You cannot visit Amsterdam without thinking of canals, mainly because the city is centred on a ring of canals. The inner, historic ones Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht date from the Golden Age of the 17th century. Another inner canal Singel is older, having been the moat of medieval Amsterdam in the 16th century. In total, Amsterdam has around 62 miles (100 km) of canals, 90 islands and 1500 bridges.
It’s no wonder then that the canals serve such an important role in the lives of Amsterdammers – they are their main streets effectively. People live on barges moored along these main canals. One of the most famous is De Poezenboot, the cat boat at Singel 38. Here the cat lady of Amsterdam runs a refuge and adoption site for stray cats, many of which sun themselves on the deck.
A good way to get a feel for how people have experienced the city for centuries is to take a canal boat tour. You can hop on and off, travelling between the main sights and galleries, or take a themed tour for dinner, lunch, music, romance. Twice I’ve been in Amsterdam during major cultural events and seen just how central the canals are to celebration and pageantry in modern Dutch life.
The first was Pride March one year (held in August) when a cacophony of decorated barges headed down Prinsengracht. There was loud music, dancing, and definitely more feather boas than I’ve ever seen on boats before. The edges of the canals were lined with people watching, drinking, and dancing.
The other was the World Cup in 2010. Despite their loss to Spain, the team’s return home set the city alight. Everyone dressed in orange, the country’s national color, the team travelled down Herengracht on a barge, and those fans who couldn’t find a boat to board to follow their heroes, lined the canals blowing horns and yelling their appreciation.