Beautiful canal towns in Europe that aren’t Venice

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

Venice’s charms are undeniable, a patchwork of canals and palatial baroque architecture, but it comes with a price: so many people want to go. But for those of us who simply enjoy the quietude of a canal, the water lapping the stone away as the scenery reflects in the water, there are numerous other options for a canal-enhanced break. From the medieval grandeur of Utrecht and the fairytale streets of Colmar to the romantic old canals of Bruges and back to the addictive Venetian lagoon… for a little bit of Venice away from the crowds, these are just a few of our favourite canal towns and cities in Europe to visit that aren't Venice.

Canalside Ambience in Utrecht, Netherlands

Often likened to a quiet version of Amsterdam, Utrecht, much like the capital, offers a beguiling warren of canals. But it’s not much like Amsterdam at all. The streets are quaint and decidedly sober, coloured by baskets of flowers, green vines dangling amongst assorted floral palettes towards glittering canals inlaid with old trees. But stroll along the scenic loop of canals in Utrecht’s old town and you’ll notice they are aesthetically different to Amsterdam's, with striking double docks. One dock is level with the water forming a long terrace used for restaurants and bars, and another is level with the old warehouses above with a thin strip of road, a result of 12th-century cellars dug out towards the water.

Incidentally, these docks are where one finds most of Utrecht's visitors huddled into al fresco restaurants, unsteady chairs perched on the medieval canalside, a few inches from the water. It’s an intensely atmospheric locale once dusk falls, and the occasional boat lit by a lone lantern makes its way slowly between diners on either side of the canal.

Fairytales and Choucroute in Colmar, France

France’s Alsace is a delight, but Colmar, with its enchanting collection of timber-framed houses rising from still canals reflecting baskets of flowers, is incredible. Wander the streets as the sun shines with a deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds, and one's mind is reset, believing itself a member of the cast of some Germanic fairytale, staring up at centuries-old beams, trusses, braces and jettying on a 600-year-old house, tipsy with age. Indeed, so stunning are the houses that Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli fame breathed in much of the visual inspiration for his adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle here — with the House of Pfister, appearing in the anime exactly as it does in the village today.

The Venetian similarities are practically nought, but Venice is always a great marketing tool, so don't miss Petite Venise, which is where the small canals are found, and where Colmar’s fairytale architecture and cobbled streets shine. There’s little to do here but drink Alsatian wine, eat Choucroute, and walk amongst the medieval grandeur, but nearby Strasbourg supplies miles more canals. Walk the leafy suburbs from the Conseil de l’Europe, reflected in the waters of River Ill, and follow the water to the old town: Petite France, to explore canals crisscrossed with bridges and animated by traditional Alsacienne bistros.

Medieval Romance in Bruges, Belgium

Bruges’ canals or "Reien" run through the medieval city as ornate veins, flanked by magnificent restaurants, towered over by medieval spires, and leading boats to the idyllic surrounds of leafy parks and secret gardens. Despite the occasional crowds, romantics should always stroll the immensely popular Rozenhoedkaai (though the late evening is advisable) to see the medieval belfry and various façades of Bruges’ old quarter reflected in the canals and warmed by the glow of rust-coloured lighting.

But escape the gatherings of selfie hunters with a stroll along the comparatively calm Augustijnenrei — once a protective moat for medieval Bruges, crossing the antique Augustine Bridge (1391) to admire the architecture bordering the banks of the canal.

Venice’s Little Sister: Chioggia, Italy

Most cities don’t look like Venice. It’s not just the canals that make them incomparable, but those arched bridges, ornate windows and Campanile tops that evoke the Byzantine, as well as colourful islands and lagoon views that make it almost unique. But a real contender is found in Chioggia. Relatively unknown, but something of a petite, faded little sister to big Venice just 20km away. Arrive via the Venetian lagoon and you’ll see the ornate stone of Vigo Bridge crossing Canal Vena towards Chiesa di Santa Croce — followed by the red brick Ponte Caneva, all of which appear plucked straight from Venice's Sestiere Cannaregio or Dorsoduro. Most striking about Chioggia is the relative lack of people, the fish markets and the fishing trawlers that bring the seafood to town and supply Venice and others across the Veneto with ingredients for their specialities: sarde in saor (sardines), Baccalà mantecato (cod) and fritto misto (mixed seafood).

It’s easy to visit when staying in Venice. But choose a hotel such as the San Clemente Palace Kempinski, on a delightful private island, to take advantage of their taxi boat and concierge service to more easily speed, not just to Chioggia, but to other islands in the lagoon such as Murano and Burano, Lido and Torcello. 

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