The first canals where designed to protect the city from enemy attacks, in the Middle Ages. Massive construction began only in the 16th Century, when commerce and population growth required a change to the original plans.
Population increased from 50,000 to 200,000 and made of Amsterdam the world’s third largest city in the world, right after London and Paris. By then, Holland was living its Golden Age, with the transformation of the little merchant city into the most important European harbour.
The four main canals are known as grachtengordel — the canal ring. These half-circles turned towards Amsterdam’s bay created the space needed for essential constructions.
Three of these canals were meant for buildings and mansions. The fourth and most exterior one, named Singel, was built for defensive purposes and to avoid floods in the city centre.
Thanks to this system, people back then started to look at the canals as actual alternative streets, suitable for transportation of goods and even for establishing houses. The famous “houseboats” started to appear in the margins of the canals, side by side with the tall and narrow buildings.
These boats where initially invented so people could run away from the frequent floods, later adapting to fulfil housing needs. Nowadays, there are about 2,500 houses like these spread all over the “streets made of water”.
Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht
The canal ring is still as relevant today as it used to be four centuries ago.
In 2010, the area that embraces Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht and Jordaan neighbourhood was listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
Herengracht, the “gentleman’s canal”, is considered to be the most important in Amsterdam and where the nobles and rich merchants owned houses in the 17th Century. Russian tsar Peter the Great himself stayed once at the house number 527, when studying Holland’s example as a maritime power.
Want to see 15 bridges at once? Stand in the corner between Reguliersgracht and Herengracht canals. Prepare your camera and look at the side of the street with uneven numbers!
The second largest canal is Keizersgracht, nominated in honour of emperor Maximilian of Austria. According to the initial plan of its construction, it should have been one of the few neighbourhoods without water. But circulation by boat between warehouses and homes became so relevant that it influenced the decision to dig the canal, which today is the widest of the city centre (31 metres wide).
Along Prinsengracht canal, you have enough notable buildings willing to catch your eye such as a museum boathouse, Anne Frank’s House and Westerkerk. The Jewish girl hidden for two years at number 263 wrote the worldwide famous diary at the sound of the strokes of the most famous church of Amsterdam, placed at number 281.
When winter arrives and the water freezes, locals put away their bikes so they can skate around using natural ice as skating rinks.
If you don’t want to lose your track while walking among the canals, learn that the main ones are organized by alphabetical order, from the right to the left.
Besides restaurants, shops, theatres, cinemas and cafes on firm ground, the watery streets offer a bunch of alternatives at any time for those who travel to Amsterdam.
You can catch one of the many “aquatic buses” that lead you to the most important monuments, offering combined tickets to get in Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank’s House.
If you’re looking for a different program, you won’t have a hard time finding cruises that offer original dinners, private parties with live music or simple cultural trips on board.
For an even more liberating experience, here’s an idea: rent a canoe or a motorboat and become your own captain of the canal.
And since Amsterdam is one of the most aquatic destinations in Europe, enjoy the celebrations and party with the locals where they know best… on the water!
King’s Day in April, the Gay Parade and the Grachtenfestival — Canals Festival — in August are the favourite among Dutch people and gather millions of people year after year. Have fun (with caution so you won’t end up falling into the canal).