Amsterdam Canal Houses
Amsterdam Canal Houses

This is part 2 in Museum Hopping in Holland. Read Part 1 to find out how to save on museum entrance fees with the Museum Card.

Dutch houses are famous for having large windows at street level, possibly to show that the family had nothing to hide. With your Museum Card, you’ll be able to enter a few of the numerous Canal House Museums to find out what the private life was like of elite citizens during Amsterdam’s Golden Age, and whether they were in fact hiding anything!

The architecture of the houses within Amsterdam’s 17th century canal district is so unique that the area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The residences are built shoulder to shoulder along and between the concentric half circles of the four canals which form the center of the old city. At the time of construction, a tax on house front width caused most of the residences to be very narrow at the front, but long inside, extending back towards the next canal at the back of the house. Today many of these buildings lean sideways and forwards, looking like dominos wanting to topple over. As the pilings have settled over the years, many of the buildings developed the odd sideways angles. When they were constructed, however, many of  these bizarre houses were built to lean forward on purpose. This was done because the houses were too skinny to get large furniture up the stairs. Thus a winch was put at the top of the house front so that bulky items could be hoisted to upper rooms and dropped in through a large window. The building itself leans forward so that the items would not crash into the front of the building. These winches, which are still used today, can be seen on most house facades. The architecture of the canals, their hydraulics, and the houses is so unique that there’s even a Museum of Canals, though we didn’t get there, I imagine it to be very interesting.

Map of Amsterdam's Canal District
Map of Amsterdam’s Canal District

Each canal ring was built as the population of Amsterdam expanded over the 16th through 18th centuries. The inner canal, the Singel, started as a moat for the city. Next came the Herengracht, then the Keizersgracht, and finally the Prinsengracht canal. A number of canal houses have been restored to a time of former glory and opened as museums.

Herengracht Canal

During the 17th century, the richest merchants and influential citizens of Amsterdam lived on the Herengracht Canal. Today it is still considered a prestigious place of residence. We were lucky enough to find a wonderful little boutique B&B along the Herengracht for our stay in Amsterdam. From our hosts, we learned that they had renovated parts of the interior of the house to create the guest rooms, but city code does not allow them to change the look of the exterior. Canal house owners are required to maintain the iconic Amsterdam historic look. Although partially renovated, the interior still has historic elements we saw in some of the house museums we visited. For one, the spiral staircase was so skinny, we almost couldn’t fit our rolling suitcases in the stairway!

Herengracht 21 B&B Canal House
Breakfast at Herengracht 21 B&B

If you’re not lucky enough to stay in a historic house along the Herengracht Canal, you can visit the Willet-Holthusysen Museum. We took a brief, and dim, look around this museum. When we stopped by, the power was out!  Because their point of sale system was out of commission, they waved us in to see what we could in the dark. Luckily there was enough daylight streaming in through the large windows that it wasn’t all that dark. The rooms of this house and the garden have been restored and preserved in a 18th and 19th century opulent French style preferred by the final owners of the house. The house also contains lots of art pieces because the owners were art collectors, as were our B&B hosts. Some things don’t change.

So what were they hiding?

Both our B&B and the Willet-Holthusysen Museum had a feature I found very strange. It was an inner open-air courtyard literally about the size of a closet. Today both contained one or two potted plants to liven up the place. I couldn’t imagine that historically the Dutch built tiny courtyards to hold potted plants in the middle of their houses. Was it a place to store outdoor gear? I finally asked our B&B hosts what the original purpose of this open air greenhouse space was for. Ready for this? It was the space the house servants were allowed to go for a little “outside” time. They weren’t to be seen loitering in front of the house along the canal!

Keizersgracht Canal

Moving on to the next, and widest canal, I suggest visiting the Van Loon House Museum. A Museum Card will grant you free entrance here too. The Van Loon family wealth came from co-founding the Dutch East India Company VOC in 1602. The house, built in 1672, was purchased by the family in 1884. This residence is a double-wide house, having at some point expanded into the house next door.  The family still owns and lives in part of the house, but has opened the other half to the public and for museum purposes, the rooms have been restored and preserved to their 18th century form. On the street level, there is a dining room which can be rented for functions. We arrived late in the day and caterers were bustling to set up for a dinner so we explored the other floors. In this house the stairway was plenty wide. Upstairs we found a few bedrooms, one which claimed to have a hidden door to a servant’s set of stairs! We found the kitchen on the ground floor, one flight down from the dining rooms on the street level. This did create the problem of the food being cold by the time it reached the table. My favorite part of the whole museum, however, was out the back kitchen door.

So what were they hiding?

You’d never know it from the front of the house, but this house hides a gorgeous garden at the back as well as a restored coach house which backs up to another street. The Van Loon coach house is the only restored coach house in Amsterdam. Currently it holds the State Coach of Louis Van Loon and other horse stable artifacts… and you can enjoy it all while taking a rest at one of the tables where you can order a hot chocolate and a piece of warm apple pie! (and free wifi!) As we were visiting in November and the walk to the museum had been quite cold, this was sooooooo welcome! In my book, there’s nothing better than a mug of hot chocolate and warm apple pie to restore your willingness to see another museum. So I’d suggest starting in the coach house before touring the rest of the house.

Van Loon Canal House Museum
Hot chocolate & apple pie in the coach house of the Van Loon House Museum

Prinsengracht Canal

Jumping forward in time to the 20th century, the Prinsengracht Canal is where you’ll find the Anne Frank House Museum. I already covered this in a previous post, so I won’t spend more time on it, but I do recommend  a visit.

So what were they hiding?

I think we all know the answer to this one… So let’s move on…

Re-purposed Properties

Now that you’ve spent time visiting Amsterdam’s Golden Age and a not-so Golden Age, let’s jump to the present. The FOAM is Amsterdam’s  modern photography museum. We didn’t spend very long at this museum, but as the Museum Card gave us free entrance, it was worth a quick look. In one room, photos were displayed like filmstrips, covering walls. The display depicted stories of poverty and humanitarian aid efforts. Looking around me, the room was filled with viewers who all looked ready to set out on humanitarian aid missions of their own. Another room contained framed historical photographs of gypsies. While not a house museum, I include this one because it is housed in a re-purposed Canal House, so architecturally it provides an interesting look at how the interiors of some of the canal houses have been modernized.

So what were they hiding?

Unfortunately, I did not spend enough time at this museum to discover all its secrets. If you happen to visit, be sure to let me know what you discover!

I have to confess that when this day started I was less than thrilled to tour a bunch of houses. This was actually my mother’s choice. In the end, I’m glad I did! Not only is the evolution of human home-making quite interesting, but all families and homes have their secrets and the Dutch, despite their big picture windows, are no exception.


Check back next week for Holland Museum Hopping, Part 3: Art Museums

Let’s Talk!

Have you read any books that feature an Amsterdam Canal House? Have you visited a Canal House? If future museum visitors were to visit your house as it is now, what would they learn about you? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Plan Your Visit

Herengracht 21 B&B

Willet-Holthusysen Museum
Entrance Fee: €9
Save $$: Free entrance with Museum Card
Address: Herengracht 605

Van Loon House Museum
Entrance Fee: €9
Save $$: Free entrance with Museum Card
Address: Keizersgracht 672

Entrance Fee: €10
Save $$: Free entrance with Museum Card
Address: Keizersgracht 609

1 Comment

  1. This is an excellent story to inform tourists about Amsterdam. I was several times in Amsterdam but never found out what the tiny open aired courtyards were built for in the middle of the houses. Reading this travel story I found out.

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