Known as the 'Venice of the North' for its lace-like web of concentric canals, this unique and picturesque attribute of Amsterdam lends a romantic sensibility to the progressive city and is a popular drawcard for visitors. For Amsterdammers, who aren't traversing the city on a bicycle, it's simply a way to get around.
Amsterdam contains over 100km of canals, around 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. The famous Grachtengordel, or Canal Ring, is located to the west and south of Amsterdam's city centre with Centraal Station at its apex. The Old Centre is surrounded by six major concentric canals: Prisengracht (Princes' Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperors' Canal) and Herengracht (Gentlemens' Canal); which were dug in the 17th century; followed by Singel, Lijnbaansgracht and Singelgracht. The first canals were constructed for defense and transport and then, as a masterful stroke of city planning, to address the need for expansion. The historic Canal Ring was designated a World Heritage Site in 2010.
To explore the canals, you can go by boat, the hop-on, hop-off Canal Bus, on a designated canal cruise or simply stroll around to soak up the ambience and marvel at the architecture of the houses and bridges. A unique feature of the canal houses is their size. In the 17th-century, homeowners were taxed on a building's width and not height, which accounts for the varying heights of the edifices and narrowness of some of the houses. A double-front house with gables and decorative features denoted wealth. The first three canals housed the city's elite in doublewide mansions in Baroque and Neo-classical architectural styles with inner gardens and coach houses. The stretch of Herengracht between Leidestraat to the Amstel River is considered the grandest area and known as Gouden Bocht (Golden Bend).
Other canals worth exploring include Brouwersgracht (Brewers' Canal) in the Jordaan district, which is considered Amsterdam's most beautiful street and lined with 17th-century warehouses that have now been converted into luxury residences. Bloemgracht (Flower Canal) is the place to view 17th-century burgher houses, and Egelantiersgracht (Eglantine Canal) was originally home to many Golden Age artists.