15 of Europe’s cheap and quiet canal cities to visit this year

15 of Europe’s cheap and quiet canal cities to visit this year

Europe’s canal cities are feeling the strain of their popularity as tourist destinations. Data from rental analytics company Airdna reveals that the average cost of a night in a one-bedroom or studio rental property now costs £190 in Amsterdam and is nudging up to £133 in Venice.

Meanwhile, Italy’s lagoon city has just opened reservations for its new a daily visitor fee of €5 which will be chargeable on certain days throughout April-July, and from June it will limit tour groups to 25 people.

Amsterdam has also imposed limits starting this month, on heavier coaches (those weighing more than 7.5 tonnes) that are now banned within the S100 ring that hugs the historic Canal Ring. 

However, there are cheaper, less crowded canal cities that are just as enjoyable to visit. Here, we look at some of the alternative options.

Gdansk, Poland 

With Airdna data showing that the average nightly rate for a one-bedroom apartment is £56 in Gdansk and Ryanair offering cheap flights from the UK, this water-ribboned, red-roofed port city in northern Poland is ideal for a shoestring break. Visitors can save even more by purchasing a tourist card. Costing just over £15 for 72 hours, the card offers free admission to major sights like the moving European Solidarity Centre and discounts on food and activities like river cruises.  

Utrecht, Netherlands 

Flights from London to nearby Amsterdam can cost as little as £96 with easyJet, but travellers who want even more of a bargain can book a FlixBus ticket direct from London Victoria to Utrecht from just £31.99 one way.

Exploring the city’s Oudegracht (Old Canal) area, street markets and turreted Domkerk cathedral are all free and visitors can take free walking tours (tips encouraged) from the landmark Dom Tower every day. A night’s stay, meanwhile, costs an average of £97 in one-bedroom rental accommodation.  

Aveiro, Portugal 

With its balconied waterside buildings and banana-shaped moliceiro boats, Aveiro is a dead ringer for Venice, yet a night’s stay in one-bedroom rental accommodation costs an average of £75 in this northwestern Portuguese city, versus £133 in Venice and a moliceiro ride costs €10 instead of €80. The town’s fish market, fishermen’s cottage area, and nearby beaches are all free to visit and its restaurants serve affordable local dishes. Even a meal in Michelin-recommended, Salpoente, isn’t prohibitively pricey at €69.50 for six gourmet courses.

Aviero, Portugal, March 5, 2018 - The old Carcavelos bridge at the S??o Roque canal in Aveiro on a sunny day
The old Carcavelos bridge in Aveiro (Photo: Finn Bjurvoll Hansen/Moment RF/Getty)

Hamburg, Germany 

Some of the most famous sights are free to visit in this water-woven city with more bridges than Venice. Visitors can experience the Old Elbe Tunnel, Elbphilharmonie music hall plaza, and Sunday morning Fischmarkt for nothing and pay a €2 donation to enter St Michael’s Church.  For further discounts and free public transport, there’s the €11.90 Hamburg Card. The average price for one-bedroom rental accommodation, meanwhile, is £96 and weekend flights can be snapped up from £74 with Ryanair.          

Strasbourg, France 

Low-cost Spanish airline Volotea offers Gatwick to Strasbourg flights for less than £100 return and one-bedroom rental accommodation costs an average of £78 a night in the city.  The town’s prettiest areas, Petit France, where the waterways reflect the facades of timbered houses, and the Unesco-listed Grand-Île, are free to wander around, whilst the €5 City Card gets visitors discounts on paid-for attractions, including the 66-metre-high platform inside the Gothic cathedral (€4 with the card, €8 without).  

City view of Wroclaw
Wroclaw’s waterways are impressive (Photo: Raffaele Nicolussi/Moment RF/Getty)

Wroclaw, Poland 

The strength of the British pound against the Polish zloty makes sightseeing in this “Venice of the North”, with its Old Town and Unesco-listed Centennial Hall, particularly pocket-friendly. A ticket for the viewing platform of the 212-metre Sky Tower costs just 25PLN (£4.93) for example. The average cost of a night’s stay in a one-bedroom apartment, meanwhile, is just £64, according to Airdna data, and Stansted flights are available from £57 with Ryanair.

