Explore the elegant, ubiquitous waterways of the Dutch capital in the first of our new series helping you discover the world’s most iconic sights with Kenya Airways
Water, water everywhere… And in Amsterdam, we really mean everywhere. The city has been shaped by water like no other: for over four centuries canals and rivers have defined its boundaries, fostered wealth, defended against attack and lent its old centre a charm that still captivates visitors today.
The four main waterways of the Grachtengordel (Girdle of Canals) expand from the old centre in concentric semicircles, like ripples spreading from a pebble in a pond, linked by smaller channels radiating outwards like spokes on a wheel. Gabled 17th-century houses are reflected in the greenish water, while cyclists pedal cobbled streets and scoot over humpback bridges spanning the waterways. Fortunately, there’s no problem finding a drop to drink – with traditional ‘brown cafes’ on every corner there’s always a welcoming spot to stop and admire the canals and the craft they carry.
The Dutch have an all-purpose adjective, gezellig: it can mean friendly, warm, quaint, convivial and attractive. That’s Amsterdam in a nutshell, enveloped in the protective embrace of its picturesque canals.
Amsterdam’s history? It’s all water under the bridge. Well, bridges: no fewer than 1281 of them, connecting the 90 islands formed by its 165 canals spanning over 100km in total.
This has been a self-made city from the start. As the name suggests, its origins lie in the 13th century when a barrier was built where the Amstel River met the IJ lagoon.
The medieval centre long remained a compact town, defended at its western reaches by the defensive moat called the Singel. But at the turn of the 17th century a Golden Age dawned, fuelled by a boom in international trade, and in 1613 an ambitious development plan was launched. The three major canals of the Grachtengordel – the Herengracht (Lords’ Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) – were dug, sweeping west and north around the expanding city. Wealthy merchants proceeded to build themselves the typically narrow, ornately gabled houses that still line the canals, lending the Grachtengordel district a dreamily evocative atmosphere that lingers to this day.
Canals encompass and inveigle themselves into every aspect of life in central Amsterdam – you couldn’t avoid them even if you tried. It’s easy to explore the grachten and their history from a number of angles.
First, for an overview of the canal network, get a map – you can buy one from the I amsterdam visitor centres for a few euros or download from www.iamsterdam.com. A quick glance shows the city centre (Centrum) sitting where the Amstel meets the Het IJ, bounded to the north by Centraal Station, and with the four main canals – Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – in semicircles to its west and south. The famed Red Light District, actually a beautiful, historic quarter, lies in the east of the old city.
The obvious introduction to the city is a boat cruise. There are dozens to choose from, offering a variety of routes, styles, themes times and budgets – they run day and night, with pizza, pancakes, candlelit dinners or cocktails, on larger vessels with audio-commentaries or smaller Canal Hoppers allowing a hop-on, hop-off experience. One of the most popular operators is Canal Bus (www.canal.nl), which runs the gamut of options. Other well-established companies include Holland International (www.hir.nl), offering short introductory trips, and Lovers Company (www.lovers.nl/en/), visiting the many museums alongside the canals. Have your camera ready for the Reguliersgracht, the ‘canal of the seven bridges’, renowned as the city’s prettiest.
For another water-level perspective, try navigating your way around the grachten on your own canal bike. These easy-to-handle, four-person pedal-powered boats allows you to take in the sights at a leisurely pace – don’t plan on rushing anywhere! Rent one from Canal Bus for 8 euros per person, per hour.
Actual two-wheeled bikes rule the roads: there are nearly 900,000 of them trundling over 750km of cycle paths and bike lanes. They prop up railings on every bridge and canalside path, and provide another relaxing way of exploring the network of waterways. If you’re new to the city, consider joining a guided cycle tour: Jesse Jorg (www.tripbod.com/en/shop/jesse-jorg) runs an unusual Rooftop Galore itinerary with rewarding views across the canals, while Yellow Bike (www.yellowbike.nl) is an experienced company with tours starting at two hours (21 euros); it also rents its daffodil-hued steeds to individuals – a day’s hire costs 21 euros. Be sure to visit the Bloemenmarkt, a floating flower market on the Singel, where you can pick up the tulips and bulbs for which the Netherlands are famous. It’s open daily in summer.
