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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt

What is the Canal Belt?

The Canal Belt is made up of Amsterdam’s beautiful earliest canals, lined by historic tall gabled buildings and rows of pretty houseboats, which evoke the spirit of the city.

Amsterdam’s Canal Belt

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Canal Belt History

The four beautiful 17th-century canals making up the inner canal belt that weaves around the old city centre are a joy to wander around or tour by boat. They encapsulate the spirit of Amsterdam. Also known as the ‘canal ring’, or in Dutch the Grachtengordel, they have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2010.

The earliest canal was the crescent-shaped Singel, which originated as a moat around the medieval city from around 1425 until 1585 – hence the name, derived from the word omsingelen (‘to surround’). The 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, when the nation’s army, art, science and trade were among the most acclaimed in the world, triggered the expansion of the canal system. Immigration was rising and the city was growing fast. To create more space as well as to ease the difficulty of transporting goods, city planners embarked upon an ambitious scheme.

Three more canals were created concentrically, in a semi-circular shape like the Singel: these were the Herengracht (the ‘Patrician’s’ or ‘Lord’s Canal’), once home to some of Amsterdam’s wealthiest residents; the Keizersgracht (or ‘Emperor’s Canal’) named after the 15th-century Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I who had close ties with the city; and the Prinsengracht (or ‘Prince’s Canal’), honouring Prince William the Silent, who led the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule.

Further waterways then cut across these core ones and are known as radial canals. They are the Brouwersgracht (or ‘Brewers’ Canal’), the Leidsegracht, named after the city of Leiden, and the Reguliersgracht, which was named after a local order of monks. The canal system allowed traders to move their goods from the city to the harbour quickly and easily without needing to set foot on land. The canals also kept land and sea separate, draining and reclaiming the waterlogged ground that was a hallmark of the region.

Whereas much of Amsterdam has changed greatly over the years, this area remains completely intact and retains many photogenic and fine historic tall gabled buildings from Amsterdam’s Golden Age. You can enjoy the spectacle from one of the many canalside bars and cafés. A boat tour provides a great introduction to and overview of the canals, offering you stunning panorama after another. There are various tours available, everything from guided historic cruises to candlelit dinner and drinks excursions.

More canals followed the original ones until finally Amsterdam had 165 of them, extending more than 100 kilometres, spanned by over 1,700 bridges. It’s not surprising that Amsterdam became known as the ‘Venice of the North’.

Today, there are approximately 2,500 houseboats berthed on the canals, and on the adjacent land more than 1,000 national monuments, including major sites such as the Anne Frank House, the Westerkerk, and the Rijksmuseum. There really is no better way to experience the ‘Venice of the North’ than a leisurely walk along these artificial waterways.

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