Quick Guide: Amsterdam Canal Houses

So narrow, so leaning, so ornate — what is the story behind Amsterdam canal houses? These skinny city houses, dating back to the 1600’s, are more than just pretty faces! Their unique designs are tied up with the history of Amsterdam. Here are three things to know before you visit Amsterdam for yourself:

The famous skinny facades of the Amsterdam canal houses are one of Europe's great sights.

The famous skinny facades of the Amsterdam canal houses are one of Europe’s great sights.

1. Amsterdam canal houses lean sideways for a few different reasons

The side-to-side leaning (really evident in the photo above!) can be attributed to a few things, such as settling or decay in the wooden pilings beneath the houses. Amsterdam’s canals were built to drain wetlands, allowing the city to expand into marshy areas, but the soft soil left behind still wasn’t ideal for foundations. This means the houses were built on wooden piles, which, after 300 years or so, haven’t all settled evenly.  And adding any extra weight to a house, like additional floors, can cause the house to sink still more.

When one house leans, or is renovated, or isn’t as tall as the next house, a domino effect can be created on the neighboring houses. That’s when the whole block starts to take on a wavy, curvy appearance from house to house and story to story!

2. Some houses lean forward – on purpose!

Not all the leaning in Amsterdam’s historic canal houses is side to side. Many are built to lean forward, with their upper floors jutting out. This was a holdover from the old medieval style of building, with wooden upper stories larger than the first floor. Even as Amsterdam rebuilt from fires with brick buildings, they kept the old design of leaning houses forward over the streets.

The beams from ornate gables were used to hoist heavy loads to the top floors of Amsterdam's narrow houses.

The beams from ornate gables were used to hoist heavy loads to the top floors of Amsterdam’s narrow houses.

With narrow staircases serving narrow houses, moving household items or storing merchandise and trading cargo in the upper stories was made much easier by using a winch and pulley with a beam extending from the house’s top floor. Whether you were moving your parlor furniture upstairs to avoid a spring flood or storing the latest cargo from India in your attic, you didn’t want anything smashing through your windows on the way up — so the house’s forward tilt kept your freight away from your house’s lower stories!

3. Amsterdam’s narrow houses are by design

Amsterdam’s population was booming when the city planners designed the canal rings that would let the city expand. In just 75 years, the population shot from 54,000 people to 200,000. The canals, and the narrow plots of land lining them, made that growth possible. City planners wisely created canals with the maximum possible number of businesses along their busy waterways. The front rooms became storefronts and businesses; the back rooms and upper stories were residential. The tax codes reflected this preference for narrow buildings, with taxes based on the width of a house’s facade.

What a sight: Amsterdam's canal houses lean gently over the canal in the early morning mist.

What a sight: Amsterdam’s canal houses lean gently over the canal in the early morning mist.

Today you can visit several Amsterdam canal houses which are open as museums. The Canal House Museum, Museum van Loon and the Museum Geelvink all showcase the Dutch Golden Age and share insights into life in these beautiful houses. Start planning your Amsterdam trip with a Virgin Vacations escorted tour or city stay – you can even add on London, Paris and other European cities with a great custom-built itinerary!