Amsterdam’s Canal District celebrated its 400th birthday in 2013 making it a very special year for The Netherland’s capital. It’s a city of history, architecture, art and, of course, an infamous edgy side but what I enjoyed most were the Amsterdam canals; pretty leaf-lined waterways, criss-crossed with curvy little bridges, edged with cobblestone streets and leaning gabled houses.
A Brief History of Amsterdam’s Canals
First some history. Dug in the 17th century, the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ the canal district is a half-cobweb of over 100 kilometres of intersecting waterways, interspersed by upwards of 90 islands and linked by around 1280 bridges. I had no idea there were so many canals – more in fact than Venice!
The central ring or Grachtengordel (Canal Belt) is a concentric belt around the old city centre made up of three rings of canals lined with gabled merchants’ houses and warehouses. Over time hundreds of narrow streets and smaller canals have fanned out from the centre following the course of old paths and drainage ditches.
Jordaan and The Nine Streets
I got a really good feel for the quieter side of the city wandering the tree-lined canals on the Singel and around the picturesque Jordaan and the Nine Streets areas. If there hadn’t been so much to see in the city I’d have been more than happy spending all my time browsing the chic little boutique shops or lingering in the late-afternoon sun with a beer just watching Amsterdam life drift by.
Our favourite breakfast stop De Prins Cafe on Prinsengracht Canal (Princes Canal). The scrambled egg with cheese and ham and a coffee really set us up for a day of sightseeing and it was only a short walk from our hotel.
Amsterdam’s Canal Boats
The canals are not just the pretty face of the city; they’re also a great way to get around. A canal-bus travels three different routes every half hour throughout the city dropping off tourists at 14 major attractions and allowing locals an easy way to get to and from work – I’d guess one of the prettiest commutes in the world.
Barges, rowing boats, canal taxis and sight-seeing boats glide through the canals throughout the day and evening. We took an open-topped canal cruise from near to The Central Station to get a relaxing, orientation from a slightly different perspective. It was idyllic to just sit back in the sun and let the city’s gabled apartments slip by as our ‘captain’ pointed out interesting buildings and landmarks. As it was a smaller vessel seating around 18 we were free to ask questions – so we did; lots of them!
Amsterdam’s canals are home to some 2500 houseboats. They range from brightly painted boats, barges laden with planters full of colourful flowers to modern minimalist looking boats. You can stay in a houseboat rental and there is even one housing a cat sanctuary – home to 100 displaced moggies!
Keeping Amsterdam’s Canals Clean
It’s important to keep the canal water clean and three times a week 14 of the 16 locks around the city are closed and clean water is pumped in from Lake Ijsselmeer. This creates a current which forces the dirty water out of the locks on the other side of the city. Today, the water in the canals is cleaner than it has ever been but although the houseboats were connected to the sewer system in 2005 swimming isn’t recommended.
It’s said that on average 100 people and 35 cars fall in every year although the low barriers along some of the canal edges are supposed to ensure that parked cars stay where they should. There’s a crack squad of four divers on call day and night to deal with vehicles taking a swim.
Bicycles are not averse to ending up in the drink either and hundreds of these are fished out of Amsterdam’s canals by dredgers each year. There are nearly as many bikes as people in the city and they have right of way over pedestrians – they don’t take kindly to distracted tourists and I did well to avoid a squishing. Around 300 bikes change hands every day.
The Seven Bridges
Reguliersgracht canal showcases one of the best views on Amsterdam’s canals – a line-up of seven arched, brick bridges. Not sure I captured them all in this shot…
So there you have a few of the reasons why I loved the canals of Amsterdam (professional tourist me!) and a few quirky facts too. Check out my other Amsterdam posts Slightly Squiffy in Amsterdam, What to see for Free in Amsterdam and Sex, Drugs and Pedalos.