In these canal cities, exploring is best done by boat

Drew Limsky

The way you maneuver around a city can be just as memorable as the sights you’re trying to get to. Streets are so done. Leave your car behind and explore these destinations where waterways are an essential part of the scenery.

Venice, Italy

Any criticisms of Serenissima—the sinking, the smell, the crowds, the fact that any little storm puts Piazza San Marcos under water and people have to walk on raised platforms to get around—are worth a yawn. Venice remains one of the world’s most enchanting destinations, a pedestrian-only city where getting lost in the maze of islands (118 of them), alleys and bridges is pretty much the point. A gondola or water taxi ride will cost a small fortune; better to take the vaporetto (waterbus) and the traghetto (a tiny ferry that crosses the Grand Canal).

Where to stay: The Gritti Palace, a Starwood Luxury Collection property on the Grand Canal, reopened this year with stunning new interiors and modern bathrooms after a two-year renovation.

Bruges, Belgium

The city’s high density of intact medieval architecture earned it a UNESCO World Heritage site designation in 2000. (And the 2008 Colin Farrell film In Bruges works as well as a travelogue as it does as a crime comedy.) While you can certainly see a lot by tackling the cobbled streets by foot or by bike, why not kick back and enjoy the sites by boat? Bruges’ watercraft, after all, lead you right to such scenic sites as the Dijver Canal, the Rozenhoedkaai and the Groenerei. The canals at night, bathed in golden lights, are not to be missed.

Where to stay: Hotel Heritage, with its 22 romantic rooms, is the only Relais & Châteaux property in the city.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The city’s sandy beaches and the watering holes and bistros along Fort Lauderdale Boulevard and Las Olas Boulevard are diversion enough, but to really get a feel for the coastal resort town, it is essential to explore its 500 miles of canals. Fed by the Intracoastal Waterway and crossed by more than 100 bridges, Fort Lauderdale’s canal system is a mecca for boaters of all stripes. You can be one of them for the day by booking a seat on one of Gondolas West’s 22-foot eco-friendly electric tour boats. You can also see the canals at your leisure via hop-on, hop-off water taxis.

Where to stay: The beachfront Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale has all the expected luxury trappings (400-thread-count Frette bed linens, full-service spa, gym with a waterway view) plus easy access to gondola rides from Asia Bay.

Bangkok, Thailand

Given the city’s heavy traffic — complicated by the occasional elephant — a more serene mode of transport is the Chao Phraya River and its offshoot klongs (canals). When I visited, I used Bangkok’s famed Mandarin Oriental as a launching point for a klong tour that included stops at temples and the Taling Chan floating market. I sampled Thai delicacies and fruit and purchased a Singha beer deftly delivered from a passing long-tailed boat.

Where to stay: One of the coolest things about staying at Mandarin Oriental is being ferried from one side of the river to the other to access all the hotel’s facilities.

Venice, Calif.

One of the hippest and most desirable parts of Los Angeles is best known for its sloping sands and surfers, its beach walk full of artists and exhibitionists, and its athletes on the basketball court and in the weightlifting pen at Muscle Beach. But when developer Abbott Kinney envisioned the Venice neighborhood a century ago, he meant it to remind people of its Italian namesake and had miles of canals built. Within a few decades, most of the canals had given way to modernity — and roads — but a small grid of canals remain a few blocks inland. Walking along the quiet pedestrian-only paths that flank Carroll Canal, Sherman Canal and Howland Canal, and admiring the modern homes and charming cottages that flank them, is great antidote to the antics of the boardwalk.

Where to stay: The Inn at Venice Beach, which boasts a fine collection of Beat-era artwork, has just been renovated.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

In terms of its canals, Amsterdam is nearly as famous as Venice, and like its Italian counterpart, it’s best seen from a water-based transport system. Connecting the residential and the commercial districts—distributed around 90 islands—are rings of water navigable via canal buses and ferries. There’s the Singel, which encircles the medieval city; the Prinsengracht, which gives way to the much-photographed Dutch canal houses as well as the Anne Frank House; the centrally located, tree-lined Zwanenburgwal; and a half dozen other major canals.

Where to stay: The Hotel Pulitzer, located right on the Prinsengracht, starred alongside George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s 12.