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Amsterdam’s most popular tourist attraction: Canal cruise

Amsterdam Canal Cruise Tickets

amsterdam canal cruise
Amsterdam canal cruise: The best way to see the city

Booking a canal cruise — the most popular tourist experience in Amsterdam — is fast, safe, and easy:

Quick Pick Recommendations: Amsterdam Canal Cruise Tickets

These tours are very popular. Quickly and easily book them with our trusted ticket partner, GetYourGuide:

Let’s take a look at why a canal cruise is Amsterdam’s top tourist attraction, shall we?

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.

Amsterdam’s very name refers to the fact that the town expanded around a dam in the river Amstel.

What started out as a small fishing settlement, soon grew from a trading post to a rapidly growing city. Each new expansion was surrounded by new canal.

In what is now the historic city center canals served three purposes:

  1. As moats that were useful in defending the expanding town from attacks. Initially they were accompanied by fortified, earthen walls. Later by bricks walls.1
  2. As a form of water management. Amsterdam is located in the delta of the river Amstel — a wet, swampy area. By digging canals for the water, the buildings in the city could stay dry.
  3. As transportation venues for the goods that flowed in an out of Amsterdam. Traders ferried their goods to warehouses, markets, distribution points, and customers.

Nowadays the canals are used primarily for transport, for canal cruises, and for pleasure crafts. And yes, for swimming as well. Though technically illegal, authorities tend to turn a blind eye.

“Venice of the North” — With More Canals, Islands, and Bridges

No doubt you have heard that Amsterdam is sometimes referred to as ‘Venice of the North.’ But did you know that Amsterdam has far more canals, islands, and bridges than Venice?

The city has 160 canals, creating 90 artificial islands which are connected by 1281+ bridges.

And yes, two rivers: the Amstel and the river IJ, Amsterdam’s waterfront. Many canal tour boats sail through a portion of the river IJ as part of their central city route.

Tour the canals of Amsterdam: Most Popular Tourist Experience

No wonder most tourist guides — as well as many Amsterdammers — agree: the best way to see Amsterdam is from the water. (Of course locals will tell you that, in this City of Bikes, experiencing Amsterdam from atop a bike is also a must. In addition, sauntering is a great way to serendipitously discover the city).

Whether you are here for a stopover or a longer vacation, a visit to Amsterdam is not complete without a canal cruise. A canal cruise offers a unique view of the city and is a tourist attraction popular with both locals and tourists, old and young.

In fact, 5.5 million people a year take a ‘Rondvaart‘ — which literally translates to ‘circular cruise’).

By comparison, Amsterdam’s top three museums — Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House — in recent years (before the Corona pandemic) drew a combined total of 6.1 million visitors.

So… are you visiting Amsterdam? Get off the beaten path — and take to the water!

Amsterdam Canal Cruise & Boat Tour Tickets

Many people book more than one boat tour. After all, a wide variety of Amsterdam canal cruises are on offer:

A daytime cruise provides an excellent introduction to the city.

Also on offer: special experiences — such as an evening canal cruise (the wine and cheese cruises are especially popular).

The are also beer and pizza, smoke and lounge, and onboard bar cruises.

Combination tickets are popular as well: for instance, a cruise plus a museum visit.

Note: The traditional, glass-topped tour boats are very popular indeed. But nowadays you have other options as well, such as private- or small group cruises on smaller vessels. These range from classic saloon boats to open sloops.

Take a look at these top-rated cruises, which can easily be booked via our trusted ticket partner, GetYourGuide. Check the verified customer reviews to help you choose the right tour.

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tour boats sailing through Singelgracht
Many people book more than one boat tour

Sailing through Amsterdam’s history

Nowadays, the 17th- and 18th century warehouses you see along some of the old canals are in use as luxury apartment buildings or offices.

Damrak — now the main street leading from Central Station to Dam Square — was once Amsterdam’s harbor (then known as Buitenrak), which in turn was directly connected to what was then the open sea (via an inlet now known as the river IJ).

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 the Kalverstraat — the world-renowned shopping street that runs from Dam square to Munt — was a cattle market (kalf = young cow).

