To understand the soul of Amsterdam, you have to understand its grachten, those famous canals, which have been a tool to trade, travel, create and celebrate life for hundreds of years. Laid out in the 17th-century, Amsterdam’s Golden Age, the canal ring has grown into one of the world’s most unique urban landscapes, which is why it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2010. The four concentric canals, interconnected with streets now filled with shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants, remain one of the most compelling reasons tourists want to see this fair city.
Known locally as the grachtengordel, the striking water network was originally developed by draining and reclaiming land as a practical way for the city to grow beyond its fortified walls. This gave the city’s aristocracy and wealthy merchants – enriched by the boom in international maritime trade – room to build their impressive warehouses and gabled canal-side mansions, many of which can still be admired in all their Golden Age glory today. Comprised of four canals – the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Singel – the Canal Belt is spread across two main areas. The Western Canal Ring, which runs from the Brouwersgracht to the Leidsestraat, is where you’ll find the eclectic 9 streets shopping area, the Anne Frank House and the Westerkerk. To one side of the Western Canal Ring there’s the picturesque Jordaan area, and adjacent to that, trendy Westerpark and cultural playground Westergasfabriek. The Southern Canal Ring, which runs from the Leidsestraat to the Amstel river, is anchored by two clubby nightlife districts, Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, both of which are neon-lit, one-stop-shops for partygoers. This part of the grachtengordel is home to Amsterdam’s floating Flower Market, antiques district and the city’s most beautiful bridges, some of which connect the old canals with parallel waterways in the leafy Plantage district. Many intriguing museums can be found in the historic canal ring, as well as terrific restaurants, cosy cafes and some of the city’s best shops. There are many wonderful ways to make the most of your time in this beautiful district. So, for example, you can explore the hidden gardens behind the gables during the Open Garden Days, hop on a canal cruise for a guided tour of the area’s many sights, or visit one or more of the suggestions in this guide.
Best Museums in the Canal Belt
One of Amsterdam’s most famous sights, this canal house-turned-museum was once the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family, before they were discovered by the Nazis. It’s the best place to see the world-famous diary of an otherwise ordinary Jewish girl come to life.
Het Grachtenhuis Museum tells the story of Amsterdam’s waterways in a most compelling and surprisingly compact way. An exciting journey through 400 years of history using film, audio and interactive exhibits awaits you in a monumental canal house.
This former home of the regent Van Loon family is a great way to experience what life was like for the rich and powerful in the Golden Age. The interior of the house has remained largely intact, with impressive portraits, beautiful pieces of furniture, and the finest silver and porcelain, and a beautiful garden to explore.
As one of the top 10 fashion museums in the world, this unique institution has a collection of over 5,000 bags and purses, each offering a glimpse of the fashion, art, skills and customs of a particular period, providing visitors with an impressive overview of the history of women’s bags in the West.
Once the grand 19th- Century townhouse of Abraham Willet and his wealthy wife Sandrina Louisa Geertruyda Holthuysen, the impressive ballroom, conservatory and dining room of this charming canal-house museum offer an alluring glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of Amsterdam’s old aristocracy.
Located in a large mansion on Amsterdam’s grandest canal, Foam is one of the world’s most famous photography institutions, with genres ranging from historical to contemporary. And with several hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, surely one of the most popular art centres of its kind.
Explore one of Amsterdam’s finest canal houses and learn all there is to know about the aristocratic Cromhout family, who were great art lovers and keen collectors. Today, there is a wealth of portraits, rich furnishings, silverware and curiosities to admire in this “collectors’ house”. Tip: Enjoy some coffee in the charming garden room café.
Dedicated to photo art, this museum contains an extensive collection of contemporary works of Dutch and international artists, and up-and-coming talent. Housed in a beautiful canal house from the 17th-Century, its location is worthy of a few wows, too.
The Amsterdam City Archives, housed in the striking 1920s former bank building De Bazel, is the “memory of Amsterdam” with over 50 km of documents and images that have historical relevance for the city, as well as intriguing activities and temporary exhibitions (currently there are two exhibitions focused on the persecution of the Jews in World War II).
Best Cocktail Bars in the Canal Belt
This concept bar is the place to find rare whiskies from around the world, as well as excellent whisky-based cocktails (the Boulevardier is particularly good here!) and Pan-Asian bar bites.
The bar that once set the speakeasy trend in Amsterdam still exudes secluded sophistication with its secret door, antique barware, tin ceiling, darkly cosy nooks and expertly mixed drinks.
This stylish hotel bar combines a classy setting with top-notch drinks and warm service. Do order the “Dashing Daisy”, an exotic bitter-sweet cocktail inspired by The Great Gatsby.
