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:

  1. Singel
  2. Herengracht
  3. Keizersgracht
  4. Prinsengracht

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 gables etc.

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

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.