I have always been drawn to cities on the water, be they cities straddling large rivers, or even better, hugging a coastline. There is something magical about the juxtaposition of a modern city skyline and a watery setting, as well as the merging of tooting ships and car horns.
This may well stem from my growing up in Hamburg (see below), and my associating city living with the ability to hop on a sailboat at the weekend practically on your doorstep. So wherever a city’s public transport includes ferries, I’m sure to visit.
Having traveled a lot in my life, I have a few cities I tend to return to — or at least plan to return to — over and over again. They all have the water in common, with restaurants full of fresh seafood, views across open water dotted with a myriad of small boats and big ships, with fresh sea air messing up your hair, and that feeling of space. There is usually an atmosphere of adventure, exploration, and, as we say in Germany, of Fernweh, or wanderlust.
Here are some of my favorite cities by the water, all in spectacular water-dominated or coastal settings.
1. Hamburg, Germany
Elbe River, Alster Lakes, Canals
It all began in Hamburg, the city with Germany’s largest port, three rivers, two lakes, hundreds of canals, and countless bridges. I used to sail yawls on the larger of the two inner city lakes when I was young and cutters on the river Elbe when I was older. My dad had his sailboat moored on the Baltic coast for weekend excursions to Denmark, and the annual harbor festival, especially the tall ship parade, was a fixture on our calendar. Water is very much part of life in Hamburg, whether you are a local or a visitor.
Pro Tip: Instead of a hop-on, hop-off bus, why not take Hamburg’s hop-on, hop-off boat to go sightseeing?
2. Hong Kong, China
South China Sea
Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in the world, in no small part because of its watery setting. The skyscrapers, trams, markets, and incredible hustle and bustle would not be half as exciting without always spotting the water of the harbor popping up in between it all.
Island-hopping is a must, with ferries connecting the various parts of Hong Kong day and night, and making for quite a spectacle. No matter if you are watching the boats from the land or the land from the boats. The Star Ferry is an iconic part of the city and takes you across Victoria Harbour and to various sights.
Pro Tip: To truly appreciate Hong Kong’s setting, head up the fun funicular to Victoria Peak, where you can be in the green surroundings while looking out all across Hong Kong and the vast harbor.
3. Vancouver, Canada
Vancouver is one of those lucky cities that truly has it all: you can sail in the morning and go skiing in the afternoon. You have a modern city with superb restaurants and a superb food market, yet plenty of history, art, parks, islands, and stunning coastlines. Right on my first day there, sitting outside in a restaurant by Granville Island Market, I saw a seal popping its head up watching me having lunch. You don’t get that everywhere. I fell in love with those tiny False Creek ferries — so much so, that I bought a watercolor painting of them in a nearby art gallery.
Pro Tip: To make a stay in Vancouver perfect, a (larger) ferry ride to Vancouver Island is a must. There I added whales, sea otters, and sea lions to my “spot-the-animal” list.
4. Sydney, Australia
Sydney Harbour, Pacific Ocean
Sydney probably has the very best natural harbor in the world. Stretching inland from the Pacific Ocean, the coast is a combination of rocky cliffs and sandy beaches, perfect for some of the most majestic — and expensive — real estate there is. Further in, the spectacular skyline with the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge enhance this natural setting rather than disrupting it, making for one gorgeous city.
When I moved to Melbourne, I spent my first NYE on a cruise in Sydney Harbour, because, well, you have to, right? At night, from the water, the skyline is even better, especially with fireworks sprouting from the “coat hanger” bridge.
Pro Tip: The Manly Ferry is one of the best ways to see the harbor. It leaves from Circular Quay and heads past the city’s sights to Manly, on the Pacific Coast, with some of the best surfing, and it is cheap and fast.
5. Istanbul, Türkiye
Bosphorus, Golden Horn, Strait Of Marmara
Sitting across the Bosphorus, along the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul has waterways galore. Waterways that are traversed by countless ferries, cruise ships, and larger container ships that carry cargo between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Taking a ferry from the European side to the Asian side of Istanbul is a must, as is a ride along the Bosphorus, under the modern bridge connecting the two continents, with a stop at one of the many great seafood restaurants.
Pro Tip: Take a ferry up the Golden Horn to Balat, one of the most colorful places in Europe, full of art galleries and cafes.
6. Stockholm, Sweden
Stockholm lies in an archipelago made up of some 30,000 islands of various sizes, and the city itself stretches across some 14 islands. So, you can imagine, there is plenty of water and great views to be had. Finding your way round can be a bit of a challenge though because the city is so disjointed that you’ve got to take it one island at a time. Probably the quaintest island to visit is home to Gamla Stan, the old town, full of historic buildings. You can also walk across to the Parliament House, which has its very own island.
Pro Tip: Because Stockholm can be so confusing, I suggest a multifaceted approach to getting your bearings. Start with a bus sightseeing tour, and then back it up with a boat tour.
7. Cape Town, South Africa
While Cape Town is just as exciting inland as it is by the sea, I have to admit that my favorite spot in the city is the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, which is a busy harbor, full of leisure and working boats, ships, and ferries to places such as Robben Island. Then there are the restaurants, where you can sit with your wine in hand, watching the countless seals playing in the water, and later head off for a fix of art at the Zeitz MOCAA museum. I must admit to once having sat in the Belgian Café for the duration of two bottles of rosé (shared with my husband, I hasten to add) just watching the seals play close up, and the clouds dropping off Table Mountain on the horizon. One of the best afternoons ever.
Pro Tip: But it is not all about the waterfront; indeed, just a drive outside of Cape Town, you can get to the spectacular meeting point of two oceans: The Atlantic and the Indian Oceans at Cape Agulhas.
8. Manhattan, New York City, United States of America
One of the world’s most iconic arrival experiences is by ship to New York City, being greeted by the Statue of Liberty. But even going past by the Staten Island ferry, or, indeed on the Liberty Island Ferry, is pretty cool. Walking along the East and the Hudson rivers, which hug Manhattan on either side, offers both tranquil parks as well as plenty of activities, plus the Roosevelt Island Tramway, which in fact is a cable car across the East River.
While you can spend days in Manhattan without barely noticing the water, trying to explore the coastline is so worthwhile.
Pro Tip: The best way to appreciate just how much water there is in and around Manhattan is to not only take the ferry to one island, but in fact go around the entirety of Manhattan and see the majority of sights from the guided Circle Line tour.
9. Venice, Italy
Venetian Lagoon, Mediterranean Sea
And here is one of the most spectacular watery cities — if not the most spectacular — to end this list: Venice. It is impossible to imagine a city more embraced by water, quite literally. This is where the streets are canals, and daily life takes place on the water. From bakeries to laundry services, vets to libraries, everyone putters around the city on boats, making it wonderfully unique. The best way to explore Venice is to take time and get lost. And get lost you will. When you think Stockholm is confusing, you have not been to Venice. Dead ends, canals, bridges, and coastlines will confuse and delight you. And the setting is unbelievably photogenic.
Pro Tip: Get yourself a day, or better, three-day vaporetto pass to hop on every passing vaporetto (water bus), and don’t stop until you have seen most of the islands dotted across the lagoon.
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