After a second extended city break in Amsterdam, Liz and her husband are keen to share tips they picked up along the way to help others.
With its network of canals and waterways, wherever you are in Amsterdam, you are never far from water. Water makes up around a quarter of the city's surface area. The Venice of the North offers a range of water-based options to experience this enchanting city. Whether you take a canal cruise or admire the scenery from dry land, discover for yourself why UNESCO added the canal belt to its World Heritage list in 2011. Here are my top 10 suggestions.
- Large tourist boats.
- Open boats.
- Travel in style.
- Smaller motor-powered options.
- Cycling and rowing.
- Solo power.
- Living on the water.
- Working boats.
- Quirky boats.
- Free boat trip.
1. Large Tourist Boats
If you are visiting Amsterdam for the first time, a canal cruise is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the city. Most cruises last for around an hour and have a multilingual guided commentary, giving you the opportunity to learn a little about the sights as you pass them. Some offer a hop on hop off option and others can be booked for a dining experience. There's also a Canalbus, with 11 stops along 3 routes and a Museum Line, offering an all-day ticket and the option of museum entries combined.
Our first visit to Amsterdam was in Spring. On a damp cool day, after an interesting visit to the Heineken Experience, we noticed a nearby landing stage and joined a canal cruise for a memorable experience. In an hour we got a great tour of the canal system and learned about the landmarks.
It's not surprising that canal tours in Amsterdam are the most popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands, with over 3 million passengers a year.
- The boats are glass-topped, so you keep dry and warm in bad weather.
- Commentaries are in several languages.
- The glass reflects when taking photos.
- Boats can be crowded and you might not get a window seat.
2. Open Boats
With a maximum capacity of around 20, these motorized boats offer a more personalized experience. There are several companies that ply the canals of Amsterdam. Equipped with cushions, blankets, and transparent umbrellas, open boats offer a more comfortable experience than you might expect.
Their smaller size means that they can vary their itinerary and wander off the main tourist routes. Open boats are often manned by a young crew of 2-3, who give a good commentary mainly in English and are very willing to answer questions.
There is usually a 'bar' in the middle of the boat. Some trips include drinks, others charge extra for them.
- There are no obstructions to taking photos.
- Passengers are free to ask questions.
- Drinks are included on some trips.
- Passengers are exposed to the weather.
- With little forward seating, benches tend to face inwards, so passengers have to twist around for views.
- The commentary is mainly in English.
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Having taken a canal cruise the first time we visited Amsterdam, I thought we had crossed this off our list and would not be repeating the experience. Little did I know. We actually ended up taking two. This time though we opted for the open boats.
First mini cruise
After spending several hours on a drizzly day visiting museums and dodging the rain, we came out of the Canal Museum, intent on heading to the nearby Bible Museum. An open boat had just moored up at a jetty nearby and my husband got into conversation with a crew member. The weather could have gone either way, but before I knew it the opportunity to rest our feet and the lure of an all-inclusive bar (soft drinks, beer, and wine) was too tempting and we gratefully took our seats.
There were only 3 other passengers. The rain soon started again. I thought we were in for a soggy experience. But we did not need the umbrellas for long and the weather brightened up. The crew were excellent. There was a good commentary and they were quick to answer any questions.
After a while, I noticed that 2 of the passengers were getting giggly. At first, I assumed that they had taken advantage of the free bar to excess. Then their companion explained that they wanted 'to go back to the coffee shop* again'. The crew warned against a return visit, explaining that taking another drug dose would make them very unwell. I wonder if they heeded the advice. We shall never know, as their circuit ended a little further on and we completed the trip on our own.
As a result, we had the pick of the seats, excellent bar service, and enjoyed a trip around the canal ring and the River Amstel, going to the Hermitage and the University. We saw parts of the city from the water that we had not seen before. It was a great way to take a break and take the load off our feet.
I would highly recommend BOATAMSTERDAM.COM.
* Not to be confused with conventional cafes, coffee shops in Amsterdam sell soft drugs, a novelty that some tourists find hard to resist.
