-go Asian metropolis is all bright lights and flashing signs; catcalling lady boys and honking tuk-tuks; street vendors slinging pad see ew noodles to locals and backpackers. But sooner or later, you’re confronted with a canal scene. Of the hundreds of miles of khlong (canals) that looped around the city in the 1800s, only a fraction remain—in the downtown Thonburi neighborhood and in the outlying Green Lung area, where farmers and fishermen get around via canals and elevated walkways.
How to Do It Right: Boat rides are offered on downtown canals. The Green Lung is best experienced over multiple days; book a room at the Bangkok Tree House.
Neoclassical buildings ring central Lake Alster, from which canals branch off to various neighborhoods, notably: Altstadt, with its 17th- and 18th-century merchants’ mansions; Speicherstadt, a red-brick warehouse district that lights up magnificently at night; and HafenCity, a modern urban-renewal project on the old harbor that will encompass office and residential space, hotels, and restaurants.
How to Do It Right: Take a two-hour twilight boat tour with ATG that departs from the chichi neighborhood of Jungfernstieg.
El Gouna, Egypt
Despite its location, El Gouna has more in common with that newish subdivision in your hometown than it does with, say, the pyramids. It’s a resort town that began development in the 1990s. The lagoons, stemming from the Red Sea, create turquoise channels between islands whose ocher-colored hotels and private villas blend into the arid desert landscape. When the going gets too hot, cool off at one of the beaches.
How to Do It Right: Nestle into the fancy new La Maison Bleue Hotel with frescoed walls and detailed tilework.
This small town outside Amsterdam grew up in swampy marshland, and the solution of 12th-century peat farmers was to dig canals to transport their goods. Giethoorn still possesses four miles of waterways, crisscrossed by more than 150 wood footbridges and with lush front yards sloping from thatched-roof houses down to the water’s edge. Roads do not extend to the central old town, so 2,500 residents get around mostly by punting.
How to Do It Right: Venture out on your own by renting a battery-powered “whisper boat” from B&B Mol Groenewegen.
St. Petersburg, Russia
An intricate network of canals crisscrosses this crown jewel among Russian cities. The grand Neva River (pictured) breaks off into strands that go by the State Hermitage Museum and circa-1800 cathedrals and mansions. All kinds of watercraft ply the canals, including futuristic hydrofoils that can speed you to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s epic summer palace.
How to Do It Right: Visit during the annual summer White Nights Festival, which heralds the midnight sun with concerts, exhibits, and street fairs. Revelers spill out of bars to gather along the water and cheer the late-night raising of the Neva River bridges to let tall ships pass.
Cape Coral, FL
Nicknamed the “Waterfront Wonderland,” this city was conceived in the late ’50s and early ’60s when another would-be planned community, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), was still a twinkle in Walt Disney’s eye. The latter became a theme park attraction, but Cape Coral was built around 400 miles of navigable canals. More than 150,000 now reside in this palm-fringed city, with the family car parked in front of the house—plus the family boat out back.
How to Do It Right: Take a ride courtesy of Cape Coral Canal Charters, or picnic on the beaches at the Yacht Club Community Park or the Four Freedoms Park.
We’d be remiss not to acknowledge the nonno (grandfather) of all canal cities. Novelist Thomas Mann declared it somewhere between “a fairy tale and a tourist trap.” Yes, the canals can smell funky at times—winter, mainly—and the crowds can make it one of the world’s least romantic places, but you can be among a tourist herd, turn a corner, and find yourself alone in a magical corner. There’s no denying Venice’s continued magnetism.
How to Do It Right: Base yourself on the island of Giudecca and try the new hop-on, hop-off Vaporetto dell’Arte tours, with stops by more than 20 cultural institutions. If you just can’t quit the gondola idea, take a gondolier class with Art Viva.
Women in candy-colored saris scrub clothes in the shallows, cormorants rest on wood pilings poking out of the water, and shimmering rice paddies merge with the horizon. If you were looking for an excuse to upgrade your camera, a trip to this picturesque water world in southern India is it. These canals were dug about 100 years ago to aid the transport of coir, a coconut-husk fiber used in floor mats, brushes, and rope.
How to Do It Right: Rent a houseboat with a jackwood hull and bamboo-and-palm living quarters from the Alappuzha District Tourism Promotion Council’s “houseboat pre-paid counter.”