Amsterdam Canals, a Top Tourist Attraction
Ask tourists what they like best about Amsterdam, and the city’s canals are bound to be high on the list.
Amsterdam has 165 canals, but tourists and locals alike are especially fond of the prominent ones in the city’s medieval center.
Lined by 17th and 18th century houses, these canals form a half circle around the center of town. Amsterdammers refer to it as the grachtengordel — literally, the ‘belt of canals.’
The grachtengordel gives the old center its iconic look. On a map the canals, crossed by streets and bridges, make the city look like the lower half of a spider’s web. Others think it looks like half a bicycle wheel.
These canals chronicle Amsterdam’s growth during the 17th century, the city’s Golden Age.
They are, as seen from the center outward: Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht.1
The Singelgracht is not part of the canal belt. It was dug in 1872 for water management and defense purposes. At the time it was Amsterdam’s outer city limit. By the way, at 6,29 kilometer (3,9 miles), Singelgracht is Amsterdam’s longest canal.
Singel is Old Dutch for ‘encircle.’
It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that the city expanded beyond the Singelgracht.
Best Way to see Amsterdam: by boat
Aside from walking, the best way to see the famous canals of Amsterdam is to take a canal boat tour.
A boat tour through the canals is Amsterdam’s most popular tourist attraction. The glass-topped tour boats used to be the most popular, but nowadays many people prefer to sail on a smaller boat. You can find boats to pilot yourself, but unless you’re a very good skipper you’ll feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep end.
Many visitors take more than one tour during their visit — often one during the day and one in the evening.
The Role of the Canals in Amsterdam’s Early City Planning
By the end of the 16th century century trade in Amsterdam was growing in spectacular fashion, turning the city into one of the world’s most important centers of commerce. Goods and merchants flowed into the city from around the world, and a map worked into the floor of the Royal Palace (which at the time was the Town Hall), places Amsterdam at the center of the universe.
As more and more people wanted to live in Amsterdam the town engaged in an expansion project in 1582. Between 1610 and 1620 Amsterdam doubled in size, and by 1650 the population shot past the 200,000 mark.
As early as 1613 town planners had already decided to eventually extend the three canals around the perimeter of the city. The canals, the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) initially only went as far as today’s Leidsegracht.
In 1662 the three canals were extended, giving Amsterdam’s canal belt the famous half-moon shape.
The Canal Belt includes Singel (not to be confused with Singelgracht) which encircled the medieval city of Amsterdam and served as a moat from 1480 until 1585.
How the canal belt grew along with the city
Amsterdam canals featured on UNESCO’s World Heritage List
In August, 2010 UNESCO added the ‘Seventeenth-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht‘ to its World Heritage List.
The historic urban ensemble of the canal district of Amsterdam was a project for a new “port city” built at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries.
It comprises a network of canals to the west and south of the historic old town and the medieval port that encircled the old town and was accompanied by the repositioning inland of the city’s fortified boundaries, the Singelgracht.
This was a long-term programme that involved extending the city by draining the swampland, using a system of canals in concentric arcs and filling in the intermediate spaces.
These spaces allowed the development of a homogeneous urban ensemble including gabled houses and numerous monuments.
This urban extension was the largest and most homogeneous of its time. It was a model of large-scale town planning, and served as a reference throughout the world until the 19th century.
– Source: Seventeenth-century canal ring area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht
UNESCO Controversy and Congratulations
Amsterdammers initially viewed the Unesco listing as a mixed blessing. The city council appeared to be interested mostly in a possible influx of tourists — but saw its enthusiasm not shared by many locals who live in the historic canal district.
Some critics feared that official UNESCO rules and regulations covering the care, presentation and and preservation of World Heritage sites would hamper Amsterdam’s ambition to grow the city into a creative metropolis.
Others were concerned that those rules douse Amsterdam’s free-wheeling spirit, pointing to renewed efforts by the city to further regulate — or outright ban — such things as unofficial mini-gardens next to houseboats, or additional canal-side terraces. Many were — and are — afraid such rules will turn Amsterdam into a ‘sleepy village.’
At the same time many people commenting on news about the listing on local news websites expressed the hope that the strict Unesco rules will help preserve the historic inner city by preventing further destruction of monuments.
