Canals of Amsterdam

A recent survey of tourists found that wandering through the city along the canals of Amsterdam is one of their favourite activities. These canals are an important historic and defining feature. As a result, in 2010 the Canal Ring (Grachtengordel) was recognised by UNESCO as a world-acclaimed monument.

Amsterdam Canals

How many canals & bridges are there in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam, also known as “Venice of the North”, has 165 canals. The total length of these canals is 50km which is about 31 miles. The most prominent canals are Herengracht, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht & Singel.  There are 1281 bridges in Amsterdam. Magere Brug and Blauwbrug best-known bridges whilst Torensluis is the oldest.

Why are there so many canals in Amsterdam?

Before Amsterdam's canals & houses were built, the area was mostly swampland. The swamps were systematically drained one section at a time which created islands surrounded by canals. These canals were preserved as a means of transport and water management. Additionally, they formed part of the city's military defence.

Who built the canals in Amsterdam?

In the 16th and 17th century, a body of Lords (Dutch; heren regeerders) governed Amsterdam. These people were the wealthy long-term residents of the city who managed various aspects of the city's life. They invested heavily in the development of the canals. The first of these canals, Herengracht is named after these regents.

Why do the main canals form circular arcs rather than straight lines?

The city grew outwards from the centre around 1640. The canals are man-made and the arc shape to some extent reflects the shape of the centre as the city extended outwards. The unique architecture of the Canal Ring is an expression of the Amsterdam's economic success during the Golden Age.

When were the canal houses in Amsterdam built?

The canal houses in the centre for mostly built in the 16th and 17th centuries. The construction year can often be seen on the front of the house. Furthermore, the type of roof gable will often give a clue concerning the age of the house.

Who lives in the big canal houses?

Rich merchants once occupied the larger canal houses, while today these are mostly used by businesses or sub-divided into exclusive residential apartments. Visiting Museum Van Loon allows you to see what a canal house would have originally looked like on the inside.


Museum Van Loon Canal House

Museum Van Loon

Why are Amsterdam's canal houses leaning?

Many of the canal houses were purposely built so that they leant forward. This enabled heavy or large goods to be winched to upper floors without hitting windows on the way up. However, the buildings which lean sideways have been affected by subsidence. The soft ground and failure of wooden foundation piles over the years caused the building to lean.

How does a canal house cost?

The price of a canal house in Amsterdam depends on the size and location. The starting price is around €1,200,000 and they typically sell for around €2,500,000. Again, websites like Funda provide up-to-date information. Some of the more exclusive properties are not advertised online.

Canal Houses and blue houseboat on Amsterdam Singel

Do the Amsterdam canals contain salt water or fresh water?

The canals in contain both salt water and fresh water; The salt water enters the cities canals via the Noordzeekanaal, which connect Amsterdam with IJmuiden. The fresh water flows from the river Rhine, via the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal.

How clean is the water in the canals?

The canal water is getting cleaner each year, although the sewerage from many of the houseboats flows directly into the canals.  As a result, it is officially not considered safe for swimming. However, each year the Amsterdam City Swim takes place to raise money for charity -  so it's reasonably hygienic! The government organisation Waternet ensures that the water is as clean as possible by tackling causes of pollution. Three times a week, the canal gates are opened in order to refresh the water. Additionally, they fish out 12,000-15,000 bikes from the canals each year.

Canal Cleaning Amsterdam

Photo by Gerben van Heijningen / CC BY

How deep are the canals of Amsterdam?

Typically the depth of the canals is between two and three meters. The canals are not tidal which means the level of the water is fairly consistent. The water level is regulated by Waternet and is normally 40cm below NAP, which is a national benchmark for measuring water levels. The locals joke that in the canals of Amsterdam are three meters deep; one meter of water, one meter of mud and one meter of bikes.

Do the canals ever freeze in Amsterdam?

Yes. Freezing temperatures for a few days in a row will probably mean that the canals start to freeze over. However, it needs to stay sub-zero for at least a week before walking and skating on the canal is possible. If this looks likely, the city council will cordon off selected canals from water traffic, so that the ice can form. The last time this happened was back in 2012.

amsterdam canal frozen skating

Photo by Saskia Bosch van Rosenthal / CC BY

Do you need a license to use a boat?

If you own a boat and moor it in the city, you need a license from government organisation Waternet. Furthermore, boats which are longer than 12m long are prohibited from mooring in Amsterdam.  As for rules when using the canals, there's no Highway Code as such, but a speed limit of 7.5km per hour is in place.

How much does a canal boat house cost?

The starting prices for houseboats in Amsterdam is around €280,000 and websites such as Funda and Marktplaats give up-to-date prices. In total, there are approximately 2,500 houseboats in Amsterdam.

amsterdam canal houseboat on herengracht

Which one of Amsterdam's canals do you think is the most pictoresque? Please share in the comments below.

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