Second Mini Cruise
The next day a boat trip was definitely not on our agenda. But, after a solid half-day exploring some of the viewpoints around Oosterdok and a walk into the center of the city in the sun, we were tempted once again. Near Westerkerk we noticed an open boat crew touting for business. It was cheaper than the previous trip, but the drinks were chargeable. The people in front of us were offered a free drink, so we haggled for the same incentive. We also checked that the route would be different from the previous trip.
This trip took us further out onto the quieter canals. Interesting sights were pointed out, as we passed and we picked up information: The higher the gable on the house, the more disposable money the owner had. Canals are flushed through regularly. If your boat sinks, after two weeks you can claim on the insurance. Vegetation is encouraged on the outer canals to improve the quality of the water for fish and ducks. The similarity between the Rijksmuseum and Centraal Station was pointed out and explained. The two buildings share the same designer, PJH Cuypers.
An advantage of going further out was that the canals were quieter. There was a wide range of drinks available including spirits and mixers. Crew members were quick to offer them, but be warned, a tally is kept and charges levied at the end of the trip.
I was hesitant about a second mini cruise, but given a different route, cheaper price, and better weather conditions, this proved to be an excellent way of seeing more of Amsterdam from the water, in a relaxing way.
3. Travel in Style
If sharing a big tourist boat with many other passengers or taking your chance on fellow passengers in an open boat is not your scene, maybe you can opt for a more exclusive experience.
The 5-star InterContinental Amstel Hotel, along with its eye-catching and imposing Renaissance-style building on the banks of the River Amstel, also boasts three classic saloon boats. All are over 100 years old and have been restored to a high standard, yet run on electricity and are equipped with modern comforts. Bespoke river cruises are available with 5-star catering options. If money is no object, it might just be the way for you to see Amsterdam.
If hiring out a 5-star hotel's saloon boat is a little expensive, maybe you could make do with a pleasant stroll by a hotel marina. Another 5-star hotel, the Hilton Amsterdam, setting for John and Yoko Lennon's 1969 'bed in for peace' protest, boasts a marina.
Stroll out of the back of the hotel onto the terrace, where you can relax in the peaceful setting of a small marina. Watch the world float by on the water in front of you and daydream about owning one of the boats moored there. Highly recommended as a great place to unwind on a Sunday afternoon.
A good way of combining accommodation requirements with water travel in Amsterdam is to take to the water in a cabin cruiser. These floating recreational vehicles give you the option of seeing the city from the comfort of your own temporary floating home.
If you are fortunate to own a cruiser, you might want to include Amsterdam on a future itinerary. Another option might be to hire a cruiser in the Netherlands and take in Amsterdam as part of a tour of the Dutch waterways.
For the rest of us, less experienced sailors, it adds to the variety of craft on the water to see a well-equipped cabin cruiser sail by and we can but dream of a life on the water.
4. Smaller motor-powered options
If a cabin cruiser is a little too big or expensive, you might want to consider a smaller option. There are plenty of small motorboats that ply the canals of Amsterdam. Some are privately owned by locals, some operate as water taxis and others are available for rent. Some sailors get fully immersed in the party atmosphere, traveling as a group. Personally, I preferred to watch from a safe distance either from the comfort of a larger boat or the security of dry land. The occupants seemed to be having a great time, though and I never saw anything untoward happen, despite some boats looking a little low in the water.
5. Cycling and Rowing
If you are looking for a more environmentally friendly option at the same time as getting some water-based exercise, you might consider hiring a pedalo. The bicycle is widely recognized as a traditional and popular Dutch mode of transport. The pedalo, or canal bike, is its water-based cousin. There are several hire depots dotted around the canal network. Pedalos offer space for two to pedal plus two passengers. Charges are per person by the hour plus a deposit.
For those of us, who are less energetic, there is always the option of watching others exercising on the water. There are several rowing clubs in Amsterdam, mostly located near the River Amstel in the south. It is not unusual to see rowers passing by, especially at the weekend. These were snapped from our window in the Hilton on the Noorder Amstelkanaal.
6. Solo Power
Forget sharing your floating means of transport with someone else. Maybe you want to go solo-powered exploring the canals of Amsterdam.
