Swimming in Amsterdam’s canals: what you need to know

Fancy a swim in a canal in Amsterdam? Maybe think twice. While those dreamy canals may look perfect for a refreshing dip, they’re full of dangers and questionable water quality — you’ll also need to break a few rules along the way. 

That being said, it’s surprisingly common for the Dutch to flaunt the rules and take a swim in an Amsterdam canal. If you’re curious where you can cool off in the Dutch summer, we’ve got all you need to know about swimming in Amsterdam’s canals.

Short on time? Cool off quick by jumping to what you want to know:

Are Amsterdam’s canals clean enough to swim in?

While Amsterdam’s canals are cleaner than ever before, we still wouldn’t recommend swimming in them due to the water quality. They’re are not an official swimming location, so officials don’t test the canal water. However, a 2018 investigation found that Amsterdam’s canals aren’t just a source to cool off — but also have some nasty bugs floating inside as well.

Following an outbreak of gastroenteritis after an official swimming event, water samples at four canals in Amsterdam tested positive for norovirus type 1 and rotavirus. Yikes! 😬Researches suspect that this is especially a problem after a few days of heavy rainfall when the sewage system overflows into canals. Meanwhile, the same hot weather that pushes people to swim in canals also encourages the bacteria to multiply.

So will you emerge from a canal dripping with dirt and slime? Unlikely. But you may be feeling pretty sick afterwards. Regardless, many Amsterdammers are happy to take a refreshing swim on a hot day.

Dutch canals were historically used as dumps and sewers

Yes, you read that right. In the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam’s canals were an all-in-one toilet and garbage dump — innovative, right? When people had garbage they would chuck into a canal without a second thought. Even worse, that rubbish would join all the sewage that had a one-way ticket straight to the canal via Amsterdam’s pipes and gutters.

Attempts to clean up Amsterdam’s canals for swimming

While Amsterdam’s canals may not be entirely clean or safe now, there are attempts to make them swimmable in the future. The Amsterdam Water Vision 2040 (Watervisie Amsterdam 2040) outlines plans and goals by the city for Amsterdam’s water. One of those goals is creating more swimming areas in pols, city parks, and in the river IJ.

First, however, water will have to meet the quality requirements. To do so, Amsterdam. needs to implement wastewater collection in marinas, and ensure tour boats and personal boats reduce pollution in the water. In addition to cleaning up the water, the municipality will also be working on improving access to the water by constructing jetties, stairs, and sloping banks.

Is it safe to swim in Amsterdam’s canals?

Poor water quality isn’t the only thing lurking in the canals of Amsterdam. Don’t let the serenity of the waterways fool you — hazards are present. There are casualties every year from swimmers in Amsterdam’s canals. Here are some, according to Rijkswaterstaat:

  • When swimming, it’s difficult for boats to see you. Skippers can see about 350 metres in front of their boat, but the head of a swimmer that far away is just a small dot. Large ships cannot slow down or swerve quickly.
  • Passing ships can generate a strong undertow that can suck a swimmer underneath.
  • Similarly, a passing ship can suck water from the shore, forcing it to rise up to half a metre when it flows back.
  • Currents exist in rivers and canals, even more so in low water levels during the summer.
  • Canals are often very deep with no place to rest. If a swimmer cramps, they may find it difficult to return ashore.
  • Strongly fluctuations of the water temperatures in canals could cause hypothermia.
  • Jumping off bridges is very common in Amsterdam — but also very dangerous. Murky water means you can’t estimate the depth, and objects on the bottom may be hidden.

Short answer: no. Technically, it’s not legal to swim in Amsterdam’s canals because of the passing boat traffic. You’re at risk of a €140 fine if caught swimming or jumping off bridges near:

  • the fairway of rivers,
  • channels,
  • waiting areas or mooring places for ships,
  • a bridge, sluis (where the water height is regulated), buoy line, or dam,
  • a ferry route,
  • around and inside of ports,
  • fast sailing areas
  • places that are specifically designated as prohibited areas

Should I swim in a canal in Amsterdam? The bottom line

We’ve already discussed the questionable water quality, the hazards, and the risk of a fine. Yet, every summer Amsterdammers are seen swimming in the canals. And when you’re faced with a blistering hot Dutch summer (like in recent years) sometimes people take a risk. 

So can you swim in the canal? Ultimately, it’s your decision. But keep in mind that the water isn’t particularly clean, safe, and swimming isn’t legal. Getting in and out of the canals can also be problematic given the height, but there are often ropes for this — don’t just walk across people’s boats. Whatever you choose, make sure you make an informed decision. 

Feeling sweaty and don’t know where else to go? Keep reading, because you do have other options. 😉

Where else to swim in Amsterdam

The past few summers in the Netherlands have seen shocking heatwaves that have left residents looking for other ways to cool off — particularly considering the lack of air conditioning in Dutch houses. Luckily, if you decide not to take the risk of swimming in a canal in Amsterdam, you have some great other options inside and outside of the city. 

First up, you can check out the Zwemwater app or website. This has municipality-approved swimming places in Amsterdam. It’s important to note that this is not an exhaustive list of where to swim, just approved locations. 

If you don’t find something that takes your fancy on Zwemwater, you could also consider a trip to a lake — there are heaps of magnificent lakes in the Netherlands that are perfect to cool off in.

The lake Nieuwe Meer is perfect for a swim and is just outside Amsterdam city centre. Image: Brin Andrews/Supplied

If a lake day isn’t your style, perhaps a beach is. The Netherlands may not be your first thought when you think of beaches, but the country hosts a huge coastline — and there are heaps of stunning beaches along the way. You can even find some great Dutch surfing spots if you’re a pro at hanging ten! (that’s surfer for catching rad waves.) Want to stick a little closer to home? Why not consider an urban beach in Amsterdam instead?

If you’re not feeling like swimming in the wild, you can also take a chlorinated dip and check out some of the best swimming pools in the Netherlands

Have you swum in the canals of Amsterdam? Or would you not dare? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2018, and was fully updated in June 2021 for your reading pleasure.
Feature Image: Ethan Hu/Unsplash

Samantha Dixon 🇦🇺
Sam isn’t great at being Dutch. Originally hailing from Australia, she came to study in the Netherlands without knowing where the country was on a map. She once accidentally ordered the entire ice-cream menu at Smullers. She still can’t jump on the back of a moving bike. But, she remains fascinated by the tiny land of tall people.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. As a visitor, I found your city really clean and beautiful, however to be honest, The canal water in central Amsterdam looks really filthy? What also surprised me Is how dirty the royal palace is on the exterior. (In Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg) they have made a huge effort to clean all historical buildings I was also surprised also that in the apartment where I stayed in de Pijp , there were no recycling options in place for household waste ? In a city so densely populated?

  2. This is our first full summer back in Amsterdam after a four year hiatus abroad. While we would never have considered swimming in the canals before we left, this year we’ve been in and out of them all summer. Our two older boys (7 & 9yrs) have been loving it – we keep our youngest out because he WOULD try to drink them dry. We are cautious and only plunge where we know it’s deep enough and away from boat traffic, but it’s been so much fun and seems like an obvious plus-up to this magnificent city.

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