Forming an area of unparalleled historical beauty, the famous Grachtengordel, or Canal Ring, is located to the west and south of the city center. Call it a "belt" or a "girdle," the Golden Age landmark actually exists of three main encircling canals: Prinsengracht (Princes' Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperors' Canal), and Herengracht (Gentlemen's Canal). They became the premier addresses—the Fifth Avenues, the Avenue Fochs,
the Park Lanes—of historic Amsterdam when wealthy bankers and famous merchants ordered homes built in the latest fashionable styles, ranging from Baroque to Neoclassical.
The Grachtengordel is quintessential Amsterdam. As you explore, keep in mind that when these impressive canal houses were built for the movers and shakers of the 17th-century Golden Age, home owners were taxed on their houses' width, not height. A double frontage and staircase (two adjacent lots) displayed wealth and prestige, as did the number of windows facing the canal, and ornate gables and decorative features (such as finely wrought railings). While there's considerable scrolling variation from one house to the next, creating that attractive higgledy-piggledy, gabled skyline for which Amsterdam is famous, it's very harmonious, and from a historic point of view, remarkably intact. Sixteen hundred buildings in these canals have protected heritage status, and as of July 2010 the Canal Belt is officially on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The first canals were developed for defense and then transport, but in the 17th century came an original piece of town planning (and epic job-creation scheme) to deal with the need for expansion: a girdle of canals wrapping right round the city center. The first phase of the construction of the Canal Belt began with the Herengracht (Gentlemen's Canal) in 1612. This was followed some 50 years later with a second phase—the Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal) and Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal). Developing from west to east (like a giant windshield wiper, according to historian Geert Mak), the innermost canal, the Singel, was widened, and the main canals were intersected with radial canals like the Brouwersgracht, Leliegracht, and Leidsegracht (all of which are well worth a diversion). The grandest stretch of the grandest canal is supposedly along the Herengracht between Leidsestraat to the Amstel, which is known as the Gouden Bocht ("Golden Bend").
When it comes to touring the canals, there are many boats that depart and leave from the piers near the Centraal Station with numerous stops throughout the city.
The marble-lined interiors are no less spectacular and surprisingly deep. Be sure to visit one of the canalside museums to get a fuller appreciation. Open Gardens Weekend (www.opentuinendagen.nl) in June and Open Monument Weekend (www.openmonumentendag.nl) in September offer additional chances to see inside properties rarely open to the public. Early morning, before the cruise boats churn up the water, can be a special time. Look out for the special Amsterdam light that turns the windows of the Keizersgracht and Herengracht lilac.