Amsterdam and water are closely linked, as they have been for centuries. It was specifically because of all that water from the River Amstel and IJ and the Zuiderzee that the first inhabitants settled here early in the thirteenth century.
Water was also the main reason of Amsterdam’s wealth in the 17th century, when it became the most powerful trading city in the world. The canals in the centre, with their beautiful merchant’s houses from the Golden Age, are what made Amsterdam really famous. The richly ornamented gables from this period are still to be admired. The finest facades and all the bridges over the canals are illuminated at night.
Amsterdam’s canals offer a lively spectacle the whole year round, thanks to the countless boats that tour around the whole day and most of the night. As a visitor, one can also witness exciting events on the water, from canal concerts to Chinese dragon boat races and rowing regattas.
Thanks to this all, Amsterdammers do live the year round with their favorite element Water. The intimate relationship between Amsterdam and the water is no longer so dramatic, but can still be seen and felt every day. That is clear to every visitor within half an hour. One only has to take a stroll through the city, and before one knows it one has crossed a dozen picturesque arched bridges over the canals. One must have seen tour boats and canal bikes pass by, and may even be a couple of paddling canoeists. Hundreds of houseboats and barges, often beautifully painted, show that not a single square meter is wasted.
Anyone walking along the canals at night might be lucky enough to see a less known feature of Amsterdam’s relationship with water. Since time immemorial, about 40 sluices in the centre have been closed between 7 and 8.30 every night so the water in the canals can be refreshed. This work is still mainly done by hand. One site to see this is at the sluices in the River Amstel by Carré Theatre, or at the Haarlem Sluice in the Singel. Two men turn an enormous wooden wheel to close the sluice gates. When their work is finished, an enormous pumping station on the artificial island Zeeburg to the East of the city is started up. In one night, the station pumps about 600,000 cubic meters of water from the IJsselmeer into Amsterdam’s canals. To allow the water to flow through rapidly, between two and four sluices on the West side of the city are left open. The water from the canals flows through these sluices into the River IJ (the section of the harbor between the IJsselmeer and the North-Sea Canal) to find its way to the sea via the North-Sea Canal. So about every three nights, the whole contents of the canals are refreshed.
Draining the canals takes place seven days a week, 52 weeks in the year. It is only occasionally stopped in the winter, when the water freezes over. After about three days of severe frost the layer of ice is thick enough for the skaters. The posh Keizersgracht is then converted to a cheerful ice rink for everyone to enjoy.