Amsterdam is sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North”. The canals of Amsterdam date back to the 17th century and the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands. Canals were dug and built for defense and water management and actually fill a full quarter of Amsterdam’s surface area. Just imagine walking through the constant mud in the streets back in the 1600s prior to the canals! The history of the canals is fascinating and can be further explored at one of Amsterdam’s best museums, the Het Grachtenhuis Museum.
Amsterdam Canal Facts
With more than 100 kilometres of canals, 1,500 bridges and 90 islands, there is a lot more to the canal system than meets the eye. The original and main canals, the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010.
Some not so good Amsterdam canal facts. An average of 18 people drown in the canals every year. Some die as the result of crime. More than half the deaths are believed to be the result of carelessness. These victims apparently fell into the water and were unable to get out. Exit stairs and flotation aids are few and far between. It is widely believed that the vast majority were actually urinating into the canal; fell in and were just to drunk to swim to safety and climb out (as evidenced by their open zippers). The canals are constantly dredged by city crews who find every form of garbage possible (and the occasional corpse).
Amsterdam Canal Skating
A good canal fact. When the canals freeze in winter, which now happens infrequently, Amsterdam goes crazy. The Dutch invented the modern ice skate in the 13th century and have loved ice skating ever since. The almost mythical Efenstedentocht “11 Cities Tour” 200 km. ice skating marathon last ran in 1997 with thousands of participants. When the canals froze in winter 2018, winter spirits were lifted and Amsterdam was a buzz when it was time for a skate.
You can feel and see the Dutch enthusiasm and spirit on this great You Tube video:
Amsterdam Canal Cruise
To truly appreciate the canals, you really need to take a canal cruise. It’s big business here. Over 3 million people take a cruise every year on a variety of different boats. Locals naturally cruise too – they are the ones eating, drinking and having a great time. Like a picnic on the water. The locals could cruise all day in their own boat; for the rest of us, it’s normally a 60 – 90 minute trip. Unlike a canal cruise in Venice, this is not a slow moving boat with a gondolier. The boat moves quickly- there is a lot of Amsterdam canal to see. Our boat captain tells us his boat is the oldest in operation- about 200 years old with a large rudder for steering. He knows every turn, every canal and water levels. The route for today’s cruise is totally dependent on the water level. Most canals are narrow and bridges are low. As I’m speaking with the Captain on the aft deck, I duck several times as we pass under low bridges. There is so much to see along the way – the canals themselves, bridges, house boats, historic buildings, people. Life in Amsterdam.
As a first time cruiser, and return visitor to Amsterdam, I highly recommend an Amsterdam canal cruise. It’s the best way to experience the canals of Amsterdam. Until now, I feel that I missed half of the city. A canal cruise gives you a unique and complete view of Amsterdam life. It’s a masterful blend of history and modern day life here in this historic and vibrant city.