Aerial view of Amsterdam Canal Belt (grachtengordel)

Amsterdam’s Canal Belt

Amsterdam’s Canal Belt, World Heritage site since 2010, consists of the area around the four main canals: Prinsen­gracht, Keizers­gracht, Heren­gracht and Singel (from outside in), plus the 7 radial canals inter­secting them. Starting at the Brouwers­gracht they form a crescent shape to the west and south, in a semi-circle around the old city center, ending on the Amstel river more to the east. The three new canals were later expanded further east as the Nieuwe Prinsen­gracht, Nieuwe Heren­gracht and Nieuwe Keizers­gracht, leading up to the Plantage neigh­bor­hood, completing the famous concentric half-circle shape.

Amsterdam’s Canal Belt (Grachtengordel) marked on the map

Amsterdam’s Canal Belt (Grachten­gordel) marked on the map.

Expansion Troubles

The area east of the Amstel river was little more than a swamp — already in the 14th century the terrain needed to be raised a lot. The area to the west was part of the reclamation of Amstel­land, with much better water management, but that made it much more costly after 1296 because of the commercial interests of the Bishop of Utrecht and the Count of Holland. The first expansion after 1578 was spurred on by military concerns, building a new fortifi­cation outside the existing one.

After 1609 Amsterdam was given the freedom to expand the city as it saw fit, as long as the inhabitants of the newly added areas would be compensated. The poorest and the refugees had been tolerated when they built their shacks in the 100 yards area surrounding the city, but now they were going to be expro­priated without compensation. Other areas however would require a full and costly compen­sation, so the city council chose the least expensive option: to bring those areas within the city limits, without providing much else. This is how the Jordaan came to be, its terrain not raised and the water there remaining at the old polder level (5 inches below Amsterdam level), closed off by locks.

Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, near Bloemgracht, looking towards the Jordaan

Prinsengracht near Bloem­gracht, looking towards the Jordaan neighbor­hood (February 2021).

Water & Lock Issues

A big concern was the old polder water drainage channel Boeren­wetering, which now exited inside the city (near the Spui). The council, in an effort to improve the water traffic, aimed to keep the city’s water­level equal to the median summer water level of the IJ, so that the locks from IJ to the town could remain open most of the time. But the constantly sinking terrain around Amsterdam made managing the levels between the subsiding polder and the city an increasingly difficult and costly affair. Also the Amstel­land Water Authority, deciding on all water level issues, had become a very power­ful entity, trumping all other parties in the Republic.

Through dialogue between council and experts and adaptation of the plans to existing issues, the three new canals came to be: the outside city moat trans­formed to become the Heren­gracht, with Keizers­gracht and Prinsen­gracht in parallel. The Prinsen­gracht, at the border with the Jordaan neig­bor­hood, got its own sea lock towards the IJ (Eenhoorn­sluis). Most markets were moved to the Prinsen­gracht canal to avoid having to use locks for the transportation of food. As the city got bigger and the Jordaan over­populated, water quality in that area became dismal and caused several outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.

Eenhoornsluis at Korte Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, engraving from 1659

Eenhoornsluis (Unicorn Lock) at Korte Prinsen­gracht seen from the Brouwers­gracht towards the IJ, engraving from 1659 by Reinier Nooms (1623-1664). The lock was named after a brewery there (Stadsarchief Amsterdam).

Canal Houses for the Rich

The canal belt, 14 km (8.7 mi) of canals and 80 bridges, is typical of the Dutch Golden Age. The historic buildings along the canals all belonged to rich citizens, no royal or aristocratic palaces — even the Palace on Dam square used to be the Amsterdam City Hall, signs of a rich and powerful trading city. Much of the historic aspect has been preserved to this day, despite many changes over the centuries and some less than pretty 20th century additions.

As one of the first large scale strong city planning concepts, the famous canal belt can still hold its own, even though it was largely dictated by pragmatic considerations. The city council arranged the lots and their pricing (prohibiting alleys and inner garden building) in such a way that normal businesses, industries and poorer people had to relocate to less affluent parts like the Jordaan, further out from the main canals.

Map of Amsterdam from 1649 by Johannes Blaeu

Hand-colored engraving with map of Amsterdam from 1649 by Johannes Blaeu (1596-1673). It shows the 4th city expansion plan (4e Uitleg) by Daniël Stalpaert, super­imposed on the existing situation outside the medieval city. The first part of the three new canals had already been dug, the Jordaan area (on the right) had been encapsu­lated, its layout following the original peat ditches. Elsewhere you can see the original peat landscape with pre-city buildings and watering ditches dug every 100 meters (109 yards). Note how the old city rampart had been temporarily linked to the new fortifi­cations on top (south).
North is down, as it was custom in those days to show Amsterdam seen from the waters of the IJ.

Societal Changes

The canal belt from the 16th and 17th century created an artificial harbor town, involving land reclamation, advanced water management, architectural building rules and strict city planning, all driven by the practical need for commercial trading and the moving and storing of goods, as well as providing housing for the merchants and traders, combining functionality and beauty in the many historic warehouses and homes. Goods from all over the world were stored and traded here. Immigrants and foreign traders enriched the city with their language, knowledge and culture and Amsterdam became a center of humanist thought.

