Medieval Amsterdam was enclosed by the Singel, part of the city’s protective moat, but this is now just the first of five canals that reach right around the city centre, extending anticlockwise from Brouwersgracht to the River Amstel in a "girdle of canals" or Grachtengordel.
These were dug in the seventeenth century as part of a comprehensive plan to extend the boundaries of a city no longer able to accommodate its burgeoning population. The idea was that the council would buy up the land around the city, dig the canals, and lease plots back to developers. The plan was passed in 1607 and work began six years later, against a backdrop of corruption – Amsterdammers in the know buying up the land they thought the city would soon have to purchase.
Increasing the area of the city from two to seven square kilometres was a monumental task, and the conditions imposed by the council were strict. The three main waterways – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – were set aside for the residences and businesses of the richer and more influential Amsterdam merchants, while the radial cross-streets were reserved for more modest artisans’ homes.
In the Grachtengordel, everyone, even the wealthiest merchant, had to comply with a set of strict and detailed planning regulations. In particular, the council prescribed the size of each building plot – the frontage was set at thirty feet, the depth two hundred – and although there was a degree of tinkering, the end result was the loose conformity you can see today: tall, narrow residences, whose individualism is mainly restricted to the stylistic permutations amongst the gables.
Even the colour of the front doors was once regulated, with choice restricted to a shade that has since become known as "Amsterdam Green" – still difficult to find outside Holland. It took decades to complete the project, but by the 1690s it was all pretty much finished off – at a time, ironically, when Amsterdam was in economic decline.
In essence, therefore, the Grachtengordel is a tribute to the architectural tastes of the city’s middle class, an amalgam of personal wealth and aesthetic uniformity – individuality and order – that epitomized Amsterdam’s Protestant bourgeoisie in its pomp.
The Grachtengordel is without doubt the most charming part of Amsterdam, its lattice of olive-green waterways and dinky humpback bridges overlooked by street upon street of handsome seventeenth-century canal houses, almost invariably undisturbed by later development. Of the three main canals, Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal) was the first to be dug, followed by the Keizersgracht, the Emperor’s Canal, named after the Holy Roman Emperor and fifteenth-century patron of the city, Maximilian. Further out still lies the Prinsengracht, the Princes’ Canal, named in honour of the princes of the House of Orange.
The grandest Grachtengordel houses are concentrated along the so-called De Gouden Bocht – the Golden Bend – on Herengracht between Leidsestraat and the Amstel. Here, the architectural decorum and arguably the aesthetic vigour of the seventeenth century are left behind for the over-blown, French-influenced mansions that became popular with the city’s richest merchants in the 1700s.
These merchants remodelled the earlier buildings, adding classical features, from tympani and pilasters (though these had been in vogue as early as the 1620s) through to decorative chimney stacks, ornate carvings, balconies and balustrades. Nevertheless, architectural peccadilloes aside, it is perhaps the district’s overall atmosphere that appeals rather than any specific sight, with one remarkable exception: the Anne Frank House, where the young – and now internationally famous – Jewish diarist hid from the Germans in World War II.