There’s no doubt that Amsterdam is a city best explored by boat. The canals wind their way through the historic city, providing picturesque scenes at every turn. Here are the best canals in Amsterdam that you need to see on your next visit.
The capital city of the Netherlands is an obvious stop during any tour around Europe.
The spot is famous for its tulips, its islands, its 1500 bridges, and its grachten – which is the Dutch word for canals. Amsterdam is full of them, and they’ve played an important role in the city’s history.
On these famous canal tours, tourists can immerse themselves in the city’s past and learn about the importance of these manmade bodies of water.
However, the canals are just one piece of the greater impressive array of waterways that this city has to offer. We’ll be exploring Amsterdam’s famous canals, waterways, and the majestic Amstel river as seen through one of the city’s famous canal cruise tours as well as on foot.
These canals of Amsterdam cannot be missed during your visit to this city; they are sights that you won’t easily find in other cities around the world.
History of Amsterdam’s Canals
The main canals in Amsterdam are Herengracht, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, and Singel. They were dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age and each of them had a specific purpose.
Altogether, they form what’s known as the Grachtengordel, which is The Amsterdam Canal District.
This picturesque neighborhood is more than just a tourist destination. It’s the result of arduous city planning.
Many people believe that the canals were developed from the center outwards. But actually, construction happened from west to east, starting in the Northwestern sector with a development that went from 1613 to 1625.
Meanwhile, the eastern part took a long time to develop.
This part was used for parks and botanical gardens for a couple of centuries before joining the rest of the canal plan.
Three of the popular canals were made for residential development, while the Singel was used for defense and water management purposes.
The Amstel River
Among all these bodies of water, the most important one is The Amstel, which is the river on which the city was founded.
Its name comes from Amestelle, a compound word made out of “aam” or “ame” which means water, and “stelle”, which means solid, high, and dry ground – the perfect words to describe a city full of waterways!
The Amstel holds important events such as the annual Liberation Day Concert, the Head of the River Amstel rowing match, and the Amsterdam Gay Pride boat parade. Its cultural and historical relevance is still alive today.
Amsterdam Canal Cruise Tours
An Amsterdam canal tour is a must if you’ve never toured the canal belt on the water before. You can easily take a group tour or a private boat tour as there are dozens of different tour options at Viator.
Watch out canal cruise tour that we took from the ViaTravelers YouTube channel.
Best Amsterdam Canals to Visit
The Singel is the city’s innermost canal. Its existence dates back to medieval times, and it was used as a moat between 1480 and 1585 as Amsterdam expanded.
This body of water flows all the way from the Ij Bay, near Centraal Station, to Muntplein Square, where it connects to the Amstel River.
Many people mistake it for the Singelgratch, but that’s a totally different canal that was built during the Golden Age to serve as a border. Now you know!
And to make it more confusing, there are plenty of other canals named Singel in the Netherlands. After all, the word “Singel” is used to describe ring-shaped canals that surround a specific region.
But when people talk about the famous Singel, they most likely refer to this historical canal within the city’s famous canal ring.
As it was mentioned before, as opposed to Singel’s defense purposes, the other three main canals were developed for residential purposes. Singel is also near to some of the best family hotels in Amsterdam.
Among all of Amsterdam’s canals, the Herengracht is hands down the most luxurious one. It’s also known as the Patricians’ Canal or the Lords’ Canal and it’s named after the Heren Regeerders who governed the city between the 16th and 17th Centuries. It’s also known as the Gentlemen’s Canal.
According to legend, early settlers were encouraged to buy two lots of property, which is why properties in this region are so big. Apart from their size, they stand out due to their beautiful facades and accessible gardens, which are occasionally open to the public.
And if you thought it couldn’t get any more prestigious than this, then wait until you make it to the curve near the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat!
This is where the richest citizens used to live and that’s why this part of the canal is known as the Golden Bocht (or Golden Bend), where residents own double-wide mansions and other prestigious properties that will easily catch your eye.
Among the outstanding past residents of this neighborhood, we have Samuel Sarphati, who lived at the 598 house and Peter the Great (yes the Peter the Great) stayed at 527 during his second visit to the city.
