While we were trying to figure out what to do with only day in Amsterdam, our Dutch friend offered her advice. “No matter what 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 an Amsterdam canal cruise is the #1 attraction out of all the things to do in Amsterdam.
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 (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 think a hop-on/hop-off bus is a convenient way to see all the popular, “must see” sights quickly, and for one price.
But not here.
In Amsterdam, you can take an Amsterdam canal cruise tour instead. We took one during our one day in Amsterdam, and it was SO worth it!
I am amazed at the variety of options for canal cruises in Amsterdam.
- City canal cruise tour – This is the one we took. The 75-minute cruise tour of Amsterdam includes plenty of interesting facts. This is a relaxing and fun way to see the city’s historical center, the skinny bridge, the Golden Bend, famous churches, quaint canals, and more. Check availability
- 420-friendly cruise – Experience a unique boat tour in the heart of Amsterdam, starting out in the Red Light District. Take in the iconic sights and enjoy 2 free drinks aboard a brand new, weed-friendly luxury lounge boat with a unique UV protected hybrid glass rooftop. Check availability
- Boat cruise with cheese & wine – 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. Check availability
- Canal cruise with 3-course dinner and wine – Enjoy an evening of fine dining on a 2-hour dinner cruise of Amsterdam’s canals. Depart from Centraal Station to see Amsterdam’s best sights while enjoying your choice of a 3-course meal with wine. Check availability
Spending hours on the water appeals to some. However, 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 looks 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 “Venice of the North” … and we have the photos to prove it.
Venice is a magnet for comparison, but Amsterdam eclipses Venice in its number of bridges (1500 vs. 354). Only smaller boats can fit under most of the bridges in the center of town. They are that low.
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.
Looming overhead and leaning toward the water, those 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.
Building tall and skinny homes made sense back in the day. They take up less space (lower land tax, more per square kilometer). Besides, high floors are more practical in a city with canal that are prone to flooding. These tight and narrow houses have a problem, 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.
So then, 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.
Why do so many Dutch houses tilt forward? Because this reduces the risk of scraping the furniture on the façade on the way up. Also, there’s less chance of accidentally breaking a window. What a mess that would create!
Some of Amsterdam’s houses also lean because of problems with the foundation or the ground underneath. If you notice black braces on a home’s facade, they are there to help stabilize the house.
Many of the canals we passed on our canal cruise 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.
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. However, Amsterdam has a law that wood houseboats need to be repainted every three years. To get around this law, most newer boats are made of concrete.
Amsterdam 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.
Save this for later
Share it with your Facebook friends and add it to Pinterest.