Amsterdam: The Venice of the North

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Amsterdam Canal Boat Tour

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Ahhh, Amsterdam. It’s the kind of city that mesmerizes even the most jaded of travelers.

With its historic, narrow row houses, hordes of cyclists, endless canals and teak-framed boats captained by commuters or sun bathers on any given day, it’s one of Europe’s most glorious cities. The bustling Red light district and not-quite-legal aromas wafting from the coffee houses may be the draw for many, but for me it’s the timeless beauty of the canals and the incredible architecture that keep luring me back.

Our long flight from Colombia didn’t land until 2:00pm and with a flight to Scotland scheduled for early the next morning, we knew we needed to maximize our time in the city. We chose the Sheraton Schipol Airport for two reasons: first, it’s the only Starwood in Amsterdam these days and second, because it’s connected to the airport and would make our early flight the next day that much easier.

Trains from Schipol Airport into the city center are fast and frequent so using the Sheraton as our base just made sense. Plus, they’d been kind enough to invite us for dinner at their posh Voyager restaurant later that night.

Amsterdam Canal Boat Tour
Our canal boat in Amsterdam

We landed right on time and were checked into the hotel and headed for the train station in under an hour. When we hopped off the train 20 minutes later in the heart of the city, we made our way straight to a row of canal boats boasting a variety of tour options. Though I’d visited the city twice before, I’d never done an Amsterdam canal boat tour and we thought it would be a great way to make efficient use of our limited time to cover the most ground…or water, in this case.

An Amsterdam Canal Boat Tour

Often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Amsterdam is the world’s most watery city with canals and harbors covering a quarter of its surface. The Dutch capital’s 17th century Canal Belt forms concentric half-circles around the city and is a marvel in both engineering and city planning, which landed it on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011. In addition to more than 100 kilometers of canals, the area includes 90 islands and nearly 1,500 bridges. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the city is best viewed from its greatest feature…the canals.

Finding a tour boat was quick and easy and within 15 minutes we were seated on a glass-enclosed boat and headed out of the harbor. Over the next hour, the canal boat took us through all of the main canals including the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan and passed many of the city’s primary monuments and historic buildings.

Amsterdam Canal Boat Tour
Cruising the canals of Amsterdam

It was a hot and sunny summer afternoon and it seemed like all of Amsterdam was out enjoying it. The canals were thick with boat traffic ranging from locals catching a few rays in their small motorboats to swimsuit-clad twenty-somethings on large, catered party boats.

The Red Light District

After our canal cruise, we decided to take a walk through the city’s other main attraction – the Red light district. It may come as a surprise, but Amsterdam’s famed Red light district is more than just a haven for the backpacker set and host to bachelor party debauchery, it’s actually the city’s oldest historical district.

Amsterdam Red Light District
Amsterdam’s Red Light District

While most ancient cities have turned their medieval city centers into living museums, Amsterdam’s was taken over by the sex industry with the opening of the first brothels in the 15th century. Today, a major renovation, known as Project 1012, is taking place in the Red light district that aims to reduce prostitution rates and highlight the area’s rich history.

As we walked along the district’s canals, I really could see a difference from my last visit (which was more than a decade ago). I’d remembered the area much seedier, the kind of place you wouldn’t walk around on your own after dark. But today it seemed brighter, cleaner and with more non-sex-industry vendors like shops and restaurants.

And there’s no denying the natural beauty of the area, along some of the city’s most scenic canals. But, of course, there was still the persistent barrage of stag party groups – usually with the groom dressed in garish drag and his “friends” cheering him to inebriation in matching t-shirts commemorating the event.

I suppose some things about this neighborhood will never change (and you probably wouldn’t want them to – it’s part of the fun of Amsterdam for many people) but I’d say the changes they’ve made so far definitely elevate the area to a kinder, gentler Red light district.

Voyager Restaurant Sheraton Amsterdam
Amsterdam date night dinner at Voyager

We stopped at a pub along a canal for a beer and then realized it was approaching 7:30pm and, with such an early flight looming, decided we should probably head back for dinner. By 8:30pm we were back at the hotel and ready for dinner at Voyager. The restaurant has a perfect view of Schipol’s busy runways and we enjoyed watching the flights coming and going from so many corners of the world. It was a tremendous meal capped off with a special dessert prepared for us by the chef to celebrate our honeymoon.

All in all, we couldn’t have asked for a better day in Amsterdam. Layovers like this one are one of my favorite perks of Round-the-World tickets and we’ve got another one coming up in Paris in a few days. But for now, we’re off to Scotland…next stop, Edinburgh!


  1. I love Amsterdam. I lived 30 minutes south in a city called Leiden. The Netherlands is so pretty everywhere you look. I still haven’t done a canal cruise though… : / And I like how point out that the RLD isn’t as dark and seedy as it used to be. It surprised me how many places were in the area as well.

    1. Thanks, Dave! Looking forward to getting back to Amsterdam again this fall. Such a great city.

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