Get beyond the tourist tat, the sex museum and the stands of brightly painted clogs, and you can discover a very different kind of Amsterdam, where water will guide your way
may well be better known for its coffee shops and liberal red light district but it can also cater for a whole other side of your wellbeing. Wandering along the waterways of Amsterdam is the perfect way to soak up the laid-back charm of a city carved by its canals.
Here the waterways provide a natural map to the city and are central to its lifeblood. Life bustles around them; clock towers peel their chimes above them; bicycle wheels clink and rattle on the cobblestone bridges that cross them; and the hubbub of café life spills beside them. In total a radial network of 165 different waterways winds neatly around the city, allowing you to plot a fairly intuitive pathway.
Route finding is easy. You simply choose a canal and follow it. Very quickly it will lead you to another and then another. Whilst it might be tempting to hop aboard one of the many boats that cruise the canals or join the 600,000 bikers speeding through the streets, this is a city perfectly suited for wandering, strolling and ambling. You never have to go too far before finding the next interesting stop off.
The major waterways are collectively known as the grachtenwordel (girdle of canals) and ring the city centre. On the adjacent cobbled walkways is a harmonious jumble of offices, houses, restaurants and bars. It's here you will find the life and soul of Amsterdam - at work, rest and play.
Gable gazing is a must on these canal streets, lined with slender five-storey buildings. Perhaps the most famous of these is at 263 Prinsengracht, where the teenage diarist Anne Frank and her family remained in hiding for two years during the Second World War.
While this is a popular choice, attracting almost a million visitors every year, on Prinsengracht, it isn't difficult to get away from the crowds if you hunt out some of the city's unique Brown Cafes. These hark back to the time when Amsterdam was the richest port in the world, with a steady stream of incoming traffic, people and goods. Dotted throughout the city, they have barely changed, with their dark wood-panelled interiors, smoke-stained walls and often sand-covered floors.
At Bloemstraat, just off Prinsengracht's main thoroughfare, is Café Chris. A tap house since 1624, it is opposite the Western Church (Westerkerk) where its thirsty builders went to receive their wages. Heading north along the canal to Eglentiersgracht reveals Café 't Smalle. Beyond the pretty canalside patio with its line of fluttering sunshades, creaking wooden doors lead inside to reveal a moment caught in time. Orderly glass bottles line the shelves, wooden seating carves shadows in the dim light and travellers still wander in to pull up a stool at the panelled bar to catch up on news.
Shortcuts and stop offs are all part of experiencing Amsterdam on foot and almost every corner on Prinsengracht beckons you to a detour. Dip into the Nine Streets (Negen Straatjes), and you will even find a shop dedicated entirely to toothbrushes: the White Teeth Shop (De Witte Tandenwinkel).
From the Singel, Amsterdam's original medieval moat, three other canals, built during the Golden Era of the 17th century as part of the city's urban regeneration scheme, spread concentrically outwards: Herengracht, named after the heren (gentlemen or sometimes lords) who were responsible for its construction, Keizersgracht, which commemorated Maximillian I, the Kaiser or Holy Roman Emperor, and Prinsengracht, called after William, Prince of Orange.
The far eastern end of Prisengracht leads to the wide reaches of the Amstel River and the 17th-century sluice gates that allow the city's canals to be flushed with fresh water. Just above these is one of Amsterdam's most famous sights: the Skinny Bridge (Magere Brug), a hand-operated wooden drawbridge.
Every aspect of life can be seen around the canals and as Amsterdam expands they continue to define its urban spaces. In the waterfront area bordering the IJ, the waterway artery that allows access to the city, there are new developments and exciting architecture – all set around a modern version of these age-old canals.
In the midst of this maze of modern glass-fronted buildings the brick Lloyd Hotel
is an intriguing testament to the forces of change. This former youth prison, which still retains a host of original features including bars on some of the windows, has been carefully redesigned and now provides accommodation, a bar and restaurant.
Outside a broad walkway overlooks the water’s edge where Amsterdammers can be spotted taking their final canalside walk of the day.
Book: Unforgettable Walks To Take Before You Die, which features Amsterdam as one of its 'unforgettable' global walking destinations