Dream of canals and Europe, and most people think of Venice. With more canals than streets, and virtually no street traffic, the canals are Venice.
But Venice is not the only city in Europe that is laced with canals. In fact, three cities, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg, all claim to be the "Venice of the North". All offer multilingual (including English) canal tours.
Amsterdam is a city of well planned canals. The first canal was built when the Amstel river was dammed - hence the name Amsterdam. As the city grew, so did the canal system. The city is shaped like a semicircle, with several canals radiating out from the hub, and splitting the city into pie shaped pieces. Intersecting these are several semicircular canals of varying radii, such that when viewed from the air, the canal network looks like a half a spider web. Amsterdam has over 100 km (60 miles) of canals.
Although initially built for commerce and to some extent still used for such, the canals' main function today is tourism. About 70 tour boats ply the waters of the canals and Amsterdam harbor. There are several itineraries and several starting points in the city. Most water tours last about an hour, leave from the Central Train Station, and have regular departure times during daylight hours. Longer tours, dinner tours and even all day hop on hop off tours are available. Prices may vary, so shop a bit.
Stockholm is also laced with waterways, but they are not exactly canals. The city is built on many small islands, with waterways of varying width and depth between them. Although Stockholm started on one small island, called Gamla Stan, on the edge of the Baltic Sea, it grew to encompass many of the neighboring islands. Today, many of the sights of Stockholm can be seen from the water. There are about a half dozen different itineraries, and most last about an hour. Water taxies are also available just about anywhere in the city.
The third "Venice of the North" is St. Petersburg. As the city emerges from the darkness of communism, it is slowly returning to its former beauty and glory. The city was originally built at a point where several rivers enter the Baltic Sea. As the city grew, these rivers were widened, deepened and straightened to form a sophisticated canal network. Tour boats ply the canals and rivers and most of St. Petersburg's magnificent palaces and churches can be seen from the water. Most of these buildings face the canals, so the waterside view is generally the best.
There are about a dozen boats that offer a variety of tours from various starting locations. Most tours are about an hour, and run on the half hour on sunny days, and whenever on rainy days. The boats only run in the summer months, from June to October. Hours of operation are 11 am to 10 pm.
Although not as extensive as in the "Venices", Copenhagen has a small canal network connected to its beautiful harbor. A one hour boat tour will take you to about half of Copenhagen's highlights, including the "Little Mermaid", and is well worth the price of admission. The boats run from the end of March to the middle of October, and run on the half hour from 10 am to 5 pm. Many start at Nyhaven, but a few start at other locations.
Although on rivers, rather than canals, two other great European cities also have worthwhile boat tours. No trip to Paris is complete without a ride on the Baton Mouche, and a ride on the Thames is a great way to see London.