One of the most enjoyable things to do in Amsterdam is wander along the beautiful canals, which are lined with picturesque, historic buildings and have an endless variety of boats of all shapes, size, variety and function going by. Canals are the heart and soul of Amsterdam, the defining icons that make this city unique.
With so many attractions and such visual beauty, this is one of the world's great cities for discovering on foot and in a boat. The canal boat tours take about one hour and provide an excellent, very popular introduction to these waterways. There are some 120 different canal cruise operators in Amsterdam.
You have a choice of self-hire, some of which are pedal boats that can carry four people. It's kind of like riding a bicycle, a very Dutch thing to do, but you're in the water. Plus you're getting good exercise, not polluting the air, and gliding along so quietly you can come up real close to the swans.
Or you could rent a small electric boat such as from Mokum Boot, the biggest boat rental company in Amsterdam. You can choose your own route, go wherever you want, with room for a bunch of your friends. Just get out on the water and go. No experience or license is required as long as the boat is under 15 meters in length.
Most people board one of the larger commercial operations, some of them with open-top boats, and others are enclosed, some are elegant and vintage, some have full meal service on board, while others provide a standup outdoor bar where you can enjoy some fun with your friends. Many of those smaller open boats can offer a picnic for sale, making that experience a floating party. You can also charter a boat for private hire with a captain, or you could design your own route, or leave it up to the expert who does these trips all the time.
With so many different kinds of boat tours to pick from, you can really cater the trip to your own personal tastes and interests, like in the smaller boats where you'll meet new friends and have a casual conversation as you're cruising along.
But with all of these different choices, there's no question that the most popular kind of canal boat tour is on that bigger boat, and for good reason. It's quite comfortable, it's economical, it does a one-hour standard route. You'll have some narration explaining what you're passing by, and there are plenty of windows and open tops that you can look out and get a good view. It's Amsterdam's most popular tourist attraction, with nearly 4 million annual passengers riding on 320 different boats.
The main place to start that boat ride is at the Damrak boat basin located midway between the train station and Dam Square. Departures start at 10 a.m. and continue into the night. You can also get this type of boat at the Rokin Canal in the south part of town.
It's wonderful to see how many locals are out in their boats enjoying the canal scene. There are about 10,000 privately owned boats in Amsterdam for personal use, sometimes as basic transportation to get around, other times just to relax, kick back, and cruise through the canals. After all, the Netherlands has a rich nautical heritage.
There are over 4000 kilometers of navigable waterways in the country, with one boat for every 32 people. So, it's a recreational hobby as well as a practical means of transportation. You're going to see a lot of those groups of friends sharing a boat as you walk around. Most of them are local. Amsterdam's new Green Party mayor is banning diesel engines from the center's canals by the year 2025. Currently, only 5% of the boats are emissions free, so 95% of these boats are going to have to be converted to electrical motors, creating no pollution or noise. A boat tour at night can be fun with those bridges all lit up, as we'll show you a little bit later. Nearly 2000 historic homes line these canals, each with similar harmonious architecture, and yet every one of them is a unique creation with custom design details that are delightful to admire.
You will not get lost while walking around because the central canals follow straight lines in a grid pattern, with many connecting side streets featuring little shops and restaurants. This central area with four main canals is called the Canal Belt or Canal Ring. It was the wealthiest part of 17th century Amsterdam, with beautiful homes built by some of the world's most powerful and wealthy businessmen
There are four major canals in the center: Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht.
We're going to take a close look at those four canals along with some pedestrian shopping streets and side canals. Average length of each of these four canals is about three kilometers. All four of them total about 12 kilometers in length, too much to walk in one day. What most people do is meander around, walk along part of a canal, then take a side street over to the next canal, maybe follow a plan or just go with the flow and see what looks interesting. Then on the next block, you'll always come upon another canal.
Singel was the first major canal to be built in the late 15th century. Then in the early 16th the city needed to expand with rapid construction that quickly built up this new part of town.
