Inside The Quirky World of Dutch Houseboats

The beautiful canal network that spreads throughout Amsterdam and other Dutch cities is not only used for transport, but for living as well. Dutch houseboats are an iconic feature of The Netherlands, and people love them for their innovative use of urban space, their charming and picturesque quality, and their general sense of fun and quirkiness.

The Origins of the Dutch Houseboat

Living on houseboats was once considered to be a cheap alternative to buying a house. The phenomenon began in the 60s and 70s with the conversion of old cargo boats. They were synonymous with poverty and the artist’s lifestyle in their early days, but rose in popularity ever since. As the advantages of living on a boat became apparent, there were less cargo ship conversions, and more specially-constructed houseboats designed for life on the water.

The Dutch government eventually capped the number of legal houseboat permits at 2400 to prevent overcrowding of the canals, make them a limited-edition way of living. Now that spaces are limited, the cost of houseboats is going up. Many houseboats stay in the family these days, and those that are for sale are sold at prices on par with brick-and-mortar homes.

The Netherlands is not the only country to host thousands of houseboats. Other countries with significant numbers of canals usually have a society of houseboat residents, with England, France, and the USA all being notable houseboat-friendly places.

Different types of Dutch houseboats

There are two main houseboat types. The original houseboats are the woonschepen (living ships), which are the converted boats and barges that started the trend in the first place. The cargo hold, fuel tanks and engine rooms are all converted into extra living space.

From the outside, woonschepen look like long wooden ships, and some of the oldest ones appear to be in terrible condition, with peeling paint and splintery wood. They can still be moved with the aid of a tugboat, but are usually permanently anchored in place.

The other houseboat style are specially built for living, and are often anchored to the canal bed with a steel or concrete foundation. These are known as arken, and some kinds of arken (called scharken) are semi mobile, and can be towed to a dock for a ‘seaworthiness’ check, if required.

Life in a Dutch houseboat

Today’s houseboats mostly have electricity, running water, and while they once dumped their waste directly into the canals, Dutch houseboats are now all legally required to be connected to sewerage systems (the water quality of Amsterdam’s canals is considered to be fairly good). Inside, houseboats have rooms just like any other house, with bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.

The arken type of houseboats are sometimes even designed to have rooms built below water level, taking full advantage of the ‘basement’ space which they can use.

Some of the old barges have gardens of potted plants set up on their decks, proving that even gardening enthusiasts can enjoy living on a canal! Arken residents may even have the luxury of a balcony or terrace, and space to park their bicycles. For many residents, the appeal of living in a houseboat gives a certain feeling of being close to nature, even inside a busy city.

Dutch houseboats even have fixed ‘addresses’. A permit called a ligplaats designates a houseboat to a particular location, so they can function as a regular house would (including having parking, and receiving mail in their mailbox!).

The floating houses in Ijburg

The Ijburg district in Amsterdam has a particularly unusual houseboat community. The neighbourhood is essentially built around a series of artificial islands, and has large numbers of steel houses positioned on top of buoyant concrete foundations. They’re then anchored in place, and connected by a network of jetties that serve as floating footpaths.

A genius solution to solving housing shortage problems!

The houseboat museum in Amsterdam

There is a houseboat in Amsterdam which has been converted into a museum all about houseboats. It’s based on an old 1914 cargo ship called the Hendrika Maria, and it’s moored on the Prinsengracht canal in the Jordaan area.

It was originally used to transport sand and gravel, before it was renovated in the 60’s into a houseboat. It’s 80 square metres inside, a surprisingly roomy space that’s comparable with many apartments in Amsterdam! Anyone can pay the small fee, and go and visit the inside of this houseboat to see what life is like.


Dutch houseboats are a practical solution to housing problems that produced one of The Netherlands’ most iconic symbols. From their ingenuity in the early days of converting barges to woonschepen, to the modern and beautiful arken styles, the houseboat is such a fun and interesting concept. Could you ever give up living on land for a life on a Dutch canal? Let me know in the comments!