Everything you need to know about the Grachtengordel

The Grachtengordel, or “girdle of canals”, reaches right around the city centre and is without a doubt the most charming part of Amsterdam, its lattice of olive green waterways and dinky humpback bridges overlooked by street upon street of handsome 17th-century canal houses. 

Come here for the district’s overall atmosphere rather than any specific sight, with the exception of the Anne Frank House. While there’s no obvious walking route around the Grachtengordel, it's the ideal place to spend a day simply wandering as the mood takes you. If you need a place to start, De Negen Straatjes (9 Streets) is a super-walkable network of streets that crosses three main canals, with a plethora of quirky shopping and food options.


Running east to west along the northern edge of the three main canals is leafy, memorably picturesque Brouwersgracht. There are handsome merchants’ houses here, plus moored houseboats and a string of quaint little swing bridges. Restaurants have sprung up here too, including one of the city’s best, the deeply romantic De Belhamel.

Originally, Brouwersgracht lay at the edge of Amsterdam’s great harbour with easy access to the sea. This was where ships returning from the East unloaded their silks and spices and breweries flourished here too, capitalising on their ready access to fresh water. Today, the harbour bustle has moved elsewhere, and the warehouses, with their distinctive spout-neck gables and shuttered windows, which were formerly used for the delivery and dispatch of goods by pulley from the canal below, have been converted into ritzy apartments, particularly attractive to actors and film producers.


In the shadow of the Noorderkerk, the Noordermarkt is a substantial square that plays host to one of Amsterdam’s best markets every Saturday – the farmers’ market, Boerenmarkt. Here, you can stock up on delicious, largely organic foodie treats. Be sure to look out for the fresh mushrooms, many of which are collected in Dutch forests – and for a sweet hit, seek out the pancake stand. In addition, you can hunt down antiques, books, jewellery and vintage clothing treasures at the other market also held here on Saturdays, as well as on Monday mornings.

Explore Amsterdam

This picturesque, hip city has something for everyone, from beautiful canals and architecture to fascinating museums and galleries. Enjoy coffee and culture with a city break in Amsterdam.

Hofje van Brienen

On the east side of Prinsengracht canal, opposite the Noorderkerk, this brown-brick courtyard was built as an almshouse (hofje) in 1804 by Aernout van Brienen. It’s an oasis of calm and an ideal spot to take a breather under some shady trees.


Leliegracht leads east off Prinsengracht, and is one of the tiny radial canals that cut across the Grachtengordel. As with much of the area, it’s impossible to stop taking pictures of the picturesque canalsides. On this stretch, keep your eyes peeled for one of the city’s finest Art Nouveau buildings, a tall and striking building at the Leliegracht-Keizersgracht junction designed by Gerrit van Arkel in 1905.

Anne Frank Huis

Easily the city’s most visited sight, the Anne Frank Huis is where the young diarist and her family hid from the Germans during World War II. For many people, Anne Frank provides an extraordinary insight into this most terrible of chapters in Amsterdam’s history and the chance to visit this house in person is a moving experience. 

Despite being so popular, the house has managed to preserve a sense of intimacy, a poignant witness to the personal nature of the Franks’ sufferings. The rooms they occupied for two years have been left much the same as they were during the war, albeit without the furniture – down to the movie star pin ups in Anne’s bedroom and the marks on the wall recording the children’s heights. Film clips of the family and the Holocaust give the background, and Anne’s home provides one of the most enduring testaments to its horrors.


After the sobering experience of visiting the Anne Frank Huis, step inside the neighbouring Westerkerk for some quiet time. The church dominates the district, its 85m tower – without question Amsterdam’s finest – soaring graciously above its surroundings. The church was completed in 1631 as part of the general enlargement of the city, but whereas the exterior is all studied elegance, the interior is bare and plain.


Westermarkt, an open square in the shadow of the Westerkerk, possesses two evocative memorials, both of which are very moving. At the back of the church, beside Keizersgracht, are the three pink granite triangles (one each for the past, present and future) of the Homomonument, the world’s first memorial to persecuted gays and lesbians, commemorating all those who died at the hands of the Nazis. Nearby, on the south side of the church by Prinsengracht, is a small but beautifully crafted statue of Anne Frank by the modern Dutch sculptor Mari Andriessen.

De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets)

Between Westermarkt and Leidsegracht, the main canals are intercepted by a trio of cross-streets, which are themselves divided into shorter streets mostly named after animals whose pelts were once used in the district’s tanning industry. The tanners are long gone and today these are eminently appealing shopping streets, known collectively as De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets).

If you’re looking for picturesque canals and chic shops, this is where you want to head. While there are more than nine streets worth walking in Amsterdam, of course, these specific streets are especially worth exploring if you want to see the city as a local might. De 9 Straatjes is brimming with independent retailers and some seriously cool major brands, selling everything from clothes and homeware to vintage vinyl and local art. You'll also find head-turning restaurants here - we recommend Jansz for top-tier modern Dutch cuisine, and the extremely photogenic Pluk, if you fancy a spot of brunch between shopping.


Lying on the edge of the Grachtengordel, Leidseplein is a bustling hub of city nightlife and on a good night, it can represent Amsterdam at its carefree, exuberant best. Open-air café tables offer prime spots for people-watching, which is well worthwhile given the continual foot, bike and tram traffic here. Meanwhile, with its surrounding side streets jammed with bars, restaurants and clubs, this is one of the most buzzing areas to gravitate to for a night out, when the area is a bright jumble of jutting signs and neon lights.

