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Canals in the Netherlands

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Canals have always been an essential part of many Dutch cities. Often originating in the 17th century, these waters running through and around the area leave an iconic and classic impression that the Netherlands is eager to maintain. Not only that, but the canals are still vital for all kinds of local upkeep and transport.

Here is a quick guide to some of the most famous canal cities and the roles that their waters play.

Kanaal, vaart, gracht or singel

What we call canals are actually various kinds of waters with different names in Dutch, such as kanaal and vaart. Most often, people mean a gracht or singel, which are human-made waterways in or around a city, with streets on one or both sides. Singels were once used for defense purposes, and often encircle older parts of a city.

History of the canals in the Netherlands

In and around the Golden Age, merchants needed to transport their goods and cities needed a way to easily expand and protect themselves. Canals were built to use for drainage, transport, defense and sewage. The development of canal cities was closely tied to the digging of these valuable streams. The ground that was dug up when creating the canals was often used to raise the bordering streets, where merchants’ houses were built.

In the second half of the 19th century, many canals lost their purpose and were filled in to create more space for traffic and better hygiene. Some of these canals were restored in later years. History is still reflected in the presence of the canals, as these are mainly found in the historic city centres.

Dutch canals today

Today, canals are part of the iconic Dutch city view. Tourists and locals alike delight in the views and make use of the waters that run through big cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Canals still need regular dredging, to make sure they’re deep enough. One of the problems is that bicycles and other large trash items get dumped in on a regular basis.

The canals in the Netherlands are still very much in use. Things you can do include:

Canal cruises

Canals still play an important part in water control and shipping traffic, with mostly tour boats offering canal cruises.

Swimming in the canals

Swimming in the canals is generally not allowed outside of certain designated areas, due to hygiene and boating dangers. The waters aren't as filthy as many would expect, though. The nation's water is much cleaner than it was in previous ages, because of the efforts by water management organisations such as Waternet. Another danger is the discarded bicycles and other litter lying on the bottom of the canals that could injure swimmers. 

Recreation on the canals

Recreation on the canals includes boat trips and water sports like canoeing and rowing.

Fishing in the canals

You need a licence for fishing on most canals. The underwater fauna is surprisingly versatile. For instance, you can find minnow, carp, pike and eel, and some much rarer species as well.

Houseboats

The extra surface offered by canals is often utilised as living space, with the use of houseboats. Some of these can be rented for overnight stays. Amsterdam alone has about 2.500 floating homes.

Special houseboat-like floaters include the student boat, in which various levels of containers are inhabited by students, the botel, a floating hotel, and the Bajesboot, or "prison boat". These detention boats were used to cope with overpopulated prisons, but are now banned. Some have been converted into botels as well.

In Amsterdam you can also find the "Cat Boat". This floating animal sanctuary is a big attraction.

Canal festivals

Various annual events and festivals take place on and around the canals, such at the Amsterdam Canal Pride Parade, Grachtenfestival, Jazz in de Gracht and Leidse Lakenfeesten. During special occasions like King’s Day, floating scaffolds can be laid out across the waters to have parties and performances right on top of the canals. Various game-constructions can also pop up, like floating obstacle courses and inflatable globes that you can run across the water in.

Canals in Dutch cities

Being an integral part of the municipalities they reside in, canals directly influence their surroundings, giving each city a unique and distinct personality. The most important canals outline the historical city centres where you can find important buildings, great shopping districts and all kinds of clues that betray the town’s age. Here is more information about some of the Netherlands’ canal cities:

Canals in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is famous for its 17th century canal belt, which is on the UNESCO heritage list. The most important canals in Amsterdam are:

Amstel river canals

The Amstel river runs through Amsterdam, and various canals were dug to connect to it, such as the Amstel, Damrak and Rokin. Most canals are now partially filled and border on popular shopping streets.

The canal belt

The Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht are part of the canal belt, and are famous for being some of the nicest and most important canals.

Singels in Amsterdam

Singels in Amsterdam include the Stedegracht, and Singelgracht which was dug in the 17th century.

Canals in The Hague

The canal belt in The Hague was partially filled in throughout history, but thanks to restorations you can sail all the way around the canal belt again since 2004.

The old canals of The Hague

The old canals of The Hague were dug around 1300, and were important for transport and water management. The Hofsingels lined a castle. Many of the old canals are now filled. The old canals include:

  • Spui
  • Hofsingels
  • Voldersgracht
  • Lange Gracht

17th and 18th century canals in The Hague

Most of the canals in The Hague are from the 17th and 18th century, such as:

  • Prinsessegracht
  • Herengracht
  • Koningsgracht
  • Veenkade
  • Middelste Gracht
  • Bierkades
  • Mauritskade

The Singelgracht is a collection of connected singels that surround the old city.

