Amsterdam: An Urban Center Dependent on the Waters

Many European cities such as Venice, Brugge, Gent, Paris, ​and Amsterdam are entwined with water. A lot of these magnificent cities are twinned with man-made canals, leading to rivers and onto the sea. Of these European cities, Amsterdam is exemplary, in such a way that its canals are significant to the city’s economic development. At the same time, these networks of canals are considered artworks and important markers to understand Dutch politics, culture, society, and history.

Since the city is founded on – where else – the waters, the best way to see Amsterdam is through the canals. What I am going to present in this post are some amazing information (trivia time!) I got from the “captain” of the ferry/cruise I joined when I visited Amsterdam early September this year.

A canal in Amsterdam (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The Facade of Anne Frank House (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), one of the many and one of the most popular bridges in Amsterdam (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
One of the modern boathouses in the canal (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The Westertoren (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

First, I’ll start with the terminal: it’s just across Ann Frank’s House, or the bunker where Frank and her family stayed to hide from the Nazis during the Second World War. I went inside the House but that’s another story.

Anyhow, I should also note that a few meters away from the terminal and Ann Frank’s House (now a museum) is the tall building called Westertoren (Western Tower). The tower is similar to the belfries in Belgium and France. Incidentally, the tower is indeed a belfry: it used to be a church. Two things pointed out by the “captain” about the tower: people often do selfies in front of the tower to signify that indeed they were in Amsterdam and the black logo with three x’s is the symbol of the city.

Second, I learned from the cruise that Amsterdam got its name from the water where the city is founded: Amstel River. The city was originally a fishing village. Later in the 13th century, the Dutch began constructing dams to protect the village from drowning. Amstel plus dam is Amstellodamus, later transformed into . . . yes, the capital city of the Netherlands: Amsterdam.

Third, the networks of canals are collectively called Seventeenth-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam Inside the Singelgracht and the entire network, the infrastructure, the merchants or guild houses, the historical buildings, and historical monuments are protected by the city and national government. These properties also possess outstanding universal values, that in 2010 the UNESCO Convention elevated the statuses of these properties to a World Heritage Site title.

A boathouse for rent for tourists (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
One of the oldest boathouses in the canal (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
One of the bridges in Amsterdam (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Guild houses painted in black (Photo: SAP Tiatco)


Fourth, my overly enthusiastic “captain” proudly exclaimed that Amsterdam has over a thousand bridges. I do not remember the exact number but it is something like 1,300 or less. But one thing is certain: Amsterdam has more bridges than any other canal cities in Europe such as Gent, Brugge, and . . . Venice! These bridges are even destinations in and of themselves.

Fifth, some of the houses along the canal ring are painted black. The black color was intentional. However, the black color was not part of the design or the architectural plan of the original owners of the houses. Flashback: Medieval Europe, 14th Century – death toll: between 75 to 200 million people. If you are thinking of the Bubonic Plague, you are correct. What is the correlation of the plague with the houses? Remember, the Bubonic Plague was also called the Black Death? When the captain was talking about this, I was inclined to believe that the correlation was really this “black” death. However, if this was so, why not all the guild houses were painted black? Then, the captain remarked: the city council asked the homeowners to paint the facade black should someone from the household got infected with the disease.

Sixth, houseboats are lined up along the canals. Most of these houseboats are residences of locals. But some houseboats are luxurious accommodation spaces for tourists.  A visitor/tourist may be billeted on a houseboat on a price ranging from 200 Euros to 600 Euros a night. But on some occasions, our captain remarked, that prices may even rise above 600 Euros depending on the season. But once-upon-a-time, these houseboats were solutions to the rising price of landed buildings and/or spaces. In the past, houseboats were not taxed, so we were told. But today, tariffs are charged should one decide to live on a houseboat. Houseboats became very, very popular in Amsterdam.

Finally, the city was once surrounded by defensive walls, originally built in the 16th century. The original purpose of these walls was to defend the city against any form of attack. In the 19th century, the walls were torn but some were restored and reused as “principles of controlling the water.” The walls are now called Defence Line of Amsterdam, a complete ring of fortifications extending more than 135 km around the city of Amsterdam and also inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, four years earlier than the inscription of Amsterdam’s Canal Ring.

This is Amsterdam! It is a city that depends so much on the waters!


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