Getting to know Amsterdam’s canals

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One of the most awe-inspiring structures in the world, Amsterdam’s Canal Ring stands as a stunning architectural marvel with a fascinating history and one certainly worth getting acquainted with.

As is the case with many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the conception and construction of something as massive as this – a system that now includes 165 canals with 1,281 bridges spanning their waterways – can even be sort of hard to believe. How could something so intricate, something that must have required so much planning, digging, and building, exist in the first place? Well, the truth is, the Canal Ring exists because it needed to. While today we may see the canals as a charming way of getting around the city, Amsterdam’s settlers during the Golden Age saw it simply as a means of making the city sustainable in the first place. Find Amsterdam on a map and remove the canals. You will see a mass of land that is especially vulnerable to flooding. In this sense, construction of the canals is a prime example of effective city planning. Early in the 17th century, as immigrants started to pour into the area, something needed to be done in order to make the land more hospitable. Keeping the ocean and land separated was essential. The main waterways – strategically constructed as concentric circles leading right to the bay – achieved this and more while helping to drain the waterlogged land.

Canals Amsterdam

Getting to know these canals, it is perhaps best to start with the Singel, the oldest and innermost canal in the system. The Singel started its life in the Middle Age as a moat that surrounded the city. Moving outward from the Singel are the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. Many of Amsterdam’s elite settled along the Herengracht; today it is where you can see some of the most impressive homes in the city.

The Prinsengracht, named for the first Dutch Royal, Prince William the Silent, is now one of the more bustling waterways in all of Amsterdam, sporting lots of charming cafés, shops and houseboats along its path. Back in the 17th century, however, it was the most affordable of these three canals. It functioned as a barrier between the wealthier communities and the working class Jordaan neighbourhood – now one of the trendiest, most upscale neighbourhoods. Finally, the outermost canal – the Singelgracht – essentially took the place of the Singel, acting as an outer barrier for the newly expanded Amsterdam. Cutting across these main canals are smaller ‘’radial’’ canals. These are some of the most gorgeous waterways.

The Brouwersgracht, named for the many breweries found along it in the 16th and 17th centuries, is now a must-see for anyone visiting Amsterdam. Also worth a visit in the Egelantiersgracht. Serene and romantic, it puts visitors within spitting distance from Jordaan and its numerous art galleries and fine dining options.

To get around, simply find a boat tour that will take you where you want to go. Or if you prefer to take matters into your own hands, rent a boat yourself. You would not need a boating license for any rental under 15 meter in length with a top speed below 20 km/hr.

The city is also very accommodating to cyclists. Biking along the canal is a stellar option for those who prefer to admire the water from a slight distance. But be careful – many locals will be quick to tell you that between 12,000 and 15,000 bicycles are retrieved from the canals every year. Of course, how one chooses to explore the canals can also depend on the weather. While the warmer months are ideal for cruising, a visit during winter may coincide with the canals freezing over. When this happens, it is time to throw on some skates and hit the ice. Skating is an enjoyable way to meet locals, who will jump on any opportunity to partake in this regional tradition. However you experience the canals – and you definitely will during your stay in Amsterdam – you will surely be enchanted by them. They are essential to understanding why so many love this city.

Their beauty more than transcends their more practical origins, and they make for perhaps the best way of getting around Amsterdam. So hop in a boat, grab a bike, or strap on those skates. With 165 canals in total, you have a lot of ground to cover.

Bike at the canal in Amsterdam