Beyond Venice: 8 Must-See Canal Cities

Waterway cutting through a city landscape
Photo: kavalenkava/Shutterstock

There's something magical about urban waterways, especially when they are an integral part of everyday life. Venice is the best example of a canal destination. Whether visitors opt for a touristy gondola ride or a cruise on a more modern water taxi, traveling on water through this Italian city's historic landscapes is an experience not to forget.

And while high prices and tourist hordes may detract from the magic of Venice, there are other canal cities with a similar allure. Here are some lesser-known canal cities to consider for your next trip.

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Suzhou

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Suzhou is a historic Chinese city in Jiangsu Province near the mega-metropolis of Shanghai. The city's older neighborhoods are criss-crossed by canals. Though more humble in stature than Venice's palatial mansions, the waterside buildings here are equally historic. Couple these history-infused waterways with Suzhou's many classical Chinese gardens, and visitors get a tranquil place to spend their vacation.

Smaller, narrower canals lead into more residential neighborhoods, while the Suzhou Grand Canal is wider and flows past some of the city's best sights. Streets made from paving stones dating back hundreds of years run through the Old Town alongside the waterways. These ancient streets are now lined with cafes, restaurants and shops, providing a complete canal-side experience. Along with the aforementioned gardens, Suzhou's temples, opera house and mild climate make it a popular stop in eastern China.

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Bruges

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The Belgian city of Bruges (Brugge to the country's Dutch-speaking population) rivals Venice when it comes to well-preserved pre-car-era neighborhoods. The old core of the city features street after street of charming and historic buildings. The canals cross these timeless neighborhoods, adding to the back-in-time feeling that Bruges is known for.

Yes, there are boat tours of the canals, but you can also rent a bicycle or simply hike alongside the waterways and down the centuries-old lanes. Bruges is in the heart of chocolate country, so there are specialty shops galore. Many are found near the huge central plaza, the Grote Markt, which is framed by a towering belfry that visitors can climb to get a panoramic view of this charming city.

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Bangkok

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Anyone who has ever tried to negotiate the roads of Thailand's capital city can tell you that the waterways are a nuisance to drivers. The innumerable canals — called khlongs in local vernacular — make grid-like street layouts impossible and create the perfect recipe for gridlock. Ironically, the khlongs are the best way to get away from Bangkok's traffic jams. Water taxis offer an alternative means of public transportation in this busy city. Even those who travel further afield to Thonburi, a district on the far side of the Chao Phraya River, will experience the charms of the canals.

Many khlong neighborhoods are poor and consist of modest dwellings built on stilts. Here, life revolves around the waterways just as it has for centuries, with many residents more likely to have a boat than a motorcycle or car. Tropical fruit orchards, small pagodas and temples are also part of the backwater scenery.

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Giethoorn

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The Netherlands are crisscrossed by canal networks, and some of the most charming can be found in Giethoorn in the eastern part of the country. Here, tourists will find canal landscapes of storybook legend. Narrow waterways flow past classic Dutch countryside homes and under wooden bridges. The canals connect a series of shallow lakes, and some people rent a boat or bike and simply wander around enjoying the garden-like landscapes and peaceful atmosphere.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Giethoorn is that it is completely vehicle-free. Though there are bike paths that run through the area, motorized traffic is virtually nonexistent. Some of the homes sit on small islands in the middle of lakes and are accessible only by bridges or boats. Giethoorn is one of the best places to get a refreshing glimpse of a place that still embraces the pre-car era.

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Birmingham, England

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A center of commerce during the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham is now the second largest city in England. Promotional materials often mention that Birmingham has more canals than Venice or Amsterdam (in terms of overall length). Because it is such a large city, the canals do not play a central part in the lives of most locals.

While much of Birmingham is filled with modern buildings, one of the best ways to get a taste of the city's Victorian heyday is to cruise the canal networks, which were used to transport goods during the Industrial Revolution's manufacturing boom. Pleasant parks and walking paths have been built beside some of the canals, while others loop past areas that have changed little in the past 100 years.

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Kerala Backwaters and Alappuzha

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The Kerala Backwaters stretch for more than 900 miles through the coastal areas of their namesake in southwestern Indian state. Many locals use these waters for transport, but much of the boat traffic is tourist-related. There are several dozen natural rivers, a handful of lakes and a number of man-made canals that make up this watery transportation network. The lush tropical scenery and quaint vibe make Kerala a great place for a canal cruise, and the laid-back atmosphere is a welcome change for those who spend time in India's hectic cities.

Some people rent a houseboat and spend days cruising the scenic backwaters. One of the best places to enjoy Kerala's canals is Alappuzha, a town about 50 miles from the capitol city of Kolchi (Cochin). Tourists can rent classic wooden houseboats, converted rice barges or something more rustic and cruise through both urban and rural landscapes during a day-long tour.

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Can Tho, Vietnam

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Can Tho is not a city of man-made canals. The numerous waterways here are part of the vast Mekong River Delta. The main floating markets in Can Tho have as many tour boats as vendors, but they are still less crowded than their popular peers in Bangkok. A lot of locals have extensive knowledge of the backwaters, since they are still used for transportation and shipping, so chartering a local boat can lead to a cruise down less-crowded streams past rice paddies, fruit orchards, waterside villages and lush jungle scenery.

Can Tho is a city of more than 1 million people, so there are plenty of diversions away from the river, including restaurants, modern shops and traditional markets. People who fall in love with the laid-back pace in this Mekong Delta hub can also stop in river cities like My Tho and Vinh Long for a similar experience.

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Stockholm

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The Swedish capital is built on a number of islands, so getting around by boat has always been convenient. Water taxis make it possible to create your own sightseeing itinerary, though there are also innumerable tour companies that specialize in themed tours, using the canals to pass some of Stockholm's best historic sights. Like many of the other cities on this list, Stockholm's waterways wind through the entire city, so cruisers can get a taste for this vibrant capital without having to set foot on a tour bus.