Canals of Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s historic canals have earned it the nickname “Venice of the North” and the prestigious distinction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of Europe’s most unique and picturesque cities, with more than 1,000 bridges and centuries-old architecture at every turn.
It is the nation’s capital and today home to more than one million people. The city’s first settlers arrived in the twelfth century and established a thriving fishing village. By the seventeenth century, Amsterdam had grown to become the most important trading center in the country.
The city is divided into several districts, each with its own distinct atmosphere. Areas popular with tourists include the Old Center, South and Jordaan districts. Constructed in the Medieval Period, the Old Center district features traditional architecture and canals. Locals, who enjoy its many cafes and shops, also frequent this area.
The Jordaan district was built in the mid-1600s and originally home to working class families. Today, the district is much more upscale, with restaurants, galleries and boutiques. Jordaan’s neighborhoods feature charming cobblestone streets and alleyways, and some of the widest canals in the city.
The South district is known as the Museum Quarter. The area contains many of Amsterdam’s most celebrated cultural attractions, including the Stedelijk, Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museums. Vondelpark, one of Amsterdam’s most popular parks, runs through the South district and is a great place to relax in the sun after a day of sightseeing.
History of the Canals
Due to rapid growth during the sixteenth century, Amsterdam began running out of space and bursting at the seams of its original borders. To accommodate more growth and keep the transport of goods running smoothly, the city planners of the early seventeenth century designed the canal system.
The original plan called for the construction of four canals, arranged in concentric half circles. Three canals, the Prinsengracht, Herengracht and Keizersgracht, served residential areas. The fourth canal, the Singelgracht, helped support water management and defense logistics.
The construction project progressed from the west side of the city to the east. The first phase of the project began in 1613 and was completed in 1625. Because of harsh economic conditions, the city delayed the second phase of the ambitious project until 1664.
Many of the city’s early canals connected with the Amstel River, which ends in the Old Center district at the IJ Bay. In fact, most of Amsterdam’s major canals run to the bay, which provides a near-perfect waterway circuit throughout the original city.
With the first canal system complete, Amsterdam was able to continue its growth and it quickly became the most important European port. By the end of the 1600s, the per capita income in Amsterdam exceeded that of Paris, and the city became an urban model for eighteenth century Europe.
Because the city never suffered flooding, the canal system became a case study in engineering. Engineers from Sweden, Russia and England visited Amsterdam to learn more about the system’s design, hoping to recreate the same successful results in their respective countries. In fact, Russian Tsar Peter the Great was so impressed with Amsterdam’s canals that he hired the project’s engineers to design Saint Petersburg.
During the nineteenth century, the war between England and France severely undermined Amsterdam’s maritime trade. However, the Netherlands used the downturn as an opportunity to expand its waterway infrastructure. In 1876, a major canal opened that connected Amsterdam with the North Sea.
Under German occupation during World War II, neighborhoods along the canals lost an estimated 100,000 people, as the Nazis deported Jews to concentration camps throughout Europe.
In the age of giant cargo vessels and 12 deck cruise ships, the city’s canals have become less important to today’s international trade.
Amsterdam’s original concentric-designed canals make up the Canal Ring, which UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 2010. The area features some of the city’s most beautiful mansions, draw bridges and a steady flow of tour boats.
The Singel canal was the city’s moat until 1585. It begins near Central Station and runs from IJ Bay to the Amstel River. While the Singel once encircled the city, it is now one of Amsterdam’s most central canals.
The Prinsengracht, named after the Prince of Orange, is the longest original canal in the city. This waterway runs past many of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions, including the Anne Frank House, Gay Monument and Western Church.
The Herengracht canal was named after the Heren Regeerders, a body of lords that controlled Amsterdam in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The neighborhoods along the canal contain some of the city’s most spectacular mansions and gardens. The Keizersgracht is the widest canal in the Old Center and was named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.
While many of the minor waterways in the Canal Ring were not part of the original city plan, they remain important to the city’s history. The Zwanenburgwal runs through the Old Center district and past the homes of famous Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
The Kloveniersburgwal runs along the edge of the original city and connects with the Amstel River. City administrators built the Kloveniersburgwal late in the seventeenth century to accommodate the business needs of the executives of the Dutch East India Company.
The Brouwersgracht connects the Prinsengracht, Singel, Keizergracht and Herengracht canals and lies on the northern border of the Canal Ring. The canal originally served as a waterway to warehouses that traded in silk and spices imported from Asia. In recent years, developers have converted the historic warehouses into expensive apartments.
Life on the Canals
The canal system has certainly enriched the aesthetics of Amsterdam, creating postcard quality scenes that add to the city’s charm. However, the canals also continue to serve a major role in the city’s infrastructure.
Locals often use Amsterdam’s canal-bus system for trips around the city. The transportation system has three routes, which typically provide faster service than the city’s trolleys. As Amsterdam’s tourism industry has skyrocketed, so have the number of tour boat companies operating in the canals.
While cities around the world celebrate special occasions with parades down their Main Streets, Amsterdam sports its own style, with boat processions. During frigid winter months, small canals become giant skating rinks, attracting residents from all corners of the city for a little fun and exercise.
Some Amsterdam residents live on the canal in houseboats, just like their ancestors. Many retail businesses operate on the water, including merchants of the famous flower market, which sells spectacular floral bouquets and a huge selection of tulip bulbs.