The canals are one of the most notable characteristics of Amsterdam and make Amsterdam a mesmerizing city. I lived in Amsterdam for many years and loved its canals. So, I dived into the history of the Amsterdam canals to answer the ten most frequently asked questions about the canals in Amsterdam.
- Why are there so many canals in Amsterdam?
- Why does Amsterdam need canals?
- How many canals are there in Amsterdam?
- What are the most beautiful canals in Amsterdam?
- What are the best Amsterdam canal tours?
- How deep are the Amsterdam canals?
- Are the canals in Amsterdam clean?
- Do the canals in Amsterdam ever freeze?
- How were houses built between the canals in Amsterdam?
- Why were the lakes around Amsterdam drained?
Read on to learn more about the fascinating background of the Amsterdam canals, or scroll down to the question about the canals in Amsterdam that interests you most.
1. Why Are There So Many Canals In Amsterdam?
Let’s start with the most obvious question first. Why are there so many canals in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam needed many canals for continuous water drainage. Amsterdam is located ± 0,5 meters below sea level and would be underwater without drainage. The canals in Amsterdam were also needed for the transportation of goods, defensive purposes, and discarding of sewage.
Amsterdam is an artificial city well below sea level and located in the middle of a peat swamp. Read on to learn how the Dutch dug those canals to be able to build Amsterdam in the middle of a swamp and created one of the most admired cities in history.
2. Why Does Amsterdam Need Canals?
To understand why Amsterdam needed canals a bit better, you must realize that a large part of the Netherlands would be underwater if there were no dikes to protect it against flooding. Amsterdam’s location is 0.5 meters below the average sea level, and Amsterdam would be in the middle of the sea without man-made dams and dikes to protect it against the sea (see figure below).
You can read another article on this website, how much of The Netherlands is below sea level?, to better understand how the Dutch survive in a country below sea level.
The struggle of the Dutch to claim their land from the sea started 2500 years ago. The first settlers in The Netherlands created a primitive system of dikes to protect themselves, their crops, and their cattle from the cycle of sea flooding.
During the Middle Ages, many more dikes were constructed and connected to form a continuous defense against the sea. This process allowed an ongoing reclamation of land, and the current shape of the Netherlands became slowly visible during that period.
However, large parts of The Netherlands were still not dry enough for habitation or farming. For example, Amsterdam’s location, where the river Amstel flowed into the Zuiderzee, consisted of peat swamps that needed to be drained to be of any use. The early settlers in the Amsterdam area arrived around 1250 AC, and they dug primitive ditches for water drainage.
These early settlers built dikes to prevent flooding of the Amsterdam peat swamps by the Zuiderzee. However, this combination of dams and ditches was insufficient to keep the water out. High tide in the Zuiderzee could still flood the land by flowing upstream through the dike’s opening for the Amstel River.
Therefore, a dam was built in the Amstel River to prevent these Zuiderzee floodings around 1265-1275. The name Amsterdam originates from this dam in the Amstel River. The old Dutch name of Amsterdam was Amstelredamme (Amstel-dam), which eventually transformed into Amsterdam.
You can see this dam in the Amstel River in the middle of Amsterdam’s oldest known city map, a painting from Cornelis Antoniszn from 1538 (see below, figure on the left).
Later extensions of Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries used concentric rings of man-made canals to drain water from the peat swamps and utilized the land plots between the canals to build houses. Thus, Amsterdam’s canals were a vital part of the continuous water drainage to ensure that Amsterdam would not be underwater.
These days, more than 800.000 people live in Amsterdam, and Amsterdam is one of the best places in The Netherlands to live. Read the 11 best neighborhoods of Amsterdam (suggested by locals) if you are considering moving to Amsterdam as an expat.
3. How Many Canals Are There In Amsterdam?
A frequently asked question is how many canals there are in Amsterdam.
Currently, there are 165 canals totaling ± 75 km (± 46 mi). However, the number of canals in Amsterdam varies over time because sometimes a canal is turned into a road and vice versa.
The Singelgracht is Amsterdam’s longest canal at 6.3 km (2.2 miles). The Singelgracht was dug for defensive purposes and was Amsterdam’s outer defensive parameter in the 17th century.
The Oudezijds Voorburgwal is the oldest canal in Amsterdam and dates back to 1385. The widest canal is the Keizersgracht, with 31 meters (33 yards).