You can take your time nosing along the cobbled pathways, stopping to explore side-channels and alleys, on foot – be sure to zigzag through the Negen Straatjes (Nine Alleys), a series of wonderfully characterful streets straddling the four main canals, lined with cafes, boutiques and unique shops. Specialist walking tours offer insights into particular aspects of the city’s history, culture and architecture. Mee in Mokum (www.meeinmokum.nl – in Dutch) has well-respected, long-term resident guides; Sandemans (www.newamsterdamtours.com) offers both cycle and walking tours.
Getting a peek inside one of the traditional canal houses can be the highlight of a visit. There are several wonderful museums set in merchants’ abodes, but many private houses also open on Amsterdam Heritage Days every September (http://www.iamsterdam.com/en.
For a window into the life of a wealthy 17th-century trader, delve into Museum Van Loon (www.museumvanloon.nl/eng/). Built in 1672, the house is owned by the descendants of Willem van Loon, one of the founders of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, and the house is adorned with period features and wonderful artworks.
The Museum of the Canals (Het Grachtenhuis; http://hetgrachtenhuis.nl) is a spectacular house from 1663; as well as a run-through of the historic development of the waterways, you can admire evocative period rooms.
The canals provide a versatile arena for various events. The Canal Festival (www.grachtenfestival.nl), held for ten days in August, sees classical concerts hosted around the city. King’s Day (www.iamsterdam.com/en-GB/experience/kings-day/) is celebrated at the end of each April with street parties, concerts, free markets and family fun.
Visiting in winter? Do like a local – borrow a pair of ice skates and zip along the frozen canals.
AND DON’T MISS
The recently renovated Rijksmuseum (www.rijksmuseum.nl/en), facing the outer canal, Singelgracht, is the Netherlands’ flagship art gallery. Its collection includes masterpieces by Rembrandt (notably The Night Watch), Vermeer and Frans Hals, as well as sculpture and porcelain – a fabulous romp through Dutch art.
The nearby Van Gogh Museum (www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp) is more single-minded but equally impressive, with the world’s finest collection of works by the Dutch master (including the iconic Sunflowers and various self portraits) as well as contemporaries including Gauguin, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Anne Frank Huis (www.annefrank.org) on Prinsengracht is a sombre but compelling museum set in the house where the young diarist lived in hiding with her family during the Second World War until being betrayed and deported. It’s always busy – arrive early to avoid the crowds.
Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace; www.koninklijkhuis.nl) was built at the peak of Amsterdam’s Golden Age in the mid-17th century as the city hall, but in 1808 became the palace of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. The sumptuous interior can be visited most days.
The Oude Kerk (Old Church; www.oudekerk.nl/en) is the city’s oldest building, dating from 1340. Admire the gorgeous 16th-century stained-glass windows, and time your visit for a tour up the beautiful tower, built in 1565 (Thursday-Saturday, April-September).
Tucked away towards the south of the old centre, the Begijnhof (www.begijnhofamsterdam.nl) is the site of a 14th-century convent enclosed in a peaceful courtyard; as well as two wonderful chapels, the hof contains the country’s oldest surviving wooden building, the house at no 34, dating from 1425.
More waterworlds to explore…
Other destinations on the KQ network with watery wonders include Bangkok, with its network of khlongs (canals) and nearby floating markets; London, where a Thames Clipper voyage reveals the sights of the capital; Bamako, from where a ferry journeys up the Niger River to the hop-off point for the fabled city of Timbuktu; and Ho Chi Minh City, to explore the waterways of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. For more ideas, see the April issue of msafiri (www.ta-emags.com/V1/KQ/M99/).
Listen to the locals
Jesse Jorg is a guide (www.tripbod.com/en/shop/jesse-jorg) and founder of We The City, innovating creative concepts in public spaces.
