Taking a canal boat tour through Amsterdam has got to be the most popular thing to do in the city. I don’t have any facts to back that up, but judging by the amount of companies offering boat tours and cruises of the canals, I’m probably not too far off the mark. There are daytime tours, open boat tours, extra long tours, off-the-beaten-path tours, nighttime cocktail cruises, pizza dinner cruises, and so on. With so many different options, how do you choose?
The majority of companies offering Amsterdam canal tours will take visitors through the well-known canals passing through areas with major sights like the Anne Frank House, Museumplein, and the Jordaan district. This type of cruise would have been a great option had we not already seen most of these canals on foot in the days prior.
However, when it came down to it, we decided we’d prefer to see some of the city’s hidden treasures by taking a backroads canal boat tour through Amsterdam. Instead of the more popular route, our backroads tour took us through the old center of Amsterdam where we were able to see some of the city’s historical buildings and monuments, along with a few quirky sights as well!
Our tour boat was an open air, eco-boat (electrically powered) and Captain Pim was our guide. (I highly recommend you find a tour with a live guide vs a recording. It’s just more fun!) From start to finish, our cruise was about an hour and 15 minutes.
We were blessed with some beautiful weather for our tour through the Amsterdam canal ring. It was a bit chilly, especially down in the boat, but with the sun shining directly overhead we didn’t have to spend the entire hour listening to our teeth chatter.
Captain Pim first took us through some lovely, quaint alleyways where the row houses appeared to rise directly out of the water. Houseboats, each unique from its neighbor, lined every available inch of the canal walls. I loved getting to see the city from this new perspective. The views from down below make Amsterdam look even more charming than what you see strolling down the streets.
On the more peculiar portion of our canal boat tour, we got to see the smallest house in Amsterdam, which really looks more like an afterthought – like someone saw the tiny space between the two larger houses and just couldn’t let it go to waste. (And I thought my flat was small!)
We also got to see the tilted “Dancing Houses” which I suppose sounds better than, “I live in a house where pictures never hang straight on the wall.” An OCD sufferer’s nightmare, for sure.
Captain Pim’s commentary all along the way was the best. I’m sure he does this same spiel at least five times a day, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing him talk. He genuinely enjoys sharing the history of the city and its unusual stories with visitors. You can read some of the interesting tidbits we learned from Captain Pim here.
Along with the more unconventional sights, we also got to see some pretty important historical landmarks in Amsterdam’s history. The tower above is called the Montelbaanstoren. It is what’s left of the protective wall that was built in the early 1500’s to help defend the city. The clock tower was added on top in 1606 and given the nickname “Silly Jack” due to the fact that its hourly bells were somewhat unreliable.
Next we traveled beneath the bridge pictured above – the Magere Brug, or “skinny bridge”. It earned its name before the bridge was widened in 1871. Before the renovation, it is rumored that the bridge was so narrow that only one person could cross at a time as it was not wide enough for people crossing in opposite directions to pass each other.
And finally, one of the coolest parts of our backroads canal boat tour through Amsterdam was going under the famous Seven Bridges lined up one after the other on the canal. In case you were wondering, this is not the road that inspired the Eagles song, Seven Bridges Road. That road is in Alabama. This minor detail, however, did not keep me from humming the song for the rest of our journey.
No trip to Amsterdam is complete without seeing just why this city is nicknamed the “Venice of the North”, and there’s no better way to do that than on a canal boat tour. You’ll likely have no trouble at all booking on the spot given the sheer number of canal tour operators in Amsterdam, but there are options if you prefer to book ahead as well.
Unfortunately, the specific tour we took (Hidden Treasures on the Canal Hopper) is no longer available, but if you’re looking for a similar alternative, this 75-minute open boat tour gets great reviews and comes with a live guide.
When searching for the perfect Amsterdam canal cruise, the main things I suggest looking for are small boat tours (less than 12 passengers) that can fit down the skinnier canals, and an open boat style so you won’t have to worry about glass reflections in your photos. Also, live guides always trump narrated recordings or audio guides in my book, so try to snag a spot on a boat with a chatty captain if you can!
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