There are sixty miles of canals in Amsterdam; 165 waterways that thread their way through the city defining its geography, its history, and your social status if you were lucky enough to live on or near one in recent history. The city's canal system, built by draining swamps and creating canals in concentric arcs, was a model of urban planning for its time, earning the Canal District a place on UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2010.
Most visitors to Amsterdam are content to wander the canals by foot or bike, crossing over any number of the city's 1500 bridges, snapping photos of picturesque flower boxes and historic, gabled Dutch buildings. Or, they take a canal tour on the hop-on hop-off boats and private tour boats that wind the canal network. But it's also possible to live like an Amsterdammer by staying in a houseboat vacation rental where you have an up-close opportunity to watch the city's watery highway system at work and play. And if traveling solo, your options for finding an affordable houseboat rental are even greater.
There are 3050 houseboats in Amsterdam proper and another 600 houseboats located in the surrounding region. All of them are hooked up to city water, sewage and electricity, and most of them are permanently anchored. Amsterdam has strict regulations regarding ownership and rental of houseboats including how many days they can be rented. The city's vacation rental regulations are intended to preserve affordable housing for its residents while encouraging tourism.
In September, a beautiful time to visit Amsterdam, I rented, through Air B&B, an inexpensive houseboat studio for a week on the Boerenwetering Canal in the trendy De Pijp (The Pipe) district of the city. My floating room was a 10-minute walk to the Rijksmuseum following the canal the entire way, a 12-minute walk to the Van Gogh Museum, and a 5-minute stroll to the Albert Cuyp Market. For longer distances to sites such as the Anne Frank House, I walked or rented a bicycle at the rental shop around the corner. To get to the train station for trips out of Amsterdam there were stops for the city's ubiquitous tram system only two blocks from the houseboat.
Each canal in the city and surrounding neighborhood has its own history, and knowing that enhances the experience of being a temporary live-aboard. Amsterdam's Het Grachtenhuis (Museum of the Canals) is a good place to learn more more about your chosen district. Located on a historic canal boat in the UNESCO Canal District, the museum walks you through the history and building of the city canal systems beginning in the 1600s. The canals and bridges act as a map locator for visitors making it easy to navigate the city. I learned that my houseboat home on the Boerenwetering Canal, just south of the Belt Bridge, resides in De Pijp (The Pipe) neighborhood. The Boerenwetering Canal was originally built to drain the peatland in the nearby village of Amstelveen. Over the centuries the canal has been shortened, fitted with a gate and lock system and eight bridges have been built over its span. It became the route for vegetable barges bringing their loads in from the villages to markets on the more central canals in Amsterdam. A new addition to the Boerenwetering was being built just upstream from my houseboat when I was there, an underground parking garage to accommodate 600 cars and 60 cyclists scheduled to be completed in 2017. It's the first time a parking garage has been built under an Amsterdam canal; the goal is to remove parked cars from the narrow streets in De Pijp to make more room for bikes and pedestrians.
The surrounding De Pijp was built as a working-class neighborhood and, although it has become trendy and expensive, it still retains the elements that also gained the multi-ethnic neighborhood its nickname as the "Latin Quarter." This is where Amsterdammers go for good Turkish and Indian restaurants, the Albert Cruyp Market (Europe's biggest street market) and to take visitors on tours of the Heineken Brewery.
I wandered and biked solo in the neighborhood after dark without any worry. While I intended to take in some of Amsterdam's night life – a concert, a gin and tonic at the innovative corner restaurant with the Michelin chef – instead, I found myself settled each evening with a glass of wine on the deck of my houseboat mesmerized by the parade of canal and street activity. On the water, there were private boats of friends and family, large tour boats, water birds, paddle boarders, kayakers, swimmers, and residents in the next door and cross canal houseboats taking advantage of the last few hours of sunlight. At street level, streams of bicyclists (63% of Amsterdammers commute by bike daily) peddled in suits and stilettos on bikes kitted out with multiple child seats. I could sip my morning coffee while watching empty tour boats repositioning for the day's stops and residents boating to work.