Amsterdam’s fastidiously spun network of canals has protected the charismatic city by keeping the waters of the North Sea at bay since the 17th century. Often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” one can’t help but be seduced by the old-world charm of narrow, cyclist filled streets which interlace historic city blocks with the infrastructure of 1500 bridges. An astonishing 100 km network of canals and a residential population of more than 16 million means life in Amsterdam coexists and revolves around this stunning, yet vital maze of water passages. The following is a selection of quirky, canal-centric happenings that may not be common knowledge of those vacationing in the Netherlands.
Elfstedentocht | Eleven Cities Tour
Each winter brings with it the speculation of whether or not the canals will freeze over with ice safe enough (15 cm thick) to hold a mass of 16,000 skaters who wish to glide their way along the 200 km course and through eleven cities. There have been periods of time (ranging anywhere between a couple years to decades) where the ice has not been suitable to hold this event. Once the necessary layer of ice has accumulated atop Amsterdam’s waterways (generally in the months of January or February), the public is given 48 hours notice that the skating festivities are on.
(edit: it was noted by a reader that “One inconsistency in this article: the 11 cities tour does not pass Amsterdam. The whole tour is in the province of Fryslan, in the north of the country. Amsterdam is in Noord-Holland and in no way connected to this tour.” This event is still noteworthy to keep in the list with this correction. The video clip does show the canals freezing over in Amsterdam, and the good times this rare occurrence brings the city.
De Poezenboot | The Catboat
In 1968, Amsterdam’s Cat Lady (Henriette van Weelde) found her home had been completely overrun by stray felines, whom she ended up devotedly caring for. The fur was flying and she needed a solution. The answer was just steps from her front door; Henriette purchased a houseboat. Miss van Weelde’s unique antidote to clearing her home of kitty mayhem captured the attention of other cat adoring Amsterdammers who became the shelter’s first volunteers. Today, a modern animal sanctuary floats in the same berth of the original catboat at Singel 38.G.
Twice a year Amsterdam excavates the canals to rid the bottom of debris. What is the most common item to resurface amongst the clutch of the crane dredge’s claws? Bicycles, of course! In a city where pairs of cyclists’ wheels outnumber the residents, many-a-stolen bike has met its demise in the depths of Amsterdam’s water-passages.
Stay on a Houseboat
Rent a houseboat in Amsterdam. You can’t get any closer to the water than this, without getting drenched, of course. Sure, you could book a hotel room, but you can do that most anywhere. Tailor yourself a one-of-a-kind trip to Holland by spending a few nights aboard a houseboat, and rent a car in Amsterdam to explore the surrounding towns and cities.
Open Tuinen Dagen | Open Garden Days
During June, thirty elegant, privately owned houseboats open their doors to the public for three days, so that people can catch a glimpse of the homes’ lovely gardens. Normally, these green spaces are inaccessible to passersby, but behind each grand houseboat lies little piece of hidden paradise.
By all means, do Amsterdam’s traditional touristy things. Visit the Van Gogh Museum, take a canal day-cruise and rent a bike (just don’t let it fall victim of a merciless drowning), because a trip to Amsterdam just wouldn’t feel right without partaking in these customary activities. To get a real taste of this magnificent city, try to fit in a few of the more the lesser-known excursions, too.