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Top 10 Things to See on the Water in Amsterdam

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.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

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.

  1. Large tourist boats.
  2. Open boats.
  3. Travel in style.
  4. Smaller motor-powered options.
  5. Cycling and rowing.
  6. Solo power.
  7. Living on the water.
  8. Working boats.
  9. Quirky boats.
  10. 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 is 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 is not surprising that canal tours in Amsterdam are the most popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands, with over 3 million passengers a year.

Pros

  • The boats are glass-topped, so you keep dry and warm in bad weather.
  • Commentaries are in several languages.

Cons

  • 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.

Pros

  • There are no obstructions to taking photos.
  • Passengers are free to ask questions.
  • Drinks are included on some trips.

Cons

  • 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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Our Experience

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 and excellent bar service. We 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 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 are 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.

Saloon Boat

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.

Hotel Marina

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, the location of 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 and daydream about owning one of the boats moored there. Highly recommended as a great place to unwind on a Sunday afternoon.