Venice has captured travelers’ hearts for hundreds of years. An artistic and architectural masterpiece, this city on the sea is home to the iconic Rialto Bridge, Grand Canal, and Saint Mark’s Square. But what happens when people flood the canals faster than the rising water? Venice receives around 30 million visitors per year, and overtourism isn’t just affecting the city’s romantic vibe. Heavy foot, boat, and cruise traffic is polluting its delicate lagoon, and locals are leaving because of ballooning property values. (Tourists could destroy Venice—if floods don't first.)
While Venice will always be a gem on the Adriatic, travelers can reduce their impact by seeking alternative, but equally spectacular, destinations. From China to Belgium, set sail to these bridge-woven harbors. (How to turn overtourism into sustainable global travel.)
Nicknamed the “Venice of the French Alps,” Annecy is a maze of medieval châteaus, drifting swans, and charming footbridges. Its crystal-clear canals are fed by the Thiou river and Lake Annecy, which is considered one of Europe’s cleanest lakes. Shop for local persimmons, fresh bread, and raclette at Annecy’s triweekly market, or rent a boat and row to the medieval Palais de l’Ile. Visit in March for elaborate costume parades at the Venetian Carnival, or go in August to see Europe’s largest pyrotechnic show at the annual Lake Annecy Festival. Sustainable travel tip: Keep Lake d’Annecy pristine for its resident otters and trout by choosing an eco-friendly sunscreen when swimming at local beaches. Here are some alternatives to water-polluting sunscreen.
The ancient Chinese city of Suzhou, roughly 1.5 hours west of Shanghai, has an extensive network of canals, water gardens, and boat-friendly neighborhoods. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Jing-Hang Grand Canal is more than 2,000 years old and stretches roughly 1,200 miles through the Yangtze River Delta, making it the world’s longest and oldest canal. Stroll over ancient stone bridges to the sixth-century Hanshan Temple, take a gondola through the Mudu gardens, or cross Tongli’s 49 symbolic bridges. Sustainable travel tip: Support the community’s economy by stopping at a waterside teahouse to indulge in locally sourced fare.
Dubbed one of the EU’s greenest cities, the dazzling Swedish capital is made up of 14 connected islands. Explore Stockholm by ferries, kayaks, and solar-powered catamarans. The Royal Palace, old town, Fotografiska museum, City Hall, and Södermalm can all be taken in from the water. Not surprisingly, for a Nordic city, Sweden is a great destination any time of year. Unlike its Italian counterpart, the canals of this “Venice of the North” can be enjoyed on ice skates during colder months. Sustainable travel tip: It’s easy to go green in a city with eco-taxis, biofuel buses, high-speed trains, and more than 400 miles of bike lanes. Visit in April for Vintagemässa, Sweden’s first and only vintage clothing fair, and a smart way to reduce waste from fast fashion.
Founded by Vikings, then developed into a medieval center of textile trade, the capital city of Bruges has shipped Belgian beer, delicate lace, and Flemish cloth down its romantic waterways for centuries. Canal-side highlights include the Basilica of the Holy Blood, Groeningemuseum, and the Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan brewery. Every three years, Bruges hosts a Triennial of dancing, music, and art installations placed along the city’s waterways and cobblestone streets. Sustainable travel tip: During the 2018 festival, a five-ton whale was crafted out of plastic waste reclaimed from the ocean. Take a cue from the city and learn how to take your next trip without single-use plastics.
Encircled by foggy silhouettes of the Aravalli mountain range, India’s western city of Udaipur is a warren of whitewashed royal palaces, bathing ghats, and artificial lakes, the oldest of which, Lake Pichola, was built in 1362. Don’t miss the gorgeous City Palace, the Jag Mandir palace, and the Ahar archaeological museum. Accommodations range from locally owned waterfront havelis to the luxe Taj Lake Palace, a five-star floating hotel and royal residence. Sustainable travel tip: Udaipur’s current maharana (custodian), Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, actively supports renewable energy. Reduce your footprint by hiring solar-powered boats and rickshaws when available.
Located between Buenos Aires and the second largest river delta in South America, Tigre began as a tiny church town in 1678 and has since grown into a yachting, row-boating, maté-brewing city, where children are ferried to school and groceries are delivered by water. Bike the Paseo Victorica esplanade past cafés, the Naval Museum, the belle-époque Tigre Art Museum, and local rowing clubs. Sustainable travel tip: Kayak through the Delta Terra Natural Reserve, a low-impact way to see river otters and scarlet-headed blackbirds.
The marshes surrounding Giethoorn were once important sources for harvesting peat moss and reeds, and its canal system was originally used to transport local farmers and their crops across town. Today, the Netherlands’ “Dutch Venice” has managed to preserve its fairytale charm. The car-free village is peppered with thatched cottages, waterfront restaurants, and canal-side museums. Take time to visit the quirky but spectacular snail shell collection at the Museum Gloria Maris. Sustainable travel tip: Preserve Giethoorn’s landscaped canals by rowing through town or renting an electric “whisper boat” instead of a gas-guzzling motorcraft. Visit during the shoulder season, April and September, to reduce crowding while still taking advantage of pleasant boating weather.
Gold Coast, Australia
Situated between South Stradbroke Island and a sandy Pacific Ocean spit, Australia’s Gold Coast puts Venice to shame with more than 240 miles of canals in addition to rivers, lakes, and surfer-friendly beaches. Try stand-up paddle boarding in Currumbin Creek Estuary for quiet sands and unobstructed Pacific views. Have breakfast at Easy House Vegetarian in Mermaid Waters, then hop on a boat to Mermaid Beach for Pilates classes or mini-golf. Visit in September for the Beach Rugby Australia Festival on Kirra Beach in Coolangatta. Sustainable travel tip: Plastic Free Gold Coast organizes local beach clean-ups and promotes eco-friendly businesses like the plastic-free Ocean 4218 cafe and Water3, a network of high-tech water refill stations found all over the city.
- Nat Geo Expeditions