Walking Tour of Amsterdam

Taking walking tours of a city can be a great way to learn interesting facts about a city as well as see important landmarks. The walking tour that we took in Amsterdam was interesting as it was advertised as a free tour where participants are asked to pay the tour guide what they felt was a fair price for the tour that they received. In some ways it forces the tour guide to be more creative, informative, and lively. We are sure that most people pay the same prices as the other paid tours, but you aren’t obligated although we doubt that anyone would truly not pay the guide for the tour.

Our Tour Guide
Crossing a Canal
Us on the Tour

The tour that we took combined information about the “coffee houses”, the red light district, the history of Amsterdam in World War II, as well as just the general history of the city. We heard many interesting facts and folklore about this city that was built on swampland so many years ago. According to folklore, the first settlers in the area that is now the city of Amsterdam did so as the result of a bet. The first couple of attempts to populate the area failed as the buildings sank into the marsh land. In order to finally build the city, they pounded poles made from trees that are up to 100 feet tall into the moist ground to stabilize the buildings. Eventually they used wind mills to pump the water out and create the canals that crisscross the city.

The Palace Sits on Thousands of Wooden Poles
Our Meeting Place
Learning about the Family Plaques

As for the coffee houses and the history of pot or Marijuana in Amsterdam. We were actually surprised to hear that marijuana is not actually legal in Amsterdam, but they issue permits for the coffee houses to sell marijuana, kind of an odd arrangement. Because it not actually legal, you won’t see any signs specifically saying that they sell marijuana and hence the reason that they are considered and marketed as coffee houses. The story we were told of the first coffee house in the seventies was that the police knew that the owner was selling marijuana, but that heroin use and addicts were a much bigger problem, so they turned a blind-eye to the coffee house and it spread from there. We were also told that Amsterdam took a unique approach to combating heroin as they house the addicts and provide them food, clean lodging, and heroin, which keeps them off of the streets. In fact we did not see anyone begging for food or money on the streets of Amsterdam during our time there. Unfortunately, because it is not legal, but tolerated, the coffee houses have to purchase their marijuana from typical drug cartels, which is not helpful for society in general.

Canal with Boat Tours
First Autopsies Conducted Here, Which is Now a Restaurant
The Start of Our Tour

As for the red light district, we just did a quick pass through the streets and wandered passed a couple of the famous windows. It is another unique approach to a controversial topic, but the people of Amsterdam have a live and let live attitude in general, so they are far more tolerant than people in other parts of Europe or the world. The local prostitution union even offers classes for aspiring prostitutes, but the number of windows available for them to use is shrinking as gentrification has started to modify the area. Another interesting fact was that the church in the red light district used to have the sailors pay for their sins before they spent a night of debauchery. Since they wouldn’t have time to go to church prior to having to return to their ships, they would confess what they intended to do with their free time in the red light district, pay for their sins, and then were absolved allowing them to have comfort if they should die during their next voyage.

Church in the Red Light District
Family Plaques
Leaning Buildings

Other interesting places that we saw were the smallest house in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House, and learned about the leaning houses that line the canal. Each of the buildings that line the canals have hooks near the roof and the buildings lean slightly forward so that they could use pulleys to raise heavy objects to the upper floors since the stairs are so narrow. If buildings are leaning left or right, that is due to them sinking slightly and it is not intentional. About the only thing that we don’t like about the walking tours is that they almost always bring to a store or two to try some local favorites, like cheese, with the hope that you will buy items from that particular store, most likely producing a kickback to the tour company.

The Red House is the Smallest House in Amsterdam
Anne Frank House in the Distance
Notice the Hooks

If you get a chance to go to Amsterdam, we would highly recommend taking a walking tour, you will enjoy it. In fact, we would recommend taking walking tours in many cities, even cities in your own local area or the city that you live in. You might be surprised by the things that you learn about a place you thought you already knew.

Canal that Anne Frank Saw Daily

The Narrow Houses of Amsterdam

The architecture of the buildings that line the canals of Amsterdam is quite fascinating for many reasons. From the way that they lean towards the canal to allow pullies to bring the furniture to the upper floors to the very narrow buildings themselves, it is very interesting to see the different buildings along the water. Some of these homes are so small that you can touch both walls at the same time as they measure only 2 meters (about 6 feet) in width. The reason for these narrow buildings had to do with the way that the homes were taxed in the past where it was based on the number of windows and the size of the façade that faces the canal. Here are few examples, including the very narrow red home that is one of the three smallest homes in Amsterdam.

One of the Three Smallest Homes on the Canal
Tiny White Home on the Street
Pullies to Get Furniture to the Top Floors
Tiny Home with the Red and White Bricks
Typical Row of Homes on the Canal

Amsterdam Canal Cruise

With all of the different canals in Amsterdam, taking a canal cruise is a great way to see the city and learn about its architecture as well as its history. We had also taken a walking tour of the city, but touring by boat was truly enjoyable. Most tours will take you by famous sites like the Anne Frank house, but you also see various other areas of the city that you might not otherwise see.

Heading into the Bay

Narrow Canal

One of the Many Houseboats

Colorful Building with Canal Views

Heading Down a Canal

Our tour provided headsets in order to listen to the audio presentation of the tour. We learned about why the buildings lean toward the water and have hooks suspended from the roof. Because the buildings are so narrow, furniture is hoisted from the street level up to the windows in order to get them inside and the buildings lean so that the items can be raised without hitting the walls. The buildings are narrow because they are taxed based on the width of the building, so most of them are narrow and tall.

Square Houseboat Without a Motor

Bikes on the Deck of a Houseboat

Hooks to Raise the Furniture

Leaving the Bay and Heading Towards the Canals

Expensive Homes Along the Canal

People don’t just live in the buildings along the canals, but they also live in houseboats on the canals. Most of them never move and some of them don’t even have engines. There are various styles from simple and small to large and luxurious. In a city that is made up of hundreds of canals, house boats are a great way for people to live downtown and enjoy everything that city has to offer. Needless to say, in a city where bicycles outnumber residents, it isn’t uncommon to see bicycles on the decks of the houseboats. There were even some whimsical boats and a few that were half sunken, but not repaired.

Having Fun with a Sunken Boat

Another View from Our Tour

More than Just Houseboats

Fascinating Architecture

Leaning Buildings

There are many choices of canal cruise tour companies to choose from in Amsterdam and the size of the boat will determine what canals you can see and which ones you can’t. There are even small tours that offer drinks and food, which makes it more of a fun excursion rather than an actual tour. We chose a medium size tour boat for our tour, but if we ever do it again, we’d probably choose a private tour with wine and the famous Dutch cheese.