Amsterdam is famous for many things, but perhaps its most iconic features are its canal belt (“Grachtengordel” in Dutch) and the beautiful Canal Houses built around them.
I happen to have a friend that lives on Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal), one of the main historic canals. He once told me an interesting story about how the second-richest man in France purchased 7 houses next to each other to build the Waldorf Hotel.
The style of his house always reminds me of how things were in the past. I noticed how the ceiling of the basement was a lot lower than the first floor, as the owners lived there, and the servants downstairs. It was like architecture was narrating the social differences of the time.
The History of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt
The canal belt was built in stages, starting in the 16th century around the old city center. It spans more than 100 kilometers of grachten (canals), about 90 islands, and more than 1,500 bridges.
Amsterdam’s canals date back to the 16th and early 17th centuries in the Dutch Golden Age. This project was intended to build a new port city with better transportation, water management, and protection against invaders.
Alongside the main canals are 1550 monumental buildings, hundreds of small boutiques, trendy restaurants and bars which are always bustling with people.
These unique narrow houses are found all across Amsterdam, but the oldest and most expensive houses are on Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizersgracht, three gorgeous canals that enclose the city’s historic center. If you want to take the best shot of the canal, we recommend that you go to a bridge outside Herengracht 161. When you look through it, you’ll be able to see 7 bridges in a single row.
Most of Amsterdam’s entertainment areas are located along the canal belt. The Rembrandt square has many dining and eating options where you can sample Dutch goodies or pubs, bars, and cafes where you can unwind.
The Leidse Plein square is known for its vibrant nightlife, cultural venues, restaurants, and famed clubs, such as ‘Paradiso’ (a music venue in a 18th-century church) and ‘Melkweg’ (a giant cultural venue complex in a former dairy factory). During the summer, the place is packed with people enjoying their drinks off the terrace and watching the canals glisten in the sun. There are also plenty of museums in the canal belt area, the most known being probably the Anne Frank House.
Although swimming in the canals is not recommended, there are times when people dive in. For example, Amsterdam City Swim is an annual fundraising event where people swim in the canals to raise charity funds. Even Queen Máxima joins every year s the guest of honor.
Housing Boom in Amsterdam
The concentric canal belt which now surrounds the old city center was built after an economic boom in the 17th century Amsterdam. Four massive ditches around the Dam were dug that connected Amsterdam’s two main rivers: IJ and Amstel.
As the city’s economy kept growing, many wealthy merchants started pouring into central Amsterdam, followed by many common men looking for better fortune. This led to a sharp increase in population. Soon Amsterdam faced a housing shortage and, as a result, the municipality started handing out plots of land to wealthy citizens. However, because of these plots were so narrow, a large number of houses were crammed onto the banks of the canal rings. So the style of these buildings resulted from necessity at that time. However, all of this is explained much better by this video about the Amsterdam Canals and Canal Belt history that can not be matched by words.
An academic research done by real estate finance professor Piet Eichholz of Maastricht University studied the interesting evolution of house prices along the Herengracht (Canal of the Lords) canal. Because of the outstanding way the records were kept, Eichholz was able to trace and create the Herengracht house index, covering housing prices starting in 1620 – when the Herengracht was built – all the way to 2008.
What he noticed, from his finds, is that the Herengracht never lost its selling value even after all these years, and it still remains, even to this day, Amsterdam’s expensive real estate. The Herengracht index showcases just how inflation adjusted real estate prices over time and also how these values are the only benchmark for housing prices in the world as they date from three centuries ago.
Currently, property prices are still rising in the Netherlands, but when compared to 2018, 2019 has a slight decrease. 2019 has an increase of 6% compared to 2018’s 8%. But this was not the only housing boom Amsterdam has experienced. In fact, through its history, it has seen many ups and downs price wise.
From 1628 to 1633, as Amsterdam’s economy saw a boost, Herengracht houses doubled prices. Then, when the tulip mania hit in 1637, they also saw a massive increase after which the entire market crashed. As a result, the buildings’ prices dropped back to their values from 1628.
Of course, many factors, such as wars and endemics, influenced these numbers. 380 years of real estate prices have shown that while the absolute prices have doubled since then, it represents an annual average price growth of around 0.1% corrected by inflation.
In conclusion, in spite of all the factors that influence the housing values, prices follow inflation, and it’s expected that they will keep on rising in the Netherlands in the coming years. However, this will not stop the invasion of tourists and Amsterdam’s future inhabitants; nothing could, as this place is breathtaking in every single way.
As there are many restaurants and stores, it can get pretty tiresome to go to all of them on foot. A Canal Boat Cruise & Dutch Food Tour lets you rest while you see the city from the canal and you are taken to the best eateries in town without breaking a sweat.
Also published on Medium.