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10 Magical Canal Cities That Aren’t Venice

Everyone swoons over Venice’s celebrated canals and bridges—but did you know that there are dozens of other canal cities across the globe that are known as the “Venice of” their respective locations? (Think “the Venice of the North” or “the Venice of the East”) Sure, there’s only one real Venice, but these other watery cities offer plenty of charms of their own, from riverfront palaces to classical Chinese pagodas and even gondola rides. With overtourism at the forefront of Venice’s problems and a new daily admission fee proposed, there has never been a better time to seek an alternative.

Canal Cities Around the World

Check out 10 of the most magical canal cities around the globe.

Delft, Netherlands

delft canal and church

Fun Fact: The 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer lived in this serenely beautiful Dutch city, and his well-known “View of Delft” captures its picturesque buildings and canals.

What to Do: Delft is perfect for strolling. Wander along the canals and cobblestone streets to see sights like the Nieuwe Kerk (“New” Church, dating back to 1510) and the Oostpoort, the only remaining gate from the city’s ancient walls.

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Suzhou, China

bright lights over suzhou canal in china at night.

Fun Fact: Suzhou’s historic district, filled with narrow canals, historic pagodas, and exquisite gardens, is protected by the government of China; no skyscrapers may be built here.

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What to Do: An evening boat tour is one of the most romantic ways to experience Suzhou’s canals and bridges. By day, wander through the city’s many classical gardens, which are collectively recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Birmingham, England

brick buildings surrounding birmingham canals.

Fun Fact: Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice.

What to Do: Birmingham’s historic canals—once vital to the city’s commerce during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century—are now primarily a tourist attraction. You can walk along the towpaths, eat lunch at a waterfront restaurant, browse the shops along the canals, or take a sightseeing cruise.

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Fort Lauderdale, Florida

boats in fort lauderdale harbor at dusk.

Fun Fact: Fort Lauderdale is located on the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile network of bays, inlets, sounds, and canals that run along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States.

What to Do: You don’t need to go all the way to Italy to take a traditional gondola ride—you can also do it right here in Fort Lauderdale. You can also zip around this sunny city by water taxi or take a sightseeing boat tour.

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Alappuzha, India

boat in alappuzha india on canal waterways.

Fun Fact: Alappuzha (traditionally known as Alleppey) is the gateway to the backwater region of Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast. “Snake boat” races are held here every summer, featuring long, narrow boats propelled by up to 100 local rowers.

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What to Do: Take a boat tour or stay in a traditional houseboat and explore the region’s rivers, lagoons, and canals. These tranquil waters are lined with palms and offer a glimpse into local industries like shrimp farming and coir making (coir fibers are harvested from coconuts and used to produce rope, floor mats, and other products).

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Gold Coast City, Australia

gold coast broadwater boats

Fun Fact: Gold Coast City is best known for its spectacular beaches, but the city also has some 160 miles of canals—lined with thousands of waterfront homes.

What to Do: Thrill seekers can go jetboating through Gold Coast’s waterways at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Too fast for your blood? Try a kayaking excursion or take a dinner cruise.

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Bruges, Belgium

bruges belgium evening canals.

Fun Fact: This picture-perfect medieval city is often packed with day trippers, so consider an overnight stay or off-season visit to see it at its best.

What to Do: After you take a boat ride along the canals, stroll the streets to sample the local chocolates (there are dozens of chocolatiers in town) and take in the best of Flemish art at the Groeninge and Memling Museums.

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St. Petersburg, Russia

boat going through archway on canal in st. petersburg russia.

Fun Fact: On scheduled nights between April and November, St. Petersburg’s historic bridges over the River Neva are raised to allow ships to pass under them—a fascinating scene to watch, especially during “White Nights” in late June, when the sky never goes fully dark.

What to Do: You can ride public ferries up and down the Neva to see its magnificent palaces and monuments, but you’ll get a more intimate look at the city by taking a canal tour to explore St. Petersburg’s narrower waterways and beautiful bridges.

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Annecy, France

canals winding through buildings in european village.

Fun Fact: Annecy is referred to as the “Venice of the Alps” and it’s where three canals cut through the old city. Complete with cobblestoned streets, Annecy is located in the foothills of the French Alps.

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What to Do: Wander the canals along the pastel-colored buildings in the old town, Vieille Ville. The Thiou River leads to Lake Annecy, where you can walk along shoreline trails and relax on a boat in the summer.

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Xochimilco, Mexico

colorful river boats along a canal.

Fun Fact: Xochimilco directly translates to the “place where flowers grow” and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

What to Do: Take a colorful boat ride along the canal on a trajinera, or gondola. Xochimilco is a popular day trip from Mexico City and travelers rent a boat, driven by a rower, by the hour. Choose your course from the main canal, an ecological reserve, or the quirky Island of Dolls. Onboard you are served food and drink and can even buy souvenirs from boats floating by.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with the most recent information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this article.

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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