Canals of Amsterdam

A recent survey of tourists found that wandering through the city along the canals is one of their favourite activities. These canals are a historic and defining feature of Amsterdam. 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 the canals & houses were built, the area was mostly swampland. The swamps were systematically drained one section at a time resulting in islands surrounded by canals. The canals remained a means of transport, water management as well as military defence.

Who built the canals in Amsterdam?

In the 16th and 17th century, Amsterdam was governed by a body of lords (Dutch; heren regeerders). These were the wealthy long term residents of the city, managing various aspects of the city's life. They invested heavily in the development of the canals and the first of the 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 economic success in the Golden Age.

When were the canal houses in Amsterdam built?

Mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some houses have the construction date on the front. The type of gable will often give a clue concerning age.

Who lives in the big canal houses?

The larger houses were once occupied by rich merchants. The canal houses are now mostly occupied by businesses or sub-divided into 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. The buildings which are leaning sideways have been affected by subsidence. The soft ground and failure of wooden foundation piles over the years are the cause.

How does a canal house cost?

The price of a canal house in Amsterdam depends on the size and location. Starting around €1,200,000 and typically €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. Three times a week, the water in the canals is refreshed by opening the canal gates.Officially it is not deemed 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. Each year they fish out 12000-15000 bikes from the canals.

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 because the level of the water is regulated by Waternet. This is normally 40cm below NAP, which is a national benchmark for measuring water levels.

The locals joke that in the canals of Amsterdam there is 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 mean that the canals start to freeze over. It needs to stay sub-zero for at least a week before walking or 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. This last happened 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. 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. The websites 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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