The canals (gracht, pl.:grachten) are the historic
center of Amsterdam, and the reason for its nickname "Venice of the
North" (a nickname that many other cities claim, though). The
major canals go in wide semicircles around the city center (Dam or
Dam Square. Moving outwards from
the center, the names of the major canals are:
There are smaller canals that connect the four major
canals like the spokes in a wheel. Several of these canals have been
closed during the last centuries, to make way for roads (sigh).
The canals are not very clean. Long time ago, they were used as a sewer
system for the houses along the canals. An ingenious system of
sluices (still existing today) would flush out the canals at
regular intervals. Nowadays, if you're in need of a bike, get a rope
and hook, and start dredging the canal from a bridge.
Have a stroll along the canals to see the many beautiful buildings.
Especially the houses in the Gouden Bocht ("Golden Corner") on
the Herengracht between the Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat are
impressive mansions built in the 17th century. There are
ordinary single houses (3 bays, 25-30 ft.; 7-8.5 m.) and double
houses (5 bays, 50-60 ft.; 14-17 m.) Houses are also classified by
function. There are Merchants' houses with top floors dedicated as
storage space, and mansions built for residential purposes
only. Most houses have one or two sets(depending on the owner's wealth) of
stairs leading up to the main entrance, with a basement entry for
supplies and personnel.
Many of the houses are quite narrow, since each house was taxed on
the width of its facade. If the houses along the canals appear to
lean forward, it is no optical illusion. Because of the taxing
scheme, the stairways were kept narrow. Goods had to be lifted in
through the windows, and in order to keep the goods from smashing the
windows, the buildings were built at small angle (by a 1565 law not
exceeding a 1:25 incline). Notice the hoist beams on the facade tops.
Most remarkable are the facades of the various houses. They
were typically painted and ornamented and served to make the house
recognizable for visitors before a house numbering scheme was adopted.
The smaller houses are also decorated with a top gable. Since these
houses are so small, the slanted roofs go from front-to-back rather than
side-to-side. A top gable was used to hide the ugly roof ridge. A whole
range of top gables developed: stepped gables, neck-gables, bell-shaped
Unfortunately, several houses were demolished and replaced by ugly
office buildings. A big shame of course, and it looks even worse if
the architect attempted to give the modern glass/concrete structures a
17th century look. Nowadays, the canals and its
buildings have more protection from overzealous developers.
There is a nice guide with drawings and a description of all
the houses along the four major canals:
Tim Killiam, Hans Tulleners, Amsterdamse Grachtengids,
Het Spectrum, 1978