Amsterdam's canals stretch for a total of more than one hundred kilometers, with some 1,500 bridges crossing them, linking about 90 islands.
The four main canals are the Herengracht, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht and Singel. Built in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, they form what is known as the 'Golden Curve'.
The main canals
These develop in a succession of concentric semicircles around the historic city center, the Centrum district.
The first four canals are spaced from each other by strips of land 80 to 150 meters wide on average, while the distance between the fourth and fifth can be as much as about 550 meters (northern limit of the Jordaan district).
These canals are also connected to each other by others perpendicular to them, such as the Brouwersgracht, the Leidsegracht, or the Reguliersgracht.
The Singel (not to be confused with the Singelgracht) is the first canal closest to the city center and served as a moat for the medieval city until 1585 when Amsterdam began its urban expansion. It flows east into the Amstel at the Muntplein and northwest into the IJ.
Singel is an old Dutch word meaning 'circle', which can be related to the German term: umzingeln meaning 'to surround'.
The Curvature in the Herengracht near the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat in Amsterdam (1672), by Gerrit Berckheyde.
The Herengracht, translated as the 'Patrician Canal', is the canal from the city center that is the three main canals' innermost. It is extended to the east by the Nieuwe Herengracht and flows northwest into the Brouwersgracht.
It is very famous for its 'Golden Curve' (Gouden Bocht) between the bridges of the Leidsestraat and the Vijzelstraat. It was often depicted in paintings in the 17th century by the painter Gerrit Berckheyde, who made a whole series of paintings.
The main curiosities of this canal are the biblical museum, the Cats' Cabinet, an art museum dedicated to this animal, the Hendrikje Bag Museum, the Willet-Holthuysen Museum, and the Botanical Garden of Amsterdam.
The Keizersgracht in winter.
The Keizersgracht, translated as 'Emperor's canal,' is the third of the four main canals from the city center. It was named in honor of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Maximilian I of Germany. It is extended to the east by the Nieuwe Keizersgracht. It flows northwest into the Brouwersgracht.
The main attractions of this canal are :
the Astoria, an Art Nouveau style house;
Eleven Lieve Vrouwekerk, which is a Catholic church;
the Felix Meritis building;
Huis Marseille, a museum of photography;
the Geelvinck-Hinlopen Museum;
the Van Loon Museum:
the FOAM, a museum of photography.
The Prinsengracht, translated as 'Prince's canal' was named after William I of Orange-Nassau. It is the longest of the four main canals because it is the outermost one. It is extended to the northwest by the Korte Prinsengracht and the east by the Nieuwe Prinsengracht.
The Noorderkerk (Northern Church), Noordermarkt (Northern Market), the Tulip Museum, Anne Frank's house, the Westerkerk (Western Church), the Amstelkerk, De Duif (Prince's Church).
The Singelgracht runs along the outer side of the Houfmankade, the Naussaukade, the Stadhouderskade and the Mauritskade. On the inner side it runs along the Houfmankade, Marnixkade, Leidsekade, Nicolaas Witsenkade, Sarphatikade, Spinozastraat and Alexanderkade.
The main sights are the Paradiso, which is a concert hall, the Heineken Experience, the building of the famous Dutch beer brand, the Bank of the Netherlands, and the nearby Tropenmuseum.
Mnemonic: A sentence in Dutch gives the order of the canals: Piet Koopt Hoge Schoenen ('Peter bought big shoes'). Not Dutch-speaking, so remember this phrase when thinking of a man named Pekka who is exhausted running the canals: 'Pekka HS = PKHS' (useful when moving around this area without a map).
Canals of the Jordaan
These canals are located in the Jordaan, the district that forms the western part of Amsterdam's city center between the Singelgracht and the Prinsengracht.