When you visit Amsterdam, a boat tour of the city’s waterways should be one of the top to-dos on your list. Cruising along the 65 miles of canals that meander through the city is the best way to truly get a feel for Amsterdam’s quaint 17th-century buildings and picturesque curved bridges. That said, some canal tours are more inspiring than others. Who wants to be crammed onto a tiny boat with tons of other passengers blocking the views? We’ve sussed out the canal (and river) tours most worth your while—and give you tips to get the best deals and beat the crowds.
Candlelight Dinner Cruise on an Antique Boat
Perhaps the most romantic cruise in Amsterdam, Amsterdam Jewel Cruises takes you out on a gorgeous wooden boat built in 1898 for a scenic 2 hour and 45 minute cruise, while you enjoy a three-course dinner by candlelight. Unlike most Amsterdam boat cruises, you don’t have to deal with often-annoying recorded narration of the sights, though the affable captain is happy to point out highlights along the way. And with a limited number of tables (each boat takes 20 passengers, max), you’re guaranteed a good view. (Schedule varies by week, but generally times are Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; price per person: €99-€112.50.)
Pros: Boats aren’t overcrowded; you get to sample traditional Dutch dishes.
Cons: A little pricey, and wine costs extra.
Evening Cocktail Cruise
It’s not easy to find a good cocktail in Amsterdam. But servers aboard the Holland International Cocktail Cruise mix up a mean mojito while you gaze out at the city’s nighttime lights. You’re served two cocktails (though you don’t get to choose which ones) as well as snack foods (nachos with guacamole and crostini), followed by wine if you choose. Just don’t drink so much that you miss the views of the Red Light District. (Daily at 8 pm; price per person: €35.50.)
Pros: Easy to get to, just west of Centraal Station; pretty good cocktails and wine.
Cons: Recorded tour narration can be loud; you may have to share a table with other passengers, which can ruin a romantic evening.
Pancakes, Pancakes, and More Pancakes!
What could be more enticing than all-you-can-eat pancakes while out for a leisurely sail? That’s the idea behind the Pannenkoekenboot, or Pancake Boat. You’ll cruise along the IJ River for an hour while loading up on as many pancakes as you can handle; choose from plain, apple, or ham pancakes, and pile on whatever you’d like from the toppings bar, from cheese to pineapple to chocolate sprinkles. (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 4:30 pm and 6 pm, as well as two-hour brunch cruises the first Sunday of each month; price per person: €15 for adults, €10 for kids 3-12)
Pros: Great for kids (it’s often rented out for private parties, too); a good deal for all that food; lovely historic boat.
Cons: The scenery isn’t as interesting along the IJ River as on the canals; have to take a ferry from Centraal Station to North Amsterdam to reach the boat.
To be perfectly honest, most of Amsterdam’s daytime cruises aren’t so different from one another—all last about an hour, feature recorded narration explaining the sights, and take you around the same canals. Which cruise you choose will mainly boil down to where and when you want to start. Boathouse Amsterdam Canal Cruises (1-hour cruise: €12.50 for adults, €8 for kids 4-12) leave from close to the Anne Frank House; Blue Boat Company (75-min. cruise: €14 for adults, €7.50 for kids 5-12) cruises depart closer to the Vondelpark; Lovers Company (1-hour cruise: €14 for adults, €7 for kids 4-12) and others set sail near Centraal Station. For more flexibility, Canal Company operates a hop-on, hop-off "canal bus" (one-day ticket: €22 for adults, €11 for kids 4-12) you can board at various sights around the city, like the Hermitage and the Rijksmuseum.
Insider Tip: For the least crowded boats, try for a mid-afternoon cruise. That said, in the busy summer months, canal cruises will be packed at any hour, so buy your ticket in advance and arrive as early as possible to snag a good seat.
Liz Humphreys is a food, travel, wine, and lifestyle writer and editor formerly based in New York City and currently residing in Amsterdam. She’s a former editor of Luckymag.com, iVillage, and WebMD, NYC Guide writer for USAToday.com, and eater in chief of the blog winederlust.com. Follow her on Twitter at @winederlust.
Photo Credits: Amsterdam Jewel Cruises: courtesy of Amsterdam Jewel Cruises; Cocktail cruise courtesy of Holland International/Canal.nl; Pannenkoekenboot: Liz Humphreys; Blue Boat Company: courtesy of Blue Boat Company