4. What Are The Most Beautiful Canals in Amsterdam?
In 2008, Amsterdam’s local newspaper, Parool, asked its readers what they considered Amsterdam’s most beautiful canal. Participants were all local readers of Parool, virtually all Amsterdam inhabitants. These locals knew all the canals of Amsterdam and could compare them like no one else.
The Amsterdam Canal beauty contest winner was the Brouwersgracht (number 6 on Amsterdam’s map above), which the local Parool readers considered the most beautiful canal in Amsterdam. Brouwersgracht is also the location for one of the best Instagram shots in Amsterdam.
The reasons that the Brouwersgracht was the most beautiful canal in Amsterdam are:
- The beautifully restored canal houses along the Brouwersgracht.
- The picturesque views at the intersections with the main canals
- The graceful bridges over the Brouwersgracht.
- The narrow streets along the canal with little traffic
- The large trees directly along the water
The Reguliersgracht is another photogenic canal that connects a number of the main canals. The Reguliersgracht is probably the most photographed Amsterdam canal due to its seven beautiful bridges in a straight line. Lovely for a daylight boat trip or a romantic evening walk.
The Reguliersgracht connects the three main canals, the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht. These three canals are all must-sees, but the Herengracht is the most beautiful. The mayor of Amsterdam lives and works at Herengracht 502.
The Herengracht was the canal where Amsterdam’s richest people lived. The canal houses along the Herengracht are stunning. Herengracht is still one of the most expensive and prestigious places to live in The Netherlands.
The Jordaan is a densely populated neighborhood with dozens of narrow streets and a handful of canals. The canals in the Jordaan are narrower than in other parts of the city. The Bloemgracht is the most beautiful canal of the Jordaan due to its gorgeous mixture of beautifully restored canal houses and elegant bridges.
The Groenburgwal is a hidden gem of a canal in the middle of the center of Amsterdam. It is a short and narrow side canal of the Amstel River and intersects with the Amstel close to the Stopera. The Groenburgwal can best be admired from the Staalmeestersbrug, looking towards the Zuiderkerk (see below).
If you want to enjoy the beautiful canals, check out here what a 3-day trip to Amsterdam will cost. You want to visit this mesmerizing city with fairytale-like canals at least once.
5. What Is The Best Amsterdam Canal Tour?
Canal cruises are probably the most popular Amsterdam tourist attraction and are enjoyed by over three million visitors annually. There are dozens of cruises available, and there is enough competition to keep ticket prices reasonable.
In Amsterdam, there is no difference between the standard canal cruises of different cruise companies. They will sail through the same canals and show you the same highlights. A typical canal cruise lasts ± 60 minutes and costs € 10-15 ($ 10-25), depending on the season.
Therefore, the best way to select a canal cruise is to walk to the water opposite the central railway station from where canal cruises from all cruise companies depart (number 10 on the map of Amsterdam above). Furthermore, canal cruises depart so regularly that you will hardly have to wait.
In addition to a standard cruise of around 90 minutes, dozens of alternative canal cruises are possible. I love the evening canal cruises in Amsterdam because Amsterdam looks a bit like a fairytale with all these lights. Romantic dinner cruises and party cruises are also possible. Check it out and find your favorite variation of a canal cruise.
6. How Deep Are The Amsterdam Canals?
You may wonder how deep the canals in Amsterdam are.
The Amsterdam canals are 1.5-3.0 m (5-10 ft) deep, depending on their size. Typically, the wider the canal, the deeper it will be. Water levels in the Amsterdam canals are stable and tightly regulated, remaining between 0.3-0.6 m (1-2 ft) below sea level, even in heavy rains.
The larger canals in Amsterdam are deep enough to drown in if you can’t find a stair to get yourself out of the water again. Unfortunately, this happens yearly with around a dozen drunk men who urinate in an Amsterdam canal and fall forward in the water.
Consider yourself warned….!
7. Are The Canals in Amsterdam Clean?
Many people wonder if the Amsterdam canals are clean enough to swim in.
The Amsterdam canals have become much cleaner over the last decades. The Amsterdam canals are now so pure that it is possible to fish in Amsterdam again. Nowadays, more people are swimming in the canals, although that is not officially allowed.
