Canal Wars: The best canals in Europe?

Having visited and re-visited some of the best canal towns in Europe this summer, I thought I would share our thoughts on the highlights of each.

My ranking scale is done with 10 being a good rating and 1 being a bad rating.

Venice

The entire city is an island full of canals.

The grand canal in Venice

There really is nothing like Venice.  So, it really is a must-do in your lifetime. However, since everyone has it on their bucket list, it is over-crowded, and with the typical summer heat, it can be quite claustrophobic.

Uniqueness:                 10 – there is nothing like it in the world

Quaintness:                  5 – when you get into the back canals, this score could improve to a 7 or 8

Crowdedness:               1 – awful.  When mixed with heat, it’s a -1!

Ability to live there:     2 – couldn’t deal with crowds

Tips: Venice is best seen in the evening, when the sun is setting.  This provides both a more refreshing experience as the heat is less, as well as there is a decrease in some of the cruise ship travelers.  For the budget conscious, take vaporetti #1 or #2 (public transportation boat) and vie for a place on the edge.   Big spenders could go for a evening gondola but this sets you back around 200 euros or $250 USD.  In two trips to Venice, I still haven’t ‘invested’ in this, as I don’t think it is worth the price.

Amsterdam

Dark wooded and chock full of 17th century gabled architecture, this city is romantic and beautiful.   When you add the adorable local shops and restaurants lining its cross streets, its downright perfect.

Amsterdam in the Fall. I have painted this scene three times 🙂

Uniqueness:                   9

Quaintness:                   8

Crowdedness:                8 in Fall, 4 in Summer

Ability to live there:     9, I’d move there in a heartbeat

Tips:  I favored Amsterdam in the fall, when the leaves had fallen and we had better views of the charming architecture when strolling or biking down the canal.   This most recent trip, we took a summer canal tour, which was average.  I far preferred biking down the canals as the best way to see the the beauty and character of this city. 

Burano, Italy

This little island is off of Venice, but it is so different that I thought I would include it as a separate town.

Colorful Burano

Uniqueness:                   7

Quaintness:                   7

Crowdedness:                7 in Summer

Ability to live there:     5, too hot and isolated

Tips:  Quieter than its neighbor, this picturesque canal island is a nice side trip from Venice.   You can catch a boat that is included with the vaporetti pass. 

Brugge

Tiny and medieval, this city makes you say the word “cute” at least 10 times an hour.

Brugge is so CUTE!

Uniqueness:                  8

Quaintness:                   9.5

Crowdedness:                7, wasn’t that bad, even in the summer

Ability to live there:      8 – I’d adore a home on the canal.  But it’s a small town and maybe it could get mundane quickly without big-city appeal & activities?  Plus, I wouldn’t be able to fit in my pants with all the chocolate, fries, beer and waffles!

Notes: our favorite time was walking the canals at dusk, as the sun was setting.   The reflections were magical and ideal for photography. We did a canal tour the following day, but in the middle of the afternoon, it wasn’t as cool as a relaxing stroll our evening before.   

Copenhagen

A merge of classical and modern forward-thinking Danish design, this city was hip and fashionable while maintaining its priority one – Mother Earth.

Copenhagen’s Nyhavn harbor

Uniqueness:                   8

Quaintness:                    5

Crowdedness:                9 – not at all crowded

Ability to live there:      7– I could do it, Danes are said to be the most content people in the world

Tips:  this city had a few canals but was more completely surrounded by a vast body of water vs. small canals.   The architecture and vibe were cool and fresh, but cute/quaint is best reserved for neighboring Amsterdam and Brugge.   We did a canal tour which was a great way to see the city since a lot of it isn’t accessible by walking/biking.

The Verdict

As you can see, the ultimate decision is up to you, depending on how your preferences.    If you love fresh, clean, and green – Copenhagen should be your destination.   If you don’t mind crowds & souvenir stands, for unrivaled uniqueness, go Venice.    For a romantic & charming locale, Brugge is the best pick.   For vibrant color, sunny weather, and photo ops, Burano is a great choice.   And for the most character and culture, I’d always select Amsterdam in the Fall.

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Brugge, Belgium

Belgium was the first city on our travels with Ferdinand & Isabella.    Brugge was our pick based on cuteness + the food factor.  In the coming days, I plan to divulge all of the best Belgian deliciousness, but today, I want to talk about how adorable Brugge is.

