The history of Amsterdam's Canals

Here's a look at the history of Amsterdam's waterways, and how it came to be the incredible destination it is today.

Amsterdam is an utterly romantic city. It seems tiny and enormous all at once - although the city is incredibly dense, it has all the charm you'd expect from a small town. Part of that character comes down to one of the city's most quintessential details: the canals. Here's a look at the history of Amsterdam's waterways, and how it came to be the incredible destination it is today:

A growing trade city

In the 16th century, Amsterdam was rapidly becoming a center for trade and culture. The port city was thriving, and the ships that came in and out of the city brought more than goods - the city's population was rising as well. As the population increased, it became clear the city needed to expand. As it stood, Amsterdam's center was getting far too dense. However, the freshly arriving citizens could hardly be expected to live further out of the center, as the area was swampy and difficult to traverse. The question of how exactly the city would make room for its booming success was becoming an urgent one.

Arduous planning

Amsterdam's town planners had already decided to extend the three canals the city already had. In 1662, the city did just that. This move laid the foundation for Amsterdam as we know it today - not only did it cement the importance of the city's canals, but it also gave the city its iconic half-moon shape. Over time, town planners added more and more canals. Some were wide, like the original three, and others were narrow passages similar to side streets or alleyways. Today, the city has 165 canals: The oldest are in the Red Light District at the city's center, and the canals (as well as the rest of the city) get younger as you travel further out.

Transport and living

Amsterdam's canals help define life inside the city. Both citizens and tourists use the canals as a method of transportation. Canal tours are common, as are simple barges taking you from one part of the city to another. However, the canals aren't just a way to get around: A large part of the Amsterdam population actually lives in houseboats right in the canals themselves. These houseboats are also a common destination for tourists, as they give you a way to get up close and personal with one of the city's most beautiful features.

UNESCO status

In 2011, Amsterdam's canal belt was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The organization chose this area because of its historical significance, as well as what it symbolizes regarding the blend of ancient and modern. Amsterdam's canals are a fascinating mix of the past and the present. While the design of the canals themselves represents the city's beginnings, the technology that makes the system work so well shows how far Amsterdam - and the world - has come since. You can tour these canals yourself on Hurtigruten's Atlantic coast cruise, which makes its final port in Amsterdam.

Page actions