A boat trip along on Amsterdam’s splendid 17th century canals is a must for any visitor to the city.
Indeed, last year some three million people took to the water, making an Amsterdam canal cruise the the second most popular attraction in the country, behind the Efteling amusement park.
And now city officials hope Unesco’s decision to include the canal rings on its list of world heritage sites will provide another boost to tourism and the popularity of the Dutch capital.
Amsterdam has campaigned for 15 years to have the historic waterways included on the list and is ‘delighted’ with this recognition for the ‘historical and cultural’ value of the canals, according to a spokesman for the city’s listed building department.
‘Tourists come from all over the world to enjoy the picturesque atmosphere,’ the spokesman said. ‘For many tourists, the canals are as much as part of the Netherlands as windmills and tulips.’
But the canals are more than just a serene part of a busy city. The network of canals to the west and south of the historic old town and medieval port were built as part of a long-term programme to extend the city by draining swamps and creating concentric canals with housing and warehousing in between.
And this urban extension, says Unesco, was a model of large-scale town planning, and served as a reference throughout the world until the 19th century.
Today, the canals offer a rich variety of buildings, from the magnificent mansions on the Herengracht to the charming stepped gables of Prinsengracht.
The polluting industries of the 17th and 18th centuries have moved out – the Bloemgracht, for example, used to be the centre of the paint and dye industry – and banks, advertising agencies and international organisations have moved in.
The best way to really appreciate the canals is from the water. But, if you want to avoid the big tourist boats, which blast out a pre-recorded commentary in German even if there are no Germans on board, the best way is to pick up a private cruise.
With your own captain and tour guide, you can have a tailor-made trip that exactly meets your needs, no matter whether you rent a open boat or a covered classic canal boat.
‘If you are especially interested in architecture, we can arrange a guide who is specialised in 17th and 18th century buildings,’ says Alec Behrens, of Boot Huren Amsterdam Ltd, a company which rents out canal boats to both companies and private individuals.
‘But if you prefer just to motor along and enjoy a picnic and a glass of wine, that is no problem either,’ says Behrens, whose fleet includes both the Ivan Frank and the Little Queen Elizabeth, a launch which was once owned by rich Amsterdam commodity trader and art collector.
The Dutch, after all, are mad about boats and Amsterdammers love motoring through the canals on a warm summer evening. ‘A private canal cruise allows you to feel just like a local,’ says Behrens.
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