Several companies offer kayak tours of Amsterdam. You might be with a group of others in a flotilla navigating the canals with a guide, but you will be in charge of your own kayak. It is probably not for the faint-hearted, but not many tourists will be able to recount a tale of kayaking on the canals. Those that do describe it as an amazing experience.
I wish I had had a camera to hand when I glanced out of the Amstel Hotel early in the morning and saw a man heading to work on his paddleboard. In truth, I was so mesmerized by the sight that I only thought of a photo after he had passed along the River Amstel. After all, it is not every day, in our English village, that I see someone paddleboarding past the window to work.
Later in the week, I was quicker off the mark to capture the photo of a paddleboarder on the Uilenburgergracht from our room in the Holiday Inn Express City Hall.
If paddleboarding appeals to you, search for SUP, or Stand Up Paddle in Amsterdam and you will find opportunities for tourists to hire boards and have a go themselves.
7. Living on the Water
Not every boat on the water in Amsterdam is on the move. Houseboats line the banks of some canals and also stretches of the River Amstel. Some are converted cargo boats. Others are purpose-built. They became popular after World War II, in response to a severe housing shortage.
There are now over 2,500 houseboats in Amsterdam, which have postal addresses and are connected to mains electricity and the water supply. Originally sewage disposal was via the canals, which were flushed out every night. But you will be pleased to hear that, in recent years, houseboats have been linked up to the main sewer system.
If you fancy trying out life on the water, several sites offer houseboat rental for a unique Amsterdam experience.
8. Working Boats
As a tourist in Amsterdam, you would be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of the canals has always been solely for pleasure. The waterways of the city were originally used by merchants, whose houses lined their banks. Whilst the main canal ring is given over largely to tourist boats, it is possible to see inland barges sailing down the River Amstel, with some bridges raised to allow them through. These form a small fraction of the millions of tons of goods that are still transported on Dutch waterways.
To the northeast of the River Amstel, you can sometimes spot open working barges being towed along the network of canals.
9. Quirky Boats
As you sail along or walk by Amsterdam's waterways, keep an eye out for the more unusual watercraft. We spotted the teddy bear sailor, moored up in a homemade boat, as we passed on an open boat.
You might want to look out for the Catboat on the Singel. Since 1968 De Poezenboot has been offering refuge to stray and abandoned cats. It started in 1966, when a resident of Amsterdam, Mrs. Weelde, took pity on a stray cat outside her house on the Herengracht. Gradually she took in more cats until she ran out of space. The solution was to rehouse them in a boat on the canal outside her home. Over the years, the sanctuary grew and volunteers came to help. The original barge was eventually replaced by a specially fitted out houseboat.
The Sea Palace, a floating pagoda-style Chinese restaurant on Oosterdok, is an unexpected and unusual sight. The largest floating restaurant in Europe is conveniently located near Centraal Station and is an eye-catching sight with Amsterdam as its backdrop.
10. Free Boat Trip
Save time and money by taking the free Buiksloterweg ferry from behind Centraal Station to Amsterdam Noord. Regular ferries take around 5 minutes to cross the Ij. The landing is close to one of Amsterdam's more recent tourist attractions, Amsterdam Lookout. For a fee, you can enjoy stunning views of Amsterdam and the surrounding area from the observation deck. There is a panoramic restaurant, bar, and interactive Amsterdam experience at the Lookout. It also boasts Europe's highest swing, 'Over the Edge', which is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Another nearby attraction is the EYE Film Institute, where the Filmmuseum and other cinematic organizations have merged to provide a space for a film collection, recording the history of the Netherlands film industry. There are also exhibitions, film screenings in four cinemas and a waterside cafe-restaurant.
Get Your Bearings
Canals and waterways give Amsterdam its distinct character and contribute much to the picturesque nature of the city. With its 165 canals and 1,300 hundred bridges, the city deserves the name 'Venice of the North'. The variety of craft on the water offer multiple ways for visitors to experience Amsterdam and they also contribute to the ever-changing watery vistas.
If taking to the water is not your scene, why not pull up a chair at a canalside bar or cafe and watch the world float by? You will not be short of sights to see, especially if you are by one of the busier canals on the Grachtengordel (Canal Ring).
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- InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, a Thorough Hotel Appraisal
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Liz Westwood