Singel canal has a most unusual bridge, Torensluis, one of the oldest and widest in town, 42 meters wide. So large, it provides a terrace for an outdoor café and has rooms underneath it that are remnants of a former prison and the old city wall. In recent years those rooms were open to the public as a jazz club and art exhibit area, and there used to be a tower on top in the 17th century.
At the south end of Singel you will find one of the prettiest sites in town, the famous Floating Flower Market, with thousands of fresh blooms for sale. The Dutch are world-famous for flower production, and while tulips are the best known, they have countless other varieties, which you will see in this unusual floating market.
As the tourist board says on their website. "Rain or shine, this stretch of the Singel canal in the city center is filled with the vibrant colors and fragrances of fresh flowers, every Monday to Saturday, serving tourists and locals alike. Head home with tulip bulbs for your garden or plants for your home, as well as a fun selection of typically Dutch souvenirs."
Now we're relocating from the flower market at the bottom of Singel up to the top of the canal belt at Brouwersgracht. The name translates as Brewers Canal because this is where they made the beer back in the 16th and 17th centuries.
There were many breweries and warehouses filled with barrels of beer. There were also goods like leather, coffee, whale oil and spices stored and processed here in giant warehouses. Now, those same historic buildings have been converted into luxury apartments.
De Belhamel Restaurant has a great location here with an outdoor dining terrace on the canal bank. featuring a cuisine that's traditional French and Italian, and includes some Dutch and Flemish.
The neighborhood has a popular little park where the kids play. Amsterdam is a densely populated city and does not have many neighborhood parks in the center of town. So this is a great place for kids to get together and have some fun. The side lanes connect over to Haarlemerstraat.
Cat-lovers will want to make a petting visit to the Poezenboot, the Cat Boat, on the Singel canal in front of number 38. It’s a floating hotel for cats that takes permanent care of several dozen strays, with free admission, but they do appreciate a donation to help care for their furry wards, which are all available for adoption. You can also visit their website and make a contribution.
Herengracht extends south from the Brewer's Canal, and we'll be taking you there next.
Herengracht translates as Lords' Canal or Patricians' Canal, because it was home to the wealthiest of all the merchants. It had the biggest homes, with most beautiful ornamentation, with inner gardens, coach houses and elegant interiors suitable for these powerful occupants. The canal bank is another lovely setting for a terrace restaurant, this one featuring a modern Dutch-French menu.
The two-block section between Vijzelstraat and Leidestraat is called the “Golden Bend” featuring some of the widest homes with beautiful ornamentation, inner gardens and coach houses, befitting the powerful occupants. Nowadays the real estate is so expensive there are very few private residences, but the original buildings have been restored and converted into offices for professionals, banks and high-tech businesses.
Herengracht was originally a moat, dug in 1585, then expanded to a canal starting in 1612. It begins in the north at the Brouwersgracht and flows into the Amstel at the south end, lined many monumental canal houses.
Museum of the Canals (Grachtenhuis) is housed in a monumental building on the Herengracht, where you travel through 400 years of history on a whirlwind tour. The museum looks at the 17th-century city expansion projects that led to Amsterdam’s ring of canals. After seeing the interactive displays, you’ll look at Amsterdam in a whole new light when wandering through the city’s streets or taking a canal cruise. A curious little museum at number 497 on Herrengracht is the Cat Cabinet, or “Kattenkabinet,” the world’s only museum dedicated to cat art, featuring paintings, posters, photos, and sculpture.
The next canal over is Keizersgracht, named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian the First, who made the Hapsburg Empire the largest ever created, including the Netherlands. Another terrace restaurant, a great spot to eat, drink and watch the canal. This is the is the widest of these four canals, at 28 meters. Begun in 1614, the buildings along it went up quickly, and by 1618 hardly any vacant lots remained. Extension to the Amstel was completed in 1658.
Running at right angles is Reguliersgracht, which connects three of the main canals, and it's noted for its seven bridges. This intersection is particularly beautiful.
We've now reached the last of our four main canals, the Prinsengracht, named after the Prince of Orange. It's the longest of these main canals, at 3.2 kilometers. There are quite a few houseboats on this canal, some of the 2500 houseboats in Amsterdam, many of which are available as vacation rentals.
