Canal belt architecture on show in Het Grachtenhuis

Canal belt architecture on show in Het Grachtenhuis

If you’re staying in an apartment in Amsterdam, you’re bound to be fascinated by the way the houses in the centre of town look. Now that you’ve come that one step closer to the real Amsterdam, you could do with a visit to a museum called Het Grachtenhuis, located at Herengracht 386.


Translations catering to tourists would indicate the museum’s name is The Canal House. Somehow it doesn’t strike me as right. A ‘gracht’ is more of a quay than a canal and even quay doesn’t quite equate in my opinion. That’s not to say that the museum will be a delight all the same. It’s been described as a ‘hidden museum’ by the iAmsterdam website, so you could expect a degree of tranquility in the five exhibition rooms.  A high quality multimedia interactive device compacts 400 years of history in about 40 minutes, so its great for kids of eight years and older too.

The museum itself is housed in one of the best preserved houses in Amsterdam. It was designed in the 17th Century by Philips Vingboons, known among the common Amsterdammer as Philip Vingboon, who is considered Amsterdam’s most important architect of the era, credited with inventing one of the typical Amsterdam facades called the 'halsgevel' (literally neck facade). You can see a good example of a halsgevel a few blocks along from the museum, at Herengracht 168. Museum tour guides organise walks along the water and will inform you about all the most important architectural details and highlights.


Most of the houses in what’s typically called the canal belt initially served both as places to live and to work for the wealthy elite of Amsterdam. You can still see this today; the door above the front stairs would be used for important visitors and the door below it for servants and merchants. There wasn’t a lot of space along the busily trafficked waterways of Amsterdam 400 years ago, which is why the houses are extremely tall and narrow. Goods and furniture were hoisted into the buildings via a bar with a hook that protrudes from the top of the facades.


These contraptions are still in use today throughout Amsterdam and beyond. Modern day Dutch houses often come with a bar sticking out above their attic windows and when people move house or buy a new piano, they will rent a ‘rope and block’ to facilitate the shift. The ‘block’ part of the device is best described as a one-by-one-meter wooden pallet. Home owners simply pile their precious possessions including expensive white goods  appliances, sofas and beds on the pallet, sling a bit of rope around it and then hoist the whole lot up to the level of the windows of their abode. Whereupon a pair of arms reaches out and guides the flotilla to indoor safety. The exercise looks utterly precarious to the novice, but every Dutch person will tell you it is a perfectly sane and hassle-free way to move house.  


In case you want to snoop around the museum before deciding whether to visit, check out its app Go!Canals (only available on Apple).