10 Historic Canal Towns to Visit That Aren’t Venice
Venice might be the most famous town to feature picturesque waterways, but beautiful canals can be found all over the globe
Venice could well be the world's most famous canal town: it's hard to imagine canals without envisioning the Italian city's winding waterways, gracefully arched bridges, sputtering vaporettos and striped gondoliers. Its beautiful canals are no secret, which is part of Venice's problem—every day, over 60,000 tourists flood the city's tiny streets. Venice's popularity as a tourist destination has led some advocacy groups—and UNESCO—to worry about its future. In 2009, Venice's permanent residents held a mock funeral for the city, which doubled as a sort of protest against tourism. Now, with massive cruise ships bringing even more tourists into the area, there's renewed concern that the large ships could even be compromising Venice's buildings and infrastructure.
If you dream of sauntering across picturesque canals, but want to avoid Venice's crowds, you're in luck: canals have been used since Mesopotamia, and there are beautiful canals in nearly every corner of the globe. Here are ten especially wonderful canal towns that aren't Venice.
Beautiful canals probably aren't the first thing you associate with Amsterdam, but they should be—Amsterdam actually has more canals than Venice. The first canals were built in the Middle Ages, as a source of transportation and defense. Radiating out from the city's core, Amsterdam has four main canals: the Singel, the Herengracht, the Keizergracht and the Prinsengracht. The Herengracht and Keizergracht were both built to create new neighborhoods for Amsterdam's wealthy, while the smaller Prinsengracht was meant for the middle-class. Today, you can see Amsterdam's classic gabled architecture along any of the canals. In 2009, UNESCO named Amsterdam's central canal ring a World Heritage site.
Just a short train ride away from Brussels, Belgium's capital city and the capital of the European Union, lies Bruges, a quaint canal town in Belgium's Flemish region. Settled in the 13th century as a stop in the areas's lucrative textile trade, Bruges appears like something out of a fairy-tale: small, cobblestone streets, picturesque bridges and beautiful gabled houses. With such a quaint feel, it might be hard to imagine that Bruges had a population of 200,000 in 1500—double that of London at the time. Bruges' canals, fed by the North Sea, host a festival every four years, which include performances by musicians and actors and lights that illuminate the canals.
Water makes up approximately one-third of Sweden's capital city—built across 14 islands, Stockholm, sometimes called the "Beauty on Water," is connected by a vast canal network and 57 bridges. In the winter, when the canals freeze over, locals and tourists alike take to the frozen waterways for ice skate sailing—like wind-surfing, but with ice skates.
Twenty miles from Buenos Aires sits Tigre, a town built on hundreds of tiny islands in the Paraná Delta. Boats run throughout the area, offering visitors a chance to see a landscape that the New York Times describes as "what Venice might have looked like before development." As you glide along the delta's waters, check out the area's unique architecture, a mixture of stilted houses and Victorian-inspired colonial mansions. Tigre's remote location inspires a blend of adventure and relaxation among locals and visitors alike: consider a visit to one of the area's "countries" (name after American country clubs), gated spas that also offer kayaking, horseback riding and bird watching.
Annecy, often billed as the "Venice of France," sits in the Haute-Savoie region, along the shores of Lac d'Annecy. Unlike other canal towns, which use their waterways to access the sea, Annecy's picturesque canals are lake-fed. The Lac d'Annecy is the third largest lake in France, and is also known as "Europe's cleanest lake" due to strict environmental regulations in the area. One of Annecy's most recognizable features is the Palais de l'Ile, a 12th-century palace situated on a triangular turn of the city's main canal, the Canal du Thiou. Throughout its existence, the Palais de l'Ile has been a palace, a prison, a courthouse and a mint—today, it houses exhibits about city's history.
Canals aren't reserved for quaint European towns—bustling Asian cities also featured canals in their city planning. Before being drained in the 19th and throughout the 20th century to make way for paved roads (and due to concerns about disease in stagnant water), Bangkok boasted a massive array of crisscrossing canals. Today, a few original canals, or khlongs, still exist. Bangkok's Khlong Saen Saeb cuts through the center of the city, making it an ideal spot for sightseeing and shopping. Another canal, the Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem, snakes around the city's Grand Palace, while other canals still run through the Thonburi neighborhood. The canals are also home to Bangkok's floating markets, which attract large crowds of tourists and locals alike.
St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city, is nestled at the confluence of two bodies of water: the Neva River and the Baltic Sea. To help drain the swampy land around St. Petersburg, the city dug multiple canals, which Peter the Great modeled after another Amsterdam. Float down the Moyka canal to marvel at impressive Neo-Classical mansions built for the 19th-century aristocracy, or follow the Winter Canal for sights of the Winter Palace.
Like St. Petersburg, Copenhagen sits on the edge of the Baltic Sea, and like St. Petersburg, Copenhagen is dotted by beautiful canals. Copenhagen's most famous canal district, perhaps, is the Nyhavn, the area of town that connects Copenhagen's old city center with the sea. Dug in the 1670s, the Nyhavn was once known for its salty, seafaring clientele, as sailors coming into Copenhagen would frequent the area looking for alcohol and prostitutes—Copenhagen's equivalent of a red light district. The famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen also lived in the Nyhavn for almost two decades—he wrote his famous story "The Princess and the Pea" in his apartment at No. 20 Nyhavn. Today, the area is known for its beautiful, colored row houses and historic wooden ships.
Alleppy, Kerala, India
Alleppy, also called Alappuzha, is a city in India's southern district of Kerala, and it's also an important gateway to the Kerala backwaters, a series of lakes and lagoons parallel to the Arabian Sea. For centuries the residents of Alleppy and the surrounding towns would transport rice and other goods via the waterways on houseboats—today, enterprising tour operators let visitors experience the houseboats, some of which have been converted in luxury houseboats with multiple floors, balconies and huge rooms.
Tai'erzhuang, Shandong Province, China
Tai'erzhuang is an ancient Chinese city that was first settled during the Han dynasty, between 206 and 220 AD, and thrived as a trading hub during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In 2009, the local government invested almost $750 million (in U.S. dollars) to revitalize the area, making it a picturesque destination for tourists looking to explore one of China's water towns —its close proximity to Beijing makes it an easy day trip. The ancient town is small, but offers visitors picturesque canals, as well as traditional temples and modern museums.