“Amsterdam’s canals are not only attractive, but they’re also a great way to travel around the city, enjoying the sights of this free-thinking European metropolis.”
For over 400 years, the Amstel river and the semi-circle of canals that spring from it like the branches of a tree, have been central to life in this city, and you won’t have to venture too far from these waterways to experience all the charms Amsterdam has to offer. Discover the city with our guide to the Amsterdam canals!
Things to do on the Amsterdam Canals
Fun Fact: “Amsterdam has 165 canals. Combined, they are over 100 km (about 60 miles) long.” This means that there is 100km of fun possibilities on these canals!
Renting a boat
A great way to discover the canals is to rent a small boat. It’ll give you the opportunity to explore the smaller canals and see sights that are normally overlooked. Here are a few options:
Mokumboat (from €90 for 2 hours, mokumboat.nl) offers 40 electric sloops suitable for 8 people or under, from 4 locations across Amsterdam. Because the boats are so easy to steer, no sailing license is required.
Amsterdam’s often been called “the Venice of the north”, so why not turn up the romance and rent a gondola (€140 for 1 hour) from Gondel.nl?
Or enjoy the benefits of a smaller boat, a skipper, and your own customised route with Cruise Like a Local.
If classic elegance is more your scene, rent a 1920s saloon boat from Private Boat Tours (from €220, with skipper, privateboattours.nl) to see the UNESCO World Heritage Canal Ring in high style.
The Candlelight Cruise allows you to experience Amsterdam’s enchantingly lit canals while enjoying a glass of wine, local cheese and charcuterie. Book your tickets here.
Plan your route on the Amsterdam Canals
Download the free VaarWater app (available on GooglePlay and iTunes) to discover Amsterdam from the water. It provides a boating map with 1,400 points of interest as well as up-to-date information on canal traffic flows, the weather and your speed. There’s no better way to get a grip on Amsterdam’s architectural marvels than to take to the canals. Do add these historic sights to your boat route:
The Oldest Building
At the heart of the Red Light District sits Amsterdam’s earliest church, the Oude Kerk (Oudekerksplein 23, oudekerk.nl) constructed in the early 1200s. Admire its medieval beauty from the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal.
The Oude Houthaven, Amsterdam’s oldest man-made harbour (dug in 1876) and still one of its most picturesque, can be found in Amsterdam’s Western Docklands.
Check “windmill spotted” off your bucket list by gazing at the historic windmill-turned-artisan brewery Brouwerij ‘t IJ (Funenkade 7, brouwerijhetij.nl) from the waters of the Nieuwe Vaart or moor your boat and enjoy the iconic brewery’s organic craft beers at your leisure.
Located at Singel 7 is what some call the “narrowest house in the world”, which in fact just has the smallest back façade, facing the water.
Amsterdam’s oldest bridge still in its original state can be seen from the Singel canal. Constructed in 1648, the Torensluis Bridge was once part of a moat around Amsterdam.
Discover Canal Side Secrets
Deep and dark, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the canals are full of secrets (and discarded bikes, apparently). Here are two of our favourite hidden treasures:
In a former prison cell under a canal bridge, sits academic café Het Spinhuis (Singel 165A). Run by students from the University of Amsterdam, there’s a full roster of interesting in-the-know programming, including arthouse film nights, debates, exhibitions, live music and bar nights. See their Facebook page for the most up-to-date information.
One of the city’s oldest (1642!) and most characteristic brown café’s, Café Papeneiland (Prinsengracht 2, papeneiland.nl) offers a tantalizing slice of local history. The clue’s in the name (“Papists’ Island”), from the time of the Reformation when there was a clandestine Catholic church on the northern side of the canal, which could only be reached via a secret tunnel. Order some apple pie – it’s very good here – and ask the bar staff to show you the entrance.
Enjoy a Floating Picnic
Make the most of your movable feast by combining a boat trip and a picnic. While you can, of course, stop by a supermarket to stock up on goodies, you’ll likely end up with warm beer and cold food, so here are a few tips to picnic like a pro:
Get your beer delivered
Thanks to the Bierbezorgd service you can get cold beer delivered straight to your boat. But, for your safety and that of others, do make sure the skipper remains sober!
Pre-order a picnic parcela
Handmade box of nibbles (from €20, for 4 people), which may include crudites, smoky popcorn, Parmesan crackers and edamame dip, muhammara and labneh can be picked up or delivered straight to your boat by Borrelbox (Singel 100E, borrelbox-amsterdam.nl).
Jump right in
Head to the Berlagebrug on beautiful Weesperzijde where you can swim in the clean waters of the Amstel. Just remember to keep a watch out for passing boats! A safer, quieter place to swim can be found a little further up the river.
Damrak Gin Boat Trip
All aboard! On a sunny day a real Amsterdammer jumps on a boat to sail the metropolitan waters. With Friendship Amsterdam as partner in crime, Damrak Gin hosts daily canal cruises with G&T’s and bites. During the tour, the captain and hostess will provide you with the best Damrak G&T’s for only €6,50 and tell you all about the beautiful city. The only thing you need to do is call your friends. (friendshipamsterdam.com)
Sleep in a bridge keeper’s cottage
If you’ve still not had your fill of Amsterdam’s waterways after cruising all day, you’ll love SWEETS Hotel, a new concept that’s transformed 28 unique former bridge keeper’s cottages into modestly-sized independent hotel rooms (to call them “suites” is a stretch). Situated on bridges over the canals – you can’t sleep any closer to the water! – the first 11 cottages are now available (from €160 via sweetshotel.amsterdam). Don’t forget to book a canal cruise – it’s the best way to see Amsterdam. If time’s a factor, the 1hr Canal Cruise is ideal. Equipped with a special audio system in 19 languages, the tour takes you past all the highlights of the unique UNESCO World Heritage canal district. Book your tickets for that cruise right here.
Where to dock and dine?
Hungry? Cruise with your friends to The Harbour Club Amsterdam Oost in Amsterdam Oost and chill out on the gorgeous terrace while scoffing oysters and the best sushi in town.
At StrandZuid there’s plenty of space to dock your boat while feasting on crisp-edged flammkuchen or surf ‘n turf with your feet in the sand.
Conveniently located at a marina in Noord, is the city’s most famous steak restaurant, Loetje aan het IJ (Werfkade 14, loetje.com). Do order the Biefstuk Bali (beef tenderloin with spicy sambal) and the sticky toffee pudding.