Nestled in the heart of the Cotswolds is the little Wiltshire town called Bradford-on-Avon. Though tracing its origins back to the Roman era like its nearby sibling Bath, Bradford really exploded in the late middle ages due to the woollen textile industry. This legacy has left several of its original buildings such as the marvellously quaint pub, The Bridge, founded in 1502. In Bradford-on-Avon, you’ll also find thatched roofs, picture-perfect churches, historic tithe barns, and grand Georgian streets (much like in Bath). This fairy-town town happily overlooks the Avon River and the Kennet and Avon Canal. Once used to transport goods across the country, the canal lost its significance with the growth of railways, but Bradford was genius enough to restore to the lock and canal to working order by the ’80s, providing a link to Bath (via the Avon) in the west, and the Thames at Reading in the east. Home to a pretty little path running alongside the canal, this is a wonderful place for a walk, bike or run on those few but appreciated sunny mornings.
Pro tip: If you’re a runner, Bradford’s canal is surely one of the best places in the world to go for a run! Try running along the canal from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon (or vice versa); it’s about 10 miles and the views of the canal, houseboats, swans, countryside and wee houses are stunning. Then, take the train back to your starting point.
The original canal city (though far from the only city criss-crossed with canals), Venice is often recognised as one of the most romantic cities in the world. Sometimes nicknamed the “Fish” (for its shape as seen from above), Venice’s main island is also its most busy, though it is far from the only island in the Venetian Lagoon – in fact, there are 118 islands as part of the Lagoon! Certainly one of Europe’s most beautiful creations, the entire island is like a museum where some of the most splendid examples of architecture are on permanent display. Take to the canals, the grand squares and the beautiful bridges to admire facades displaying Rococo, Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic styles – in fact, Venice has its own version of the Gothic called Venetian Gothic, characterised by its lancet windows adorned with carved ogee arches. Both the Byzantines and the Ottomans had a serious effect on the development of Venice’s unique architectural styles, and in turn, Venice had a serious effect on the rest of Europe. Then as today, Venice has been wowing visitors who travel to this marvel of a city and bring back its artistic and architectural secrets to be used in the building of other impressive places. Though Venice is one of the most visited cities on Earth, it suffers from overtourism – there are simply too many people visiting these small islands. The best way to avoid adding to this problem is to visit in the off season, exploring the lesser-visited islands, as well as visiting other lesser-visited places in the region like Brunico, Lago di Braies,Verona, the Dolomites Mountains and more to spread the tourism more evenly!
Pro tip: There’s really no getting around the crowdedness of Venice – the best we can say is visit in the off season, and try to stay on one of the less-famed islands. Carnevale di Venezia (the Carnival of Venice) is in January/February and is an exciting though popular time of year to visit. While here, get off the main squares to wander the back alleys, keeping your eyes out for little hole-in-the-wall cafes with Italian-only menus to mingle with locals who love to meet, chat and drink afternoon glasses of espresso and spritz.
Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.
Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!
Overlooking St John’s Church on Bath’s River Avon, England
Surely one of the quaintest and most quintessentially English towns in all of England is Bath. The tranquil waters of the River Avon winds through the city, a labyrinth of limestone facades constructed with a local stone called Bath Limestone, with the canal on the other side of Bath. Houseboats lap quietly against their moorings, ducks splash on the lush green backs. Church steeples – like St John’s Church steeple – rise dramatically against a cloudy sky. Forming the southern entrance to the Cotswolds region, Bath is recognised as one of England’s most picturesque places. Lined with rows of proud Georgian houses centred around the impressive Bath Abbey and the ancient Roman baths that lend themselves to the city’s name, Bath seems like a time capsule that has captured the Roman era, medieval times and Georgian England. It feels almost as if we were stepping out of a Jane Austen novel – which in a way is true. Jane Austen lived here from 1801 – 1806, and set some of her novels here (though it is known that she disliked the high society of 19th century Bath). Jane Austen may have found fault with Bath, but to the modern day visitor, Bath is the perfect picture of England! (It also makes for a good jumping off point to explore the Cotswolds region…).