Many Amsterdammers feel that certain elements in successive city councils have butchered and defaced the city with silly projects, ill-advised demolitions, and a near wanton disregard for the city’s monuments. To-date, this is an ongoing problem.
Walther Schoonenberg, secretary for the association Friends of the Amsterdam Inner City, tells Radio Netherlands:
“The inner city’s status as a World Heritage Site on the one hand signifies international recognition, while on the other hand it shows appreciation for the efforts made by many generations of Amsterdam citizens who fought to preserve their city. Amsterdam has about 8,000 monuments, nearly all of them in private hands. The owners can take credit for restoring and maintaining these houses.”
“The activists who fought to preserve the city’s monuments in the 1960s and 1970s also played a vital role. Without their struggle we would never have come this far. Amsterdam had a narrow escape in view of the demolition plans proposed by the then city councils. The fight was not won until the 1980s, which culminated in the inner city’s nomination as protected cityscape in 1999. Its nomination as a world heritage site is the final step in this process.” – Source: Amsterdam inner canals on UNESCO World Heritage List, Radio Netherlands, Aug. 1, 2010. Archived at the Internet Archive.
Map of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt
View Amsterdam Canal Belt in a larger map
Amsterdam’s prettiest canal: Prinsengracht
Many Amsterdammers say that the Prinsengracht is the city’s prettiest canal. It is picturesque indeed.
Are the bridges and quays in Amsterdam safe?
More than half of Amsterdam’s 850 traffic bridges are overloaded. Incredibly, 750 of those bridges do not meet current legal requirements. In addition at least 10 kilometers of the 200-kilometer brickwork quay walls in the city run an increased risk of collapse. That requires a major and expensive city-wide repair project, traffic councilor Sharon Dijksma informed the city council. Her letter, in February 2019, follows a shocking investigative report from external investigator Pieter Cloo, previously the highest official in the Ministry of Security and Justice.
Keep in mind that the quays along the canals in the old city were meant for use by horse and carriage. However, nowadays and never-ending parade of heavy trucks, delivery vans, coaches, and other traffic has taken its toll.
Way back in 1985 the city council already determined that more should be done to maintain the bridges and quays. At the time plans were drafted and money was allocated. But according to Dijksma that money was eventually spent on other things, largely because “maintenance is not a sexy subject.”
Now it is clear that necessary repairs will take years and possibly billions of euros to complete.
Work has already started on high priority projects. At least 10 kilometers of quays are in very poor condition with an increased risk of subsidence. Six bridges are in such poor condition that immediate measures have been taken.
Therefore you will see repair projects in and along the canals throughout the city. In some canals you will see sections where the quays have been shored up.
You’ll also see sections of canals that have already been renovated. Among other things you’ll note the much younger trees lining the quays.
Wherever possible monumental bridges will be renovated or replaced in such a way that their exterior appearance remains unchanged.
How many canals and bridges are there in Amsterdam?
Trivia buffs, take note. Here are some facts and figures. (Mind you, there is a lot of misinformation both online and offline. Many travel websites and tourist guides publish and republish incorrect numbers. We fact check our numbers extensively. That’s no mean feat because even the city’s official websites contain some glaring errors and contradictions.)
- Amsterdam has 165 canals, with a combined length of 100 KM (60 Miles). It follows that there are 200 kilometers of brickwork quay walls.
- The city has 1916 so-called ‘numbered’ bridges, 80 of which are within the belt of canals (grachtengordel). There are an additional 2250+ less significant bridges. Many of the numbered bridges are named as well.
- Note that the City of Amsterdam only counts 1281 bridges. They use a different set of criteria to determine which bridges to count. However, that still means if you wanted to cross a different bridge in Amsterdam every day it would take you 3.5 years to do so!
- The municipality of Amsterdam is responsible for 1600 bridges, 600 kilometers of quays (including 200 kilometers of brickwork quay walls lining the canals, plus the quays along the river IJ, and throughout the Port of Amsterdam) and river banks, and 5 traffic tunnels.
- The Oudezijds Voorburgwal was dug in 1385, which makes it Amsterdam’s oldest canal.
- Amsterdammers remember the correct order by use of a Dutch mnemonic: Piet Koopt Hoge Schoenen (Pete buys tall shoes). The first letter of each Dutch word corresponds to the first letter in the name of each canal. ↩
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