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Sailing on Amsterdam’s canals

Amsterdam is at its prettiest seen from the water – especially when it gets dark and the evening lights come on. Take a canal cruise or rent a private boat and sail through the canals to discover historic mansions, the narrowest house in the city and the Skinny Bridge.Amsterdam’s canal belt has three main concentric canals: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Dug at the same time, they were part of an ambitious expansion project conceived by city architect Cornelis Staets. The plan was adopted by the municipality in 1612 and implemented over the next 50 years. After completion, Amsterdam possessed the most efficient and sophisticated waterway system in the world, which allowed merchant goods from far and wide to be delivered to the front doors of more than a thousand warehouses via the numerous canal branches.

The narrowest house

Canals Amsterdam Central Station

Start your cruise at Central Station. Close by, near the Singel canal, you will find one of the narrowest houses in the world: The building at Singel 7 is just one metre wide. Looks are deceiving, however, as the back of the house has a width of almost seven metres. The reason for this curious structure is that, in the seventeenth century, tax had to be paid on the width of the façade on the canal. The tax was quite high and people naturally tried to circumvent it through creative solutions.

House with the heads

Take the boat along the Brouwersgracht towards the Keizersgracht. At number 123, you will find the ‘House with the Heads,’ an authentic building from 1622 which takes its name from the heads that hang on the wall. According to legend, these are six robbers who tried to slip inside through an open cellar window in the seventeenth century. A kitchen maid saw the heads peek in and cut them off one by one with a knife. It was recently determined that these are actually six busts of gods: Apollo, Ceres, Mercury, Minerva, Bacchus and Diana.

Address: Keizersgracht 123


Through the Leliegracht you next reach the Herengracht canal. At number 386 is the Grachtenhuis (Canal House), which was built in 1665 for a wealthy businessman. The five-axis façade has a striking appearance and large parts of the interior are well preserved. Over the years many significant transactions were concluded with Russian aristocracy, French kings and the American upper class within the walls of this house. The Canal House is now a museum dedicated to the seventeenth-century Amsterdam canal belt.

Address: Keizersgracht 386

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Gouden Bocht

Immediately after the Canal House, sail on to the Gouden Bocht (Golden Bend), the most prestigious part of the Herengracht located between the Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat streets. The Herengracht is the only canal in Amsterdam with houses of substantial width. These were the residences of wealthy merchants and regents of the city, who could easily afford the high façade taxes. Behind the wide building fronts are wonderful urban palaces and art treasures. At the level of the Reguliersgracht you will catch a glimpse of one of the most beautiful views in all of Amsterdam: The seven bridges. This scene is most beautiful in the evening, when all the lights on the bridges are lit.

Magere Brug

Canals skinny bridge front

All three main canals of the canal belt connect to the river Amstel, which flows right through the city. Direct your boat towards the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), the wooden drawbridge built in 1934. This area is also the location of the prestigious Carré Theatre and Amstel Hotel, where guests like the Rolling Stones, President Bill Clinton, George Clooney and Madonna have stayed.


Canals Prinsengracht

Take the Prinsengracht back towards the Central Station and head for Café Molenpad at number 653. Its outdoor serving area on the water and onboard service makes the cafe ideal for a quick drink or delicious lunch. Just before the tour is over, you’ll also pass Anne Frank House at number 263, and the adjacent Westerkerk church.

It is easy to rent a boat in Amsterdam. No special licence is required for boats of less than fifteen metres, allowing everyone to enjoy the water freely.

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