Pro tip: The recently-renovated Holburn Museum of Art is a lovely little art museum showcasing local painting. Runners (or walkers) might enjoy a walk along the Kennet & Avon canal – start from Bath and walk the 10 miles along the lovely and tranquil canal path to the lovely Cotswolds town of Bradford-on-Avon (well worth a visit!) and return to Bath via the local train. Another great walk will take you up the hill to Sham Castle. Also nearby is Bristol (also the local airport), a quirky artsy town.
It’s hard to talk about the beautiful places of Europe and ignore Venice. Venice is the city beauty – and of canals. When you constantly compare other beautiful cities with Venice – Anncey is “the Venice of France” or “the Venice of Belgium” etc. – you know that the original city (Venice) must be amazing! Venice is also thedefinition of a fairytale place – this is the kind of place one would expect to find in a storybook! Venice has famous sights – St Mark’s Cathedral, the glass blowing on Murano, the Grand Canal. Other major canals include the Giudecca, Canneregio and Scomenzera canals. But the best way to explore this city? By getting lost in its massive labyrinth of tiny streets and scenic canals criss-crossed with magical bridges of all shapes and sizes of course! There are over 150 canals interwoven around some hundred islands – and connected by even more bridges! Once upon a time, these canals were the city’s only ‘streets’ and all transport was done via gondola boats. While the canals remain a main artery for movement about the picturesque city, the gondolas are used only by tourists today. Overpriced and overcrowded, it’s best to skip the gondola and meander the tiny alleys and bridges, hopping on the water-buses when you need to get farther away. Keep in mind that this is one of the most popular cities in Europe as well as one of the most delicate. Venice is actually sinking, and has problems with flooding, water damage and erosion – none of which is helped by overtourism. There has been talk of establishing a quota of visitors to this special place. So instead of getting annoyed, remember that this is in order to protect this amazing city for future generations! Though Venice may be both stunningly amazing and breath-takingly unique, there are many other cities with canals to visit in Europe. See below for a few!
Pro tip: If you can, stay on one of the lesser-known and quieter islands and take the water bus into the main part of the city. However, if you really want to stay on the “fish,” don’t go to the centre of town. Instead, check out the far quieter region of Canneregio (in the northern part of the main archipelago). The same goes for food; avoid the big restaurants with the English menus in the centre, and instead find the mom & pop shops in the back alleyways! Definitely have an afternoon spritz after a fun day of exploring!
Other cities with canals to visit – Alternatives to Venice:
Haven’t heard of Damrak? Guarantee you’ve seen it! Damrak is probably the most photographed part of Amsterdam, and it’s easily found as it’s the first thing you see after alighting Amsterdam’s central station. Damrak is a grand avenue and partial canal at the centre of the old city. It has been the centre of the Netherlands financial hub since the early 1900s, when several financial buildings – including the stock exchange – moved in. In fact, the Damrak (so named as it used to be part of a dam that was later filled in), is Amsterdam’s version of Wall Street – though let’s admit, it’s far more picturesque. Amsterdam is renowned for its uber modern and contemporary architecture – contrasted with its beautiful and iconic 16th and 17th century canal-front row houses. Damrak’s canal and street are lined with grand Dutch buildings, products of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century paid for mostly by the famed Dutch merchants who grew rich off thriving trade markets to faraway places. Tall, narrow and ornamented, these houses were built to stand out and impress – as well as take as little space as possible. These Dutch canal houses are loosely classified as Italian Renaissance style – but let’s face it, there’s something so impossibly dutch about them that makes this view easily and undeniably Amsterdam!
Pro Tip: If you’re ever choosing flights and see one with a 4+ hour layover in Amsterdam, go for it! Amsterdam is possibly the best connected airport-to-city-centre in Europe and you can be standing where this photo was taken less than 30 mins after you get off your plane! In the airport, follow signs for the train station and buy a ticket to Amsterdam central station, about a 15min journey with trains running every few mins. There is a place to leave luggage (for a small fee) at the airport near the train station.
