Man has always had a love affair with canals, from the original canals built for irrigation in the 6th century BC to today’s massive waterways, complete with complex lock systems. While the original purpose of the most canals was to provide a transport mechanism, today many canal systems have returned to more recreational purposes, in part or in whole, to allow locals and tourists to relax on the waters and enjoy the scenic views. Here are eight canals worth a peek, from tiny waterways with small cruisers to larger schemes that still support both transport and leisure purposes.
Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
The term canal is almost synonymous with the beautiful town of Venice. Canals here not only provide the city’s main tourist attraction but are also used for public transportation. Waterways connect each of the 118 islands that sit in this lagoon-based city.
One of the quintessential European experiences is riding in a Gondola through Venice; the Grand Canal is a favourite as it offers the best view of sights like the Rialto Bridge and the Salute. Be sure to bring along some wine and cheese to make the day complete.
Experiencing it yourself: The city of Venice sets a standard rate for gondola rides, but most use it as a guide only. Gondoliers can be easily found; expect to pay anywhere between €60 and €150 for an hour ride, depending on your negotiation skills – however, this covers up to six people that can ride in a single boat.
Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Prinsengracht, Dutch for the ‘Prince’s Canal’, is the longest of the main canals in Amsterdam. The city has more than 60 miles of canals, with the main canals dug in the 17th century. The Prinsengracht is lined with many historical sights, from the poignant Anne Frank House to the Westerkerk, Amsterdam’s tallest church.
One can choose from a multitude of boat tours, such as pizza and beer cruises or architectural excursions. The canal is best seen at night, with the many bridges lit up in lights reflecting into the waters below.
Experiencing it yourself: One-hour canal cruises are extremely popular as the best way to see Amsterdam when you first arrive. They all ply the same route and are easy to book in person for between €7 and €12 per person.
Erie Canal, New York, United States
The Erie Canal is one of four canals that comprise the New York State Canal System. The Erie runs 365 miles to connect Lake Erie with the Hudson River. Opened in 1825 as the state’s first transportation route between the Great Lakes and New York City, it triggered the growth of numerous settlements in upstate New York.
It was replaced in 1918 with the New York State Barge Canal, using a combination of new routes and old routes. The canal tour is mostly rustic rural scenes, spotted by numerous locks and stops in the major cities along the route.
Experiencing it yourself: Day cruises can be picked up from several towns along the route, including Herkimer, Lockport, Camillus and Olcott. Prices range around $15 to $20 for a two hour ride. 2 to 3 day trips depart from Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, or Macedon and average from $375 for two days to $615 for three days.
Caledonian Canal, Scotland, United Kingdom
The highlands of Scotland was traversed by a waterway in the 1800s by famous British engineer Thomas Telford, who wanted to provide a transportation mechanism that avoided sailing around the north coast of Great Britain.
The canal is only one third man-made, with several lochs supporting much of the route, including the infamous Loch Ness that still hides Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. An interesting stop along the way is Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight staircase locks.
Experiencing it yourself: End-to-end sailings are most common and typically include round-trip ground transport to Inverness, the nearest gateway city. A four-night cruise can run about £415 – £525 per person.
Panama Canal, Panama
Arguably one of the world’s most ambitious engineering projects, the Panama canal is a 50 mile waterway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It opened in 1914 amid political controversy but to this day remains a major trade route, with over 14 thousand ships passing through it in 2008.
Crossing the Panama isthmus takes about 8-10 hours; the journey includes watching ships squeeze through the lock systems and seeing the scars of Gaillard Cut, a man-made valley slicing through the continental divide.
Experiencing it yourself: Many cruises exploring this area of the world transit via the Panama Canal, but you can easily take a day tour from Panama City. Round trip travel takes nearly 10 hours and expect to pay around $115-$175, depending on the amenities available on board.
Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Canada
Opened in 1832, the Rideau Canal flows 124 miles to connect Ottawa and Kingston. The structure is an UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the fact that the canal’s original structures are intact and working today; many of the locks are hand-operated.
In winter, the canal freezes and becomes a skating rink in the section that runs through Ottawa. The route is surrounded by conservation areas and national parks, perfect for wildlife watching and hiking detours.
Experiencing it yourself: Basing yourself in Ottawa is the obvious and easiest choice. Canal cruise options range from a short morning or afternoon tour at $18, to a full five-day adventure for $1,606.
Canal Du Midi, France
The Canal Du Midi is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, opened in 1681 to connect the city of Tolouse with the port town of Sète. The 150 mile journey was to avoid Spanish pirates in the Mediterranean; now, the majority of passengers are there for leisure.
One of the most picturesque rural canals in all of Europe, the route is lined by trees reflecting into the waters, picturesque villages full of charm and good food, and stunning aqueducts.
Experiencing it yourself: A scenic two-hour tour at €10.50 per person departs from Homps; otherwise join the route via the many barges coming from the adjacent canal networks. Private luxury yachts can be hired for around $4,000 per person per week.
Göta Canal, Sweden
Dubbed “Sweden’s Longest Adventure”, the Göta Canal spans 64 miles across the Swedish wilderness, connecting the towns of Sjötorp and Mem.
The route is littered with several attractions both big and small, such as the smallest ferry in Europe and the massive Karlsbourg Fortress. It is also possible to take a canoe out in the canal or cycle along the shoreline.
Experiencing it yourself: Longer tours leave from either Stockholm or Gothenberg. A four day cruise runs around $,1340, including ground transport. A shorter two-day option, exploring the most picturesque section of the canal, departs from Motala or Söderköping and costs on average $650.
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