The canals of Amsterdam: a window into the city

Amsterdam canal bridges

My hometown, Amsterdam, with its rings of canals, historic monuments, world-class museums and vibrant nightlife is one of the most visited cities in the world. Amsterdam’s world famous canals offer visitors a unique window into the history of the city and the lifestyle of its inhabitants.

In the 17th century, Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Ships from its port sailed the world over and formed a powerful global trading network. It was during this time that the ‘grachten-gordel’ (a girdle of concentric canals; ‘gracht’ = canal) was created and the city’s richest merchants built their stately canalside mansions. Today, this girdle of canals forms one of the city’s greatest attractions. Lined with beautiful 17th and 18th century houses, and crossed by hundreds of bridges, the canals are a gorgeous sight and a focal point for Amsterdammers, many of whom take to their boats for a leisurely cruise or sit at one of the many canal-side cafés when the weather permits. Needless to say, these are two of my favourite ‘velvet escapes’ in Amsterdam! 🙂

Canal cruise boats

Canal cruise boats

Canal cruises in Amsterdam

If you’re visiting Amsterdam for the first time, a canal cruise should be on your list of things to do as it simply is the best way to quickly get acquainted with the city, its history and its architecture. Many companies offer canalboat tours which cover the Ij harbour, the Golden Bend at the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s canal) – site of some of the most impressive canalside mansions, the Reguliersgracht with its seven bridges, and the Amstel river. Some companies also include the canals of the Wallen (the oldest part of Amsterdam and site of the city’s world famous red light district) and the quaint canals of the Jordaan. Canal cruises leave from various points around the city such as the Central Station and vary in length (1 – 2 hours).

The Canal Bus

Another way to explore the canals is by buying a ticket for the Canal Bus. The hop-on, hop-off Canal Bus stops at strategic points around the city centre and is a great way to see the sights and enjoy a scenic cruise. An alternative method is to rent a Canal Bike. This method allows you to get a great workout while you enjoy the sights!

Romance on the canals


Sunset on the Amsterdam canals

For a truly romantic experience, book one of the evening cruises, especially in the spring/summer season when the atmosphere is truly mesmerising. Most evening cruises include a cheese platter and wine while some serve a full dinner on board. An even more delightful way to explore the Amsterdam canals is to hire a boat for a few hours. Pack a basketful of food and wine, and a map. Then navigate yourself through the network of canals – hiring a boat provides you with a great opportunity to explore the charming nooks and corners of this city, such as the Jordaan neighbourhood, the ‘tunnel of love’ between the Flower Market and the Amstel River, and the wonderfully atmospheric canals between the City Hall and the Wallen. The best time to do this is in the late-afternoons and early-evenings, especially in the warm late-spring and summer months. Bring a warm jacket or blanket for those chilly evenings.

Gay Pride in Amsterdam

Gay Pride Canal Parade

The canals are also the decor of one of the city’s biggest annual events: the Gay Pride Canal Parade. Held on the first Saturday of August each year, the spectacular boat parade follows the Prinsengracht (the longest of the concentric canals in the historic centre) to the Amstel River, and often attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators from around the world.

Suggested routes for a boat trip along the canals of Amsterdam

Have a look at the map below for various suggested routes (if you opt to rent a boat) through the historic centre. Enjoy!

View Amsterdam canal routes in a larger map

Search hotels in Amsterdam.

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16 Responses to “The canals of Amsterdam: a window into the city”

  1. ciki 19/11/2010 3:09 pm

    still love this post!

  2. Melanie 25/10/2010 6:33 pm

    We LOVE Amsterdam…It is one of our favorite cities to just hang out in…go shopping, eat great meals, visit museums and hang out in by the canals…

    We were there in July during the World Cup when they won the semi and finals – It was such a blast and everyone celebrated with class!

  3. Greengeenie 07/08/2010 12:07 pm

    I was in Amsterdam last week and went on a 75 min. trip on a small canal boat restored by volunteers of St Nicolas Boat Club – not guided (though tour leader will answer questions and point out some interesting features) and goes along smaller canals mainly around Jordaan . Max. 12 people and no charge though 10 euro donation “suggested”. Book in advance at Boom Chicago comedy club on Leidensplein. Beers and smoking permitted. For a more leisurely progress, hire a pedalo (also by Leidensplein) with two other collect/drop off points around city centre.

  4. Piter 23/06/2010 3:42 pm

    Red Light District is a lifetime experience!
    But, to be sure to have a unforgettable time, you should check out this The Amsterdam Red Light Guide

  5. Carol 22/06/2010 11:43 pm

    Beautiful! What a fun way to see the city!

  6. velvet 22/06/2010 4:12 pm

    You’re most welcome Kenny! Glad to show you around my town! 🙂


  7. Life for Beginners 22/06/2010 4:06 pm

    A nice reminder of the canals you showed Devil & I when we dropped by the city. Thanks! 🙂

  8. velvet 22/06/2010 2:14 pm

    Thanks for your comment Glenn!

    Keith 🙂

  9. Glenn Barker 22/06/2010 2:09 pm

    Thanks for the awesome article! Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities, and this piece does a wonderful job of describing it. Saw the recently renovated royal palace the last time I was there and I would most definitely make it a “must see” for anyone visiting the city.

  10. velvet 22/06/2010 12:48 pm

    Mei: akan datang 😉
    Michela: thanks for your comment. You have to visit Amsterdam! I’ll give you a personal walking tour of my fave places. 🙂


  11. cumidanciki 22/06/2010 12:45 pm

    lovely!! don’t forget my top things to eat in A! 😉

  12. Michela 22/06/2010 12:43 pm

    I only managed to visit Amsterdam from an aerial view 🙂 A spectacular close up view of the city by night!! I really hope to visit it soon and the canal cruise will be definitely the first thing on my list! Thanks for sharing this !


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