When one thinks of cities that are dominated by water, the place that almost instantly comes to mind is that unique piece of history that is Venice — one of the most successful city states that ever existed and where, unexpectedly, the concept of assembly lines in manufacturing originated from. The Venetian Arsenal was Europe’s first and largest military-industrial complex prior to the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, when Venice was a major maritime power and had an extensive shipbuilding programme. If you haven’t been to Venice yet, then you should promote it to the top of your bucket list as it is a city without peer in terms of its beauty, history, uniqueness and character. Some people complain about the hordes of tourists there (popularity has its consequences); the bad odors that can emanate from its canals during particularly hot weather or the costs associated with staying there although I must add that, except for the crowds, I’ve never experienced the other two phenomena.
If you’ve already been and fancy visiting other cities that exude a similar (if albeit muted) charm because of their aqueous surroundings, then you may be surprised to find that there’s a lot more of them around than you think — and in countries that you wouldn’t expect them to crop up. Here’s a far from exhaustive list with which to start:
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 fully intact 17th-century warship.
The well-preserved city centre of brick Gothic architecture of the capital of West Flanders 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.
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.
St. Petersburg, Russia
An intricate network of canals crisscrosses this crown jewel among Russian cities. The grand Neva River breaks off into strands that go by the world-famous Hermitage museum and early 19th century cathedrals and mansions.
This pretty little town in central Portugal boasts its own colouful gondolas which are powered by outboard motors rather than gondoliers but without the extortionate prices either. The canal network is quite small but colouful nonetheless. Worth a detour for a half-day excursion if you’re in the area.
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.
Newport Beach, California
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,
Annecy is an alpine town in southeastern France, where Lake Annecy feeds into the Thiou River. It’s known for its Vieille Ville (old town), with cobbled streets, winding canals and pastel-colored houses.
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 holiday homes, ramshackle fishing huts, and camp-style parks. Some waterways are big enough for water taxis and private boats while others, thick with Ceibo trees, accommodate only a single skiff.