Venice, Amsterdam, Bruges, Stockholm & St Petersburg.
When talking about European cities, much is often made of the principal rivers that flow through them – the Seine in Paris, the Danube in Budapest, the Arno in Florence – or the seas on which they sit – the Adriatic, the Baltic, the Mediterranean. Yet for many of Europe’s major cities, it’s not a river which runs through its centre, more a series of picturesque, tranquil canals. Here’s a look at five of Europe’s finest…
Where better to start than Venice, the City of Water, itself? Described by some as the crown jewel of all water cities, glittering Venice, queen of the Adriatic, is a city where superlatives simply fall short, a city abundant in treasures, be they of an architectural, artistic or gastronomic variety. Balanced on pinewood stilts driven eight metres into the sea bed, Venice is truly a city like no other. Whether you take the vaporetto down the Grande Dame of canals, the Grand Canal, admiring the magnificent palazzi as you pass, or a romantic gondola ride along one of the narrow, tranquil canals traversing the city, you’ll quickly discover that Venice’s 150+ canals are core to its character.
Whilst Venice might be the undisputed queen of water cities, you might be surprised to learn that Amsterdam has in fact more canals than its Italian counterpart. Radiating out from the city’s main core, the Dutch capital’s canal network extends over 60 miles and is criss-crossed by some 1,500 bridges. Dating back to the Middle Ages, Amsterdam’s four main canals – the Singel, Herengracht, Keizergracht and Prinsengracht – were created to form new neighbourhoods for the capital’s financial elite (although officially poor Prinsengracht was meant for the middle classes!), along which you’ll find over 1,500 traditional gabled buildings. Utterly charming, little wonder that Amsterdam’s central canal ring has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Over the border into Belgium is the fairy-tale Flemish city of Bruges, arguably one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. Aptly described as the ‘Venice of the North’, unsurprisingly Bruges – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – is no secret on the tourist map and so visitors flock to this small city in their droves to soak up the atmosphere and picturesque panoramas seemingly at every canal bridge crossed. A hop and a skip from London via the Eurostar (and local train), the charms of Bruges are as numerous as they are accessible, a tangled maze of peaceful canals (reien), cobbled streets lined with gabled medieval townhouses, whilst impressive market squares are dominated by soaring bell towers and historic buildings with their distinctive Flemish façades steeped in history.
Capital of Sweden, Stockholm is a city rich in history, culture, diversity and charm. Unique amongst its European counterparts for being spread across 14 islands amidst the Skärgård archipelago, Stockholm effortlessly blends centuries of heritage and tradition, as showcased in its magnificent palaces and delightful Old Town, Gamla Stan, with a vibrant, contemporary swagger, modern design and cool, cosmopolitan culture. And with all of this set against a stunning water-infused backdrop, its 14 islands connected by 57 bridges and a vast canal network. A veritable beauty on water stretching out into the Baltic Sea.
Set on the banks of the Neva River at the eastern tip of the Baltic Sea, St Petersburg draws many comparisons with Venice and Bruges – albeit on a grander scale – for it’s a city where a network of canals gently dissect the city centre, lined along the way by beautiful baroque and neoclassical buildings reminiscent of Europe. Designed and built (on a swamp, no less) for Peter the Great, St Petersburg became Russia’s ‘window to the west’ and today abounds in majestic architectural, historical and cultural treasures, Peterhof Palace (Petrodvorets) and the Winter Palace, home to the State Hermitage Museum, amongst them.