Fact: Though we, the Amsterdam locals behind DutchAmsterdam, live and work here we often take canal boat tours. They’re not expensive, and they’re both fun and relaxing.

 

Pro-tip: We usually bring a few snacks and a bottle of water with us. Snacks and drinks sold on board are priced with a ‘captive audience’ in mind.

And we (almost) 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 a number of canal cruise tour operators. They are all fairly similar, in that each will give you a good ride through the canals and, usually, a part of the harbor. The boats do take slightly different routes, and the length of sailing times may vary as well.

tour boats near Muntplein, Amsterdam
Canal cruise companies located further away from Central Station often provide a longer — or less expensive — tour

What does a canal tour cost?

In general, expect a 1-hour basic tour at rates of ± €20. Private or exclusive tours, as well as tours that include food snacks or drinks fetch higher rates.

Many tourists take at least one basic tour, plus one or more combination tours (e.g. cruise + on-board dinner, or cruise + museum entry ticket). These are available at a wide range of prices. There are many canals cruises to choose from.

Our recommendation? When we, the DutchAmsterdam team members, have guests we treat them to a daytime City Canal Cruise, and if possible also an Evening Canal Cruise (the latter is one we’d have to use the term ‘enchanting’ for, right?).

 

Should you tip the captain?

On most rides tips are solicited: when you exit, look for a saucer or captain’s cap primed with some coins. But don’t feel obligated to contribute.

In the past, most boats had on-board tour guides — often students — describing and 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.2

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).

Amsterdam cruise ships
On the River IJ, an Amsterdam canal cruise boat is dwarfed by seafaring cruise ship Eurodam, of the Holland-America Line

Stick with Verified Tour Operators. Avoid Illegal Boat Tours.

The city wants to reduce the illegal passenger traffic by strict enforcement of existing rules. This will create more ‘free space’ on the water. At the same time it expects to increase the number of licenses by 80 to, rounded up, 550 vessels cleared for commercial passenger tours.

Anyway, none of this will affect you as a visitor. One word of advice, though: Stick with verified tour operators. Often so-called ‘proppers’ try and entice tourists to an on-the-spot purchase of a ‘private’ (but illegal) canal boat tour. You have no recourse whatsoever if the tour turns out to be much shorter and far less impressive than promised.

out of gas boat
Their outboard motor out of gas, two girls try to get out of the way of a canal tour boat.

Amsterdam canal cruise booking and boarding tips

You can purchase tickets for common canal tours on the spot. Most tour boats leave at 15-30 minute intervals.

However, most 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. 3

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.

Amsterdam Weather, Summer of Winter

Amsterdam weather is feast or famine — often all within the same day. Ideally your trip takes place while the sun is shining. But each type of weather provides its own, unique view of Amsterdam.

During the winter a tour of the tree-lined canals provides a special experience. With the trees bare, you’ll be able to see much more of the gabled houses.

Tripadvisor Says: World’s Best Tourist Experience

An Amsterdam canal cruise has been named by Tripadvisor as the number one tourist experience in the world.

We’re not surprised. Some 110 classic style, glass topped canal boat cruise the 165 canals of Amsterdam. In addition there are over 130 manned and unmanned rental boats such as sloops, saloon boats, gondolas and water taxis.

The particular cruise Tripadvisor users have voted into the top spot of the 2022 Travellers’ Choice ‘Best of the Best’ Things to Do Awards is this fantastic, Luxury Open Boat Amsterdam City Canal Cruise — just as popular in 2023 as it was last year.



This article was written with love by the DutchAmsterdam team — which is often seen boating the canals of Amsterdam . It was last updated on Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Notes:

  1. From 1481 to 1600, a 3,150 meter long stone wall encircled the city. The Schreierstoren and the Waag are remnants of this wall.
  2. Even the taped versions often include information that is not true. Listen for references to how many cars a year fall into the canals. Then check the real figures here.
  3. This works unless you have a timed-entry ticket (for a specific day and time). In that case, show up as early as possible to get the best seats.
Category: Canal Tours, Canals, Things to Do | Related to:

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