Canals of Amsterdam

The canals of Amsterdam are currently used as the main form of transportation around the city. The Dutch capital, also known as the “Venice of the North”, is comprised of over 60 miles of canals (gracht), 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. The 3 main residential canals of Herengracht (“Patricians’ Canal”), Prinsen-gracht (“Prince’s Canal”) and Keizersgracht (“Emperor’s Canal”), meticulously excavated during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, and along which stand some 1550 monumental buildings, form a series of concentric half-circles around the city adjoining IJ Bay.

A 4th outer canal, Singelgracht, was built for water management and defense (serving as a medieval moat around the city from 1480 to 1585). There are also interconnecting canals radiating out from the center as well as some parallel canals, primarily used for transporting goods, such as beer. Construction proceeded from west to east (like a gigantic windshield wiper), as opposed to progressing from the center outwards.

Some interesting canal facts:

Herengracht: This was the 1st of the 3 major canals to be built in the city centre. The most fashionable part, the Golden Bend, contains double-wide mansions, inner gardens and coach houses. Peter the Great stayed here (house 527) during his 2nd visit to the city.

Keizersgracht: This is the 2nd, and widest, of the 3 major canals, named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. Peter the Great stayed here (house 317) during his 1st visit to the city. Other famous visitors included John Adams (house 529), Heinrich Schliemann (house 71), and Daniel Fahrenheit (houses 463-465).

Prinsengracht: This is the 4th, and longest, of the main canals, named after the Prince of Orange. Notable buildings include the Northern Church (Noorderkerk); the Northern Market (Noordermarkt); the Western Church (Westerkerk), Amsterdam’s tallest church; and the Anne Frank House.

Zwanenburgwal: This is a canal, and street, in the center of Amsterdam. Famous residents included the painter Rembrandt and the philosopher Spinoza. The canal was originally named Verversgracht (“Dyers’ canal”), after the textile industry that once dominated this part of town, and for the fact that dyed textiles were hung to dry along the canal.

Brouwersgracht: This marks the northern border of the canal belt. The site had many warehouses and storage depots, serving the ships returning from Asia with spices and silks. Consequently, some Dutch East India Company officials lived here. Also, due to the access of fresh water, breweries were also prevalent. The old warehouses are now some of the most expensive apartments in the city. Also common here are the houseboats, which help to make it the most beautiful “street” in Amsterdam.

The newest canals, lined with modern interpretations of classic canal houses, were constructed on the man-made Java Island in 1995, northeast of the City Center. Each house measures 4.5 meters wide and is 4 or 5 stories tall. Nine ornate metal bridges also cross the canals for pedestrians and cyclists.

  • Visited: May 1988
  • UNESCO: 2010 (17th century ring area)

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