The most important canals of Amsterdam

The term grachtengordel, canal belt, has been used for nearly a hundred years to refer to the fan-shaped area enclosing the old centre of Amsterdam. However, it is often employed to describe the most imposing parts of the district: Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht, on the west side of the Amstel.

Museum of the Canals

The canal belt

Historically, it has also included the Singel, Nieuwe Herengracht, Nieuwe Keizersgracht, and Nieuwe Prinsegracht, to the east of the river. The oldest of these four canals, the Singel, was originally the western part of the medieval canal that ran from the Amstel along Kloveniersburgwal and Geldersekade. The other three were built later, and given attractive names to encourage wealthy merchants to build elegant houses beside them: Prinsengracht, princes’ canal; Keizersgracht, emperor’s canal, and Herengracht, governors’ canal.

The district is laid out in a regular shape with strong lines running through it, but the areas between these lines varied in size, function, appearance, and prosperity. Herengracht and Keizersgracht were always intended to be wealthy residential areas; Herengracht, in particular, was popular among rich merchants and senior government officials. These canals were also unusually wide, adding to their status. They were not built for bustling traffic. Quiet was strongly encouraged, both inside the buildings and courtyards and outside in public spaces. The buildings were designed to minimise noise, smoke, and noxious smells, and the canals to keep out large crowds. While Herengracht and Keizersgracht were residential, the cross streets and squares were occupied by businesses and traffic.

The most imposing mansions were on the Golden Bend of Herengracht, between Vijzelstraat and Leidesestraat. Some buyers here and elsewhere submitted plans for whole rows of adjoining houses, particularly on the bend. The only trade on or near Herengracht took place in the five narrow shopping streets linking the old city with the city’s five most important gates: Haarlemmerpoort, Leidsepoort, Utrechtsepoort, Weesperpoort, and Muiderpoort.

Work- and traffic canals

Singel and Prinsengracht were much busier, home to warehouses, markets, and businesses. Prinsengracht had an orphanage, the later Palace of Justice, a market square, and a church. Pictures from the period show the canals lined with boats and merchandise.
Prinsengracht was the only waterway linking all parts of the new city, and the only one connected directly to the IJ. As a result, Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht formed the transitions between the most elegant canals and the business areas outside the canal district.


The Golden Bend on Herengracht, Gerrit Berckheyde, 1671-1672.
Source: Rijksmuseum

Prinsengracht at Reestraat and the vegetable market, c. 1725; Abraham Rademaker and Jan Schenk.
Amsterdam City Archive