25 Most Important Shipping Canals in the World

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The navigable canals of the world connect lakes, seas, and rivers. They offer shorter transport routes through some of the world’s most important commercial regions, and they end up saving everyone significant time and money from producers, shippers, and consumers. 

Following are 25 of the world’s most important shipping canals. They range from less than 4 miles long to over 1,000, and some are now bigger tourist attractions than transport passages. However, all have played a vital role in enabling ship transport, and many still do.

1. Panama Canal

Panama Canal
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Arguably the most famous canal in the world, this Central American waterway in Panama connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Before its existence, ships traveling between the east and west coasts of the U.S. had to go all the way around the tip of South America. Now, this 51-mile waterway shaves more than 9,000 miles off that trip.

2. Suez Canal

Suez Canal
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The other contender for the world’s most famous canal, this Egyptian canal connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, facilitating ship passage between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It’s the world’s most used maritime canal and also separates Africa from Asia.

3. Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal
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This canal connects the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China. At just over 1,100 miles, it’s the world’s longest and oldest canal.

4. Corinth Canal

Corinth Canal
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With a width of only 82 feet, this is the narrowest canal in the world and the deepest. Located in Greece, it connects the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Because of its narrowness, large ships cannot use it.

5. Volga-Don Canal

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This canal connects the Russian rivers of the same names. It’s an essential link between the Azov and Caspian Seas and the ocean. It was built almost entirely by forced gulag labor during the Soviet years.

6. Kiel Canal

Kiel Canal
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The traffic of about 250 ships per day makes this Europe’s busiest canal. It’s located in Germany and connects the Baltic Sea to the North Sea, creating a safer and faster alternative to the longer route through Denmark.

7. Houston Ship Canal

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Connecting the city of Houston, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico, this is one of the busiest ports in the U.S. Since its opening in 1914, it has been widened and deepened to ensure sustainability as ships have grown.

8. Rhine-Main-Danube Canal

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Construction of this canal connecting the three most important rivers in Western Europe began during the turmoil of WWI. It allows ships to travel between the Black Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and it can accommodate barges with a capacity of nearly 2,500 tons.

9. Erie Canal

Erie Canal
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Probably the most famous U.S. canal, the Erie links the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean. It runs through upstate New York from Buffalo to Albany. Construction began in 1817, and when completed, it reduced shipping costs for merchant ships by 95%. Today, it gets more tourists than commercial traffic.

10. Caledonian Canal

Caledonian Canal
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This canal in Scotland is unusual compared to the rest on this list. Only about a third is hand-built; the rest consists of several lochs, including the famous Loch Ness. It’s one of the oldest operating canals in the world, and it’s been deepened to allow for the passage of heavier vessels.

11. Mittelland Canal

Mittelland Canal
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At a little over 200 miles, this is Germany’s longest canal. It connects the Rhine to other major waterways in the country and has been open since 1938.

12. White Sea-Baltic Canal

Gateway No. 2 of the White Sea-Baltic Canal
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This is another canal constructed by prisoners in the Soviet gulags. It runs through northern Russia to the White Sea.

13. Khlong Canals

Khlong Canals
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Thailand is home to this complex system of canals. Hundreds of years old, they’re connected to three major rivers and allow merchant ships to get about the country.

14. Gota Canal

Gota Canal, Sweden
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Built in Sweden during the first half of the 1800s, this canal took 22 years and more than 60,000 people to complete. 260 miles long, it connects the Baltic and North Seas.

15. Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi in Carcassonne, France
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Located in France, this is the oldest operating canal in Europe. It opened in 1681 and even continued to operate during WWII.

16. Soo Canal

Soo Canal
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In the Great Lakes regions, there are many canals and locks that facilitate passage among the lakes and other waterways. The Soo Canal is a connector for Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

17. Manchester Canal

Manchester Ship Canal
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Construction of this 26-mile canal connecting Manchester and Liverpool began in 1887. It opened for use on New Year’s Day in 1894.

18. North Sea Canal

North Sea canal in the Netherlands
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Found in the Netherlands, this is a waterway between Amsterdam and the North Sea. 16 miles long, it opened in 1876.

19. Albert Canal

Albert Canal in Belgium
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Via Hasselt, this canal in Western Europe connects Antwerp and Liège in Belgium. Its total length is 81.5 miles.

20. New Water Way Canal

New Waterway Canal
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This is another canal in the Netherlands. It connects Rotterdam with the North Sea.

21. Grand Union Canal

Grand Union Canal
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Nearly 300 miles long, this British canal system is among the world’s longest. It begins in London and is the principal waterway to the Midlands.

22. Welland Canal

Welland Canal in southern Ontario, Canada
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The Welland Canal is part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes Waterway in Ontario, Canada. It connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and was built because the Niagara River, which naturally connects the lakes, is unnavigable due to Niagara Falls.

23. St. Lawrence Seaway

St. Lawrence Seaway, Ontario, Canada
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This extensive system of canals, channels, and locks allows vessels to travel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. The name comes from the St. Lawrence River, the natural connection between Lake Ontario and the ocean.

24. Bridgewater Canal

Bridgewater Canal, Manchester, United Kingdom
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Among the world’s oldest canals, the Bridgewater is a connector for Runcorn, Manchester, and Leigh in England. It was the country’s first canal not to follow an existing waterway.

25. Indira Gandhi Canal

Indira Gandhi Canal
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India’s longest canal reaches 400 miles in all. Initially, it was called the Rajasthan Canal, but the name was changed in 1984 to honor assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

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Robert Sihler is an educator, freelance writer, and rock climbing guide and instructor living with his family in Driftwood, Texas. In his spare time, he enjoys reading fiction, streaming films, completing crossword puzzles, and rock climbing. When he goes on vacation, he likes to visit the mountains of the West and climb remote, obscure peaks that have seen few or no prior ascents.