But luxury living isn’t all there’s to see in the city. There are two other main canals that offer different settings…
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If you plan to fly to Amsterdam this canal is among the best to marvel at. There’s also the Keizersgracht, which is the second and widest of the three major canals, right in between Herengracht and Prinsengracht.
At first, this canal was supposed to be a street with no water. But when rich people decided that they wanted to use boats to get to their homes, this canal became necessary.
Keizersgracht has been the scenario of many cultural and historical events.
When ice forms during the winter months in Amsterdam, the canal can be used for ice skating. Ideal winter activity to enjoy in Amsterdam.
In fact, there’s been a sprint skating race that happens from time to time in which winners may call themselves the Keizer or Keizerin of Amsterdam, a title worth of respect.
Some of the famous icons who’ve stayed around this canal are American statesman John Adams, who stayed at the 529 house (a couple of doors down from old Peter), and Daniel Fahrenheit who stayed at 463-465 when he first visited the city in the late 1600s.
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Lastly, as the fourth and longest of the main canals, we have Prinsengracht, (or Prince’s Canal).
This one was named after William III, Prince of Orange, and most of the houses you’ll see here were built during the Dutch Golden Age of the United Provinces.
This canal is surrounded by plenty of monumental buildings such as a crow-stepped gable, The Palace of Justice, the Nooderkerk or Northern Church, the famous Anne Frank House, and the Westerkerk, which is Amsterdam’s tallest church.
You can book at Hotel Pulitzer if you plan to stay longer by the area at Booking.com to get the best deals.
This is a great canal to walk along with many houseboats to gawk at as well as the iconic Nine Streets district for shopping and exploring. It’s a great side trip if you want to buy Amsterdam souvenirs.
Want to know what this epic canal is like? Watch us walk along this canal during a beautiful rain shower in the summer in Amsterdam.
5. Oudezijds Voorburgwal
Another canal is the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, which was created as the city moat. It’s best known as the home of Amsterdam’s red-light district and as such, it’s filled with cafes and bars where you can watch all kinds of entertainment.
It’s a great destination to enjoy delicious food and slurp superb Dutch beer in Amsterdam.
The Oudezijds Voorburgwal is best known as the home of Amsterdam’s red-light district, but it is also best known for being created as a city moat.
It is filled with cafes and bars where you can watch all kinds of entertainment. The Oudezijds Voorburgwal is one of the best canals in Amsterdam.
It’s only about 400 meters in length but is by far one of my personal favorites as it’s the heartbeat of the canal system with significant history, lined with beautiful architecture, (including the Het Wapen van Riga and the Oude Kerk), and has a thumping nightlife.
There are also plenty of Amsterdam museums and other attractions to check out in this area such as the Our Lord in the Attic Museum, a hidden Catholic church established when practicing Catholicism was prohibited in Amsterdam.
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The Zwanenburgwal is a beautiful canal located in Amsterdam. To visit the canal is one of the best things to do in Amsterdam.
This canal is best known for its association with the textile industry, as this is where painter Rembrandt and philosopher Spinoza used to live. The Zwanenburgwal has been voted as one of the most beautiful streets in Amsterdam by local residents.
The Zwanenburgwal owes its historic beauty to the fact that it was constructed in 1610, making it one of the oldest canals in Amsterdam.
This canal was named after the Zwanenburg Castle, which was located close to where the canal now stands. The castle was destroyed during a siege in 1573, but the name of the canal still pays tribute to it.
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The Brouwersgracht is a canal in the city center of Amsterdam. This canal is famous for its former warehouses which are now some of the most expensive apartments in Amsterdam.
The Brouwersgracht is also one of the best canals in Amsterdam because it is so picturesque and a beautiful place to be. Biking across this part of Amsterdam is the best way to explore the place if you don’t feel like a canal tour.
There are many beautiful houses and boats on both sides of the canal and the streets surrounding it are quite small. The motor traffic is light and there are many beautiful oak trees that straddle the river, making it perfect for walks.
Kloveniersburgwal is another one of the best canals in Amsterdam. It was part of the city’s first defense line and is now home to the Royal Netherland Academy of the Arts and Sciences.
