A City on Stilts Below Sea Level
It was during Amsterdam’s Golden Age (1580 – 1670) when the city really came into its own. As it grew, so did its network of roads and, more significantly, its canals. During the 17th century, more than 60 miles of canals were formed. In fact, the canal ring inside the Singelgracht, which was built during the 17th century, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2010. In total, Amsterdam is home to 165 individual canals, which has earned it the nickname “Venice of the North.” Venice, by comparison, is made up of 177 canals. However, Amsterdam trumps its Italian counterpart with 1,281 bridges (872 more than Venice), 80 of which can be found in Amsterdam’s city center.
The city’s many waterways serve as a reminder that Amsterdam is built on soggy, unstable soil. For centuries structures were built upon a collection of long wooden posts, some as long as 65 feet, that extend through about three dozen feet of mud and silt and are secured into the firmer soil beneath it. It is estimated that Amsterdam is built on approximately 11 million of these wooden poles. (Concrete supports have since replaced wooden posts in the city’s new construction.) Most residences are built upon 10 posts, though larger structures require significantly more. The city’s Centraal railway station, for example, is supported by almost 9,000 posts, while the Royal Palace in Dam Square is built on more than 13,500 of them. Almost 7,000 structures that were built during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries still stand, although many are now pitched or tilted due to the slight instability of the ground upon which they are built.
Unlike every other European capital city, Amsterdam is unique for the fact that all of the country’s governmental buildings, with the exception of the Royal Palace, are based in The Hague. Even then, the Dutch royal family only occasionally resides in that palace. This shift in the location of the Netherlands’ political offices means that Amsterdam is without the monumental architecture, statues, and expansive squares that attract millions of tourists in other cities. Instead, it’s the narrow, bustling streets of Amsterdam’s old town—and its canals—that draw visitors to the city.