Amsterdam’s Canals: History and Uses Today

A reflection on our tour of Amsterdam’s canal system

The iconic image of Amsterdam is not without its canals. Amsterdam is a city of canals, often dubbed the “Venice of the North.” They tell the story of its growth as the city relied on this extensive canal system to transport people and goods before modern transportation technologies existed. However, Amsterdam’s canals still serve useful purposes and they still define the city we visited on Thursday during our canal tour.

The view of a canal from one of Amsterdam’s hundreds of bridges. Private boats that are used by residents to get around line the edges.

Most of the canal system that exists today was constructed in the 17th century, during the Dutch Golden Age. Three concentric semi-circles were built around the medieval city center and were labeled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. As the centuries went on hundreds of narrow streets and narrow canals developed to create an expansive canal system. Some portions of the canal were constructed for military purposes while others existed for trade, water management, or residential purposes. Today there are about 1,500 bridges in the Amsterdam area.

The canal cruise company we used. There were a large number of different companies in the city center. Some offered regular tours and others offered fine dining, drinks, and more with the canal tour.

The canals today are primarily a way to transport around the city. A municipal water bus services a few routes throughout the city that locals and visitors use. From my observations during the tour, the canals are used for tourism more so than general transportation. Many canal tour companies lined the water outside of the central train station. Canal tours are an important part of Amsterdam’s tourism economy, carrying more than 3 million passengers each year. Historic buildings and landmarks line the canals making a thriving tourism industry. Most of the boats we passed on the canal were other canal tour services. However, there were a good number of pedestrian boats on the canals, both personal boats and water buses.

An example of a larger houseboat on the canal. The houses behind it are famous for being crooked.

Our tour guide also mentioned the canals are used for public events and special celebrations held for the city. Each year there is a celebration that, as one of the traditions, involves hundreds of locals going for a swim in the canals. In the wintertime, the canals are used for ice skating. Hundreds of years later, the canal system is an integral part of the social and economic life of Amsterdam. Finally, the canals are also home to hundreds of houseboats. These houses are permanently anchored along the canal edges and they are plentiful.

The large canal just in front of the main train station (not pictured) where we began our tour. Two other tourist boats float before us.

The canal tour demonstrated the unique way Amsterdam grew. It was constructed with canals in mind, not cars and roads like most American cities. While dredging up canals is not something American cities should invest in, there are lessons to be learned from Amsterdam’s land use planning. The canals have forced Amsterdam to develop narrow, walkable streets. The city and its population are dense, creating a vibrant city center that attracts people and businesses. The canals are coupled with strong biking and streetcar systems to create a multi-modal transportation system that makes it easy to navigate the city in a clean, efficient way. American planners can learn a lot from Amsterdam’s development for how it has created a world-renowned and sustainable city.

-Duncan Richey