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 streets back in the 1600s prior to the canals! 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. Early in 2012, Radio Netherlands reported that 51 people had died in the canals over the last 3 years. One had died as the result of crime. The other 50 deaths were believed to be the result of carelessness. The 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 of those 50 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).
A good canal fact. This was the first time in 15 years that the canals actually froze in winter. 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. (It did not run in 2012 but there was a national ice skating event that drew 70,000 skaters). Winter spirits were lifted and Amsterdam was a buzz in February when it was time for a skate.
You can feel and see the Dutch enthusiasm and spirit on this great You Tube video:
To truly appreciate the canals, you really need to take a 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 have to say that an Amsterdam canal cruise is a must. Until now, I feel that I missed half of the city. A 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 vibrant city.