Exploring the amazing waterways of Amsterdam, the 'Venice of the North", on a small boat tour
Amsterdam, has more than one hundred kilometres of grachten (canals), about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. This, of course, draws parallels to the famous canals of Venice – which had led Amsterdam to be called the “Venice of the North” – although the city has a much different vibe.
Like Venice, Amsterdam has struggled with a dramatic increase of tourism but luckily large cruise ships don’t arrive in the centre of the city and the local politicians have started to take action to stop tourism killing the character of the city. It has done some odd things, such as move the “I Love Amsterdam” sign and other actions that seem more logical such as stopping any additional hotel rooms in the city and restrictions on AirBnB.
Anyway, back to the canals of Amsterdam. The three main canals (Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht), dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, form concentric belts around the city, known as the Grachtengordel. Alongside the main canals are 1550 monumental buildings. The 17th-century canal ring area, including the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan, were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.
One of the best ways (by bike is even better) to explore central Amsterdam is aboard a boat. When I sat down to plan our trip to Amsterdam I thought about what I would want from a boat tour the most important thing was to be on a small boat and have a more personal experience. After a bit of research, I came across a tour company that seemed to fit the bill. Those Dam Boat Guys – the name tickled me alone – operate a number of small boats and looking at their website (which is a hoot) and reviews I decided to go with them.
The tours meet at the Wester Cafe, which is across the canal from the Anne Frank house, so it is easy to find. This is a lively cafe and it is a great place to hang out for a coffee or beet before or after the tour.
The boats are launched in a quieter adjacent canal, so we were met and let to the starting point. There were eight of us – which is about the capacity of the boat. As we walked we were treated to the sights of the larger tour boats that leave from the same area – they are huge compared to the size of the canals. I would have hated to be on one of those. We were to find out later that because of their size there are places these large boats can’t get to that the smaller vessels can!
We climbed on to our small 10 people, eco-friendly electric boat (the municipality of Amsterdam is requiring all boats on the canal to be electric by 2025 – yeah) and were introduced to our skipper for the 90-minute tour. Sadly, I cannot recall his name (remembering names has always been a problem for me) but he had a soft Irish brogue and a wicked sense of humour. The tours of Those Dam Boat Guys is very different from others, the experience is very intimate and the skipper holds you in interesting and often witty dialogue.
It was very relaxing to quietly pass through the quieter backwaters of Amsterdam’s canal system passing by pretty gabled houses and houseboats moored on the canal side. We learned that Amsterdam is becoming a very expensive city to live in especially if you are a houseboat owner. Apparently, there are houseboats that will set you back a million euros or more – this cost is as much to do with location (you buy the dock space) as the state of the boat itself.
As space has always been of a premium in this city the houses that were built are narrow and tall. The narrowest house is believed to stand on Oude Hoogstraat. It stands at a minuscule 2.02 metres wide and only 5 metres deep, with just one small room on each floor, which must have made living in it extremely impractical. Today, the house is open to the public as ‘the smallest tea room in Amsterdam’. The ground on which some of these properties, as you might suspect in a place filled with so much water, is less than stable causing some of these houses to visibly tilt. In fact, it only due to the fact that they are stacked next to one another and provide mutual support that stops them from toppling over.
Many of Amsterdam’s older buildings have decorative gables at the top. The canal house gables come in a variety of styles and additionally, give an insight into the history of the building. A gable is the section of wall between the edges of a dual-pitched roof. They are visible on the tall elegant canal houses in Amsterdam, providing both an aesthetic and functional purpose through their winches. These winches are still used for lifting heavy or bulky items to the top floors. Over four centuries, the design of the gable facades evolved according to the fashion of the times. So, by looking at the gable you can get a sense of the age of the building.
As well as the quaint smaller canals through the popular residential districts of Jordaan, there are of course larger canals through which some pretty large boats enter into the city. The boats often cannot pass underneath the bridges that cross the canal – so many of them lift to let the boats pass.
We really enjoyed our trip with Those Dam Boat Guys, it was great fun and informative. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
In summary …
- There are many boat tours available in Amsterdam but if you like something more intimate take a small boat tour!
- The weather of the Netherlands is quite unpredictable and the boat tours run rain or shine. The small boat tours are uncovered so taking a raincoat is sensible
- The best way to see Amsterdam is from the canals so we highly recommend taking a boat tour of some kind.
Planning your Amsterdam boat tour
The ‘Those Dam Boat Guys’ tours meets at the Cafe Wester, which is close to the Anne Frank house. Get there early and enjoy a coffee or beer! The best way to reach the cafe is to walk or take public transport. The trams stop very close to the cafe along Raadhuisstraat.
Best time to visit Amsterdam
The Dutch capital is fascinating and full of energy all year long, but if you are set on sightseeing as much as possible, spring and early fall are the best times to visit Amsterdam. The weather is mild, you’re more likely to see sun than rain, and the crowds are down to manageable sizes. This is the best time to score deals outside of winter, and even if you have to wait in line to enter or board your favourite attraction, at least the weather outside is likely to be nice.
Vegan friendly dining in Amsterdam
1. VEGAN JUNK FOOD BAR
The Vegan Junk Food Bar is a small chain of restaurants, with four locations in Amsterdam and one in Rotterdam. During our couple of days stay in Amsterdam we tried two locations, one on Staringplein and the other on Marie Heinekenplein. Both were excellent and very busy, with mainly young people – which is great to see and makes me hopeful for the future.
2. MR BLOU I LOVE YOU
‘Mr. Blou’ started his street food stall in October 2017, at the kiosk on the other side of the police station at Marnixstraat. He started cooking twelve years ago and worked in several restaurants in Paris, and Michelin star restaurants Bridges and at The Okura in Amsterdam. After developing burnout and quitting his job, he did a fair bit of travelling. It was in Singapore where he discovered a street food stall so good, it actually had a Michelin star!
Back in Amsterdam he voluntarily cooked for a while for Syrian refugees. From all the things he made, they loved his falafel the most. That’s how the idea for the street food stall got shape, and in the tradition of French chefs, he named it after himself. And the falafel became his signature dish.
Where to stay?
1. HOTEL NOT HOTEL
In my exploration of unusual places to stay, I was delighted to find, when scouring the hospitality websites, the Hotel Not Hotel. This is a very unique place with just a few rooms but they are all somewhat quirky, ranging from rooms hidden behind bookcases to a VW camper and tramcar
2. SWEETS HOTEL
Having spent two nights in a tramcar at the Hotel Not Hotel in Amsterdam I decided to switch to somewhere else for a night. Truth be known I could only get two nights at the Hotel Not Hotel, so the change was pretty much enforced – but I was glad to try a different place. I had been thinking about stopping on a houseboat – a must-do thing when staying in Amsterdam, but it was really, really expensive. Yet I found the next best thing, which sounded really cool – a bridge house on the canal.