Walk or cycle around the Canal Ring for half a day and you’ll come across countless monuments, restored warehouses, houseboats and fine examples of the gabled homes that are typical of Amsterdam. The quickest way to tour the Canal Ring is by a canal boat cruise, which is also a great way to hear interesting facts and stories about the history of the Dutch capital.
The inner canal district, between the IJ River and Singelgracht, is an internationally protected heritage site. The first canals dug around the Dam in the 13th century protected the city from inland waters from the North Sea. The Singel was the city’s outer edge during the Middle Ages. In the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, the industrious Amsterdammers built the semi-circular Canal Ring that you can still see today. Barges used the canals to bring goods from all over the world to inner-city locations. The ring consists of three main canals, the Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht.
Hundreds of bridges span the canals, connecting the cobblestone streets and main thoroughfares of the old city. Illuminated at night, the arched bridges are a romantic sight. When the sun is out, the canals fill up with pleasure boats. Twice a year, during the Gay Parade and the King’s holiday, decorated boats full of dressed-up party people entertain the crowds.
For the Dutch, a good winter is when the canals freeze over and they can ice skate instead of cycle to work. This time of year vendors sell hot chocolate and oliebollen, the Dutch equivalent to doughnuts. Any other times of year, the canal cruises show tourists the best spots in the inner city, such as the Seven Bridges viewpoint and the Golden Bend with its elegant mansions. Various tour operators offer English-narrated canal boat cruises, with the Canal Bus allowing you to hop-on and hop-off at the main tourist attractions.
If you rent a bike you can cover most of the Canal Ring loop in one day. There are over 1,500 monumental buildings to admire, including leaning gabled houses with ornamental staircases, inviting old shops and churches.