When you think of Amsterdam, one of the first things that comes to mind is its network of canals spanned by hundreds of bridges. Known as the Canal Ring (for the concentric arcs of the main canals), this feat of hydraulic engineering and architectural beauty was built during the Netherlands’ Golden Age in the 17th century. Originally envisioned as a practical solution for a port fast outgrowing its fortified boundaries, it became a model of urban planning. A series of wide, tree-lined central canals with grand names such as Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal) and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) was the playground of the rich, while narrow intersecting waterways allowed the transport of people and goods to and from the industrial areas on the outskirts.
Little trade passes along the canals these days, but they remain a highlight of any visit to Amsterdam. In celebration of the Canal Ring’s 400th anniversary this year, the waterways — designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 — will be the focus of additional events and activities.
Start your explorations at Museum Het Grachtenhuis. Located in an elegant 17th-century mansion on Herengracht, the small museum takes you through four centuries of canal history using interactive exhibits and multimedia displays. For the complete experience, arrive at the museum on one of the hop-on, hop-off tour boats.
For a different perspective, take the lift up to the Observatory on the roof of the Felix Meritis building. Open to the public for the first time in 200 years, the Observatory offers a panorama of Amsterdam’s distinctive horseshoe layout and telescopes allow you to zoom in on the city’s landmarks.
Curious about what goes on behind the canal houses’ gabled facades? Peek into some 30 public and private gardens during the Open Garden Days from June 14 to 16. The theme this year is, fittingly, “400 years of the canals.”
Photos Courtesy of Lonneke Stulen, Thijs Wolzak, Cris Toala Olivares