Residences, Inside Trading & Taxes

The three new canals were given an exclusive residential function, allowing city palaces for rich merchants, bankers and regents. There was quite some speculation and insider trading going on regarding these and other lots, often by Amsterdam mayors themselves. In the 17th century taxes were paid according to the width of the gable on the canal side, which is why most canal houses were build narrow and deep. Those taxes were quite high, because they were used to finance the city expansions — so most canal houses were only 6 meters (19.68 ft) wide. Only the Heren­gracht has wider houses, because the rich who lived there could easily afford the higher taxes.

Herengracht, Amsterdam, seen from Koningssluis in the direction of the Leidsegracht

Heren­gracht seen from the Konings­sluis in the direction of the Leidse­gracht (October 2020).

Not All Was Well

Not all was as affluent as you might think in the 17th century: Amsterdam’s canal belt was often described as “a beautiful woman with stinking veins”. Right after the construction of the canal belt, people complained about the filthy water. The prevailing stench clashed mightily with the beautiful rich gables, especially in summer when the water was low. A French visitor wrote that the city could be smelled from many miles away. By the end of the 17th century the city had some 200,000 inhabitants, making it the third largest city after London and Paris. All the new houses, quays, businesses and people interfered with maintaining an adequate water flow in the canals through the use of locks and tides. Also there was no street lighting at all, so night time robberies were frequent.

Warehouses Everywhere

A large number of canal houses were warehouses at some point in time. Most houses lean slightly forward by design, to facilitate lifting goods to the upper floors with the help of hoist beams without damaging the façade. Historically the lower part of each house was for the household staff, the first floor for the owner and his family, the rest of the house for storage. The stairs inside the buildings are usually very narrow and steep, as taxes depended on the width of the house on the canal side, not on its volume. The water level of the canals — medium depth 2.6 m (8.5 ft) — in the city is now kept at 40 cm (15.75 inch) below Amsterdam Ordnance (NAP or Normal Amsterdam Level).

Keizersgracht, Amsterdam, seen from Leidsestraat towards Leidsegracht

Keizers­gracht seen from the Leidse­straat towards the Leidse­gracht, hoist beams every­where (October 2020).

From Medieval Village to Harbour Town

Around 1270 a dam was created in the river Amstel, the straightened bit on both sides (current Damrak and Rokin) lined with buildings. Around this the old city center grew. Until the end of the 16th century the city was confined by the Singel and the Kloveniers­burgwal. Expansions were very much needed when the city population grew explosively after the 1578 Alteration (changing the Catholic city council to a Protestant one), which attracted huge numbers of religious refugees from all over Europe. These extensions (Uitleg) were realised in four phases between 1585 and 1665.

In 1613 the digging of the Heren­gracht (Gentlemen’s or Patrician’s Canal), Keizers­gracht (Emperor’s Canal) and Prinsen­gracht (Prince’s Canal) started and the raised terains were sold to prospectors. The old walls were connected to the new situation around the Leidse­gracht. After around 1660 the three new canals were lengthened to connect to the Amstel river. Around that time the so-called Golden Bend (Gouden Bocht) on the Heren­gracht (between Leidse­straat and Vijzel­straat) was created as well, to raise the prestige of the Canal area. Double lots were up for grabs here for those who could afford them.

Bend in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, in winter, painting by Cornelis Springer

The bend in the Heren­gracht in winter, painting by Cornelis Springer (1817-1891) from 1882 (Amsterdam Museum).

A Pragmatic Solution

The canals were initially dug as moats for defense purposes, in order to stop enemies from easily entering the  city. With each expansion, moats were dug further out, the land in between used to build on, the old moat becoming a city canal. Many canals have been city boundaries at some point. They also served to transport goods by boat and to regulate the water levels in the flat marshy landscape. Only the Amstel river and the IJ waterway are natural waters, most other water­ways were dug.

The canals were always linked to transportation of goods and to defense measures, but most of all they were essential as a means of controlling the water levels, always a big concern in the marshy terrain on which Amsterdam was built, especially since there was an open connection to the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea) through the IJ waterway, subject to the tides. The swamp area around the old city needed to be drained and made habitable. The material taken out to form the canals was historically used to raise the surrounding terrain — always subsiding because of the peat layers below — and to make it suitable for building.

In the late 1800s many canals were filled in, partly to improve the area’s hygiene and partly to make room for increased traffic.

Gables on the Keizersgracht, Amsterdam, around the numbers 317-321

Gables on the Keizersgracht, around the numbers 317-321 (September 2020).

Don’t Get Lost on the Canals

From the outside of town towards the city center, the ordering of the canals is P-K-H-S (Prinsen­gracht, Keizers­gracht, Heren­gracht, Singel — mnemonic device: Pete’s Kite Has Stars). If you are ever lost on the canals, remember that the uneven numbers are on the inner quay side (towards the center of town), the even numbers on the outer quay side (towards the edge of town). Lower numbering starts at the side of the Brouwers­gracht in the west, higher numbering leads to the south and east.

Museum of the Canals

To learn more about the history of the Canal Belt, you can visit the Museum of the Canals (Grachten­museum), located in a beautiful 17th century patrician house at Heren­gracht 386.

Museum of the Canals (Grachtenmuseum), Herengracht 386, Amsterdam

Museum of the Canals (Grachten­museum), Heren­gracht 386 (October 2020).

Website Museum of the Canals:

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