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Canal City Discoveries
Leiden, Bruges, Strasbourg
Photos and story by Les Furnanz

High on Adventure, January 1, 2015


If you've visited and enjoyed the canal cities of Venice or Amsterdam, three lesser-known yet incredible canal cities await your further European explorations. My wife and I were pleased to find that Leiden in Holland, Bruges in Belgium, and Strasbourg in France were all within a 300-mile circle of public transportation and easily accessed from Amsterdam or Paris. Each city provides beautifully unique features and the trio comprises one of our favorite vacations.


Sitting across two branches of the Old Rhine River, Leiden is off the tourist route but full of bustle as a university town and favorite destination of the Dutch. Leiden is best known for its fortress that withstood the 1574 Spanish siege, for its history as the 1620 departure point for North America's Pilgrims, and for its native painter, Rembrandt. Today it' s a well-maintained 16th and 17th century town center full of beautiful historic sites, monuments, and museums. After Amsterdam, it claims the second largest historic center of the Netherlands.

Windmill & Canal  Leiden's Central Canal
Park Canal with Windmill; Leiden's Central Canal

We spent four busy, yet relaxing days in exploration on foot, kayaking the canals, bicycling through the town and surrounding countryside, and enjoying the wonderful cafés and restaurants. The kayaking was particularly fascinating, since most European canal cities do not allow public water access. From the kayak rental center at Rembrandt Park we were able to fully circle the old town and reach all six of the major canals. Similarly, the cycling was very enjoyable due to convenient rentals, the flat landscape, and accessibility to the North Sea coastline at Katwijk aan Zee.

We split the walking tour, Leiden Loop, across a two-day span to provide plenty of time for exploration of the fort and major sites, as well as relaxation at the many cafés and outdoor markets held along the canals of Oude Rijn and Neuuwe Rijn streets.

Leiden Street Scene  Leiden Street Market
Leiden Steet Scene; Neuuwe Rijn Street Market


The world is fortunate that Belgium' s medieval trading city of Bruges experienced a silted harbor in the 16th century, leaving the city unchanged for today's visitors. The unique Gothic and Renaissance architecture, streets, and canals sit neatly within a surrounding moat canal. You'll share Bruges with other tourists, but this is one city where you won' t mind.

Bruges Burg night scene     
Night Scene - Bruges' Burg

A three-day visit allowed for fruitful exploration of the car-free central town and and an interesting boat tour of the canals. We ambled along the narrow streets leading to the bustling Markt, the ancient Market Square. Cafés line the square's fringes, and the ancient Belfort (belfry tower) awaits ascent of its 366 steps for an incredible city view. The 47-bell carillon chimes every quarter-hour, and concert pieces are played at scheduled times throughout the week. It's a short stroll eastward to the opulent square called Burg where the Count of Flanders constructed a castle in the 9th century. Today the square preserves centuries of architecture: the 12th-century Romanesque Basilica of the Holy Blood; the Gothic Town Hall (1400s); the Renaissance Recorder's House (1600s), and the Baroque Provost' s House (1700s). The nearby Groeninge Museum showcases Flemish primitive art.

Bruges Tourists near Berghof  Canal Near Markt
Canal Scenes near Begjinhof and Burg

Bruges offers great bicycling, and many shops around the Markt provide rentals. We cycled Bruges' back streets and surrounding countryside, as the perfectly flat terrain invited leisurely peddling. We visited the Beguinage, an old Bruges walled quarter where women of the medieval ages lived a life of piety and service under nuns'care. A ride on the flower-lined paths and along the canals of Minnewater Park captivated our senses. Then we headed into the Belgium countryside along a canal to the medieval village of Damme where we enjoyed a café lunch. We finished the afternoon by cycling to the neighboring small village of Oostkerke with its ancient cemetery before returning to Bruges.

Wijingaardstraat   Carriage on Burgstraas
Bruges Street Scenes


Strasbourg goes beyond being the capital of France s Alsace region, as it houses the Parliament building of the European Union. The city is best known for its sandstone gothic Cathedral of our Lady. The entire city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for its unique medieval architecture that highlights its French and German roots. The waterways of the River Ill and the connecting Petite France canals make the city especially attractive.

Strasbourg Canal Scene   Strasbourg Street Market
Pettite France Canal and Strasbourg Street Market

We spent three days walking and cycling through the old town and along the river to Orangerie Park. Lunchtimes were spent in quaint Petite France, where a grand array of restaurants lined the canal. This quarter well displays its 16th-century history with half-timbered houses built for the city's tanners, millers, and fishermen. We visited all the major markets across the city, including the book-market, flea market, and producer' s market. A major highlight was the cathedral and our good fortune to have a hotel room on the neighboring square. Most unforgettable was the boat tour around the old town and extending up the river past St. Paul' s church to the European Parliament and neighboring institutions.

                          Strasbourg Cathedral   Main Square Scene
Cathedral of Our Lady and Medieval Half-Timbered Estate
Our multi-day trip to the three closely situated canal cities of Leiden, Bruges, and Strasbourg surprised us with their accessibility, unique beauty and history. Experience these great and friendly cities on your next European vacation.

Reference Web Sites

- Leiden
- Bruges
- Strasbourg


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