Thoughts of canal cities often evoke visions of gondolas, colorful waterfront buildings and intricate Italian architecture. Unsurprisingly, Venice is the most popular canal city in the world. Considered the world’s original floating city—nearly 20 million visitors flock there each year—Venice is internationally known for its immersive canal network, lack of car traffic and rich history as a wealthy trading center. But it’s far from the only place to claim the title of canal city.
Thousands of years ago, city planners built canals to foster trade, improve transportation and serve as a means of protection.
Thousands of years ago, city planners built canals to foster trade, improve transportation and serve as a means of protection. Today, many of those reasons still hold true. The recently inaugurated Dubai Water Canal—a 3.2-kilometer man-made canal—was created to extend Dubai’s trading zone, allow more marine transport into the city and eventually reduce vehicle traffic on busy roads.
Saeed Humaid Al Tayer, chairman and CEO of Meydan Group, one of the developers of the canal, recently cited the connective power of the waterway: “The project will improve the overall connectivity of the city and stitches together the old and the new, further strengthening Dubai as a global center for tourism, leisure and trade.”
As global cities continue to expand their trade and transportation power by introducing canals, established canal cities have become the gold standard. Here, we take a look at nine canal cities from around the world—some dating back to as early as 495 B.C.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Boasting 165 canals that measure more than 60 total miles, Amsterdam isn’t called the “Venice of the North” for nothing. The city’s first canals—built in the early 1600s—were created as a means of transportation and defense. Those first three canals were set up to create a pattern of half-circles that flowed out into the IJ Bay. Today, dozens of additional canals help to connect distant parts of the city to the historical center.
Built in the 1600s, Copenhagen’s canals have served different purposes over the years. Originally created to protect the Danish navy, they quickly helped turn the city into an international port by granting easy access to the Baltic Sea. The city’s brightly colored Nyhavn district became so popular, in fact, that famous Danish fairytale writer Hans Christian Anderson even lived along the water for some time. Today, the area is a popular tourist destination, with restaurants, live music and breathtaking views.
St. Petersburg, Russia
Also situated on an offshoot of the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg is a true floating city. Built on over 100 islands, the city’s canals were dug to help drain the area’s marshy land, and to connect parts of the city to the Neva River and out to the sea. The canals have been used for trade, as passageways for military vessels and as a valve system to prevent flooding. The city was established in 1712 as the country’s new capital in large part due to its canals and presence as a port city—people could come in and goods could flow out, with the water creating a natural protective barrier.
An ancient town that dates back to 3100 B.C., Annecy is crisscrossed by a main canal—Le Thiou—which feeds from Lake Annecy, the third largest lake in France. Throughout the city’s long and storied history, the canal has offered easy transportation access to residents and businesses alike. In the Middle Ages, textile and steel mills sprouted up along the canal’s edge and today, business still flourishes in the mid-sized city thanks to its prime location and accessibility.
Often considered the world’s original canal city, Venice consists of over 115 small islands and dates back to the fifth century. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, fleeing Venetians found solace on marshy islands and eventually built the city upon wooden stakes driven into the area’s sandy ground. But the famous canals might be the city’s undoing—since deep channels were created to allow large cargo ships and cruise ships to pass, too much sea water has entered into the canal system, causing building erosion and unruly tides.
CAPE CORAL, UNITED STATES
Cape Coral, Florida, is lined with more canals than any other city in the world. In total, it boasts more than 400 miles of them, most of which are navigable by boat. The city was initially developed and planned in 1958, and has since ballooned in population to nearly 200,000 residents. This “Waterfront Wonderland” was recently ranked as one of the top ten cities to retire in the United States.
Ernakulam is located on the southwest coast of India and relies on its waterways as a primary form of transportation. The district is connected to nearby cities by more than 30 boat services that are operated from more than 50 docks in the region. Trips that take more than 45 minutes by bus can be a mere 15 minutes by boat.
Situated on the Luján River on the northern border of Buenos Aires, Tigre was originally named for the jaguars that roamed its 5,405-square-mile delta. In the late 1800s it was developed as a retreat featuring amusement parks and museums, but fell into disarray. Over the last decade, the city has been rejuvenated and redeveloped. Its canals are once again bustling with leisure travel and tourism.
Often called the “Venice of the East,” Suzhou is an enchanting maze of canals and winding waterways. The ancient city features the world’s longest man-made waterway—the Grand Canal—which was built in 495 B.C. It is more than 1,200 miles long and runs from Beijing to Hangzhou. Where the canal passes through Suzhou, tourists can enjoy historical wonders including ancient city gates, stone bridges, temples and old-world homes.