We’ve voted Utrecht the most beautiful of canal cities in Europe! While there is no denying the canals of Venice are truly magical – with many still considering them the most beautiful in Italy – today they are often tarnished by excessive tourism and tacky romantic souvenirs.
This top five highlights the cities boasting of equally impressive waterways, dotted with less overpriced gondolas than those in Venice.
1. Utrecht, The Netherlands
The canals of Utrecht have something unlike any other inner-city canal in the world: wharfs. These are flat areas at canal level on which boats can dock and unload their cargo. The wharfs lead on to traditional cellars that have mostly been adapted to serve as houses, shops and restaurants.
During summer, people greet you from the terraces next to the water while enjoying a beer in the sun. The canals make for a great picture from the streets, but the views are most spectacular from the water itself in a canoe, a boat, or on a tour through the water on a waterbike.
Floating leisurely down the Oudegracht in autumn, as the late afternoon sun filters through green and red leaves, and you will see why we’ve chosen Utrecht as the most beautiful canal city.
2. Annecy, France
Annecy, often called the Venice of the Alps, in many ways surpasses its Italian namesake. The main draw for tourists is the serene beauty and soothing atmosphere of the city. The medieval Annecy is built around the former castle of Lord Annecy, which still forms the centrepiece of the Thiou canal.
Along the canals run many small, winding paths that take you through the old centre and across the many waterways. The colour of the houses that adorn the canal quays is reflected in the crystal clear water.
3. Bruges, Belgium
Bruges is a small historic city in Belgium and a popular destination for couples who often come for the astonishing beauty of the canals. Some bridges lie dilapidated and have not been repaired for years, whilst others are overgrown with plants… all have their own charm. The canals of Bruges are called ‘Reien’, and together they encircle the city to form the ‘Bruges egg’.
The compact, charming and lively city centre along with the friendly locals makes it easy to feel at home. By wandering through the many narrow streets and crossing bridges you will find yourself falling in love with the city like many before you. It is no coincidence that the entire city of Bruges is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
4. Hamburg, Germany
Hamburg is the largest port in Germany, with the city home to more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam combined. It’s not only the quantity but the consistently simple charm of these bridges and canals that won Hamburg number 4 on our list.
The canals run in straight lines between a mix of old and new German architecture, making for wonderfully symmetrical walkways connected by water.
5. St. Petersburg, Russia
As soon as the sun shines through the clouds and the temperature rises, the canals of St. Petersburg fill with boats. The water provides a perfect opportunity to experience the city from a different perspective, either on an organised canal trip or travelling to another city via public ferry.
You can sail past architectural masterpieces from the 18th and 19th centuries, contrasting brightly coloured buildings and a wide range of different bridges. The parks, palaces, museums, churches, theatres and gardens make passing St. Petersburg a marvel to behold.
Here are the three categories we judged these cities on:
Uniqueness – Every canal city has its own character, but we looked for that extra special something that isn’t found elsewhere in Europe.
History – There’s nothing more impressive than floating down a canal that is several hundreds of years old, passing between castles and churches that have been standing for generations.
Tourism – A problem with Venice is arguably that it is often over-crowded with tourists. Cities on our list have a good balance of being busy enough for atmosphere, but not so filled with toursists there’s a lack of native culture.
If you have any great canal photos, or you think we’ve missed some incredible examples, let us know by tweeting @GoEuro!