Canal cruise Amsterdam: explore the city’s history from the water

A canal cruise through Amsterdam’s magnificent 17th century waterways is one of the most fascinating and popular attractions the city has to offer.

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Every year some three million people take to the water, making an Amsterdam canal cruise the the second most popular attraction in the country, behind the Efteling amusement park.

But the canals are more than just a place for tourists to visit. The network of waterways 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.

This urban extension 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.

Houseboats, some with pretty gardens, are dotted along the tree-lined quays. Locals tie up their own motorboats, ready for a summer evening cruise.

There is plenty of wildlife too. Swans and ducks jostle for bread thrown in the water by children often watched by a lurking heron. In between the houseboats, you may spot a coot’s nest, built on a pile or twigs and coloured plastic.

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 Salonboot Huren Amsterdam, 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 the Ivan Frank, a former Russian cruise liner’s lifeboat and the Little Queen Elizabeth, a smart 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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