Friday, 22 June 2012 8:22 AM
Within moments of leaving your hotel in central Amsterdam to explore the Dutch capital you will understand why it has earned the nickname of the Venice of the North. The city's canal ring district is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site, so is well worth visiting.
Indeed, Amsterdam has used artificial waterways since the 14th century, although they started to be built in abundance in the 17th century when local officials decided to create three concentric routes around the historic city centre.
Appearing almost like a spider's web, a series of smaller waterways crosses the three main semicircles, with the result being that walking through here is almost like island-hopping. You will spot a bridge at almost every turn, connecting the 90 miniature isles to each other.
In total, the canals span 100 km and there are 1,500 bridges crossing them, so the decision to build this network of waterways was really quite a major one. In order to achieve this the fortified borders of the city actually had to be moved!
Until the late 1500s, the city's boundaries had been protected by a moat called the Singel. However, with the construction of the new waterway system the Singelgracht was created to act as the outer limit of Amsterdam.
In order to expand the city and carry out the construction work, the swampland that previously covered the ground was drained using the arched canals, with the resulting dry lands reserved for urbanisation.
It was the largest extension of a city of its time and a reflection of the important role Amsterdam played in world trade during the 1700s. It is also a great example of successful town planning in action. So perfect was the city deemed to be that it was used as a reference by other major metropolises considering expansion, including those in England, Sweden and Russia.
Aside from the Singel, the other main canals in the city are the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Herengracht is the first of the three and is a great place to wander along if you want to see evidence of the city's prosperous past. At an area known as the Golden Bend stands a series of large mansions, many of which have beautiful facades including arched roofs and columns, and internal gardens.
Keizersgracht is the widest of Amsterdam's three semicircular canals, so played an important part in trade and bolstering the city's role as a maritime port. Finally, Prinsengracht is the outermost and therefore longest of the canals and many of the properties here were built when the city was at its most wealthy. This is also where you will find some of Amsterdam's other famous sites, including Anne Frank's House and the Northern Market.
To make the most of the canals while you're here, it's worth taking one of the river buses, which operate on three routes throughout Amsterdam. This allows you to get from place to place quickly and easily using the same method that people have been using for centuries.
Alternatively, you could book a seat on one of the canal boat tours. There are plenty to choose from and this is a great way to find out more about the sites you pass on your journey. Look out for the numerous houseboats moored on the side of the canal, which many locals call home.
One of the most popular boats to travel along the waterway on is the Henry Schmitz, which was built in 1898 and was once used on the Rhine River. It is beautifully decorated and the perfect place to relax and enjoy a drink as you drift through the city.