The City’s Most Popular Tourist Attraction
Whether you are here on a layover, a few days in between other places, or for an extended vacation, no visit to Amsterdam is complete without a canal tour. Providing a unique view of the city, this is one tourist attraction that is popular with both locals and tourists, old and young folks alike.
In fact, an estimated 4 million people a year take a ‘Rondvaart’1 (which literally translates to ‘circular cruise’). The tour boat sector employs some 1.000 people.
Amsterdam and Water go Hand in Hand
When you visit Amsterdam for the first time, you’ll soon realize the important role water plays in this city.
The city’s very name refers to the fact that the town started around a dam in the river Amstel.
Currently, Amsterdam — sometimes referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ — has one river and 160 canals, creating 90 artificial islands which are connected by 1281 bridges.
In Amsterdam’s early history, the centuries-old canals — in what is now the history city center — served a dual purpose:
- As moats that were useful in defending the expanding town from attacks.
- As transportation venues for the goods that flowed in an out of Amsterdam.
Nowadays, the warehouses you see along some of the old canals have been turned into luxury apartment buildings.
The docks were lined with ships carrying — among other things — coffee, tea, wood, spices. And yes, slaves.
Water from the river Amstel flowed into the harbor via a sluice at Dam Square.
The square long sported a weigh house, where goods were weighed, taxed, and from there further transported to warehouses or markets. At the time he Kalvertraat — the world-renowned shopping street that runs from Dam square to Munt — was a cattle market (kalf = young cow).
We usually bring a few snacks and a bottle of water with us. And we always tip the captain.
Amsterdam Canal Touring Boats
A small section of the early harbor has survived at Damrak near Central Station. (Note that the houses of Warmoesstraat arise directly out of the water.)
The tour boats you see here, at docks in front of Central Station, and at several other locations throughout Amsterdam, provide a hugely popular tourist attraction.
There are several options to sail the canals, including the Water Taxi, The Canal Bus, and the Museum Boat. However, this entry deals with the canal tours dedicated to the sole purpose of showing you Amsterdam as seen from the water.
There are a number of canal tour operators. They are all fairly similar, in that each will give you a good ride through the canals and part of the harbor. The boats do take slightly different routes, and sailing times may vary as well.
In general, expect a 1-hour tour at rates of €6.50 – €9.00. On most rides tips are solicited, but don’t feel obligated to contribute. Note: If you have an I Amsterdam Card you get a free or discounted (depending on the operator you select) canal tour.
In the past, most boats had on-board tour guides — often students — explaining the sights. Never mind that historical facts and figures were sometimes made up on the spot and were subject to change from one ride to the next. Purists prefer the old way over the current approach in which a multi-lingual presentation is played over the sound system.
That said, in our experience on some rides the captain will at times turn off the sound track and instead provide on-the-spot commentary himself (which, in our estimation, is indeed worthy of a tip).
More Boats and More Rules
Currently — we’re talking 2013 — the canals are used by over 100 tour boats, more than 130 rental boats — anything from sloops to saloon boats and water-taxis), and about 100 water bikes.
Starting in 2014, the municipality of Amsterdam wants to welcome additional canal tour companies — with a preference toward those that operate environment-friendly vessels.
The city says it wishes to see in change in the current situation, in which the entire canal cruise industry is run by just a handful of companies.
At the same time, Amsterdam also needs to address the fact that the canals get more popular by the year. In 2012 it already put into effect a tightened set of regulations governing use of the waterways.
Waternet — the water management company for Amsterdam and surroundings — is currently investigating the feasibility of instituting one-way traffic on certain canals during certain hours.
They are also considering the possibility of allowing only electric boats access to certain canals.
At the same time, the city wants to further stimulate the (currently small) rental market for boats and sloops. The city hopes that once it is easier to rent a boat, s a reduction in the number of privately-owned vessels lining the canals will follow.
Booking a canal tour
You can purchase tickets for common canal tours on the spot. Most tour boats leave at 15-30 minute intervals.
Howver, many visitors prefer to book a canal tour ahead of time — particular where it concerns special boat tours: for instance, an evening cruise, a dinner cruise, a pizza cruise, or a cheese and wine tour.
Also popular: combination tours, providing the boat ride with a visit to a museum.
Good to know: if a window seat is important to you don’t feel obligated to board a boat in which none are available. Simply wait for the next one.
Note that the configuration of tour boats differs somewhat from operator to operator, and even within the same company.
Photography / Filming Tip:
Many of the glass-topped boats are completely covered, while some sport an open roof and/or open deck — something to keep in mind if you are planning to film or take pictures.
What to Avoid
In between stretches of overcast grey, Amsterdam weather is feast or famine — often all within the same day.
The boat trips are at their best when the sun is shining. Avoid canal trips during rainy days.
That said, during the winter a tour of the tree-lined canals provides a unique experience. With the trees bare, you’ll be able to see much more of the gabled houses.
A word of caution: If your boat has an open roof, or if you sit on an open deck, keep an eye on anybody leaning over the bridge. Not because — as one correspondent suggested — you might get to peek up a short skirt, but because an occasional nutcase might spit at you.
- Up from 3 million in 2013. Figure from report by local TV news station AT5, April 24, 2017 ↩
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