History of the Keizersgracht
Dating back to the early 17th century, the Keizersgracht is the widest canal in Amsterdam. The name, which means ‘Emperor’s canal’, does not refer to that width , as some assume, but refers to Maximilian I, a 15th and 16th century emperor of the house of Habsburg.
Originally, there was no canal planned on the spot where the Keizersgracht is; there were plans for a broad avenue in a stately style. The importance of easily getting to the trading offices and warehouses by water was considered great enough to dig the canal, which resulted in the onehundred feet (30 meters) wide Keizersgracht. It wasn’t until much later that the canal reached its present length. To achieve this, the newer part (dug in the late 17th century) was connected with the older parts.
Sights on the Keizersgracht
The majestic Keizersgracht has so many wonderful sights to offer that a complete description would become an endless document. Hence you will find here a selection of the most beautiful spots along this canal.
Greenland warehouses, Keizersgracht 40-44
The stepped gables in these three warehouses are unique. Most other warehouses in Amsterdam have spout (funnel shaped) gables. The three houses were built in 1620 by or on behalf of the Nordic or Greenland Walvisch Company. Originally there were even five homes like this that served as a repository for whaling products. In the basements and attics of these buildings tens of thousands of liters of train oil were preserved. The Greenland warehouses have housed schools and businesses in the course of time and they are now used as apartment buildings. Painting the construction walls has long been difficult due to their saturation with train oil.
The house with the heads, Keizersgracht 123
Seen from the canal it seems like the six heads that adorn the facade, watch over the canal. The Renaissance ornaments are on the call floor level of a house built on behalf of the rich and art-loving merchant Nicolaas Sohier. The facade was probably designed by Pieter de Keyser. The six heads represent the gods Apollo (art), Bacchus (wine), Ceres (agriculture), Diana (hunting), Mercury (trade) and Minerva (wisdom). A legend says that the six heads refer to six robbers who tried to enter the house and had their heads severed by a servant.
Coymans house, Keizersgracht 177
This beautiful and stately building is currently the Amnesty International headquarters in the Netherlands. Its facade was designed in 1625 by Jacob van Kampen (best known for the Royal Palace on Dam square. It is named after the brothers Balthasar and Johan Coymans, wealthy 17th century merchants. In the 19th century the building was used as a school and sold to the city of Amsterdam. Nowadays the Coymans house is a national monument.
Felix Meritis, Keizersgracht 324
In 1777, the society of Felix Meritis (“Fortunate through merits”) was established. The society sought to promote the arts and sciences. The impressive building, which was built between 1787-1792, housed five ‘branches’ of the society: music, drawing, literature, economics and physics. There were many meetings, attended by even more celebrities.
For the construction a contest was issued (!), which was won by architect Jacob Otten Husly. The building of Felix Meritis is notable for its well preserved classical facade and size.
Keizersgracht Church, Keizersgracht 566
It’s not just buildings from the 17th century that adorn the canals; the Keizersgracht Church is a late 19th century church, in Neo-Gothic style. Despite the fact that this style is very different from most other buildings on the Keizersgracht, the church blends in easily in its environment. It was originally built for the Dutch Reformed Church (led by Abraham Kuyper) and is still in use as a religious building. The Keizersgracht Church is a national monument.
Canal Bike rental and drop-off point
For anyone who wants to see more of the beauty of the Keizersgracht canal, renting a Canal Bike is the ideal means of transport to explore the canal further. There is a rental office / drop-off point on the Keizersgracht, on the corner of the Leidsestraat.
Other interesting buildings along the Keizersgracht:
- Huis Marseille, Keizersgracht 401
- Museum van Loon, Keizersgracht 672-674
- Eerste Hollandse Levensverzekering Bank, Keizersgracht 174-176
- John Adams house, Keizersgracht 529
- Huis Geloof, Keizersgracht 524
- Foam Photography Museum (discount tickets), Keizersgracht 609
Skating on the Keizersgracht
When the canal freezes over in winter and skating is possible, the Keizersgracht becomes the popular icerink in Amsterdam. The locks are closed, leaving no water circulation in the canals. Moreover, in some canals (including the Keizersgracht) boating is prohibited during this period. In some winters (most recently in 2012) a skating competition is held on the Keizersgracht, called the “Imperial Race”. The winner may call himself “Emperor of Amsterdam”.