He says: “For live music and good food in a jazzy, Mediterranean space, try Kapitein Zeppo’s (www.zeppos.nl). Baut (http://bautamsterdam.nl) – a raw, cool bar-restaurant with excellent international food in a former newspaper HQ a little south of the centre. The recently revamped Amsterdam Museum (www.amsterdammuseum.nl) houses the fascinating Amsterdam DNA exhibition, tracing the history of the city. A hidden gem is Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic; www.opsolder.nl/eng/home.php), a secret chapel created 350 years ago on the top floor of an even older house, at a time when Catholics were forbidden from holding public services.”
4 Famous Inhabitants
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) was born in Leiden but moved to Amsterdam in 1631. Initially a portraitist, his paintings, prints and etchings are considered some of the greatest in European art. Some of his finest works can be seen at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was a philosopher whose rationalist ideas paved the way for the Enlightenment. A statue of Spinoza was unveiled in front of the city hall in 2008.
Anne Frank (1929-45), the teenage Jewish diary-writer whose tragic story is told at Anne Frank Huis, lived in hiding in Amsterdam with her family until they were betrayed to the Gestapo in 1944.
Johan Cruyff (1947-), won a host of cups and leagues during his successful career from the 1960s to 1980s, but was never able to lead the Netherlands to World Cup victory.
Where to stay
1 Seven Bridges (+31 (0)20 623 13 29; www.sevenbridgeshotel.nl; doubles from €95, room only) This small, charming hotel is richly furnished with antiques and oriental rugs, and has views over the city’s most beautiful canal, Reguliersgracht.
2 Blue Wave Houseboat (+31 (0)65 066 77 60; www.bluewavehouseboat.com; from €120 per night for two people) Sleep on the water in this bright, airy craft moored just west of Jordaan. Find more houseboat options at www.houseboathotel.nl.
3 Seven One Seven (+31 (0)20 427 07 17; http://717hotel.nl/en; doubles from €275) This boutique hotel is set in a historic canal house on Prinsengracht; its nine suites are named after writers, philosophers and composers.
Where to eat
1 Het Papeneiland (+31 (0)20 624 19 89; www.papeneiland.nl/en/) Don’t leave Amsterdam without sipping a beer in a traditional, cosy ‘brown cafe’. Papist’s Island is one of the most historic; dating from 1642, its wood-panelled walls are decorated with Delft tiles and vintage pictures. It serves simple dishes of local cheese and sausages.
2 Tempo Doeloe
(+31 (0)20 625 67 18; www.tempodoeloerestaurant.nl doeloerestaurant.nl) Unsurprisingly, given the historic trading activities of the Dutch East India Company, Indonesian cuisine is popular in Amsterdam. Tempo Doeloe is arguably the finest purveyor, an upmarket restaurant with some particularly spicy dishes.
3 d’Vijff Vlieghen
(+31 (0)20 53 04 060; www.vijffvlieghen.nl/en/Home) High-class Dutch cuisine is served in the Five Flies, a top-notch restaurant occupying five 17th-century houses, its red-brick walls lined with original Rembrandt etchings.
Need to know
• Getting there Kenya Airways flies daily to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Trains from Schiphol to Centraal Station run every 15 minutes and take around 20 minutes (€4 one-way; www.ns.nl). A taxi costs around €40–45.
• Getting around Amsterdam’s centre is well served by trams, with buses, ferries and a limited metro system filling in the gaps, all operated by the GVB transit authority (www.gvb.nl). The OV-chipkaart is a convenient smartcard that can be used on all public transport, including the airport train.
• Tourist information Visitor information centres (www.iamsterdam.com; download the free PDF guide and app) at Schiphol Airport and on Stationsplein, opposite Centraal Station, provide maps, book accommodation and excursions and sell the I amsterdam City Card (from €47 for 24 hours) – a smartcard covering admission to over 30 museums, local transport and discounts on attractions and restaurants.