Amsterdam’s Famous Canals Turn 400

Tempting reasons to visit Amsterdam in 2013

I AMsterdam outdoor sculpture in front of the newly-reopened Rijksmuseum

IAMsterdam outdoor sculpture in front of the newly-reopened Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam is a great city to visit any time, but this year offers greater inducements to put the city on your itinerary. We were there in June and the city is in celebration mode, with all kinds of special activities. The logo for the year is I AMsterdam and we saw this in bright red on many banners. In front of the Rijksmueum by the fountains is a huge outdoor installation of these letters, and it’s apparently de rigueur to clamber all over it.

For many, the most important event this year is the celebration of the canals: 2013 is the four-hundredth anniversary of the famous Amsterdam canals.

Water and the Netherlands are inseparable, as one fifth of the country consists of water, and the people of the country are champions of water management—-without the dunes, dykes and other flood barriers, two-thirds of the country would frequently be flooded.

A canal boat preparing to leave on a canal tour

A canal boat preparing to leave on a canal tour

Every European city with waterways likes to claim it’s the ‘Venice of the north’. But Amsterdam can honestly make that claim, and canals are iconic of the Netherlands capital. Amsterdam has the largest canal system in the world and the most bridges of any European city—-approximately 160 canals with a total length of 60+ miles and around 1500 bridges. The canals are about 10 feet deep, lined with 100,000 Dutch elm and lime trees, and are home to around 2,500 houseboats, some of which are on floating concrete platforms.

The historic checkerboard of intersecting canals was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. And this year, 2013, is the quadricentennial of the excavation of the major canals that ring the city. Many hotels, restaurants and museums have formed a loose union called Amsterdam Canals 2013, to showcase the city and its vibrant past with special exhibits on canal history. One exhibit is on the multiple items that have fallen into or been thrown into the canals—dumping disused bikes is a relatively recent occurrence, but the findings are like an archeological record of the 400 years of people living on and around the canals.

Views of pretty gabled buildings from the canal boat

Views of pretty gabled buildings from the canal boat

As we walk along Amsterdam’s many canals, lined by lovely 17th-century gabled brick houses and crossed by arched bridges, we marvel at how many there are. They were built as part of a complex flood control system, to tame the flow of the Amstel River. Over the years they’ve become part of the very fabric of the city—as waterways and defense works. A system of locks near the Central Station controls the water movement inward to the river and outward to the North Sea.

The canals are fascinating any time of day but are especially pretty at night when thousands of lights illuminate them. Wander along the canals as you head for a place to eat, or take a canal boat ride. Apparently over three million tourists annually hop on a canal boat to tour the Amsterdam canals.

The Concertgebouw has been delighting audiences for 125 years

The Concertgebouw has been delighting audiences for 125 years

As you glide past grand waterside mansions (many now luxury hotels) once owned by wealthy merchants, you can feel the history all around. As the city population increased, three parallel, roughly oval-shaped, main canals were built in 1613 outside the walls of the inner medieval city. These three canals were the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), Keizersgracht (King’s Canal) and Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal). They became the center of Amsterdam’s golden age, the 17th century. At that time, Amsterdam was one of the world’s busiest seaports and the capital of the Dutch empire. Ships from around the world brought exotic items from overseas into the city. For example, tulips, the iconic flower of the Netherlands, were actually brought from Turkey in 1593, becoming so popular that people spent enormous sums of money to buy them and grow new species.

But, besides the canals, Amsterdam has other reasons to celebrate in 2013.

*The world-famous Concertgebouw Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 125th anniversary with many special performances.

*The Rijksmuseum re-opened in mid-April after an almost decade-long renovation. It’s the country’s biggest museum housing masterpieces by Dutch artists Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, such as “The Night Watch” and “The Kitchen Maid”. The Van Gogh Museum also re-opened in May. In fact, this year is the first time in many years that all the museums on Museumplein are open at the same time.

*The Amsterdam Artis Zoo turns 175 years this year.

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