We see our fair share of adorable towns.  In a post from a few weeks ago, after a marathon tour of France, I noted that I might be having “cute town burnout”.  So, it takes a lot to impress us these days.   However;  fear no more faithful blog readers, Brugge definitely put a hault on the burnout and I was quickly snapping photos of this wonderful canal laden village.

Here is some evidence to prove it:

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Brugges’ historical center is a UNESCO site.  It’s height was from the 12th -15th century when it was a major trade route.  However, the water silted around 1500, and it lost its prized reputation to Antwerp (now known for diamonds).   Now it’s prize is tourism.  And pumping out waffles, frites, mussels, chocolate and beer.  Outside of diamonds, what more could you ask for?

Related links:

Schwingen in Switzerland: Why is Antwerp a center for diamonds?

The Clevelands’ Pad:  Trip Recap Part 3 – Brugge, Belgium

The romantic village of Saint-Émilion

When we went to Bordeaux, we stayed in the town of Saint-Émilion.

Saint Emilion is an old wine town.   History dates vineyards there back to the second century.  Can you imagine?

Our hotel was Auberge de la Commanderie. We’d recommend it. The building was from the 12th Century.

The town is a UNESCO site.   Romanesque architecture and roman ruins are sprinkled throughout the entire village.

Church in Saint-Émilion

A street in Saint Émilion

 

 

Rock integrated into architecture

View from the steeple

 

I really loved the architecture of this hill town

The town seamlessly blended into the vineyards, and vice-versa

Small church on the hill, overlooking the vineyards

What a romantic city. Too bad the hubbies weren’t with us.

 

 

 

The hilltop villages of Bonnieux & Lacoste

After Oppède-le-Vieux, we continued onto the Luberon Valley.   An article from jet setter had recommended Menerbes, Lacoste, Bonnieux, and Gordes to be nice stops while in Provence.   We knew we  would hit Gordes later in the Fall with my Mom so chose to pick from the remaining.

Image courtesy of miniplan-Luberon

We settled on Bonnieux as it was supposed to have excellent views of the countryside and lavender fields.  We didn’t have time, but it is supposed to be an excellent place for pain au chocolat.   They also have a museum of bread-making.

Since we wanted to see the view, we drove right through town, up to the top.

Approaching Bonnieux

Vineyards surrounding Bonnieux

The town of Bonnieux

 

After driving through the adorable streets, we parked at the top.   There was an old passageway that was quite beautiful.

The passageway to the top

We found the most peaceful hilltop.   It was adorned with trees, permanently bent by Le Mistral.    There was a single cross and a few benches.   One fellow was meditating at the top, and we were the only others.

These trees had been shaped by Le Mistral, the strong wind in the South of France

 

The view was very calming as well.   Note the lavender fields in the distance?

View from the top of Bonnieux

 

We enjoyed taking in some of the architecture and panoramic views.

Provençal architecture in Bonnieux

View from the other side of Bonnieux, where La Terrace restaurant is located

 

As we were driving out, we got some views of Lacoste.   No, this town isn’t the namesake of the alligator brand.  But, an interesting fact is that Pierre Cardin has dedicated much energy to restoring and improving this little Provencal gem.

A few of Lacoste across the small valley. The towns are 4km apart.

 

Lacoste, France in the distance…

 

By the time we left Bonnieux, we decided we had had quite a full day of Provencal adventures so we returned back to our hotel pool for some relaxation.

 

Related links:

Schwingen in Switzerland:  Breaking Wind – Le Mistral

 

A nice view at Oppède-Le-Vieux

Bruno also recommended Oppède-le-Vieux.

In French, when a town is old, they put the word old right in the title.   So, while there is a regular Oppède, we searched for Oppède-le-Vieux to find the old town.  This is the same as Annecy-le-Vieux, and also in Geneva, we have Vieille Ville, old town.

The town is located against the Petite Luberon mountains.  You park about 1km from the town since it is perched high on the ledge.   A fifteen minute walk has you into the town.  It is super small little village but still adorable.  The day we were there, they were hosting a local arts festival.    Another fifteen minute ascent on narrow cobblestone streets has you at the very tip top at the site of 16th-century Notre-Dame-d’Alydon church.

Below are a few photos we took of the town, the hike, and at the top.

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Les-Baux-de-Provence

On Saturday morning, I woke up with high hopes for lavender sightings.   However, my new laissez-faire attitude with trip planning (“let it be”….just book hotel, do research on the way) had a flaw….we were a little too far South for the purple crop.   Oops.

