Amsterdam’s canals are arguably the city’s defining feature. Built on former swampland, the picturesque 17th century Canal District is considered a masterpiece of civil engineering, and in 2010 the entire area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its subsequent influence on urban town planning across the globe.
Laid out in a series of concentric arcs, the canals are lined with numerous historic and listed buildings, universally recognised as traditional Amsterdam canal houses by their tall narrow form, stepped gable rooflines and symmetry. Many of these old merchants’ houses have been converted into hotels or museums, offering visitors a chance to explore the interiors and imagine what life would have been like in the Dutch Golden Age. The Canal House Museum, Museum Van Loon and Museum Willet-Holthuysen are some prominent examples, as well as the showstopping Pulitzer Amsterdam hotel which occupies 25 interconnecting canal houses along the pretty waterfront of Prinsengracht.
But by far the best way to experience the canals of Amsterdam is by taking one of the city’s many and varied canal cruises and boat tours. Gently drifting along the waterways of Amsterdam is one of the most memorable ways to discover the city, whether you take a one-hour tour of the major highlights or opt for a hop-on, hop-off experience to see the canals at your leisure. Whatever your budget, travel style, and time restrictions, there’s an Amsterdam canal cruise that will suit your needs.
A cruise is one of the most memorable ways to discover the city (Credit: Blue Boat Company)
Simple sightseeing cruises
The most economical and straightforward of Amsterdam’s canal cruise options is a simple one-hour sightseeing tour which takes in well known highlights like the Magere Brug (skinny bridge), the Anne Frank House and the Westerkerk, as well as rows of Golden Age mansions and warehouses. If you’re pushed for time and you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, the 100 Highlights tour is the cruise to choose. It’s good value, offers frequent departures every 15 minutes (every 30 minutes from 6pm–10pm) and leaves from a central location at Prins Hendrikkade, opposite Centraal Station.
Cruise and dine options
If you’re looking for a more leisurely experience, try a dinner cruise against a backdrop of the Canal District’s twinkling lights. This two-and-a-half-hour tour combines sightseeing with an evening meal, and kicks off with a glass of bubbly before your four-course meal. Everything is cooked onboard, and all beer, wine and soft drinks are included. Operated by Stromma, who also run the 100 Highlights tour above, this is one of the most popular dinner cruise excursions. Alternatives include Amsterdam Jewel Cruises’ three-hour, three-course a la carte dinner cruise onboard a vintage antique riverboat; Lovers Canal Cruises’ two-hour, four-course dinner cruise, which also serves a children’s menu; and Blue Boat’s 90-minute Hard Rock Burger Cruise, which provides a casual takeaway-style burger meal washed down with an ice-cold drink. There’s even a special ‘pancake boat’ (De Pannenkoekenboot) offering various pancake-fuelled alternatives, including a 75-minute family cruise.
If you’ve dined elsewhere, but still want to enjoy an evening cruise, consider a tour where the drinks take precedence. Stromma offers both a Cocktail Cruise and a Dutch Cheese and Wine Cruise, while those who want more of a party atmosphere will find an array of ‘booze cruise’ options to choose from.
Combine dining and sightseeing (Credit: Canal Companies)
Hop-on, hop-off cruises
Several canal cruise operators offer hop-on, hop-off cruise options, with both both 24- and 48-hour tickets available. Depending on which operator you choose, you’ll get free Wi-Fi onboard, as well as the chance to enjoy commentary in your own language and the ability to combine general sightseeing with a means of getting around the city. Most boats have panoramic glass roofs, which become open-top during the summer. Some operators, like City Sightseeing, offer flexible combined tickets for both bus and boat, allowing you to cover much more of the city.
Laid out in a series of concentric arcs, the canals are lined with numerous historic and listed buildings, which you can admire from the boat
A cruise along some of Amsterdam’s 165 canals is bound leave you with long-lasting memories. But it’s worth bearing a few simple points in mind so you don’t encounter any unexpected surprises. Firstly, make sure you know whether your boat is glass enclosed, semi- or fully-open to the elements, and whether or not there is onboard heating, especially if you’re visiting during the colder months of the year.
Secondly, find out the location of your departure point and how early you need to arrive. Some tour operators ask you to check in as much as 30 minutes before departure, especially on some of the longer evening cruises.
Finally, if you’ve booked a dinner cruise make sure you know exactly what is included in the cost. Some operators will throw in all alcoholic drinks, while others only include soft drinks and offer a paid onboard bar.