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Falling for Amsterdam all over again: Revisiting the romantic city's grand old waterways

The Venice of the North is celebrating 400 years since its historic canals were built

I remember precious little of my first brush with Amsterdam. In 1972, some friends and I followed the Grateful Dead on their infamous European tour. We slept in an old VW camper van, which expired somewhere on one of the beguiling canals that criss-cross the city. Free love was in abundance; the whole city was rocking – and I fell head over heels in love with those canals and with Sabine, a young Dutch hippie with flowers in her hair. Many of my contemporaries left their hearts in San Francisco. I left mine in Amsterdam.

Earlier this summer, I rekindled that love affair. And what a year to choose: the 100th anniversary of the Frans Hals Museum, the 40th of the Van Gogh Museum and the monumental reopening of the Rijksmuseum after a restoration that closed the museum for a decade.

However, I was here to take to the water. This year also marks the 400th anniversary of Amsterdam's remarkable canal system and events celebrating the birthday have been going on all year. They come to a head between 16 and 25 August during the Grachtenfestival. There will be canal parades and concerts, and many of the restaurants along the canals are offering 17th-century menus.

My accommodation was apt. It lay on Da Costakade, one of the quieter canals just a 10‑minute walk from the city centre. The delightful Blue Wave Houseboat – one of the 2,500 that line the canals – is operated as a B&B by the owner's daughter, who grew up on board. It has two bedrooms, a kitchen and lounge and – best of all – has a fabulous deck, surrounded by flowers, reeds and a plentiful supply of neighbourly waterfowl.

Amsterdam is a compact sort of place. You're seldom more than a few minutes' walk or bike ride from the city centre, and my Blue Wave location was adjacent to one of my favourite neighbourhoods, the Jordaan, west of the Prinsengracht canal. A vibrant residential neighbourhood, it has an authentic local feel, uncluttered by throngs of tourists.

I chartered a water taxi – in New York cab yellow – to explore the canals. With the freedom to roam, I glided around the historic Canal Ring, which forms concentric belts around the city. It was built during the height of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century and was awarded long-overdue Unesco World Heritage status in 2010.

This "Venice of the North" has more than a hundred kilometres of canals in total, the result of far-sighted civic planning in the 17th century, which used the medieval core of the city as a hub, with a semi-circular system of canals radiating outwards across the low-lying countryside. The canals provided a system of water management and defence, as well as space for residential development along their banks.

In a couple of hours I took in the three main canals – Herengracht (Patrician's Canal), Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal) – as well as the innermost Singel. From time to time, I could spot the smaller canals, which run like tiny veins, splitting off the main arteries under graceful old stone bridges. I broke my ride down a couple of these branches and jumped ashore to join locals at the small cafés and bars that pepper the waterside.

Smack in the city centre is another ravishing canal, the Zwanenburgwal, which many residents consider to be the most beautiful. Rembrandt lived and worked at the house on the corner of Zwanenburgwal and Jodenbreestraat; in 1639 he bought the adjacent house, which is now the Rembrandthuis Museum. Some of the canal streets are lined with similarly grand merchants' mansions; many other buildings were built as warehouses. A few of these appear to be toppling over, but they were in fact designed so that merchandise could be winched up to the top windows directly from boats, without hitting the buildings.

Plenty of large tourist boats ply the major waterways; the smarter hotels also have their own boats. However, I found that one of the best ways to combine the canals with the museums and sightseeing is the hop-on, hop-off Canal Bus, which chugs along some of the grandest canals and stops at major attractions such as the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House.

Although Paris always steals the "city for lovers" tag, Amsterdam is every bit as romantic, even if you are alone. On a benevolent summer morning, I found myself getting delightfully lost in the maze of tiny cobbled streets.

It is said that the number of bicycles outnumbers the residents of the city (and that's not counting the 12,000 to 15,000 bikes they dredge from its 165 canals each year). Every street has a bike lane and the city is flat as a pressed tulip. Best of all, bikes are top of the food chain; incredibly, drivers respect that.

But for me, Amsterdam is best devoured by foot: you miss nothing that way. Many of the most important and best-preserved mansions line the canals, and the most impressive – for canal fans – is on Herengracht. The fascinating Museum Het Grachtenhuis (Museum of the Canals) is housed in an exquisite 17th-century mansion. It explains the development of the city and its aquatic veins in an innovative six-room multi-media history tour.

During summer weekends, much of the Canal Ring resembles a street party in a provincial village. Children run around freely on the narrow traffic-free cobbled streets, while teenagers play ball games. On many of the canal corners, particularly those that intersect with the bridges, cafés spill over on to the narrow streets.

There are some wonderful canalside restaurants, too. On a balmy evening, I pottered along to Restaurant De Belhamel, magically located at the confluence of the Brouwersgracht and Herengracht waterways. The French-influenced food is a delight, the ambience early 20thcentury Parisian.

Later, I find myself sucked back to 1972 in the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum on frenetic Oudezijds Achterburgwal, on the edge of Amsterdam's red-light district. It's actually rather grown up and contains an impressive collection of paraphernalia, including some wonderful old books with splendid titles such as Reefer Boy, It Ain't Hay and To Go to Pot or Not. Further up the same street, I give the Erotic Museum a wide berth.

My time at the houseboat was up, and I was due to spend the night at the Dylan Hotel overlooking Keizersgracht, one of Amsterdam's most regal canals. Named after Dylan Thomas, the hotel naturally caters to alpha drinkers, who can enjoy High Wine rather than High Tea. I walked there past grand mansions adorning the Keizersgracht. Through one window, I caught a fleeting glimpse of an elegant middle-aged woman illuminated in the half-light of a chandelier. Perhaps, I thought for one frozen moment, it was Sabine herself.

I drifted off to sleep that night to dreams of the late great Jerry Garcia singing "What a long strange trip it's been". Indeed it has.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Chris Coplans travelled with BA (0844 493 0758; ba.com), which flies from London City, Heathrow and Gatwick, and offers three nights' B&B at the Dylan Hotel from £619pp. Alternatives are on KLM (0870 507 4074; klm.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).

Staying there

Blue Wave Houseboat (00 31 65 066 7760; bluewavehouseboat.com). Doubles €140, B&B.

The Dylan Hotel (00 31 65 066 7760; dylanamsterdam.com). Doubles from €350, room only.

Museum Het Grachtenhuis (00 31 20 4211 656; hetgrachtenhuis.nl).

De Belhamel (00 31 20 622 1095; belhamel.nl).

More information

Grachtenfestival.nl Amsterdamcanals2013.com

To see more of Chris Coplans' images go to coplans.co.uk