Annecy, France 

Three canals and the river Thiou contour the town of Annecy in the French Alps, earning it the nickname of the “Alpine Venice”. EasyJet offers budget flights from London and Manchester to nearby Geneva, from where travellers can make the 1.5-hour train journey to Annecy for less than £15. Once in town, visitors can amble through the Old Town, walk part of the cycle trail that loops the luminous Lake Annecy, explore the sequoia-shaded Jardin de Europe, and hike in the neighbouring Annecy Mountains free.

Navigli canals in the old town at sunset (Photo: Marco Bottigelli/Moment RF/Getty)

Milan, Italy 

In Milan’s canal district, Navigli, the waterways are lined with cafes, galleries and boho boutiques. Savvy travellers should visit during the daily happy hours (from 6pm) to enjoy free cicchetti alongside cut-priced drinks. A Milan Pass (€20.99 for 48 hours) entitles visitors to a free drink in Navigli, as well as an audio guide, unlimited public transport, and 10 per cent discounts on other sightseeing activities. One-bedroom rental accommodation costs an average of £106 a night while easyJet flights are priced from £55 from London.

Cork, Ireland 

Ambling along the riverside walkways tops the list of free things to do in Cork – just visit Cork City Council’s website to download one of four free Cork Walks walking guides. Elsewhere in the city, the Public Museum, Elizabeth Fort, Glucksman Museum and Fitzgerald Park are all free to visit, affordable food can be found at the 18th-century English Market, and one-bedroom rental accommodation costs an average of £107 a night.

View of Cork City along the River Lee
Cork City alongside the River Lee (Photo: Dave G Kelly/Moment RF/Getty)

Stockholm, Sweden 

Scandinavia isn’t best known for being budget-friendly, but Airdna data reveal that one-bedroom rental accommodation costs an average of £99 a night in Stockholm and London flights are priced from £55 with Ryanair. Visitors can make further savings by looking out for “Dagens rätt” (meal of the day) signs outside restaurants, taking a donation-only walking tour, and prioritising free and cheaper sights like “the world’s longest art exhibition” that can be found within the subway (which costs €2 to ride).

Ghent, Belgium 

There are more than 8km of waterside walks in this northeastern Belgian city and exploring them is free, as is visiting Ghent’s 10,000 species botanical garden, the seventh-century St Peters Abbey, and its street art spots. Lunch needn’t cost more than €5 thanks to the profusion of Belgian frite stands and a night’s stay in a one-bedroom rental costs an average of £86. Budget flights from London to nearby Brussels are available from £94 with Ryanair and the onward train journey costs less than £20. Look out for Eurostar promotions and you could also snap up one-way trains from £39 – travel from Brussels to any Belgian station is included in the fare.

Spectacular colorful traditional french houses on the side of river Lauch in Petite Venise,Colmar,France
Half-timbered houses on the side of river Lauch in Petite Venise, Colmar (Photo: wilatlak villette/Moment RF/Getty)

Colmar, France 

In Colmar’s Old Town, there’s a district of half-timbered buildings, cobbled streets, and winding water that’s known as Little Venice. Boat trips through the area cost £8 or they’re included free with the seven-day Colmar City Pass (€32). Cheap eats such as Flammekueche (Alsace’s answer to pizza) can be found in the Covered Market that’s right next to the water while one-bedroom rental accommodation averages £83 a night. Return train tickets from London St Pancras can be found for less than £250.

Aarhus, Denmark 

Denmark has a reputation for being expensive for British visitors, but a trip here doesn’t have to break the bank. Travellers can get to Aarhus from £40 with Ryanair and, once in the city, a meal in the Market Hall Nicolinehus costs from £11 including a drink, private twin-bed hostel rooms at a place like Book1 Design Hostel are priced from £79 in summer, and attractions like the city’s beach, the botanical garden, the Salling Rooftop viewpoint, the Dokk1 library are free to visit.

Empuriabrava, Spain 

Scored by 15 miles of canals, all within splashing distance of the town’s mile-long Costa Brava beach, Empuriabrava offers average one-bedroom rental accommodation rates of just £74 a night. Yacht spotting, sunbathing, and exploring the nearby Aiguamolls de l’Empordà Natural Park are all free activities in this north-eastern Spanish town and budget flights from Stansted to nearby Girona airport cost from £74 with Ryanair.