The discarding of sewage by the (oldest) canal houses and the many houseboats in the canals has stopped, significantly improving water quality. Another major step to improving the canals’ water quality was to move the sewage plant to stop discarding purified sewage in the Amstel River. This step led to another significant improvement in the water quality of the Amstel River and Amsterdam canals.
Boats of the Amsterdam municipality constantly cruise the canals to remove floating trash. As a result, the Amsterdam Authorities claim that the water in the Amstel River and canals now meets the standards of official bathing water.
Improving water quality has significantly increased the number and diversity of fish in Amsterdam’s canals. Keep in mind that you need a fishing permit in The Netherlands. The Netherlands is a highly regulated country. These days, you also see more and more people swimming in the Amsterdam canals, although that is not officially allowed.
The staggering number of bicycles still thrown into the canals remains. Every year, the municipality of Amsterdam removes around 15.000 bicycles from the canals. These bicycles were most likely stolen, and the thieves needed to get rid of them without leaving traces. The large-scale theft of bikes is one of the most important problems in Amsterdam. Therefore, never forget to lock your bike if you discover Amsterdam by bike.
8. Do The Canals In Amsterdam Ever Freeze?
It seems impossible if you walk along the Amsterdam canals on a sunny summer day, but skating on the Amsterdam canals is sometimes possible.
In some years, the winter is severe enough for all canals in Amsterdam’s center to be frozen, and ice skating on the canals is possible. For example, in February 2021, ice skating on the canals in Amsterdam was possible after two weeks of ice-cold weather.
If the weather forecast predicts at least five days of freezing conditions, sailing with a boat in the canals will be prohibited. In addition, locks around Amsterdam are closed to stop the water currents and improve the canals’ ice quality.
Those severe winters are the best, and every Dutchman looks forward to skating on the canals again. Those winters will get us all very excited. Consider yourself lucky if you visit The Netherlands during an ice-cold winter because you will see an entire country celebrating.
Unfortunately, these severe winters are becoming very rare. The Netherlands has a moderate climate and relatively mild winters, and winters seem to be less severe. But every 5-10 years, like in 2021, we get lucky and enjoy ice strong enough to skate on the canals.
9. How Were Houses Built Between The Canals In Amsterdam?
Building houses between the canals was more complicated than you can imagine. The peatland between the canals was not solid enough to build houses on. Fortunately, the peat layer under Amsterdam was only 8-9 meters thick, and under the peat layer were solid layers of sand.
Houses between the Amsterdam canals were built on long wooden poles, driven in the ground until solidly anchored in an underlying sand layer to provide a sufficient foundation for building a canal house. These wooden poles still support many of the houses in Amsterdam’s center.
The Dutch built houses in a peat swamp between the canals. A city in the middle of a peat swamp.
Amsterdam’s 5-fold expansion between 1600-1700 turned Amsterdam from a small medieval city into one of the most important cities of its time. During this period, the famous concentric rings of canals were dug, giving the center of Amsterdam its current shape.
The Youtube video below, called Expansion of Amsterdam between 1600-1700, gives a fantastic impression of Amsterdam’s massive expansion during that century. Viewing this video gives you an excellent impression of Amsterdam’s rapid development during the Golden Age of Amsterdam in less than five minutes.
UNESCO considered Amsterdam’s canals so unique that the Amsterdam Canal District is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Amsterdam was the capital of the world economy in the 17th century and was considered the ideal city. As a result, Amsterdam was a reference for building new cities worldwide until the 19th century.
10. Why Were The Lakes Around Amsterdam Drained?
The canals were needed to drain the peat swamps. However, that was not the only problem with water that Amsterdam had to solve to exist.
If you look at the map below, you will note many large lakes around Amsterdam before 1250 AC. These lakes rapidly grew by rapid erosion of the weak peat layers, threatening Amsterdam’s existence.
Drainage of these lakes became necessary to safeguard Amsterdam against the water threatening it from the outside. The Beemster Lake was the first lake drained in the early 17th century with the help of windmills. Over the following centuries, the Dutch drained many more lakes in the western part of The Netherlands.
The Beemster Polder is another World Heritage Site in The Netherlands. Almost all World Heritage Sites in The Netherlands have something to do with water management. That is a central theme in a country that would not exist if it were not for its water management skills.