Do away with the bikes and the walking and jump aboard to discover the famous Amsterdam canals.
A visit to Amsterdam would not be complete with a journey down the city's famous canals. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Amsterdam canals are a symbol of the city and one of the capital's most important cultural attractions. Whether you stroll or bike along the water, or enjoy a leisurely cruise on the historic waterways, discover the unmissable Amsterdam canals with our guide.
Amsterdam Canals: What are they all about?
There once was a time when Amsterdam was built on flood plains and featured no canals but you’d have to go as far back as 1612, a year before the construction of the first canals were to begin, to see this version of the city.
Originally a city built around a dam on the Amstel river, Amsterdam’s name and very nature relied on its careful relationship with the nearby North Sea. With the city being founded around the dam in 1220, it wasn’t until the early 1600s, during the country’s Golden Age, that city planners decided to introduce a canal system to help with water management.
The system is based around four primary canals called Herengracht or ‘’Patricians' Canal’’, Keizersgracht or ‘’Emperor's Canal’’, Prinsengracht or ‘’Prince's Canal’’, and the outer canal, Singelgracht. When the system was initially planned, the first three were residential canals, while the Singelgracht was to maintain city defense, having served as a moat from 1480, as well as water management. However, over the years Singelgracht has moved on from its initial purpose and melded into the residential layout of the city.
Herengracht was named after heren regeerders, the lords and patricians of the city who helped fund the construction of the city’s elaborate canal network. Keizergracht was named so after Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor who betrothed the city his own XXX coat of arms. Finally, Prinsengracht was named after William II, Prince of Orange, who helped created an independent Dutch republic.
Amsterdam, known for its picturesque scenes along the canal, was also the love of one French impressionist who painted the same canal church scene a huge 13 times. Claude Monet loved the idyllic scenery that the city boasted and painted the Zuiderkerk or South Church along the Groenburgwal canal. Not happy with one iteration of the sight Monet would repaint it another 12 times.
The canal system isn’t just a tool for the city’s water management it is a key feature to Amsterdam’s unique feel, one that should be enjoyed in a canal tour.
Canal Tour Amsterdam
If you want to make the most of your time in Amsterdam, head to the water to see the city. Using The Amsterdam Pass card, you can fully utilise the Hop on-Hop off boat and bus tour and traverse the city as it has been for the past 400 years.
Leaving every 25 minutes, the frequent departures mean you don’t have to rush as you pootle down the historic canals. The boat’s route takes you to six of the most visited attractions in the city, including the Rijksmuseum, Leidseplein Vondelpark, A’DAM Lookout and Anne Frank’s house.
All the while you will enjoy learning about the wonky buildings that line the canal, the interesting history of the waterways and a few bridges along the way.
Taking you through the tree-lined canals, the boat allows visitors to fully explore areas of interest before jumping aboard again and heading off. The calming nature of the water and lack of congestion means the Hop on-Hop off boat tour is a great way to not only learn about the city but get around too.
To make the tour even better, the boat is combined with the bus tour so you can step off the boat and onto a bus and see all the interesting places you couldn’t on the water.
- Amsterdam has 165 canals, equalling over 100km in length (60 miles)
- Being an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the canals are protected by the city
- Due to the extensive waterworks Amsterdam is dubbed “The Venice of the North”
- Talking of Venice, Amsterdam actually has more bridges totalling at 1281
- On Kings Day on 27 April the canals are packed with boats draped in orange
Tips for visitors
- If you decide to hire a boat you must always stay below 6km/h (3.7mph).
- When deciding where to park your boat, note that you cannot park under bridges, narrow waterways, junctions or by rescue steps.
- As it is an UNESO World Heritage Site you must never drop litter.
- When boating, keep to the right.
- During rush hour many of the drawbridges are closed for boats.