Having the opportunity to explore Europe is a splendid treat and while families can and do enjoy the grandiose hilltop castles, lush green valleys and soaring snow-covered peaks of the most picturesque areas of the European countryside, there are also marvelous cities just bursting with history, heritage and art. Here are a few of the best vacation destinations that combine the romance and beauty of waterways with the grandeur of the best parks, palaces and luxury accommodation.
Surely the canal capital of Europe, Venice is actually comprised of more than 100 islands. These are separated by canals and then linked again by more than 400 footbridges. This is Europe’s largest car free city and, traveling by gondola, visitors can view Gothic and Renaissance palaces along the chief thoroughfare, which is the Grand Canal. Piazzo San Marco is the central square and the location of the grand Basilica dedicated to St. Mark. The architecture in the city is, quite simply, stunning, as are the historic antiques in the museums and churches of Venice. The alternative contemporary art scene is just as dynamic and decidedly upscale. Five star luxury hotels abound, many of which were previously homes of the wealthiest families.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The canal system in the Dutch capital is one of the most elaborate in Europe and provides access to some extraordinary European treasures from the Golden Age of the 17th century. Artifacts reflecting ancient culture and heritage can be found in the Museum District, which includes the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Lovers of fine art can immerse themselves in the works of Vermeer and Rembrandt as well as Van Gogh, while contemporary art fans will revel in the contemporary art exhibits at the Stedelijk. Traveling along the canal visitors are struck by the tall, narrow facades with gables and canopies. Cycling is a fundamental feature in the city and renting an Amsterdam canal house for vacation fun allows visitors to travel along the canals by boat or bicycle, just as they please.
Bruges is a city of forts that date back hundreds of years, and many very striking canals. Sometimes dubbed the ‘Venice of the North’, the waterways of Bruges offer a wonderful opportunity to see the city at its best by canal cruise. Visitors can reach major parts of the city by boat, and this is a popular destination for couples that wish to enjoy the romantic beauty of the canals. Part of that romance and charm is the landscape that includes ancient bridges, some of which have become overgrown by plants. The shape of the Bruges canals is such that together they form a circle around the city, known as the ‘Bruges egg.’ One of the most impressive features of this city is the medieval architecture and, combined with its beautiful canals, Bruges is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety. Visitors fall in love with its narrow passageways and its distinctive charming bridges.
From the ‘Venice of the North’ to the ‘Venice of the Alps’ some visitors believe that this medieval French city surpasses its Italian cousin in terms of beauty and sophistication. There is calmness and serenity about Annecy and the canal system is built around the former castle of Lord Annecy, at the center of the Thiou canal. Narrow paths wind through the center of the old town and across the canals, and the still waters reflect the pastel colors of the houses along the quays. With its cobbled streets Annecy is an oasis of calm, and visitors have the added advantage of exploring the splendid Lake Annecy and viewing regional artifacts in the medieval Château d’Annecy, once the stately home of the Counts of Geneva.
Undoubtedly there is something magical about waterways, whether these are lively seas, peaceful lakes, extravagant waterfalls or rambling rivers. The same is true of canal systems; many in Europe played a key role in bringing work and prosperity to city dwellers. In current times some still do, however, there is no doubt that the tourist industry now makes the most of these attractive waterways, much to the delight of visitors from all over the world. Cities that have a positive relationship with their environment are often cited as the best examples of how humans interact with nature, and a trip to any of the most beautiful European canal cities certainly makes that clear.