Cleaved in two by the Amstel River (which is derived from Aeme-stelle, old Dutch for ‘water-area’), Amsterdam owes its existence to a dam built across the Amstel in the 12th century, which allowed local traders to cross the County of Holland freely without paying the hefty bridge tolls enforced by Count Floris V.
Surprisingly, Amsterdam’s city proper wasn’t officially established until the 14th century, making it one of the youngest capital cities in northern Europe. Despite this, the city quickly rose to global prominence, and was ranked the wealthiest city in the world during the 17th century — a period often referred to as Amsterdam’s Golden Age.
While the Netherlands remained neutral throughout the First World War, the Nazis invaded the country in 1940, taking control of all major cities, including Amsterdam. During their occupation, the Nazis deported over 100,000 Dutch Jews to concentration camps, 60,000 of which were thought to live in the capital. Among these deportees was Anne Frank, a Jewish girl made famous for her wartime diary, who later died in the German camp of Bergen-Belsen.
Today, Amsterdam is a vibrant, multi-cultural city applauded for its social tolerance and diversity. The city is frequently likened to Venice on account of its canals and islands, each of which is linked by over 1,200 bridges across the city. Amsterdam’s iconic horseshoe shape is a result of the Singel, a historic moat which encircled the city throughout the Middle Ages.
Belying its small stature, Amsterdam has all the buzz of a contemporary metropolis with none of the usual drawbacks (traffic, congestion, noise etc.). Spend the morning sightseeing among the city’s pretty bridges and quiet canals, and the nostalgia and charm of the place proves thoroughly intoxicating. Come nightfall however, Amsterdam’s bars, restaurants and eateries come alive, and the glittering hubbub of the city’s underbelly lends a sense of fun rebellion to the quaint, canal-flanked streets.
Arguably one of the most-essential arts and history venues in Europe, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum houses an astonishing array of Rembrandts, including The Night Watch and The Jewish Bride. Works from other Old Masters accompany the Rembrandt collection, including Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Young Couple, Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape with Waterfall. Beyond the gallery space, the Rijksmuseum also houses an eclectic cornucopia of rare treasures from across the globe, including an exquisite 12th-century Buddha housed in the Asian Pavilion.
Located not ten yards from the banks of the Amstel, Hermitage Amsterdam is a significant branch of the Hermitage Museum, whose headquarters lie in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The centre contains a fine collection of artistic works, and regularly hosts celebrated exhibitions, including Spanish Masters from the Hermitage and the Portrait of the Golden Age. The Hermitage also features an exquisite restaurant and dining area, where it’s possible to enjoy an excellent meal amid some of the finest works to grace the gallery’s walls.
While the majority of tourists flock to Anne Frank House to uncover Amsterdam’s rich Jewish heritage, the city’s Portuguese Synagogue is arguably the more informative attraction of the two — albeit, not the most moving. And yet, within the synagogue itself, visitors will find one of the most sumptuous interiors of any historic landmark in the city — a cavernous, candlelit space whose construction was completed in the 17th century. For those interested in unearthing the history of Jewish culture in the Netherlands, this relic of the Dutch Golden Age is the perfect place to visit.
Impressively ornate both inside and out, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw venue is a must-visit attraction for those who value history — not to mention superb acoustics. Often regarded as the finest concert venue in the world, Concertgebouw benefits from magnificent acoustic resonance, which lends itself perfectly to performances by the in-house Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and other contemporary classical musicians.
FOAM Photography Museum
While most European capitals play host to one or two specialist photography galleries, none are quite so comprehensive as Amsterdam’s Foam Photography Museum. The centre features photographic art from an eclectic roster of contemporary and historic photographers, and hosts an extensive programme of exhibitions and events from its canal side location on the Keizersgracht.
Where to Shop
Though it can’t compete with Paris, London or Milan in terms of designer shopping establishments, Amsterdam’s creativity and innovation have made it one of Europe’s most popular retail destinations. The city is home to an assortment of both established and up-and-coming designers, including Kalverstraat and Leidsestraat, as well as a huge collection of high street stores and independent boutiques.
Nestled next to the leafy Vondelpark lies perhaps Amsterdam’s wealthiest and most beautiful neighbourhood — Oud-Zuid. With its impressive gabled manors and waterside cafes, this classy enclave is worth visiting even if you’re not interested in going shopping. If you are, however, the neighbourhood is home to many high-market boutiques and designer stores, the majority of which are located on P.C. Hooftstraat. Designer names on this famed shopping street include Bulgari, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton and Valentino.
De Negen Straatjes or ‘The Nine Streets’
Where Kalverstraat is smattered with chain-store after chain-store, those in the know head to De Negen Straatjes or ‘The Nine Streets’ as they’re commonly named. Awash with history and home to an incredible array of unique shops, De Negen Straatjes is a hip part of town where it’s possible to purchase everything from eccentric home ware to the very latest in Scandinavian style.
If the opportunity to delve among the wares of a second-hand store sets your pulse racing, Waterlooplein is the place to visit. This historic square is located close to the aforementioned ‘Nine Streets’, and is home to a great selection of vintage boutiques and second-hand thrift stores. On certain days throughout the week, the square accommodates an expansive flea market, where no end of vintage clothing and bric-a-brac can be bartered for.