Canals in Utrecht

Utrecht has been awarded the title of most beautiful canal town in Europe multiple times. The most important canals in Utrecht are connected to the Vecht River. The Utrecht canals are lined with high walls, old yard cellars now used as restaurants and trees that are aged up to 200 years.

Oudegracht

The most famous canal in Utrecht is the Oudegracht. It’s about 2km long and 1.000 years old, and cuts through the entire inner city. It is lined by lots of shops.

Stadsbuitengracht

The Stadsbuitengracht is a singel that surrounds the historic inner city.

Nieuwegracht

The Nieuwegracht is the newer of the most well-known Utrecht canals. It was built in the 1390s.

Canals in Leiden

The canals in Leiden were part of the city plan from the 17th century onwards. The outer canal was dug to protect the city, and a grid of inner canals, running right through the city, were used for water management, transport and development. The waters are connected to the Rijn, which also runs through the city. The intricate system of canals consists of many names, such as:

  • Rapenburg
  • Herengracht
  • Witte Singel
  • Zoeterwoudse Singel
  • Morssingel
  • Oude Vest
  • Maresingel

Canals in Delft

Three north-to-south canals are the oldest in Delft. Starting with the city expansions in the 17th century, these waters became the lifelines of the town. Still later, fortified singels were dug that surrounded the city. Today, the canals are still used for transport, and many beautiful old bridges cross the waters. The three canals are:

Old Delft

The first canal, the Old Delft, was dug in 1100, coinciding with the birth of the town and giving it its name, Delft, from the Dutch delven, or digging. It mainly runs through Noordeinde. This canal was used for draining the land at both sides; later on it also served as a waterway for transport.

New Delft

At the end of the 12th century, the Nieuwe Delft was dug through part of the settlement that had grown around the Old Delft. It runs through the Geer, Koornmarkt, Wijnhaven, the Hippolytusbuurt and the Voorstraat.

Derde hoofdgracht

The Derde hoofdgracht, dug in the 13th century, connects with the moat around the marketplace, and outlines the eastern city border. It runs through Achterom and the Brabantse Turfmarkt.

Canals in Groningen

The canal belt of Groningen is called the Diepenring. It consists of, among others:

Verbindingskanaal

The Verbindingskanaal connects various other canals. It was dug in 1879, and it is located right by the Groningen Central Station. It has an artificial island that holds the Groninger Museum.

Noorderhaven

The Noorderhaven is the last free harbour in the Netherlands, meaning that boats are free to dock so long as there’s room.

Turfsingel

The Turfsingel was used for turf transport in the old days, and there used to be a sluice-gate in the Spilsluizen.

Canals in other cities in the Netherlands

Cities that were built with canals are sure to have a special atmosphere, and many of them are beloved destinations. Here are a few more canal cities that might be interesting to visit:

Spaarne in Haarlem

The Spaarne is an S-shaped canal that meanders through the old city centre of Haarlem. It is lined by beautiful mansions, churches and a mill. There are many docking spots in the walls, making the Spaarne a great spot for boating around and getting off for a drink at a terrace.

Singelgracht and Binnendieze in Den Bosch

With the Singelgracht on the outside and the Binnendieze on the inside, the maze-like canals in Den Bosch map out the city’s history with many lovely spots, like old bridges and views on parks. The waters partially run under the city.

Canals in Alkmaar

Alkmaar has some beautiful canals, many with impressive buildings lining their walls. A tour of the waters brings you past drawbridges, low bridges and windmills. Alkmaar also has its own Canal Pride Parade, called Alkmaar Pride.

Dry canals in Maastricht

Maastricht has some "dry canals", which means they have been filled a long time ago, but are still indicated by signs. There are still a few real canals that flow into the city through gates in the city walls, but they cannot be sailed.

Romantic canals in Dordrecht

The old city of Dordrecht has some romantic canals, reminding visitors of classic Flemish cities like Brugge and Gent. The ends of the canals are closed off by dams.

More canal facts

Here are some more facts about canals:

  • The Amsterdam canal tours are the most popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands, with 3 million passengers a year and 200 different tour boats.
  • The old canals in Amsterdam are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.
  • Amsterdam has 165 canals, of which the old ones are a total of 14km long.
  • Dutch canals generally have fresh water, but you can find them with salt water, too.

The Dutch and their water

The Dutch and their water are closely connected. Whether they be grachten or singels, impressive waters or hidden streams, the canals have shaped some of the most important towns in the Netherlands, and will always remain an integral part of the Dutch cityscape.

Videos about Dutch canals

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