The Best Attractions in and around the Canal Belt
With more canals than Venice, more bridges than Paris and a wealth of flowers everywhere, Amsterdam is filled with photo opportunities, so grab your camera and get going. Check our extended article for attractions all over town.
Connecting the canal district to the east of Amsterdam, this characteristic wooden drawbridge over the Amstel river is one of the most Instagrammed in town. Beautifully lit at night, legend has it that if you kiss your sweetheart on this bridge, your love will last forever.
Amsterdam’s world-famous floating flower market, or “Bloemenmarkt”, is your one-stop shop for buying bulbs to take home. You’ll find a rainbow display of tulips here, but also daffodils, hyacinths, alliums and other popular flowers, plus houseplants and more. All items can be specially wrapped to take abroad.
One of the most often photographed parts of the canal ring provides views of seven bridges laid out in a perfect line at the intersection of the Reguliersgracht and Keizersgracht. The best views can be seen from the water level, so make sure you tick this sight off by boat.
Huis met de hoofden
The famous “house with the heads” at Keizersgracht 123 gets its name from the six head-shaped ornaments on its façade, apparently representing the gods Apollo (laurel leaves), Ceres (grain), Mercury (winged helmet), Minerva (wisdom), Bacchus (grapes) and Diana (half moon).
The Best Restaurants in the Canal Belt
From casual-chic to romantic, exotic or downright posh, the Canal Belt offers plenty to tantalize your taste buds.
Overlooking the tulip-filled garden of Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, this fine dining restaurant is one of the city’s very best. In fact, Librije’s Zusje wrote history when it was awarded two Michelin stars only 7 months after opening. Executive Chef Sidney Schutte’s signature can be described as distinctive, contemporary and slightly rebellious.
Top Dutch chef Ron Blaauw’s contemporary take on Chinese cuisine is proof positive that a kitchen comprised of Asian and European chefs can make magic together. While the bartender mixes your drinks behind a striking gold bar, peruse the menu for fine dining fusion stars.
At the intersection of two of Amsterdam’s most scenic canals, this Amsterdam landmark offers Franco-Italian classics in an interior with a romantic early 20th-century Parisian ambience, a secluded bar with authentic Art Nouveau details, a lovely outdoor terrace with stunning water views, and unfailingly excellent service.
The Best Shops in the Canal Belt
While you’ll find beautiful homes, hofjes and historic sights along the canals, you’ll also stumble across many tempting stores. Here are a few of our favourite local specialists.
Eat, drink, shop and relax in Droog and its lovely courtyard garden. Droog is an attractive boutique devoted to Dutch Design. At this stylish establishment you’re sure to find what you are looking for, whether that’s a present, a unique piece for your interior or just inspiration. Staalstraat 7
An awe-inspiring 700-square-metre hybrid store, filled to the brim with today’s most inspiring Dutch fashion, art and design. Located in a beautiful Art Deco former bank building, X Bank is a wonderland of creativity and delight, showcasing the comprehensive collection of works by over 180 artists.
Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 182
The most well-known book store in Amsterdam. Atheneaum, located on Spui Square, is known for its impressive collection of international (designer) magazines and arty books. The kiosk is specialised in literature, languages and social sciences. A true treasure for readers.
This lifestyle store of Anna + Nina is the ultimate destination for a girl’s day out. Here you’ll find an extensive collection of high-fashion clothing, accessories, jewellery, furniture, interior design, dishes and gadgets. You’ll certainly never be bored at Anna + Nina.
Walk around the Canal Belt
So, now you know where to go we can tell you how to explore all of that! To make your visit to this district a lot more comfortable we’ve made a walking route of the Canal Belt in Amsterdam.
We’ll start our Canal Belt walk on Brouwersgracht, named for the breweries that lined its sides back in the 16th- and 17th-Centuries. Many people don’t realize that the canal belt was built from west to east (not from the inside out!), which is also why the house numbers on the main canals start their count from the Brouwersgracht. The red-shuttered former warehouses along this northern border of the Canal Belt are now mainly residential and the area is commonly considered to be one of the most beautiful in Amsterdam. On the north side, between numbers 62 and 68, you’ll find the Herenmarkt and adjacent West Indisch Huis, which was originally built in 1617 as a meat market but was later used the headquarters of the West-Indische Compagnie. This is where the order was given to build the first fort in what’s now Manhattan, New York. Do check out the bronze statue of Peter Stuyvesant (governor of New Netherland) in the courtyard.