First built in the 16th century, most of the canal houses along it were constructed during the 17th-century Golden Age of the United Provinces. The bridges over the Prinsengracht canal connect with the streets in the Jordaan in the West and the Weteringbuurt on the East side. Notable buildings along Prinsengracht include the Noorderkerk (1623), the Noordermarkt, Anne Frank House, and the Westerkerk (1631). The Prinsengracht is spanned by 14 bridges, all fixed.
As usual the side streets in this neighborhood are always worth taking a look. Perhaps walk up one side, turn around, come back down the other, then continue walking alongside the canal. The street and its canal have the same name.
Sitting at a sidewalk restaurant alongside the canal is another perfect way to enjoy these sights and have a relaxing time. There are more than a thousand restaurants in town, and many of them have these lovely outdoor tables – it's a beautiful atmosphere, even in October when the weather is still quite mild.
We will come back to see more of these main canals, but for now, we're venturing just beyond them to another interesting neighborhood with little side canals and some busy streets.
Spiegelgracht is one of the shortest of the canals in the center, at just over 100 meters long, which somehow makes it even more attractive and quaint in a human scale.
The bike lane gives very good protection, as well as offering a scenic ride for bikes, mopeds and standup scooters.
That canal connects up with Lijnbaansgracht, which is another short and beautiful waterway. It's a fine neighborhood for pedestrians and for bikes. You're going to see what they call cargo bikes whizzing by, with one or two or three kids in front. The Dutch really know how to conserve energy, where a whole family can carpool in one bicycle, sometimes with four kids and a driver. That's five people on the bike. A good way for the visitor to safely ride is to join up in a bicycle tour.
It's a slice of Dutch life a bit away from the tourist center, which is certainly worth seeing, and it's a good example of why it's helpful to be spending several days in Amsterdam, so you have time to get all around to these fringe areas.
Some of these streets can get very busy with automobiles, pedestrians, bicycles and trams going by, so Dutch have learned to be courteous to keep the crowd flowing. Well, this neighborhood is slightly off the beaten track. It's not a famous place that you're going to find emphasized in guidebooks and yet it's fascinating in its own right.
And then suddenly you'll find yourself at the heart of an art district along Nieuwe Spiegelstraat. It's almost door-to-door antique and art dealers. It's one of the most well-preserved parts of the city, including galleries that have remained in business for generations.
We're going to wind things down with some general observations. Amsterdam is often called the Venice of the North, but Venice has fewer canals with 150, while Amsterdam has 165. And Venice canals total about 41 kilometers in total length, compared to Amsterdam's canals totaling 100 kilometers. Venice has 409 bridges, while Amsterdam has 1281. So maybe we should flip the terms and call Venice the Amsterdam of the South.
It is not only the wonderful canals and great historic sites that make Amsterdam so wonderful. It's the little lanes, the little back streets, the shops, unexpected surprises around the corner that make this city so fascinating. For most visitors, the attraction of Amsterdam is wandering around these little lanes, observing the beautiful canals, the sidewalk café while enjoying refreshments, doing some shopping, maybe for Royal Delft ceramics, or maybe just window shopping.
And how about a horse carriage ride to see the sights of town more comfortably? Finding hidden gardens and enjoying the historic architecture, perhaps getting a little lost while having our fantastic time.
Those four main canals that we've been viewing earlier have such an important history that they were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
“The historic urban ensemble of the canal district of Amsterdam was a project for a new ‘port city’ built at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. It comprises a network of canals to the west and south of the historic old town and the medieval port that encircled the old town and was accompanied by the repositioning inland of the city’s fortified boundaries, the Singelgracht. This was a long-term program that involved extending the city by draining the swampland, using a system of canals in concentric arcs and filling in the intermediate spaces. These spaces allowed the development of a homogeneous urban ensemble including gabled houses and numerous monuments.
“The Amsterdam Canal District illustrates exemplary hydraulic and urban planning on a large scale through the entirely artificial creation of a large-scale port city. The facades are characteristic of this middle-class environment, and the dwellings bear witness both to the city’s enrichment through maritime trade and the development of a humanist and tolerant culture linked to the Calvinist Reformation. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Amsterdam was seen as the realization of the ideal city that was used as a reference urban model for numerous projects for new cities around the world.
