Amsterdam combines the unrivaled beauty of the 17th-century Golden Age city center with plenty of museums and art of the highest order, not to mention a remarkably laid-back atmosphere. It all comes together to make this one of the world’s most appealing and offbeat metropolises in the world.
Built on a latticework of concentric canals like an aquatic rainbow, Amsterdam is known as the City of Canals—but it’s no Venice, content to live on moonlight serenades and former glory. Quite the contrary: on nearly every street here you’ll find old and new side by side—quiet corners where time seems to be holding its breath next to streets like neon-lit Kalverstraat, and Red Light ladies strutting by the city’s oldest church. Indeed, Amsterdam has as many lovely facets as a 40-carat diamond polished by one of the city’s gem cutters. It’s certainly a metropolis, but a rather small and very accessible one. Locals tend to refer to it as a big village, albeit one that happens to pack the cultural wallop of a major world destination.
There are scores of concerts every day, numerous museums, summertime festivals, and, of course, a legendary year-round party scene. It’s pretty much impossible to resist Amsterdam’s charms. With 7,000 registered monuments, most of which began as the residences and warehouses of humble merchants, set on 160 man-made canals, and traversed by 1,500 or so bridges, Amsterdam has the largest historical inner city in Europe. Its famous circle of waterways, the grachtengordel, was a 17th-century urban expansion plan for the rich and is a lasting testament to the city’s Golden Age. This town is endearing because of its kinder, gentler nature—but a reputation for championing sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll does not alone account for Amsterdam’s being one of the most popular destinations in Europe: consider that within a single square mile the city harbors some of the greatest achievements in Western art, from Rembrandt to Van Gogh. Not to mention that this is one of Europe’s great walking cities, with so many of its treasures in the untouted details: tiny alleyways barely visible on the map, hidden garden courtyards, shop windows, floating houseboats, hidden hofjes (courtyards with almshouses), sudden vistas of church spires, and gabled roofs that look like so many unframed paintings. And don’t forget that the joy lies in details: elaborate gables and witty gable stones denoting the trade of a previous owner.
Keep in mind that those XXX symbols you see all over town are not a mark of the city’s triple-X reputation. They’re part of Amsterdam’s official coat of arms—three St. Andrew’s crosses, believed to represent the three dangers that have traditionally plagued the city: flood, fire, and pestilence. The coat’s motto (“Valiant, determined, compassionate”) was introduced in 1947 by Queen Wilhelmina in remembrance of the 1941 February Strike in Amsterdam—the first time in Europe that non-Jewish people protested against the persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime.
POINTS OF INTEREST
EYE FILM INSTITUTE NETHERLANDS
In an eye-popping, proto-futuristic waterfront structure designed by Viennese architects Delugan Meissl, this cutting-edge museum is easily accessible, thanks to a free ferry that connects in a two-minute ride with Centraal Station. Along with restoring thousands of films (Martin Scorsese used footage from Georges Méliès films restored here in his film Hugo), the institute contains four massive screening rooms (showing a fine mix of classic and contemporary films), a large exhibition space, and a library open to the public. The EYE, whose name is a pun on the pronunciation of IJ, also organizes wonderful exhibitions about film-history-related subjects. They do not take cash, just credit or debit cards. There is also a restaurant with a waterfront terrace.
EASTERN CANAL RING
Amsterdam’s 17th-century Golden Age left behind a tidemark of magnificent buildings along its lovely canals. The point where these canals intersected with Nieuwe Spiegelstraat became known as the Gouden Bocht (Golden Bend), because houses here were occupied by the richest families of Amsterdam. Elaborate gables, richly decorated facades, finely detailed cornices, colored marbles, and heavy doors created imposing architecture that suits the bank headquarters of today as well as it did the richest grandees of yore. This area includes many such time-burnished marvels, but—to an even greater degree than with the Western Canal Ring and the Jordaan—this part of the city remains a scene of contrasts. Amsterdam’s richest stretches of canals, the Eastern Canal Ring, which still glitters with the sumptuous pretensions of a Golden Age past, is juxtaposed with the quickly gentrifying realities of the two commercial avenues, Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, that fully reflect Amsterdam’s present as a truly global village. Standout sites to visit here include the elegant Museum Van Loon (once the quarters of a very rich 17th-century Amsterdammer), the marvelous Stadsarchief Amsterdam (City Archives)—if only for the building itself—and the odd but wonderful Tassenmuseum Hendrikje (Hendrikje Museum of Bags and Purses).
This tower received its name in 1672, when French troops occupied much of the surrounding republic, and Amsterdam was given the right to mint its own coins here for a brief two-year period. The spire was added by Hendrick de Keyser in 1620, and the weather vane on top in the shape of a gilded ox is a reference to the calves market close by: Kalverstraat. The guardhouse, which now houses a rather touristy Dutch porcelain shop, has a gable stone above its entrance that portrays two men and a dog in a boat. This is a symbolic representation of the city, in which warrior and merchant are bound together by loyalty—that would be the dog—and sailing toward the future.
