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Amsterdam Canal Cruise: Views from the Water

Amsterdam. Its city center is compact—almost cozy—and despite bicycles whizzing by at every turn it still manages to emit a laid back vibe. The city's red lights and “green” smoke make it one of a kind. A canal cruise, however, will prove that there is so much more to Amsterdam than that.

bicycles on a bridge in Amsterdam

Everywhere you go, Amsterdam has rows of skinny houses, baskets of colorful Spring tulips and scads of bicycles, all near its canals.

Amsterdam row houses
Beautiful row houses each displaying a different elevations and colors

The canals are such a historical treasure that UNESCO added Amsterdam's canal ring to its World Heritage Site list in 2010. All told, there are 165 of them, with a combined length of 100 KM (60 miles). They surround the city in concentric belts and connect to each other, making the center of Amsterdam look like a fan from overhead.


Water is essential to Amsterdam's history. The city began its life as a fishing village in the 12th century, springing up along the banks of the river Amstel. To avoid the South Sea floods they dammed the river Amstel in 1220 and before long the town was known as Amstellodamus (Dam on the Amstel). Over time its name got shortened to Amsterdam.

All of this to say, You can't see Amsterdam without experiencing its canals.

Why an Amsterdam canal cruise makes sense

Thanks to the city planners who dug them in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, seeing Amsterdam on foot requires a lot of walking. A whole lot. We discovered that when we tried to cover the entire city in one day.

HOHO Boat Tours
Hop-on Hop-off boat tours are a must when in Amsterdam

Many cities offer one- or two-day sightseeing tours on a hop-on/hop-off bus, and we highly recommend them for a first-time visitor. These HOHOs can be convenient because they take us to all the popular, “must see” sights quickly, and for one price.

But not here. There is no HOHO bus in Amsterdam. Instead, the city offers hop-on/hop-off boat tours.

Our tour began near Hard Rock Cafe. You can see the boats on the right.

Spending hours on the water appeals to some, but for those who would prefer to walk the city, there's also the option of taking a regular canal tour of Amsterdam. That's what we did. Having experienced both a Thames cruise (London) and a Singapore River cruise, we knew from experience that any city with this much water would look completely different from a boat.

Looking back, that canal tour was one of the smartest things we did that day. It was an ideal introduction to the city that's often called Venice of the North … and we have the photos to prove it.

view of canal from atop Niek Engelschmanbrug, a bridge with an old iron railing

Amsterdam's bridges

Plenty of canal-filled places get compared to Italy's famous city. Amsterdam, however, far eclipses Venice in its number of bridges (1500 vs. 354). Most of the bridges in the center of town are so low that only smaller boats can fit underneath.

Amsterdam bridges

1728 Bridge in Amsterdam
Guess when this bridge was built?

Taller vessels need to use the larger waterways, where the bridges are able to open to let ships through. Speaking of which, in Amsterdam ‘the bridge was open’ is a valid excuse for being late for work.

bridge in Amterdam

Dutch sense of humor
Passing underneath a bridge, we got proof that the Dutch have a good sense of humor

Crooked houses

Looming overhead and leaning toward the water, the tall and skinny houses that line its canals are as much a part of Amsterdam as bicycles and canal boats. As nice and neat as they might look from the sidewalk, they don't look quite as tidy near the roof line. The perspective changes at water level, where you can see how jumbled and messy they are at the top, sticking out every which way.

crooked houses along a canal in Amterdam

Building tall and skinny homes made sense back in the day because they take up less space (lower land tax, more per square kilometer), and it was more practical to have high floors in a canal-filled city prone to flooding. There is a problem with tight and narrow houses like these though: They also have tight and narrow staircases. It didn't take long until they figured out that it was impossible to get their furniture to the upper floors.

houses along a canal in Amsterdam with boats in the canal

So how did the Dutch solve the problem? Brilliantly! They get their goods to the upper floors from the outside! Look carefully and you'll see that every house has a large arm and hook protruding from just below the peak of the roof. Items can be tied to this hook and pulled upstairs through the window.

This explains why houses have a deliberate forward tilt: It reduces the risk of scraping the furniture on the façade on the way up. Or accidentally breaking a window. What a mess that would create!

Uneven houses along a canal
Houses lean towards many of the canals due to weakening foundations

Some of Amsterdam's houses also lean because of problems with the foundation or the ground underneath. They have installed black braces on the front to help stabilize them.

closeup of upper floors of skinny houses shows black braces and hooks for hoisting furniture

Houseboats everywhere

Many of the canals we passed had houseboats moored on their banks. Our tour guide told us that many have been around for more than a century. Most are residential homes, but not all. Some houseboats have been converted to hotels, others are available as short-term rentals, and there is even a Houseboat Museum if you just want to see what one looks like inside.

houseboats moored in Amsterdam

Because of how affordable they are (as compared to houses) houseboats quickly became very popular housing options. At one point the canals became so crowded with houseboats that Amsterdam finally passed a law requiring a mooring permit, then limited the number of permits. Today there are around 2500 houseboats in the city.