Deep in the French Alps, the ancient town of Annecy sits along the picturesque shores of Lac d’Annecy. At the heart of Annecy, at the intersection of the River Thiou and the city’s scenic, all-important canals, is the Palais de l’Ile, an impressive 12th-century building. Shaped like the prow of a ship setting sail, the Palais started out as a prison, became a coin mint, was transformed into a courthouse, housed the Presidial Council of the Province Genevois, and became military barracks. Today, it is a museum, though it is certainly more intriguing and alluring from the exterior. In a way, the Palais de l’Ile is the keystone of Annecy – the stone that holds the rest of the city’s splendour together. And what a beautiful city it is! Annecy is full of colourful facades, glittering canals, glowing lamps, bright plazas, cheerful terrace cafes, and arching bridges. It is often called the Pearl of the Alps, and any visitor to its streets, canals or lake will know that it certainly deserves its title.
The Roman city of Nîmes has been a splendid city in the south of France for thousands of years. Known for its chic boutiques, terrific Roman ruins (including the amazing Roman Arena), and mild Mediterranean climate, Nîmes has long been regarded as one of France’s most beautiful cities – and best-kept secrets of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon/Midi-Pyrenees region. But not all of Nîmes is ancient. The Romans built a spring (the Spring of Nemo) and decorated it with a temple (now gone). But in the 1700s, the growing city needed a better source of safe drinking water, and therefore opted to construct a network of canals. Ulterior motives included powering Nîmes’ mills to sustain its’ top-ranking position in the textile industry as well as the indigo dying industry for a new product, serge de Nîmes, better known today as denim (from the French, ‘de’ or ‘from’ Nîmes; indeed, thank Nîmes for your jeans!). The project became a grand affair, and included a beautiful park laced with ornate statues, exotic gardens, and of course, the wide, boulevardesque canals. They were the first gardens in France created for the benefit of the public, not royalty. Today’s visitors to Nîmes who wander the park and the canals will still feel the glamour and elegance that exudes off these complex and orate 18th century creations, so important to the Nîmois.
Pro tip: Not far above the canals is the wonderful Jardin de al Fontaine topped with the Tour de Magne. Visit the region for a place for a lovely stroll through lush gardens and delightful sculptures and panoramic views.
More than 100 kilometres (60+ miles!) snake their way in, around, and through the historic city of Amsterdam. Known throughout the world for hookers and weed, there is far more to this city than just that. Amsterdam is one of Europe’s great capitals and it isn’t afraid to show it. It is made up of 100+ kilometres of canals, 90+ islands, 1,500+ bridges and countless of the famed Hanseatic facades. Its geography means that it is a compact city – growing up rather than out. When people move into the upper floors of apartments, it’s usually easier to carry large furniture up through the window via a crane rather than up the winding, narrow staircases. Yes, many people come here for the Red Lights and the weed cafes, but if you can pull yourself away, go for an evening stroll through the backstreets and back canals – there, you will see the ‘real’ Amsterdam, the behind-the-curtain Amsterdam. Catch a glimpse of what the city really is – a work of art created and constructed around miles of glittering and glimmering canals.
Hipster Ghent. Quirky Ghent. Fun Ghent. Ghent is a place to forget who you are, kick back, and live in the moment. Whether you like studying Art Nouveau architecture (see more regarding Art Nouveau here), finding funky graffiti, hanging out in hipster bars, following quaint canals lined with weeping willows, curling up in snug coffeehouses and bookshops, rooting through the hodgepodge of antique shops, visiting ancient castles like the Gravensteen or exploring the cobbled alleys in search of hidden treasure, there’s a good chance that Ghent is for you. Ghent is a city like no other – it is something of a mix of Brugges‘ charm and heritage, Berlin’s nightlife, Prague’s quirky attitude, Riga’s unique architecture, and Montpellier’s youth. Though little-known, Ghent will surprise and amaze you on any trip to Belgium! (oh and yes, there are Belgian fries, beer, waffles and chocolate…this is Belgium after all).
