Celebrate with Amsterdam

Amsterdam celebrates the 400-year anniversary of its Canal District

This year Amsterdam celebrates the 400-year anniversary of its famous Canal District. The city fathers embarked on the construction of the Grachtengordel, a ‘girdle’ of four canals with intersecting waterways, in the city’s Golden Age. They designated three of the canals – the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht -for residential development and the fourth, the Singel, for defence and water management. Although Amsterdam, like every modern city, now has its shopping malls, ring roads and a shabby Central Station area, the Grachtengordel, A UNESCO Heritage Site, still encloses neighbourhoods of durable charm. Here the 17th century has been intruded upon only lightly by the 21st.

Where to begin? A short walk from the railway station brings you to the Grachtenhuis museum, ‘the gateway to the canals’, at 386 Herengracht. Scale models of the city and the canal houses plus multi-media presentations tell the story of the expansion of the inner canal system in Amsterdam. The building is not only a beautiful example of a canal house, but offers an overview of life in the city from the 17th to the 21st century. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 17:00.

Or you could begin with a walk along the canals, admiring the facades of the elegant red brick houses, as they themselves seem to admire their own reflection in the water. Take photographs from the bridges. Let time go by while you enjoy a coffee in a corner side cafe. And then if you start to wonder about the people who built these houses and what lies behind these lovingly preserved exteriors, enter one of them to imagine for yourself what life was like; there are several possibilities. One is the Van Loon mansion at Keizergracht 672. Built in 1691, its first resident was a pupil of Rembrandt. Wider than most of the canal side houses, this building was purchased by Hendrik Van Loon as a wedding present for his son in 1884. The house is still in the possession of the Van Loon family who open their home and collections to the public six days a week. The house is unique in that the garden and the coach house with its classic facade are also preserved.   

Open 11:00 to 17:00 except on Tuesdays.


The Willet-Holthuysen canal house at 605 Herengracht affords another quiet glimpse into the past. Built in 1687 and left to the city in 1894, its rooms are a time capsule of well to do life in Amsterdam in times gone by. Visit the kitchens, the garden, and the reception rooms. Open daily, Monday to Friday 10:00 to 17:00, weekends 11:00 to 17:00.

A bonus to visitors to the Museum of Bags and Purses, 573 Herengracht, is a look inside an elegant old building. In 2006, the house was given to the woman whose astonishing collection it now houses by an anonymous and very generous benefactor. There are painted ceilings, an elaborate reception room and an exceptionally pleasant cafe overlooking the garden. Incidentally, you don’t have to be particularly interested in bags and purses to enjoy a visit to the museum exhibitions. Through the story of these accessories the curators have illustrated history itself, from the days when bags and purses were unisex to the present. Open daily 10:00 to 17:00.

Houseboats line the canals in the Grachtengordel; they are now some of the most prized residences in the city. There are over 2,500 of them, each with its own address, postal delivery and access to the city services. The Hendrika Marja, built in 1913, was a freighter until it was converted into a houseboat in the 1960s. It’s now a museum where you can see what the living conditions were on board when the skipper lived there with his family. There’s a museum shop selling among other things, books on houseboats. Prinsengracht 296K. Open daily 11:00 to 17:00.

Nearby on Prinsengracht 263-267 is the second most visited museum in Amsterdam. (Van Gogh is number one.) Over one million people a year make their way to ‘Anne Frank House’ to see for themselves the hidden annex in which this young Jewish girl, her parents and sister along with four other people evaded the Nazis for two years. Betrayed in 1945, they were transported to extermination camps where all but the father died. Anne Frank’s diary, found in the abandoned secret rooms, has been translated into over 30 languages. The first digital edition of the book, containing previously unseen material including video footage, was launched earlier this year as an app for iPad and Nook. An exhibition centre, shop and cafe have been added to the side of the house to accommodate the seemingly endless queue of visitors. Consider booking a time slot online; you print out your ticket in advance and enter with minimal delay through a separate doorway. The visit may break your heart but you won’t forget it.

Cross the Prinsengracht with Anne Franks’ House at your back, and you are heading into the Jordaan section, one of the prettiest areas of Amsterdam, full of boutiques, antique shops and restaurants. Just opposite the Anne Frank House is the highly recommended Cafe de Prins, Prinsengracht 124. Although it has retained its ‘brown cafe’ character, this is a stylish place to enjoy anything from a simple snack to a fine dinner. The kitchen is open from 10:00 until 20:00 daily.


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