The 7 best European canal boat trips

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Slow travel is the only way to truly appreciate a destination. Because we rush too much in everyday life when we are finally “out of office”, “gone fishing” or just gone, we should relax. Exploring a region slowly is not only much more sustainable, it is also good for the soul.

As the old wisdom says, sometimes we have to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies. In today’s world, our bodies can travel so much faster than our souls that we often have returned home before our souls have a chance to catch up with us – let alone enjoy the break. Slow and soulful are the buzzwords when it comes to canal or river navigation.

Criss-crossed with magical waterways, Europe is perfectly set up to rent a boat and cruise through a canal, soak up the sights along the way, explore the occasional way, or sit back with a book and watch the world go by. It doesn’t matter whether you take the helm yourself or opt for a small cruising boat on which other people play the captain, because on a canal boat trip you are guaranteed to exhale and breathe deeply.

I picked some of my personal favorites in France, the UK, Germany and Italy. Each has a special charm to me, and no two are alike, so I hope you find one or two to inspire you on your next trip to Europe.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

1. Canal du Midi, France

The Canal du Midi is not only a picturesque canal, but also a historical marvel of engineering. Commissioned in 1666 by the progressive King Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, a total of 225 miles of waterways connect the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean. Strictly speaking, the Canal du Midi is only the section between the Mediterranean Sea and Toulouse, but is often used for the entire route.

Despite its 328 structures consisting of bridges, locks, aqueducts and tunnels, it is probably the most popular self-drive canal and is great for visitors who either rent a narrow boat themselves or choose one with a captain. It is difficult to decide whether to sail the entire route, in which direction and how much time you plan, because in addition to Toulouse there are countless beautiful rural villages and historical sites to discover along the canal.

Pro tip: The real Canal du Midi is my personal favorite. It drives between Toulouse, past the cute Bram, in the imposing Carcassonne, and ends in the breathtaking Camargue, from where you can extend your vacation to Montpellier, Avignon and Provence.

Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, France
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfry

2. Canal Saint-Martin, Paris, France

Not all canal cruises meander through tranquil landscapes; some even take place in the middle of a busy city, in this case Paris. This four-day, part-on, part-off-board trip through the St-Martin Canal, Villette Basin and St-Denis Canal allows you to see Paris from a whole new perspective. You probably know that right in the center of Paris there are canals that used to be used for freight transport and are now lined with trendy cafes, restaurants and houseboats, but the possibility of actually cruising them, through the locks, under the bridges and even through the tunnel that connects the Seine with the Bastille is very rare indeed. Backwater Cruises offers different cruises in France, but only this one unique special, rare opportunity to cruise the canals of Paris in September 2022.

Pro tip: In addition to sailing around Paris, you’ll also have half-day excursions and sightseeing tours of the city. This is a great opportunity both for those who already know Paris well but want something different, and for newcomers.

Barge on the River Thames in London
Photo credit: Barge Lady Cruises

3. The Thames, England

You start your Thames barge Afternoon tea vacation in London, aboard a luxury canal boat with a crew of four to look after you, then sail down the Thames. Stops along the way include visits to the palaces and castles of Hampton Court and Windsor, chauffeured car rides to historic sites like Cliveden and Oxford, and ending in Henley-on-Thames. These are four days in luxury, enjoying English history, beautiful waterways, gourmet food on board and being pampered all around.

Pro tip: the Magna Carta Barge has four cabins which makes it perfect for a punt vacation with friends and taking over the entire boat instead of sharing it with other parties. However, the boat’s decor is superb, the lounge is large, and day trips are in private cars, making it more like a floating luxury hotel than a cramped, narrow boat, even if you don’t know your fellow travelers.

Photo credit: Nick Smith / The Great West Way

4. Kennet and Avon Canal, England

If you enjoyed the Thames Route and wanted to paddle a canal yourself, why not head west along the Kennet and Avon Canal? The canal connects the River Kennet, which in turn flows into the Thames, with the River Avon and meanders through the beautiful countryside of south-west England on the rugged route of the Great West Way between London and Bristol. Narrow boat rentals are so popular here that you can either cover the entire 87 miles or choose your preferred shorter route for a day or two, such as a day trip. B. between Devizes and Bath Spa.

Pro tip: You can also stroll along the Kennet and Avon Canal along the towpath so you can take a boat trip one way and walk back the other. My favorite route is between Bath and Bradford on Avon, which takes about three hours on foot but longer if you stop at the pubs en route. Include these pubs in your itinerary, be it by boat or on foot, because they are fabulous, especially these Cross Guns Avoncliff with its beer garden with a view of the weir.

Spree and Berlin Cathedral
Spree in Berlin (F. Krawen / Shutterstock.com)

5. Canals in and around Berlin, Germany

The region of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which stretch between Germany’s capital Berlin and the Baltic Sea in the north, are not only beautiful, but also criss-crossed with lakes, rivers and canals. It just cries out to be explored by boat. If you don’t rent a narrow canal boat, but rather a sleek, but not too overwhelming motor yacht, you can explore the lakes at your leisure, explore the historic cities such as Potsdam and Fürstenberg along the way, moor on the lakeshore for a coffee or simply sail in canals and rivers in and out, find quiet spots to moor and read a book.

Pro tip: This company also rents small, license-free boats across Europe. Check it out The brochure for more inspiration.

The northern Italian canal tour
Photo credit: Barge Lady Cruises

6. Po River and the Bianco Canal, Italy

Please forgive me for recording a boat trip on the canal which is more like one? small cruise, but the route we have taken is so beautiful that I wanted to include it. Italy at its best: start in Venice, then welcome with Prosecco on board the beautiful life, the Good Life, and stay on board for a little more Venice in the morning. Then sail past small historic fishing villages, visit one or the other wine cellar and see Renaissance art in Ferrara, which is also famous for its marble. You’ll sail along the Po and the picturesque Bianco Canal, also known as Tartaro-Canalbianco-Po di Levante, before being transferred back to Venice after five days. Bella Vita indeed!

Pro tip: There are a few options for getting off the boat to take in the local area by bike and maybe process some of the calories that delicious Italian gourmet food on board delivers.

Canal de l'Aisne a la Marne in Reims
Canal de l’Aisne a la Marne in Reims (Sergey Novikov / Shutterstock.com)

7. Champagne region, France

Yes, France again. But you really can’t go wrong with France, can you? Especially not on a luxurious canal boat tour through French Champagne, literally from champagne house to champagne house. From Châlons-en-Champagne, you’ll brush through the Marne Valley for six days and five nights, visiting the two main centers of Champagne and Champagne, Reims and Epernay, while visiting vineyards and exploring the beautiful flat landscape in between, and bike if you wish always back to luxury boat Hirondelle, The Swallow, for gourmet dining, a glass – or two or three – of champagne on the gleaming teak deck as you slowly let the French countryside pass by. This is a luxury cruise, curated by Belmond, with four cabins on board that can be rented privately or per cabin.

Pro tip: This cruise includes transfers to and from Paris, so you can easily combine it with the Paris Canal St Martin tour.

River cruises are a great way to explore destinations:


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