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Mar 22, 2023

The Canals of Amsterdam

Panoramic autumn view of Amsterdam city. Famous Dutch channels and great cityscape. Colorful morning scene of Netherlands, Europe

Amsterdam, a city of culture and a lifeline of art, boasts many historic canals, or grachten. In fact, UNESCO named Amsterdam’s Canal Ring, or Grachtengordel, a world-acclaimed monument in 2010. Although the canals are included in tourists’ top things to see in Amsterdam, they were built not just for viewing, but for very useful purposes.

When and why were the canals of Amsterdam built?

Amsterdam was mostly soggy swampland before the canals were made by draining the land. The draining was done by digging around the piece of land so that water would naturally go to the newly lower ground. This left a sturdier piece of dry land surrounded by water, which became a canal.

 For centuries, the canals were the main way to deliver goods. Canals also served as effective military defense and aided in water management and irrigation. Today, the canals are mostly used to transport people who wish to see them, and canal water buses and water taxis are common sights.

 Most of the canals date from the 16th and 17th centuries. However, the oldest canal is Oudezijds Voorburgwal, built in the 14th century. This canal runs through the middle of Amsterdam’s Red Light District and showcases many examples of historic Dutch architecture.

Amsterdam Netherlands dancing houses over river Amstel landmark in old european city spring landscape.

Who built the Amsterdam canals?

The canals were designed and built by the people who oversaw Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries: the heren regeeders, or regents. This group of wealthy Lords, mostly successful merchants, managed the city, and Herengracht, the canal widely considered the most prestigious and important, was named after them.

How many canals are there in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is aptly known as “Venice of the North.”  There are 165 canals in this beautiful city, the length of which is approximately 62 miles added up together.

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Are the canals in the Netherlands still needed?

Absolutely, for they provide drainage. The Netherlands has 26% of its land below sea level, and 50% is less than one meter above the average sea level. There are water engineers working constantly to make sure the pumps, dikes, and canal systems remain effective. Water is continually pumped from the lowest points to the highest canals, which transport the water to the rivers, which allow flow back to the sea. The canals are a vital part of this complicated systemLink opens in a new tab.

Amsterdam’s Canal Ring

The main canals are circular shapes instead of straight lines, forming what is known as the Canal Ring, or Grachtengordel. There is a good reason for the circular shape.

Around 1640, the city began to expand outwards from its core. Since the canals are man-made, their arc shape reflects the shape of the city center as it expanded outwards by the planning of man. The Canal Ring has a unique architecture that reflects Amsterdam's economic prowess during the Golden Age and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010.

The Herengracht Canal

The Herengracht canal features a famous and picturesque section known as the Gouden Bocht, or Golden Bend. Many of the wealthiest, most important people lived there and it is still expensive real estate. The views are a highlight of Amsterdam, with large historic canal houses along the waterside, mostly built in the 16th and 17th centuries. A plaque on the front often tells the year.

 There are museums along the Herengracht, including the Willet-HolthuysenLink opens in a new tab, the Huis BartolottiLink opens in a new tab, and the KattenkabinetLink opens in a new tabHet GrachtenhuisLink opens in a new tab is highly recommended; it’s a special museum all about the history of the canals.

What lies beneath the canals of Amsterdam?

As you might imagine, something that’s been around so long holds many keys to the past. At the bottom of Amsterdam’s canals is a wealth of archeology. Researchers excavatedLink opens in a new tab the Damrak and Rokin sections of the Amstel River from 2003 to 2012, and there’s a bookLink opens in a new tab called Stuff and a documentaryLink opens in a new tab about their discoveries. Although the documentary is in Dutch with no subtitles, the viewing is fascinating.

Ancient inhabitants of Amsterdam used canals to dispose of their trash, which has now become treasures for modern researchers to learn more about their lifestyles. Broken children’s toys, old worn-out shoes, or beads from a broken necklace offer snapshots of daily life hundreds of years ago. More valuable items have been found as well, such as coins and jewelry, perhaps from ancient shipwrecks or just accidental dropping overboard.

If you visit Amsterdam, you can view a display of the found canal treasures in the Rokin Metro Station. If you’re not fortunate enough to be traveling to beautiful Amsterdam soon, check out “Below the Surface: the Archaeological Finds of the North/Southline,”Link opens in a new tab an interactive website where you can scroll through the objects. This fascinating site shows everything found, including newer things like old toothpaste tubes, cellphones, credit cards and ID cards alongside ancient coins.


Now that you’ve learned about the amazing canals, you can put Amsterdam at the top of your travel wishlist.

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