Column: The canals of Amsterdam
Since 2010, Amsterdam’s canal ring has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Since the 17th century, this unique transportation system has allowed visitors to the Netherlands’ capital to reach what is probably the city’s most famous attraction.
In the middle of the 13th century, Dutch fishermen established a trading village along the Amstel River in northwest Holland. The village became known as “Amsterdam” after a dam protecting the area from flooding. To protect against invaders, residents built a semi-circular moat around their village, extending south from the IJ, at the time a bay. In 1585, Amsterdam expanded beyond the moat and residents began using the moat, named the “Singel Canal,” for transporting themselves and their goods. In 1613, with its population continuing to grow from international trade, the city began building three additional canals in concentric semi-circular rings around the original moat, quadrupling the area of the city. When completed, Amsterdam’s new canals were connected to each other and to the Singel Canal by radially extending canals, enabling efficient water travel from any part of the city to another.
The 17th century was the Dutch Golden Age. Amsterdam, with a population of more than 200,000 in 1800, was among the world’s largest and most prosperous cities, attracting people from all over the world. One of its most popular destinations, especially for visiting sailors, was an area inside the Singel Canal known as “De Wallen,” featuring drinking, gambling and prostitution.
Today, Amsterdam’s 165 canals, with a combined length of approximately 65 miles, are spanned by more than 1,200 bridges, three times as many as in Venice. Approximately 2,500 houseboats are moored along the canal banks, most serving as permanent residences. Three million visitors a year board tour boats to traverse Amsterdam’s canal network, many ending their trip near De Wallen to explore Amsterdam’s still flourishing red-light district.