A wonderful sight to see on a canal tour in Amsterdam.
The canal is 560 meters long and is lined with majestic structures, such as the palace-like Trippenhuis at canal house number 28 or the narrow canal house on the opposite side at canal house #25. Many old buildings at Kloveniersburgwal are now university buildings.
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9. Groenburgwal: hidden, green, and famous…for an awkward reason
The Groenburgwal canal is one of the best canals in Amsterdam. It’s a hidden treasure, and it’s known for being the home to many cloth weaving factories, and the word “Groen” in the name came from the dyehouses.
The southern entrance is rather long, very narrow, and is through a rather beautiful and rather low timber drawbridge.
Because of these restrictions, there are no larger tour boats on these waters. The south has the best views of the canal
The canal is directly connected with the Amstel rivers, and it has beautiful views of the Zuiderkerk.
10. Java Island
Java Island is a neighborhood of Amsterdam, Netherlands. It is located on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water and on the east by the KNSM Island neighborhood.
Their names are Brantasgracht, Lamonggracht, Majanggracht, and Seranggracht, and they are full of modern canal houses that were designed by 19 young local architects.
In the 1980s, squatters, artists, and the homeless had taken over many of the buildings in the area. Today it features interesting architecture and is a hidden gem of Amsterdam.
The name Java Island was chosen because of the Javanese people who lived here at first. Later in time, it became a popular place for sailors to buy coffee beans from their ships because they were cheaper than anywhere else in town.
The sailors called this area Java Island because of this reason and today there are still some coffee shops around here selling coffee beans and other things like spices from Indonesia.
11. Bloemgracht: from wallflower to sunflower
One of the best canals in Amsterdam is the Bloemgracht. Bloemgracht is locationed on the west side of Prinsenhof bordering the Jordaan neighborhood.
It’s a beautiful canal that’s lined with charming houses and lovely gardens. The best time to visit Bloemgracht is during the spring when the flowers are in bloom and the trees are green.
If you’re looking for a peaceful place to relax and take in the scenery, then Bloemgracht is definitely worth a visit.
12. Reguliersgracht: ‘postcard Amsterdam’
Reguliersgracht is easily among the best canals in Amsterdam. It’s a picturesque canal with straight lines and beautiful views of the city.
Similar in design to Brouwergracht, the canal connects all of the major canals. The route is north and south spanning Herengracht, Kizergracht, Prinsengrasse and Lijnbam.
Like many Amsterdam canals Reguliersgracht follow straight lines. So, you have the opportunity to observe seven different, similar bridge rows.
Make sure you book a tour that takes you through Reguliergracht.
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Without a doubt, the waterways have played an important role in Amsterdam’s development. These canals have been recognized among the great UNESCO World Heritage sites, and are must-see attractions in any Amsterdam trip.
Certainly, anyone who visits this city cannot leave without experiencing some of the magic that the canals have to offer. Just don’t fall in! Seriously, don’t be that tourist.
What is the purpose of the canals in Amsterdam?
The canals in Amsterdam served many purposes. They helped people live by providing water for crops, homes, and industry.
The canals were also used to transport goods between towns through the countryside. The canals provided protection from flooding. Houses were built alongside them for fishing families to live right on the waterfront where they could fish every day.
Today, Amsterdam’s network of more than 200 kilometers of canals continues to play an important part in shipping traffic, particularly for tourist purposes including canal boats.
How clean is the water in the canals of Amsterdam?
Dutch government requires that rivers and streams shall not contain more than 1×10 or less than 1×10 CFU/100mL.
The water in Amsterdam’s canals gets cleaner year after year. Amsterdam city swim is held annually to raise funds for charities. Several organizations provide water protection for all people by addressing pollution. In addition, three days per month, canal gates are open to refresh the air.
Do canals freeze in Amsterdam?
Yes. If the weather stays below freezing for an extended period of time, the canals will freeze. When the canals freeze, people walk and ice skate on the canals of Amsterdam. It’s a beautiful sight to see.
How many canals & bridges are there in Amsterdam?
There are 165 canals and 1,180 bridges in Amsterdam.