Originally Published: October 16, 2014

Amsterdam’s canals are probably the most famous and most romantic canals in the entire world. Sorry, Venice. Their mesmerizing concentric shape, the way their bridges nobly arch, the way they look at night when lights twinkle off their waters, I could go on forever about Amsterdam’s canals…

Whether you are here for a few hours or a few weeks, no time in Amsterdam would be complete without experiencing our canals for yourself and getting to know a little bit more about them, too. Whether you end up exploring Amsterdam’s canals from the water or stay on dry land and see them by foot, here is a starter guide to get you primed and ready.

Map of canals - Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s canal belt forms a horseshoe shape around the heart of the city…

Quick Canal History

From the very beginning, Amsterdam has attracted people in droves and has seemingly always been outgrowing its borders. This is how the most famous group of our canals called the Canal Belt (Grachtengordel in Dutch) came into being.

During the 17th Century, which was the Golden Age of Amsterdam’s wealth and power, the city was rapidly expanding due to its flourishing role as a major world trade center. Amsterdam was bursting at the seams, so the city decided to build the Canal Belt outside the existing city confines for its citizens.

Since the city was in the middle of an economic boom, the Canal Belt was specifically designed to be a showcase of the city’s wealth and grandeur. The unique mix of beautiful gabled architecture and state-of-the-art engineering that was the result is what you see today; and, as of 2010, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.

You may be wondering how many canals in Amsterdam there are today. Now, there are a total of 165 canals that stretch for a combined length of over 100 kilometers – that’s a lot of water!

The Canal Belt

Singel

The oldest of the main canals and the first canal you will encounter if you are setting off from Dam Square heading west, Singel used to be the moat that provided protection for Amsterdam. Today, this canal bustles with many shops and cafes and the world famous floating flower market known as the Bloemenmarkt.

Singel-canal-Amsterdam
The Singel – one of Amsterdam’s largest and best known canals

Herengracht and Keizersgracht

These 2 canals are the next you encounter after Singel, and they have a good amount in common. These are the canals that truly display Amsterdam’s desire to show off its burgeoning wealth and importance. They are much wider than the other canals and are filled with fashionable homes which were once owned by the city’s newly rich merchant class. You’ll notice that many of the buildings here have an almost palatial look to them.

Prinsengracht

The furthest west of the main Canal Belt, the Prinsengracht may mean “prince’s canal” in Dutch, but it was the canal where more real life took place during the Golden Age. Shops, bars, and business hummed on the Prinsengracht back then, and they still do today. The Prinsengracht flows past the blue-crowned Westerkerk and somber Anne Frank House.

Singelgracht

Not to be confused with Singel, Singelgracht is one canal past Prinsengracht, and was the official boundary of the city upon the Canal Belt’s completion. This canal borders popular areas such as Leidseplein, Heineken Brewery, Rijskmuseum, and is the closest to the Vondelpark.

Other Amsterdam Canals

Brouwersgracht

Once home to many warehouses stocking supplies from Asia and other far-flung destinations that Amsterdam’s mighty fleet brought home, the Brouwersgracht is connected to all four of the previously mentioned canals on the north side of the canal ring. For many people, this canal is the city’s most beautiful. Most notable on the Brouwersgracht is the Dutch West India Company’s former headquarters.

Brouwersgracht-canal-amsterdam
The Brouwersgracht – arguably the city’s most beautiful canal

Zwanenburgwal Canal

The largest canal running north-to-south directly through the center of Amsterdam, the Zwanenburgwal flows by the Waterlooplein market, which is a huge daily flea market, and the famous painter Rembrandt’s former residence. This canal isn’t too far from the Nieuwmarket nightlife district either.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal Canal

This canal is the largest canal that cuts through the Red Light District, running directly behind the oldest building in all of Amsterdam, De Oude Kerk (The Old Church). The canals empties into the IJ, and is regarded as the oldest canal in Amsterdam.

Photo credits:

  • Singel (with flower market):  https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephenrwalli/1517767887
  • Canal map: wikipedia.org
  • Brouwersgracht (with long red boat): https://www.flickr.com/photos/taver/580636882

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