If you're in Amsterdam, you shouldn't miss a ride through the city's famous canals. Many companies offer a canal cruise for similar prices, 18-19€. We chose a Blue Boat Company, parked just in front of the Heineken museum (it goes every half hour from 10.15am until 5.15pm) that took us on a 75-minute tour around the canals. Our boat tour was guided both by our captain and by an audio guide in different languages (a bit too much if they both are talking at the same time). The boat was closed with a glass roof, but you could still take a walk outside on a deck for a better view and to take some photos.
The Grachtengordel is the most famous ring of four canals: the Singel, the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht, interconnected with streets filled with shops, cafés, and restaurants. The Canal Ring was built in two phases in the Dutch Golden Age, 17th century, thus expanding the city and making it appropriate for the rich and powerful trading city. The two inner canals, the Herengracht and the Keizersgracht, were intended for the prosperous merchants who were buying two or more lots to build bigger houses with more decorated gables, and the two outer canals, the Singel and the Prinsengracht, were inhabited by industrials and shopkeepers. In 2010, Amsterdam's Canal Ring became a Unesco World Heritage Site.
But we started our cruise outside of the Grachtengordel where we saw the first examples of houseboats. The houseboats have become an icon of the Amsterdam city, they appeared after the World War II as a response to high demand for housing and were built on a floating pontoon, sometimes with multiple floors and a terrace or garden on a roof (we saw people digging in their houseboats' gardens). However, the original houseboats are more than 100 years old restored ships that came from Amsterdam's seafaring. Now are about 2 500 households living on Amsterdam's canals and the demand and the price of a houseboat is constantly rising. According to The New York Times, in 2008 the price of a modest Amsterdam's houseboat was starting at 250 000€ (hmmm... the same as the price of a bigger apartment in Prague), but now – who knows? If you want to know more about houseboats, you can visit The Houseboat Museum on Prinsengracht and for the price of 4,50€ explore a houseboat from 1914 with the original living spaces of one Dutch family. The other option is to book a room or an Airbnb in a houseboat for a much higher price.
The other way of living in Amsterdam is in the narrow houses on the riverbank, which are often crooked. Why is that? Well, all houses in Amsterdam are built on piles, drilled into the wet soil. In the past, they used wooden piles and today they fill up the piles with cement to make them more sturdy. The old age of the houses and wooden piles make the buildings sink unevenly into the swampy ground. The Amsterdam soil consists of 11 meters of clay before the first solid layer of sand. This is why today the piles are drilled further into the ground until they hit the second layer of sand, at 18 meters deep.
If you maybe want a luxurious vacation in Amsterdam city, the place to go is the Amstel hotel from the 19th century on the Amstel riverbank with a room price of around 500€ per night. A place for movie stars or royalty. 😛 But the view of the hotel from the river is extraordinary.
Canal cruise sights
On our canal cruise, we saw some of the highlights of the city:
1) Montelbaanstoren and Schreierstoren towers
The first one is a historic tower on Oude Schans canal built in the 16th century to defend the eastern side of the harbor from attackers. It was upgraded in the 17th century with the octagonal base, clock, and decorative top. The Schreierstoren tower, called also the „Weeping Tower“, is a Medieval tower from the 15th century connected with a myth that it was a place where wives of sailors said their goodbyes or waited for their husbands to return from the sea.
2) Amsterdam's Opera house
Amsterdam's Opera house, called also Stopera, is a modern building on the Amstel river bank designed by Cees Dam and Wilhelm Holzbauer and opened in 1986. The view of the Opera house is especially beautiful with the soft evening lights.
3) Hermitage Amsterdam
Amsterdam has its own Hermitage, a satellite museum of the Saint Petersburg's one, placed in a Classicistic building from the 17th century. The museum houses two permanent exhibitions (about the history of the building and Netherlands – Russian relations) and different temporary exhibitions. The entrance fee is 25€ for all the exhibitions.
4) Magere Brug
It's a popular modern double-swipe bridge on Amstel river, built in the 17th century and rebuilt again in the 20th century. It's so narrow that was called „skinny bridge“, it's hard for two pedestrians to pass one next to another. According to the other legend, the bridge got its name after the sisters Mager, who lived on opposite sides of the river and needed the bridge to visit one another. In the evenings, this is a favorite spot for photographers and lovers.
5) Rembrandt's house
The beautiful red brick building on Zwanenburgwal canal is a house where a great Dutch painter Rembrandt lived during the Dutch Golden Age. The house is faithfully restored to satisfy the image of a real living space of that era. Today it's turned into a museum. For 14€ you can enter Rembrandt's room and see some of his and his teachers' masterpieces.
6) Café de Sluyswacht
If you decide to have a look of Rembrandt's House Museum, don't miss having a coffee or a beer at Café de Sluyswacht just across the street. It's interesting because it's crooked, so if you drink too much, you won't know if the house is crooked or it is just you. J The café is placed in a former lockhouse from the 17th century, a home of a person who managed the lock controlling the canal water levels from the Amstel river to the Ij.
7) The vaults of the Dutch National Bank
The vaults are placed 15 meters beyond the soil level and because of that, they are extremely safe. If the alarm is raised, the water from Singelgracht will sink the vaults.
Interesting sights on IJ waterfront
The Ij is Amsterdam's waterfront, formerly a bay, connected to the North Sea to the west. On our canal cruise, we rode on this „small sea“, passing by some interesting sights:
1) A'Dam Lookout
The tallest building on the It is a modern A'Dam Lookout. It's an observation deck with a great panoramic view of the city. In the building, there is also an interactive exhibition about the Amsterdam's history and culture and on the rooftop, there is a swing, at 100 meters above the ground, that swings over the edge of the building (so you'll be swinging basically in the air above Amsterdam). The entrance fee for the lookout is 13,50€, with an additional 5€ ticket if you want to sway on the highest European swing.
2) Eye Film Museum
Beneath the lookout, there is a strangely shaped white building looking like a ship or an aircraft. It's a new film museum designed by Delugan Meisst architects, who specialize in buildings that appears to be motion and opened in 2012. The museum preserves and presents many titles of Dutch and foreign movies filmed in the Netherlands. The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 19 p.m. (or longer on weekends and during the projections) and the entrance fee is 11€.
3) Nemo Science Museum
Another building with an interesting design on Ij, in the form of a greenish whale, is a Science Museum Nemo, designed by Renzo Piano in 1997. It is the largest science center in the Netherlands and his five floors contain interactive exhibitions about DNA chains, chain reaction circuits, water cycle, etc. If you are into science (God knows that I'm not :/), it's an interesting museum to have a look for 17,50€.
4) Floating Chinese restaurant
If you're up for some Chinese, on IJ waterfront, floating on water, you will find a pagoda-style Sea Palace, the first floating restaurant in Europe from 1984. Treat yourself with some dim sum or a traditional Beijing duck.
Two other appealing buildings that you can see cruising the Ij are a glass concert hall Muziekgebouw or a huge building of the Openbare Bibliotheek. Somewhere near we even saw a pirate ship. 😛
So, as I said at the beginning, a canal cruise is a must-do if you come to Amsterdam. It's educational, you get to see some great views and you get to know and experience the city from a different perspective, the way the people living in houseboats see it.