The Ultimate Guide to Canal Cruise in Amsterdam


Exploring the most iconic buildings and views along the Amsterdam Canals

Exploring the most iconic buildings and views along the Amsterdam Canals

Amsterdam is famed for its picturesque canals lined with narrow gabled houses dating back to the city’s 17th century Golden Age as a maritime trading hub. The canal network with its iconic bridges and canal-side architecture forms an integral part of Amsterdam’s landscape and culture. A stroll or boat ride along the canals offers a glimpse into the history and charm of this Dutch capital.

The origins of Amsterdam’s canals stretch back to the early 1600s when the city was rapidly expanding and city planners built concentric semi-circular canals to manage growth. As Amsterdam became enormously wealthy through trade via the Dutch East India Company, a building boom of grand mansions, warehouses, churches and homes sprang up alongside Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht and other canals. Buildings were constructed narrow and extremely deep on unstable land, leading to the sharp gabled façades that prevented collapse. Over four centuries later, these gabled merchants’ houses still line Amsterdam’s branching waterways.

The rows of historic gabled buildings along the tree-dottted canals create a iconic skyline and in 2010 Amsterdam’s canal ring was recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. More than just picturesque backdrops, the buildings and canals are intrinsically tied to Dutch Golden Age mercantile success, innovative urban planning methods, and Amsterdam’s growth into a global trade center. The varied canal-side architecture chronicles the city’s history from its humble 13th century fishing village beginnings through its heyday as a bustling maritime empire spanning the world. Strolling the canal paths and narrow cross-streets, glimpsing insider courtyard gardens and hidden churches, offers an intimate look into Amsterdam’s storied past.

Most Famous Canal-Side Buildings

The Skinny Bridge (Magere Brug)

Known for its unique drawbridge design, the iconic Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) arches over the Amstel River connecting the banks by Kerkstraat. This beloved bridge built in 1871 was designed by architect Piet Kramer to tackle the challenge of allowing boats to pass despite narrow waters. Kramer devised an ingenious double-bascule drawbridge that opens from the middle, with two movable arms swinging upwards from a central axis to allow tall boats to navigate the passage.

This distinctive structure replaced earlier pontoon and wooden iterations in the same location. Unlike typical drawbridge openings splitting horizontally, the Skinny Bridge’s two leaves tilted vertically to save space in the cramped canal. Counterweights on the ends of each leaf keep the bridge balanced and prevent it from opening too quickly. The unconventional drawbridge mechanics magnify the romance and intrigue of this Neo-Gothic crossed wooden bridge. When the leaves slowly peel open, it looks like a couple leaning in for a kiss before separating.

The bridge got its nickname the “Skinny Bridge” from its slim design aimed at preserving valuable canal-front real estate and allowing maximum light to penetrate the waterways. The slanted metal-tip wooden bascules and cross-bracing echo the sleek lines of Amsterdam’s canal homes and sailing ships. Lit up at night, the Skinny Bridge makes for a fairytail-esque scene reflecting in the dark waters below – and has become one of Amsterdam’s most photographed landmarks. Both technologically and visually innovative, this iconic bridge remains a feat of Dutch engineering and a monument to Amsterdam’s bridges adapting to tightly-built spaces along its famous canals.

The Anne Frank House

One of Amsterdam’s most visited canal-side sites is the Anne Frank House museum located on Prinsengracht canal. This historic brick warehouse was where young Jewish diarist Anne Frank, her family, and four others went into hiding in 1942 during Nazi occupation of Netherlands in World War II.

For over two years, the eight Jews secretly lived in a concealed annex at the back of Anne’s father Otto Frank’s company building, which housed his business selling pectin and spices. The Frank family and friends relied on Otto Frank’s trusted colleagues to clandestinely provide them food, supplies, and news from outside. Young Anne passed time writing her now famous diary describing their daily life in hiding, hopes for freedom, and observations about wartime events. Her diary captured the hardship and emotional turmoil of living in isolation, anxiety about Nazi raids, and strains with housemates.

In August 1944, an anonymous tip led Nazi security police to raid the office building and annex, arresting the eight Jews and sending them to concentration camps. Only Otto Frank survived. After the war, Miep Gies – one of the helpers who supported the hidden families – retrieved Anne’s diary and gave it to Otto. First published in 1947, Anne’s diary became a worldwide sensation sharing her story of courage and resilience during the Holocaust.

Today the Anne Frank House annex remains preserved, with its movable bookcase entrance and photos of Anne displayed throughout the rooms. Over 1 million visitors each year get to experience walking through the secret annex where one young girl penned her hopes, fears and powerful chronicle of an unimaginable chapter in history.

Canal Ring Houses

Lining Amsterdam’s semi-circular 17th-century concentric canal network are rows of narrow brick gabled houses that characterize the cityscape. Built alongside Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht and other canals during Amsterdam’s lucrative Golden Age trading boom, these buildings represent the historic architecture and style of the Canal Ring district.

