The Dom Tower reigns over the picturesque canals and red-brick houses of Utrecht. Credit: Shutterstock

A River Runs Through It: Under-the-Radar Canal Cities in Europe

Forget Venice and head to these alternative canal cities for a peaceful winter by the water

by Melek Carkaci

Venice, Amsterdam, Stockholm…Although undeniably beautiful, these canal cities have become so popular that we almost know them by heart, even without having set foot in them!

From the coziness of Utrecht in the Netherlands to the romantic Flemish setting of Bruges to the soothing colors of Martigues, France, we selected five canal cities, each offering a unique atmosphere, for a calm and magical end-of-year celebration.  

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Calmer and less crowded than its big sister, Amsterdam, Utrecht offers the much-loved cosiness typical of Northern cities. But its peculiar charm lies in its hundreds of wharf cellars along the Oudegracht canal.

Dating back to the 12th century, these cellars were built to form a city port boasting urban castles, storage spaces, and even breweries. While no longer used for shipping needs, the cellars have been transformed in recent years to quaint cafes, restaurants, and shops. You can even spend a night in one of them!


Head to Graaf Floris, a 40-year-old cafe off Kalisbrug Bridge. This rustic eatery boasts brick walls and serves traditional Dutch hot apple doughnuts. Yum!

As the sun sets earlier in the winter, the Trajectum Lumen trail lights up the evenings. Work from a variety of artists illuminates fourteen spots on a one-and-a-half-hour route that traverses canals and bridges. The best part of the trail runs through the Ganzenmarkt tunnel, a colourful path created by Erik Groen.

Martigues, France

Did you know that there is a “Venice of Provence?” Martigues, the capital of Côte Bleue in southern France, is a port and canal town where winters are mild and the multicoloured facades evoke a feeling of goodwill.

Comprised of three villages (Ferrières, Jonquières, and L’île) Martigues has inspired painters from Delacroix to Corot to Dufy. Head to “Le Miroir des Oiseaux” (Birds’ Mirror), a quaint port where the water reflects the picturesque pastel-colored houses.


After taking a selfie with “The Fisherman and the Net Mender,” two bronze statues by Sébastien Langloÿs, treat yourself to a meal at Le Miroir, a restaurant that offers delicacies from the sea such as La Bourride, a hearty white fish soup with vegetables and aioli. 

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg is the largest city in the Hanseatic League and one of the greenest in the world, so naturally its canals are clean and utterly charming. Explore Neumühlen Quay, where nearly 20 classic boats dot the harbour, creating an open-air museum. Before leaving, savour a unique culinary experience at Kleinhuis, a floating restaurant. Order a homemade Labskaus, made of salted meat, potatoes and onions, served with a fried egg and matjes herrings. This hearty and traditional Hamburgian dish will save you some extra fat for winter!


Speaking of winter, plan a few indoor activities as Hamburg is one of the windiest cities in Germany. Soak in Hamburg’s maritime history aboard the Cape San Diego. This vessel transported immigrants between 1850 and 1930 but now hosts a museum, hotel, and escape game rooms.

Hamburg is full of eco-friendly eateries, and Hobenköök in HafenCity, on the shores of Oberhafen, is one of the best. Set in a former shipping warehouse, the market-hall-cum-restaurant serves locally sourced dishes using seasonal ingredients.

Birmingham, England

Compared to other canal cities, Birmingham is a bit overlooked. Yet, it has a vibrant past and, with miles of towpath, prides itself on boasting more canals than Venice!During the industrial revolution, Birmingham’s development was indelibly linked to its canals, mostly built in the 18th century to transport iron and coal, which were a mainstay of the English economy at the time.


Soak in the city’s industrial past at the historic Gas Street Basin. Narrowboats and red-brick buildings abound, with many of the latter transformed into cafes, bars and boutiques. Follow one of the trails along the various canals, which will eventually lead you to The Midlands, where the Black Country Living Museum sits, itself famous as a setting for “Peaky Blinders.” 

For a unique dining experience, enjoy a meal or an afternoon tea aboard the Away 2 Dine floating eateries as you cruise past Birmingham’s iconic landmarks, such as Brindley Place, the Davenports Brewery and Oozells Street Loop.

Bruges, Belgium

Many of the canal towns in northern Europe share the nickname “Venice of the North,” and the capital of Flanders is one of them. 

Surrounded by a five-mile-long strip of greenery dubbed the “Brugse Vesten” (ramparts of Bruges), the egg-shaped city centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a great place to start your visit. Walk over the Spiegelrei bridge in the Hansa quarter to savour a sumptuous blend of Burgundian, Belgian and Flemish architecture. For a romantic escapade, head to Minnewater (Lake of Love), where, according to legend, lovers’ wishes are granted.

For a quick snack, a waffle and hot chocolate are a must. Order homemade versions of both at Uilenspiegel, a rustic brewery featuring exposed brick and wooden beams.

If you’re there during the holiday season, follow the luminous Lueurs d’hiver trail, where a magical evening of drink and cheer awaits at the Christmas market.