“The majority of the houses erected in the 17th and 18th centuries are still present in a good general state of conservation. This basic situation is fundamentally healthy for an urban ensemble that is still alive and active.”
Between the years 1610 and 1620, Amsterdam doubled in size, and by 1650 the population had shot past 200,000. Amsterdam then became the third largest city in Europe after London and Paris. By that time, Amsterdam had developed the best waterway system in the world, which helped make the city an enormous amount of money over the centuries, through the trade in goods on water. During their Golden Age of the 17th century, Dutch merchants ruled the oceans, sending ships out to the Far East, monopolizing the trade in spices from Southeast Asia and in silk, sugar, tea and porcelain from Japan and China.
The Dutch were also busy in the New World, sending ships to colonize parts of South America and founding the first settlement in New York. The Dutch navy even reached into the far Pacific with explorations that discovered Australia and New Zealand.
Those merchants used their immense wealth to create these canals and houses which stand today as manifestations of their brilliant achievements. Most of their homes are narrow and deep because they were taxed according to the amount of canal frontage -- so they did not show off their status in ostentatious public displays, unlike the huge country mansions found in the rest of Europe at this time. The egalitarian spirit of the Dutch expressed in these small facades lives on today in a social system that takes care of the whole population.
Gables are the elaborate roof peaks that appear to extend the house height, and gave the owners a chance to show off a bit. Gables come in four basic styles: triangle, stepped, neck and bell-shaped. There are endless variations, accompanied by different framing for windows and doors, decorated with statues and molding details, with a mix of finishing materials to go with the basic brick structures.
CANAL BOAT RIDE
Taking the canalboat tour is highly recommended, a very relaxing and easy way to enjoy the sights of these beautiful buildings going by. You don’t need a reservation to take a boat ride, just walk along the docks on Damrak and inquire with whatever company looks alive. There are several lines to choose from and they all offer the same informative one-hour ride through the canals, which is a definite must-do while in Amsterdam.
When you take the Canal Boat tour, you have a choice of daytime or nighttime. In the evening, it's dark and the lights are on, which gives a rather dramatic effect. You might not see the buildings quite as well, so you could do a daytime cruise and a night cruise.
As usual, the tour starts out at the Damrak boat basin and then passes the train station and ferry terminals. Those are the free ferries that go back and forth across Ij harbor. We have another video showing those ferry rides from the train station.
As we cruise along through that harbor, you'll see some of the sights like the Eye Museum and then shortly the boat enters some of those main canals that we've already been observing earlier. During the cruise you'll hear narration describing some of the history.
All of our walking has provided a feeling for the place, which helps you relate to the sights that will glide by, and the ride can offer suggestions for more sights to visit in your remaining time here. You could have started with a boat ride upon arrival, but first impressions of a place are best realized up close and personal, walking through the scene, stumbling a little and sniffing your way around, rather than sitting and looking through glass, whether it’s on a bus tour or a boat.
The boat route will bring you in a complete circle around the historic center, shifting from one canal to another as the captain decides, following a generally set course that shows you a section of each of the four major canals and the broad harbor area behind the train station. Clear windows curve up to the roof so you can see the rooflines going by, and you can usually slide the glass back for an unobstructed view. If you are taking photos you don’t want to shoot through glass because the reflections will spoil your picture. Some boats have a small open deck in the rear for a really clear view.
There are also some specialty boat tours at night that serve wine by candlelight or a complete dinner. Evening excursions are quite beautiful because the canals are lit by thousands of tiny white bulbs that outline nearly every bridge in a magical glow. Even if you have taken a boat ride in the day, it is worth doing it again at night for this completely different effect. Another location you can catch the boats, day and night, is at the Rokin canal, a few hundred yards south of the Dam. You could purchase an all-day ticket on several different boat lines that have various stops near museums and major landmarks, but this is not very useful because you can walk to most places and catch the more convenient trams when you need to cover a longer distance.