As Amsterdam rapidly expanded in the early 1600s, the city planned new neighborhoods and canals to encircle the core, with designated building codes requiring uniformity. Plots were carefully laid out along the new waterways, leased to wealthy merchants and traders who commissioned fine narrow houses for their families, with taller styles denoting higher status. The skinny brick façades maximized scarce land while minimizing taxes levied based on exterior width. Interior layouts however could sprawl extensively to the rear with hidden gardens and mini-courtyards.

Signature features included steeply-pitched roofs with hoist beams to haul up goods, large multipaned windows to maximize light, and decorated gable tops. While appearing identical, no two canal houses are exactly the same upon closer look. Each brickfront row displays personalized flourishes – unique gable details, varied door placements, individualized cornices.

Today these postcard-perfect rows lining the canal provide a portal into 17th century Amsterdam. The preserved historic architecture and quintessential canal-side scenery that evolved from pragmatic medieval urban planning methods now form the backbone of Amsterdam’s identity. The elegant merchants’ residences chronicle the enormous wealth and showpiece culture cultivated around Dutch trading prowess and colonial exploitation that shaped the Canal Ring’s Golden Age.

Other Notable Canal-Side Buildings

Rembrandt House Museum – Home of famous Dutch painter The Rembrandt House Museum lets visitors glimpse inside the canal-side home where renowned Golden Age artist Rembrandt van Rijn lived and produced many iconic paintings. Wander through the preserved 17th-century rooms and studio where Rembrandt’s masterpieces were created.

Westerkerk – Church with tall tower overlooking Prinsengracht canal Soaring over the Prinsengracht canalhouses, the Westerkerk’s 85-meter tower makes this Dutch Renaissance church Amsterdam’s tallest building from 1631-1868. Its spire offers panoramic city views, while famous parishioner Anne Frank wrote about its carillon bells chiming through her secret annex rooms.

National Maritime Museum – Housed in old naval storehouses on harbor Amsterdam’s rich naval past is captured at the National Maritime Museum housed appropriately in historic 17th century shipyards that once served the Dutch East India Company. Expansive harbor views remind of the docks’ pivotal role in Dutch maritime successes.

Best Canals for Iconic Views

Lined with elegant gabled mansions and regal trees, the Herengracht, or Gentlemen’s Canal, is one of Amsterdam’s most prominent and iconic canals. Constructed in 1612 during a major city expansion initiative, this outermost radial canal was reserved for Amsterdam’s wealthiest citizens to erect their urban palaces befitting their status. Strolling along the Herengracht offers views of the grandest canal architecture in the city.

The row houses feature ornate domed turrets, spiraling spouts, finely-decorated trimming, and vividly-colored doors set among magnificent chestnut and linden trees. Look for the beautiful Golden Bend, the most prestigious stretch once home to mayors and admirals. Alongside the grandeur, glimpse hidden churches, tiny alleyways, and interior gardens through arched porticos. From the Golden Age to today, the Herengracht continues to be an elite address in Amsterdam with its glittering waterway flanked by the city’s most exceptional buildings.

The Prinsengracht or Prince’s Canal, named for William of Orange, boasts some of Amsterdam’s most quintessential canal scenes. Built slightly later than Herengracht in 1615, the slightly smaller canal houses have a cozier charm. Rows of reddish-brown brick townhouses display gabled façades with adorned tops and large windows overlooking the lively waterway. The Bloemgracht stairway featured in Dutch masters’ paintings offers a perfect Prinsengracht photo backdrop. Look for historical plaque markers on various residences once home to luminaries like philosopher Spinoza and painter Emanuel de Witte.

Experience the Architecture by Canal Boat

The best way to fully experience Amsterdam’s famed canal vistas is by gliding through the waterways yourself. Canal cruises are ideal for comprehensive explorations of the iconic sights, while private rental boats allow you to create your own intimate voyage.

Joining a small group tour boat ride provides in-depth guided commentary highlighting the city’s architecture and history from a unique on-the-water perspective. Most canal tours begin in the city center, then pass by major landmarks while expert guides detail the stories behind each bridge, building, and bend. See the Skinny Bridge opening before your eyes, Anne Frank’s hiding place canal house, the gabled facades lining Prinsengracht, and Amsterdam’s bustling old harbor. Many canal tours also veer into the Amstel River for new angles.

For more freedom, independently rent your own canal boat, available by the hour or day from various rental companies around the city center. Cruising the UNESCO-recognized channels yourself lets you steer through smaller side canals, stop to picnic alongside the canal-side parks and architecture, or simply drift slowly through the scenic curved passages soaking in slice-of-life views at your own pace. Just beware of heavy traffic in peak summer months.

Gliding through Amsterdam as the Golden Age merchants once did offers an immersive experience and memory as you watch the gabled buildings gently pass by. Whether joining an educational tour or meandering privately, canal boating lets you truly embrace Amsterdam’s charm by embracing the waters at the heart of the city.

More useful information about Amsterdam Canal Cruises

We are a group of travelers who love to explore and write about Amsterdam. Over the years, we have gained extensive experience with cruising over the Canals in Amsterdam. Here, you could find all the essential information you need to know about Amsterdam Canal Cruises, including the different types of cruise, prices, tickets, operating hours, departure points, and many more.


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