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Amsterdam Canal Cruise Tour: See It From the Water

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When we were planning our one day itinerary in Amsterdam, our Dutch friend offered her advice. “Whatever else you do,” she said, “make sure you take a canal cruise in Amsterdam. You really can't say you've seen Amsterdam without it.”

It turns out that the top attraction, of all the things to do in Amsterdam, is taking a canal cruise.

HOHO Boat Tours

About Amsterdam's canals

Maybe that's because the city's history is intimately connected with water. 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. Unfortunately, flooding became a problem and so they dammed the Amstel. Before long, the town was known as Amstellodamus (Dam on the Amstel). Over time its name got shortened to Amsterdam.

During the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, city planners built a series of canals in order to reclaim land to expand the city.

Today, you can't picture Amsterdam without houseboats and canals. 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 resemble a fan when seen from above.


Canal cruise, Amsterdam style

We usually recommend a hop-on/hop-off bus as a convenient way to see all the popular, “must see” sights quickly, and for one price. But not here.

In Amsterdam, you will find a hop-on-hop-off boat. We don't have any advice about its value, though. We opted for a City Canal Cruise Tour during our day in Amsterdam, and it was worth it.

I am amazed at the variety of cruise options in Amsterdam. Our partner, Get Your Guide, offers over 100. People can be so creative!

  • City canal cruise tour – This 75-minute cruise tour of Amsterdam includes plenty of interesting facts and passes the historical center, the skinny bridge, the Golden Bend, famous churches, quaint canals, and more. This is a relaxing and fun way to see the city. (Buy tickets here.)
  • Hop-on/hop-off cruise – Explore Amsterdam’s picturesque canals at your own pace with a 24-hour ticket to the hop-on hop-off boat. Cruise through the city’s historic Canal Belt, jumping off at any of the stops to see sights such as the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House. (Book it here.)
  • 4-Course Live Cooking Dinner Canal Cruise – Cruise the canals of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt as you dine on a delicious 4-course meal, with vegetarian options. Experience the city as it comes alive at night, and cruise past the illuminated Skinny Bridge, merchant houses, and more. (Book it here.)
  • Party cruise – Climb aboard an open top boat and cruise the canals of Amsterdam on an exclusive and private party cruise. Enjoy the beers, wine and soda on-board as your skipper navigates the canals of the canal belt. (Book it here.)
Find more Amsterdam canal cruise options here.
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 taken a number of cruise tours, like the Thames (London) and the Singapore River, 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 has a lot of bridges

Venice is a magnet for comparison, but Amsterdam 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


More trip planning resources

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

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. That will give you time to see other nearby places, like the windmills at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Explore our Netherlands travel photos for more inspiration.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages has inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. 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 Tour: See It From the Water

  1. 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 🙂

  2. 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!!!

  3. 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.

  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. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.


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