By Darren Griffiths

Amsterdam – Canals and Culture

20th March 2023

Amsterdam is a city with a worldwide reputation for vice but the city has been a cultural capital for centuries and is one of the world’s most fascinating, historic and beautiful cities. It has so much to offer travellers beyond coffee shops and the infamous Red Light District.

The city has hundreds of miles of canals, which wind their way outwards from the medieval centre of the city, sweeping in wide bows lined by the famously wonky and rather unique town houses, built in various centuries. Traversed by beautiful bridges, and framed by the city’s unique architecture, these canals are as rich in history as any waterway in the world. For centuries, they became the vessels of commerce and conquest, and allowed the Dutch capital to become one of Europe’s most prosperous cities.

These days, the canals are almost entirely used for leisure. Many local people are lucky enough to own boats and spend as much time cruising the city’s beautiful canals as they can. Getting on a boat is, without doubt, the best way to see the city and, with most of the most beautiful quarters accessible by boat, it’s a fantastic way to explore. Here are two of our favourite Amsterdam Boat Trips.

Related Reading – 48 hours in Amsterdam Itinerary

Amsterdam Light Festival

Amsterdam Light Festival

Whether you’re a total culture vulture who’s mad about all things arty, or just someone with a passing interest in pretty lights, the Amsterdam Light festival is a must-do experience. Each winter, some of the world’s most renowned artists create incredible light art installations along the Amsterdam canal belt.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the Amsterdam Light Festival and ten of the most popular installations of the last decade will be exhibited in all their glory! Starboard Boats organise the city’s best cruises and, despite the somewhat unreliable weather that can be expected during the winter, they’ll keep you warm and cosy with blankets, heated cushions, a covered boat and some piping hot Gluhwein. We advice to book your Amsterdam Light Festival tickets on time since it usually sells out.

Amsterdam Party Boat

Amsterdam Party Boat

Many people choose to celebrate their birthdays or other events on boats in Amsterdam. An Amsterdam party boat is a great way to get your friends together and enjoy drinks and snacks with the ever-changing backdrop of the Amsterdam canal belt – talk about a beer with a view! An Amsterdam Party Boat is one of the best places to celebrate a birthday, Amsterdam bachelor party, or just to enjoy a boozy evening with a difference.

Although these days the canals are a hub for recreation and you will see plenty of people, locals and visitors alike taking to the water throughout the year, they have an incredible history and have been intertwined with Amsterdam’s culture and the way of life of its people since the city’s foundation in the 13th century.

5 Surprising Amsterdam Canal Facts

Amsterdam Canal

We find the Amsterdam canals pretty incredible but here are some facts that you might not know about some of Europe’s most famous waterways…

1) In total, the city’s canals measure more than 100km or 60 miles.

2) Amsterdam’s canals number more than one hundred and sixty across the city.

3) Amsterdam has more bridges than Venice – 1300 more to be exact, making a total of 1700 in Amsterdam.

4) If these bridges were to be removed, the city would be separated into ninety different islands.

5) The Dutch are famous for their love of cycling but, after a few too many Heinekens, can become a little careless with their beloved bicycles – as a result, more than 10,000 bikes are removed from the canals by the city council.

Canals and Culture

Amsterdam Canal 2

Although they may just look like picturesque waterways and the perfect place to get a great photo for Instagram, the canals of Amsterdam have had an incredible impact on the city’s culture and shaped its history over the centuries. They linked the city with wider waterways which led onto the sea and allowed the Dutch to stand at the forefront of exploration and trade for centuries.

The missions of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), made possible through the construction of canals, led to the city’s colonial relationship with countries like modern day Indonesia and Suriname which you can see reflected in the modern-day city. Indonesian and Surinamese food, for example, can be seen everywhere in Amsterdam, and many Amsterdammers are originally from these countries.

The unique Amsterdam architecture was spawned from centuries of wealth accumulated from the trade in sugar from the west and spices from the east. The Netherlands’ past may have some dark chapters, but it has shaped the country and its capital’s culture to make the modern city that we see today. Everywhere you look, you are reminded of the city’s incredible and unique history – each step along an Amsterdam street tells a story from the past 800 years of the city’s history.

Incredible Architecture and 17th Century Grandeur

Amsterdam Canal 3

The canals were built (dug by hand) in the 1600s. The economic, cultural and political boom known as the Golden Age was at its height and Amsterdam was one of the most important cities in the world. The authorities decided that the city should reflect this reputation and newly gained place in the world with a suitable level of grandeur.

As a result, the three most famous canals in Amsterdam were named – the Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal). These beautiful canals with the incredible town houses that still stand tall over them to this day were built for the newly rich merchant class.

Besides these grand homes, the mucky business of trade continued in bustling allies and streets – all manor of trades were conducted in the city, as goods were traded from all around the world. The shadows of these days can still be seen today in the city’s markets, as well as the historic warehouses that line many of the canals.

Visiting the Canals

Although you can explore the canals by foot, bicycle or any other form of transport, a boat really is the best way. It is quite the experience to see Amsterdam as it is meant to be seen and as millions of people from 17th century explorers and sailors, to fellow 21st century tourists, have enjoyed it. For the city’s best boat trips, contact Starboard Boats now.