It’s, of course, unquestionably true that we live in a world that’s shaped and formed around the automobile. Interstate highways connect all of the major U.S. cities, with rest stops and trucks stops and malls and hotels and restaurants built all along the way for convenience. Easy off, easy on, gas up, grab a burger, and you’re on your way.
And it isn’t just in North America. Even in Europe, the modern approach to urban centers has been utterly transformed in the past 100 years. But for centuries, that wasn’t the case. The highways and thoroughfares of the world were filled with water and fueled by the trade winds.
And nowhere is this aquatic legacy more evident, even today, than in Amsterdam. Famously, the Netherlands is a country perpetually under water. We all know the story of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. And the reality really is rather remarkable: More than a quarter of the country sits below sea level.
That was all on my mind, just a little, as I prepared to board a sleek, low canal boat to explore Holland’s largest city. Now a world-famous tourist attraction, the city’s canals are almost perfectly concentrically shaped—look at an aerial photo, and they appear to be a blueprint, come to life.
And that’s no coincidence. Amsterdam was founded in the middle of the 13th century and named for a dam that separates the River Amstel and the sea. Those early denizens built the first medieval canals as defensive moats but eventually began using them as a convenient and expedient way to ferry goods around town.
Things really got going in the 17th century. This was the city’s famed Golden Age. Trade was rising at unprecedented levels and so was immigration, with people flooding into the city to grab a piece of that incredible wealth. A city plan was needed. And it depended not on more roads, but on the water.
Over the next 50 years, workers dug Amsterdam’s three main canals, wrapping them around the old, medieval town. They also constructed houses and hundreds of warehouses, and a transit network of barges brought wares arriving by ship to every merchant in the port. Today, Amsterdam is home to more than 60 miles of canals (twice the amount you’ll find in Venice). Plus, about 90 islands are connected by some 1,500 bridges.
The best way to see it all? Definitely, from the water. Just before descending onto the dock and boarding the boat, my guide pointed out two interesting nearby eccentricities. One, a little tower that formerly controlled traffic on the waterways. It looks like a box, similar to a miniature control tower at an airport, raised up on stilts. It was decommissioned and converted to accommodations—now, you can stay overnight in this funny ersatz hotel room.
The other, cruising by us, was a small odd-looking vessel that even the guide seemed surprised to see.
“Oh, this is a very special boat,” she said.
Amsterdam is also famous for its bicycles, with many city residents traveling to work, school, and social events solely on two wheels. And somehow, a lot of them end up at the bottom of the canals.
“They find about 15,000 bikes every year down there,” the guide said. “This boat dredges the canals and gets them out.”
Stepping into the tour boat, I sank into a leathery banquette. The views were maximized by a glass dome, giving riders a little warmth on this sunny late autumn morning, while letting us see everything beside and above the vessel. Motoring low in the water, we were able to sneak under those many bridges all over town.
We passed a former warehouse, with the guide noting that most of these spaces, once a key part of the city’s economic engine, have been converted to modern offices and apartments. As we passed one connecting canal, the guide explained that it was once lined with breweries.
“Back then, people drank water off the canal,” she explained. “Beer was much healthier.”
As we motored along the Prinsengracht—built back in 1612—the tour included brushes with some of Amsterdam’s biggest attractions, including the Anne Frank House. We also passed the iconic tower of the Westerkerk, one of the oldest Protestant churches in the city. The artist Rembrandt is buried under there, somewhere (nobody knows the exact place, as he was buried a poor man). Much later, in 1966, then Crown Princess Beatrix married a German aristocrat at this same church amid much controversy.
But for me, the biggest thrill was the chance to—slow, steady, and smooth—see this city at eye level. To experience a well-planned place in the exact way that it was designed. And, perhaps on a baser level, the slightly naughty feeling that you’re getting a sneak peek at the lives of Amsterdammers in their day-to-day routines.
Bikers on the paths, headed to work. Joggers crossing the little archways of the bridges. And especially look inside the many houseboats that line the sides of the canals—their windows often matching up with the view out the side of the dome.
We got this weird and kind of wonderful feeling of being a fly-on-the-wall in their homes, seeing these folks just waking up, reading the morning news at their breakfast tables, and lingering over one more cup of steaming coffee before they have to get on their bike and pedal off to work.