Continue along Brouwersgracht until you reach the Papiermolensluis. Cross, and then walk over the Prinsengracht via the Lekkeresluis to Noordermarkt. Once known as the Prinsenmarkt, the Amsterdam city council changed the name after the Noorderkerk was built in 1623. Originally a 17th-Century pottery market where the inhabitants of Amsterdam could buy utensils and items for daily use, today the pretty square is lined with trendy cafés and restaurants. Continuing the square’s long market history, there’s a popular organic farmer’s market on Saturdays and a flea market on Mondays. Do stop for some of the city’s best apple pie at Winkel 43, just off the square. Prinsengracht 764
The royal streets
Continue south along the Prinsengracht until you reach the next bridge, which will take you across to Prinsenstraat. The shopping street, and the next one over, Herenstraat, are both still relatively undiscovered, and just the place to get your retail fix for designer brands, high-end cosmetics, and fine jewellery away from the crowds. From Herenstraat you could head down Keizersgracht to see the Huis met de Hoofden) or double-back down the Prinsengracht to see the Anne Frank House.
Westermarkt & raadhuisstraat
Or, head further south and you’ll come across the Westermarkt with its famous Westerkerk and the Homomonument, a public sculpture memorialising all people persecuted for their homosexuality. You’ll also notice a rather busy street, the Raadhuisstraat, which was named after the old Town Hall (now the Royal Palace). It has undergone somewhat of a makeover in recent years, and now boasts a growing number of interesting fashion and furniture stores, such as Bolia, We Are Labels, and Won Hundred.
Now walk south along any of the canals and you’ll reach the nine narrow little side streets known as the Negen Straatjes. Running between the main canals in the Western Canal District, these streets got their names from the tanneries that used to dot the area. They are now a must-see shopping destination for those seeking premium local and international fashion boutiques, art galleries, and vintage stores (read more in our 9 straatjes shopping guide). Between Huidenstraat and Leidsegracht, you’ll also find three interesting museums: Cromhouthuis, Museum Het Grachtenhuis and Huis Marseille.
Leidsestraat & Leidseplein
If you keep on walking south along any canal, you’ll reach the Leidsestraat shopping street. While you’ll find most of the high street chain stores on nearby Kalverstraat, this street offers a slightly more upscale choice, including stores such as Michael Kors, Filippa K, Scotch & Soda, Shoebaloo, ARKET and Abercrombie & Fitch. On one end of the street is the lively entertainment area, Leidseplein, which continues to be a popular pick with tourists. It is home to many bars, nightclubs and restaurants, as well as the Stadsschouwburg (The Municipal Theatre), and various other theatres and cinemas.
From Leidseplein, follow the Prinsengracht canal again until you reach Amsterdam’s so-called “Mirror Quarter”, an absolute must for lovers of art, antiques and curiosities. This picturesque area has been at the heart of the Dutch art and antique trade for over 80 years. On the Spiegelgracht and Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, you can visit specialised dealers who offer a variety of treasures, including Dutch Delftware and Art Nouveau.
Follow the Keizersgracht in an easterly direction, and you’ll come across Vijzelgracht. During the construction of the controversial North-South line’s underground metro station here in 2008, a leak caused tremors in the wooden piles of the 17th-Century weaver’s houses lining the street, some of which started sinking into the ground. Many residents had to be evacuated. Situated on Vijzelstraat, you’ll find the Amsterdam City Archives (see MUST-SEES). AMSTELVELD One of the prettiest squares in the city happened quite by accident because the city ran out of money to build the grand cathedral it had originally planned on this spot at the junction of the prinsengracht, reguliersgracht and kerkstraat (the temporary 17th-century wooden church still stands). Tip: don’t miss the monday morning flower market.
Keep going along Keizersgracht and you’ll pass Museum van Loon, Foam and the famous Seven Bridges before reaching Utrechtsestraat, named after the former Utrechtsepoort city gate. Today, the street is packed with high-end fashion boutiques, design and décor stores, upscale coffee bars and a wide range of restaurants. It’s very popular among Amsterdammers and is increasingly being discovered by visitors. Walking south along the Utrechtsestraat, you’ll find pretty Amstelveld, and right at the end of the street, off Frederiksplein, one of the city’s most characteristic brown café’s, Café Slijterij Oosterling.
Rembrandtplein & Reguliersdwars straat
You could also head north up Utrechtsestraat to reach Rembrandt Square. Known for its many pubs, clubs, restaurants and terraces, you’ll find a statue of Dutch Master painter Rembrandt on the eponymous square, along with a group of smaller figures depicting his masterpiece The Night Watch. Leading off the square is Reguliersdwarsstraat, which was once known as Amsterdam’s “gay street”. Today, this restaurant and bar lined street between Leidsestraat and Rembrandtplein remains a vibrant and exciting entertainment area attracting a mixed, cosmopolitan crowd. Or head east from Rembrandt Square towards the Amstel river, where you can enjoy the perfect photo opp with the Skinny Bridge in the background.
Can’t you get enough of Amsterdam? Then we recommend you to read our things to do guide, it really is one of a kind.