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Cruising on the Amsterdam canals

Amsterdam is at its best from the water – especially when night falls and the city lights start twinkling. A great way to explore Amsterdam’s historic mansions, the city’s narrowest house and the Skinny Bridge is by boarding a canal cruise or – even better – renting your own boat.

The Canal District consists of 3 main canals: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. These were all dug at the same time as part of an ambitious expansion project, designed by municipal carpenter Cornelis Staets. In 1612, the city approved and carried out his plan. After the project was completed 50 years later, Amsterdam boasted the most efficient and sophisticated waterway system in the world. A system of various connector canals allowed goods and merchandise from around the world to be delivered right to the doorstep of hundreds of warehouses.

Amsterdam is best admired from the water
Amsterdam is best admired from the water

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The narrowest house in Amsterdam

The narrowest house

Begin your cruise near Central Station. Along the Singel canal, you can find the narrowest house in the world; the small house on number 7 is only one metre wide. However, appearances are deceiving because this is the back façade. The front of the house is actually 7 metres wide. The reason for this intriguing construction is that in the 17th century, residents were taxed according to the width of the building that faced the canal. Taxes were high, so people tried to find creative ways to circumvent these.

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Singel 7, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The house with the heads

Cruise via Brouwersgracht to Keizersgracht. At number 123, you can see the ‘House with the Heads’. This authentic 17th-century building was built in 1622 and derives its name from the stone heads on its gable; according to legend, these were the heads of 6 thieves who tried to break into the house through the basement window. The kitchen maid saw them stick their heads through the window and chopped them off, one by one, with a large butcher’s knife. It was only recently discovered that the heads actually depict 6 Roman gods and goddesses: Apollo, Ceres, Mercury, Minerva, Bacchus and Diana.

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The house with the heads

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Keizersgracht 123, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Canal House Museum seen from the water

The ornate gable of the Canal House Museum

Go from Leliegracht to Herengracht. The Canal House Museum (Grachtenhuis) stands at number 386; it was built in 1665 by a wealthy businessman. The ornate gable immediately catches the eye and a significant portion of the interior has been preserved. Many important transactions with Russian aristocrats, French kings and the American upper class have taken place inside this house. The Grachtenhuis is now a museum that tells the history of the 17th-century Amsterdam canals.

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Grachtenhuis, Herengracht 386, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Gouden Bocht

The Gouden Bocht (Golden Bend) is the most prestigious stretch of Herengracht, between Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat. This is the only canal with significantly wider houses where the city’s rich merchants and regents lived, who could easily afford the high gable taxes. Behind these wide gables lie stunning city palaces and valuable art. Pause near Reguliersgracht for one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Amsterdam: the seven bridges. At night, this view is even more spectacular when all the bridges are beautifully illuminated.

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Romantic lights in the Gouden Bocht

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Herengracht 536, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Skinny Bridge

A landmark drawbridge

The 3 main canals of the Canal District flow into the Amstel River. This river flows right through the centre of Amsterdam. Steer the boat towards the Skinny Bridge, a wooden drawbridge from 1934. Also located nearby are Theater Carré and the exclusive Amstel Hotel, which has hosted famous guests such as The Rolling Stones, President Bill Clinton, Madonna and George Clooney. Via Prinsengracht you can cruise back towards Central Station. Look for Café Molenpad at number 653. The café has a patio on the water and waiters will serve boats; this is the perfect spot for a drink or a lazy lunch onboard your boat.

Photo credits

  • The narrowest house in Amsterdam: Diego Hernandez, Flickr
  • The house with the heads: Vtveen, Flickr
  • The Canal House Museum seen from the water: Museum Het Grachtenhuis