Bruno, our innkeeper, recommended we stay around the area for Saturday and hit the lavender on our way home back to Geneva, since we’d need to pass by it to get home.   Gabe said he could visibly see me getting anxious as he listed all the little non-lavender producing hill towns we could see near Saint Rémy.   Anyhow, we decided to start with some of his recommendations, the first being Les Baux de Provence, and see how the day progressed from there.   It was just a ten minute drive south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, so we headed off.

As we approached, we could see the settlement high on the mountaintop.   The range in this area of Provence is called Les Alpilles, or mini Alps.   Les-Baux-de-Provence sits on the top of one of these rock spurs.  On a clear day, it is said you can see all the way to the Carmargue, the mouth of the Rhone.

Approaching Les-Baux-de-Provence

The town was really beautiful and we got there early enough to beat the tour buses.  Apparently, they start coming in after 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning.

The architecture reflected the different civilizations that ruled over the town

The history of life on the rock dates back to 6000 B.C.    During the Middle Ages, the kingdom was quite powerful.   However, the Baux lords’ reign ended in the 1400’s and the town was ruled by the Grimaldis, of Monaco, from then on.   Actually, while we were there, the town was hosting a Princess Grace photo exhibition.

If you are interesting in learning more about the history of Les Baux de Provence, Schwingen in Switzerland has an excellent post entitled We Didn’t Know the Valley of Hell Was So Beautiful.  They also visited the castle, which we did not do, so you can get tips from their visit as well.

Streets of Les Baux

Morning skies over Les Baux

Walls of Les Baux

A few of the valley

Les Baux was built directly into the rock

A lovely square in Les Baux

A downward view of the streets

Gabe at the gate

Les Baux is worth a stop – make sure you hit it early to beat the crowds.

Natural Beauty in the Bernese Oberland

Bernese Oberland is a region surrounding Switzerland’s capital, Bern.   It is a large region, and in my personal opinion, contains some of Switzerland’s most beautiful landscapes.   Although, I’ll admit, its hard to find parts of Switzerland that aren’t breathtaking.

As we were driving, we pulled over to find this valley.

Approaching Interlacken on the way from Luzern

One of my new favorite Swiss photos.

Loving the beauty of Bernese Oberland

It was a great warm-up view for us as we continued on through Interlacken, and into the Lauterbrunnen Valley to park our car.   From there, we took a little train up to Wengen, where we planned to spend the night at 1400m.

Lauterbrunnen Valley and its waterfall

Wengen, like other car-free towns we stayed in…. Saas-Fee, Zermatt, and Murren, was peaceful without the roar of motors.   A ten minute walk had us at Hotel Edelweiss.   The little chalet was family run and we couldn’t have felt more welcome.  A very pleasant gentleman personally walked us to our rooms to make sure all was okay.

Hotel Edelweiss in Wengen – we’d highly recommend it

After checking in, Mom ran into a lady whose job it was to prepare fresh bouquets for the hotel.   She had gathered Edelweiss as well as some florals from her personal garden to prepare the tables for the evening dinner service and the next day’s breakfast.   It’s all about the personal touch, isn’t it?

View from our balcony at Hotel Edelweiss

While relaxing on our terrace, Gabe & I did some quick research into what to do in Wengen.   We found a few spots that were well recommended and then headed to meet Twin & Solid.

Checking out the view

Our second trip to Bernese Oberland. Last time was in the distant mountain, in Murren.

Twin and Solid on their first Bernese adventure

The first recommendation, Hotel Caprice, didn’t disappoint.  We enjoyed beers and wine with this view in the background:

Drinks on the terrace at Hotel Caprice

After a few rounds, we headed to Hotel Bernerhof for some traditional Bernese fare.  Gabe and I ordered raclette so that they could get a taste.   Twin ordered veal sausage & rosti, another famous mountain dish.  Solid went with spaghetti.   The waiter was super hard working guy, running the entire place single-handedly.   We really enjoyed our meal there.

We are convinced that the folks in Wengen are some of the nicest we’ve met.

Who couldn’t enjoy life with a view like this?

Dusk falls on Jungfrau

Related Posts:

The Swiss Watch Blog:   Gratitude Friday:  Travel  (our adventures in Murren with T)

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Rostigraben

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Famous Swiss Foods – Cheese