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam

You’ll probably be pretty diverted by the entertainment on offer on Leidseplein, but keep an eye out for the grandiose Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, a neo-Renaissance edifice and used for theatre, dance and music performances. It also functions as the spot where the Ajax football team gather on the balcony to wave to the crowds whenever they win anything, as they often do.


Heading northeast from Leidseplein, Leidsestraat is a busy shopping street that leads across the three main canals up towards the Singel and the flower Market.

One block east of Leidsestraat is Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, an appealing mixture of shops, stores and charming corner cafés that extends south into Spiegelgracht to form the Spiegelkwartier – home to the pricey end of Amsterdam’s antiques trade. Even if the goods are out of your price range, it’s an intriguing place to wander and admire what’s on offer.

Gouden Bocht

You have arrived at one of the most gorgeous stretches of Amsterdam’s canal landscape, the so-called De Gouden Bocht (the Golden Bend), on Herengracht, where the canal is overlooked by double-fronted mansions – some of the most opulent dwellings in the city, mostly dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Your phone might be filling up with picturesque canal shots, but save some battery for a few snaps here.

De Bazel – The Stadsarchief

Standing in sharp contrast to the classical architecture around here, you can’t miss De Bazel, one of Amsterdam’s weirdest buildings with geometrical brickwork. It stretches south down Vijzelstraat from Herengracht and dates to the 1920s. The building started out as the headquarters of a Dutch shipping company, the Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappij, but is now home to a conference centre and the Stadsarchief, the vast city archives. A rotated selection of documents and photographs drawn from the archives is displayed in De Bazel’s richly decorated Art Deco Schatkamer (Treasury).

Museum van Loon

Fancy pretending to live in one of these distinctive canal houses? The Museum Van Loon boasts the finest accessible canal house interior in Amsterdam. Built in 1672, and first occupied by Ferdinand Bol, the artist and pupil of Rembrandt, the house has been returned to something akin to its eighteenth-century appearance, with acres of wood panelling and fancy stucco work.

The oddest items are the fake bedroom doors: the eighteenth-century owners were so keen to avoid any lack of symmetry that they camouflaged the real bedroom doors and created imitation, decorative doors in the “correct” position instead. Out the back, beyond the little garden, stands the fancy coach house, which now holds an excellent display on exactly where much of the van Loon family fortune came from: the answer, the slave plantations of Suriname. The Dutch only abolished slavery in their colonies in 1863.


Zoom back to the contemporary world with a stop at Amsterdam’s leading photography museum FOAM (short for Fotografiemuseum), situated in a large and thoroughly refurbished old canal house. This is an achingly fashionable gallery, its temporary exhibitions – of which there are usually four at any one time – featuring the best (or most obscure) of contemporary photographers. FOAM prides itself on its internationalism, though it does give space to famous or up-and-coming Dutch photographers like Carel Willink, Frido Troost and Otto Kaan. FOAM also offers guided, walk-through tours and popular photography workshops, though you’ll need your Dutch to be up to scratch for the latter.

Tassenmuseum Hendrikje

Onto a quirky collection that is catnip for fashionlovers. The delightful Tassenmuseum Hendrikje (Purse and Bag) museum holds a superb collection of handbags, pouches, wallets, bags and purses from medieval times onwards, exhibited on two main floors of a grand old mansion. Look out for the beautiful Art Nouveau handbags. If bags aren’t your bag, there’s also a very pleasant café on site to while away some time.

Museum Willet-Holthuysen

There’s another feast for your eyes at this elegant mansion. The most striking room is the Men’s Parlour, which has been returned to its original Rococo appearance – a flashy and ornate style that the Dutch merchants of the day regarded as the epitome of refinement and good taste.

The Amstel and the Magere Brug

The Grachtengordel comes to an abrupt halt at the River Amstel. The Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), spanning the Amstel at the end of Kerkstraat, is the most famous and arguably the cutest of the city’s many swing bridges. Legend has it that this bridge, which dates back to about 1670, replaced an even older and skinnier version, originally built by two sisters who lived on either side of the river and were fed up with having to walk so far to see each other.

The Amstelveld and Reguliersgracht

Here’s a hot tip: head for the Amstelveld, found along the north side of Prinsengracht on a Monday, and you will find a glorious flower market selling both flowers and plants that is much less of a scrum than the Bloemenmarkt.

Adjacent Reguliersgracht is one of the three surviving radial canals that cut across the Grachtengordel, its dainty humpback bridges and dark waters overlooked by charming seventeenth and eighteenth-century canal houses.


Rembrandtplein may not be Amsterdam at its most prettily alluring, but it is one of the city’s nightlife centres, its bevy of restaurants and bars rammed at weekends with diners and revellers. It’s one of the city’s most touristy areas, but with good reason – you won’t go hungry, thirsty or bored around here.

Formerly the city’s butter market, the square took its present name in 1876 after it had acquired a statue of Rembrandt, a rather prim and proper affair that seems particularly appealing to passing seagulls.

The Munttoren

Tiny Muntplein – a square that is in fact a bridge – is dominated by the Munttoren, an imposing fifteenth-century tower that was once part of the old city wall and is topped with a flashy spire. Today, this is a busy intersection.


A few metres away lies one of Amsterdam’s signature sights: the floating Bloemenmarkt (flower market), which extends along the southern bank of the Singel. Popular with locals and tourists alike, the daily market is one of the main suppliers of flowers to central Amsterdam and is an uplifting sight with its vibrant array of blooms and bulbs.

At first glance, you may think that the Bloemenmarkt is a daft place to pick up souvenirs you can take home, given the life span and delicacy of flowers. But vendors at the world’s only floating flower market also sell bulbs, seeds and a range of distinctly Dutch gifts – such as clogs and cheese – the perfect mementos from a trip to Amsterdam.

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