Ghent, part of the Flemish part of the county, is often overlooked in favour of its more famous cousin, Bruges. Yet, both cities are incredibly beautiful and deserve a visit! In Ghent, you will find canals draped in weeping willows, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture, art nouveau designs, cheerful students sipping coffees in colourful cafes, food trucks and tiny restaurants selling fries and gaufres (waffles) in the streets, couples strolling down the cobbled streets. It is a hipster city, and those tourists who decide to visit this beautiful city relish in striking off the beaten path. Visit Gravensteen Castle, take a boat tour of the Ghent Canals, and admire the intriguing Art Nouveau architecture. Here, it is easy to mingle with the locals. Simply stroll along one of Ghent’s many canals until you find a cozy cafe, cheerful restaurant or lively bar – and strike up a chat with the locals. You won’t regret it!
When most people hear the words “canal” and “Europe,” Venice immediately springs to mind. And while Venice is certainly the most famous and probably the most beautiful, the continent has many beautiful canals flowing through equally beautiful cities, such as Annecy, Amsterdam, Bruges, and, as evident from the above photo, Ghent. Hipster Ghent has seemingly endless quaint waterways streaming through the medieval town. While it’s less “Disney world/honeymoon-paradise” than its neighbour Bruges, Ghent is no less beautiful, and no less short on canals. A simple boat trip will take you on a relaxing trip around the city’s watery arteries, providing a new perspective of the beautiful buildings lining the canals. And not only that, Ghent’s innate and adorable quirkiness will leave you just as much in love with this small city as all of the locals!
View of the River Avon from Halfpenny Bridge in Bath, England
The Avon. In Celtic, the word “avon” meant “river,” and as a result, there are quite a few “River Avons” in the UK. As this particular Avon (known as the “Bristol Avon” to differentiate) snakes southward through the English countryside, it finally arrives in Bath. Bath is famous not only for its Roman baths (hence the name), but also for once being home to Jane Austen (Bath must have made an impression on her as it appears in more than one of her much-loved novels). Bath is—how to put it?—posh. It is a city built on elegance, propriety, and beauty. Every one of its cobblestone streets are worn smooth and sparkling. The rows of houses that line the road—all made of Bath limestone—are stylish and elegant. The centre, with its magnificent abbey, Roman baths, and meandering High Street, is breath taking. And then of course, there’s the fine, classy buildings comprising of the Circus (two semi-circular buildings surrounding a roundabout that sports a small collection of magnificent oaks), and just next door, the famed Royal Crescent, which is—if possible!—an even grander affair. Even when you leave the center—let’s say you decide to follow the river, or better yet, you take to the beautiful Kennet and Avon Canal—you cannot escape the majesty of the rolling hills, thatched cottages, arching bridges, and stone houses that make up the English countryside. Small though the Avon may be, it will be difficult to find a more grand, more picturesque or more beautiful English river.
For reasons unknown to me, Belgium gets a bad rep, mostly from the Brits. There seems to be a running joke that Belgium is boring and useless, which is difficult to understand for any tourists who visit this small European treasure! The Fairytale Town of Bruges is most certainly the nation’s crown jewel. It has everything a traveller would want: Belgian waffles and fries sold every 10 steps (though not together!), oh-so-much chocolate, beautiful buildings, old Gothic-style halls and belfries, canals, cobblestones, fantastic beer, not-s0-terrible prices (in comparison to its neighbours, the UK and France!), and cheap, easy connections to other Belgian cities such as Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. If you’ve seen In Bruges, you’ll see the foreigners’ “dislike” of Belgium in general and Bruges in particular, but at the same time, the boss (minus the swearing) hits the nail on the head while bewilderingly responding to his employee’s response that “Bruges isn’t his ‘thing’: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can swans not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can that be??!” How indeed?