Those houseboats could have become an eyesore but Amsterdam has a law that wood houseboats need to be repainted every three years. To get around this law most of the newer ones are made of concrete.

Houseboat in Amsterdam


Read more ini iAmsterdam's guide: Canal Cruising: On the Water in Amsterdam

The canal cruise guide on gives a roundup of tour options, including private tours.

Our How to See Amsterdam in One Day itinerary is a first-hand example of how to fit a canal cruise into a short visit.

Explore our Netherlands travel photos for more inspiration.


Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries She has an insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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16 thoughts on “Amsterdam Canal Cruise: Views from the Water

  1. Hi Linda,

    My wife Kelli deems this city as one of her fave on earth; and it ain’t just for the green smoke 😉 Definitely not the red lights unless she’s keeping a secret from me, LOL! I find the canals and overall vibe to be most attractive, at least from afar as I’ve yet to pull myself from the beaches and warm temperatures of SE Asia or the South Pacific. I figure when the time is right we’ll go there and enjoy the city together. Awesome vibe, great people too, as we’ve met so many fun-loving, kind Dutch ex-pats and tourists during our world travels. One Dutch dude in Chiang Mai spoke English like an American. I was stunned. No accent, no hint of anything other than sounding like he was from the States. He spoke English better than I 😉

    Thanks Linda!


    1. We’re totally with you on the preference for sand and warm weather. Dan and I spent years within 8 degrees of the Equator because we don’t like cold toes. That said, we do like the European wines, cuisines, and ease of travel from one country and culture to the next. In an ideal world we would spend summers there and move to warmer climes as soon as the weather got cool.

      My second-best friend in Panama (Dan will always be my #1) is Dutch and her English is perfect as well. I can’t say the same for my Dutch!

      Thanks for your comments, Ryan. I appreciate your insights.


  2. I really want to make it to Amsterdam one day, and you’re right – you can’t go without riding on the canals!! It’s a bonus that it’s a good way to get an intro to the city. I didn’t realize so many people lived in house boats there! I just love the houses along the canal – they’re so beautiful.

    1. The next time we have a chance, we want to stay in one of those houseboats. It’s a bit of a splurge but we don’t mind paying extra for memorable experiences.

  3. Thanks for sharing this post Linda. We are planning an European river cruise this summer and I was thinking of starting or ending it in Amsterdam. I find your information very useful, since I wasn’t sure if I should do a canal cruise too. I am not sure the river cruise ships can get on the canals in Amsterdam.

    1. If a tour of Amsterdam isn’t an included part of your cruise, you should definitely plan to spend a couple of hours on a canal cruise before/after your trip. Those canals are way too small for a ship of that size.

  4. Wow! Your pictures of Amsterdam are stunning, especially the ones of the canal and the houses. I have never been there but judging from your photos and what you said, a tour of the canal by boat provides a different and very unique perspective of the place. Oh, and staying on a houseboat sounds like a cool thing to do, too!

  5. Your beautiful pictures really captured the essence of Amsterdam. We did the canal cruise a few years ago but it was the tour and not the HOHO version. It is such a great city to explore. We were there in late November but would love to go back when the trees are greener and the weather is warmer.

    1. Thank you for the compliment about Dan’s photos, Mary. You’re right, Amsterdam is a great city to explore, very compact and walkable. We did the canal tour too because we were only there for a day. Ha – actually we’ve been in and out of Amsterdam three times and we haven’t spent more than a day in it yet.

  6. Before…. i didnt know and i dnt care about the place of amsterdam… bcause i am ordinary people here in phillippines … but when i hear and know about the story of “Anne frank” who lived there before.. i was so curious evrything about her place where she lived. I was search, google, and watch her story.. etc.. etc.. shes so amazing, and strong young girl!! I admire her so much… really! My husband’s surprise me when he gave me the book of “anne frank” “The Diary of a young girl” in our 3rd wedding anniversary! and im so happy and excited to read that.. so sad i dnt have a gift to him.. but he said.. “its okay” bcoz when he saw me happy and cotented.. his happy too! For me.. Hehehe… haisst.. if only i can go there to visit her place bcoz its a museum already in Prinsengracht. Where they hid for 2yrs.. but im just ordinary girl here in phillipines to far from my dreams to go there.. but its okay.. im happy that i saw the pictures.. sorry if my messaged was too long.. i just want to share my feelings bout that! Thnku so much!!!

  7. I grew up just 10 minutes from Amsterdam, it’s such a shame people only know it for its “red lights and green smoke”. I really like your post, showing what Amsterdam really is like 🙂

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