PATHÉ TUSCHINSKI CINEMA
Although officially the architect of this “Plumcake” (as it was described when it first opened in 1921) was H. L. De Jong, the financial and spiritual force behind it was Abram Icek Tuschinski (1886–1942), a Polish Jew who after World War I decided to build a theater that was “unique.” And with the contributions of interior designers like Pieter den Besten, Jaap Gidding, and Chris Bartels came up with a dizzying and dense mixture of Jugendstil, Art Deco, and Amsterdam School, it’s safe to say that he achieved his goal. He later died at Auschwitz. The frescoes of elegant women by Pieter den Besten were discovered in the year 2000, under layers of paint. To this day watching a movie from one of the extravagant private balconies remains an unforgettable experience—especially if you are in the “love seats” drinking champagne.
WESTERN CANAL RING
The western half of the Canal Ring, west of the arterial Leidsestraat and heading up to the magnificent reinvented warehouses of Brouwersgracht, was the first canal sector to be built and has miles of gabled residences that reflect most sweetly and surreally in the canal waters below. The intersecting streets have lots of interesting shopping and eating destinations, especially along “The 9 Streets,” which run between Raadhuisstraat and Leidsestraat.
This part of the canal ring is quintessential Amsterdam, with many gorgeous canalside homes as well as such museums and landmark buildings as the Anne Frank House, the Westerkerk, the Woonbootmuseum (Houseboat Museum), and Het Huis met de Hoofden (the House with the Heads). The impressive houses that you see along the canal were built for the movers and shakers of the 17th-century Golden Age–-keep in mind that homeowners were taxed on their houses’ width, not height. A double frontage and staircase (two adjacent lots) was a great display of wealth. The number of windows facing the canal, as well as the ornate gables and decorative features (such as finely wrought railings), were also indications of the homeowners’ prestige. While there’s considerable scrolling variation from one house to the next, creating the attractively varied and gabled skyline for which Amsterdam is famous, it’s very harmonious, and from a historical point of view, remarkably intact. Sixteen hundred buildings along these canals have protected heritage status and, as of 2010, the Canal Ring is officially on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Plan to spend at least a morning or afternoon here exploring, though lovers of historic Amsterdam could easily spend a day or two.
This small park was built by and named after the noted city benefactor Samuel Sarphati (1813–66), whose statue graces the central fountain. It has paths undulating along past trees, ponds, and expanses of grass, and though it’s not large, it’s the perfect place to picnic with everything you picked up at the Albert Cuypmarkt.
At more than 100 years old, the Albert Cuypmarkt is one of the biggest and busiest street markets in Europe, especially toward the end of the week. Like the majority of street names in De Pijp, it is named after a Golden Age painter. From Monday to Saturday, thousands of shoppers from throughout the city flock to its more than 260 stalls selling fruit and vegetables, fish (live lobsters and crabs), textiles, and fashion. There is a decades-long waiting list for a permanent booth, which means that things can get dramatic around 9 every morning when the lottery for that day’s available temporary spaces takes place.
Founded by Gerard Heineken in 1864, the Heineken label has become one of the world’s most famous beers. It’s no longer brewed here–-though you might see the Heineken horse-drawn dray still clip-clopping around town laden with heavy kegs, the original brewery has now been transformed into the “Heineken Experience,” an interactive center that offers tours of the facilities. Everything from vast copper vats to beer-wagon shire horses are on view, and if you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be brewed and bottled, the virtual reality ride “Brew U” will clue you in. At the end of the tour you get to taste the goods. (No beer is served to visitors under the age of 18.)
In 1620, as the Jordaan expanded, city planners decided to build a church at this end of town for poorer residents. The Noorderkerk (Northern Church) designed by Hendrick de Keyser and completed after his death by his son Pieter, was built on egalitarian lines in the form of a Greek cross (four equal arms) with the pulpit in the middle. Until 1688 the surrounding square, Noordermarkt, was a graveyard whose residents were moved to make room for a market. The commerce is still evident: on Monday, there’s a flea market, with a textile market on Westerstraat, and on Saturday, there’s a popular organic farmers’ market with a general market along Lindengracht.
Named for the “eglantine rose”—the floral names for canals in the Jordaan district are at odds with the fragrances that would have emanated from them in their early days—this is one of Amsterdam’s loveliest canals. Many of the houses along this canal and the surrounding streets were first occupied by Golden Age painters and artisans, including the legendary mapmaking Blaeu family. Hidden here is the St. Andrieshofje, famous for its Delftware entryway. And certainly not hidden (because it’s usually jammed with people) is the famed Café ‘t Smalle (on the corner of the Prinsengracht). This bruin café , covered with eglantine roses and complete with waterside terrace, was where Pieter Hoppe began his jenever distillery in 1780, an event of such global significance that ‘t Smalle is recreated in Japan’s Holland Village in Nagasaki.
Lined with suave “burgher” houses of the 17th century, this canal is also known as the “Herengracht of the Jordaan,” or the “Gentlemen’s Canal of the Jordaan.” It was once a center for paint and dye manufacturers, which made sense, because the Jordaan was populated with Golden Age artists, including Rembrandt, who had a studio here. Bloemgracht is still proudly presided over by “De Drie Hendricken,” three houses set at Nos. 87-91 owned by the Hendrick de Keyser heritage organization, with their gable stones for a farmer, a city settler, and a sailor.
COBRA MUSEUM OF ART
Just south of Amsterdam, in the small town of Amstelveen, this wonderful museum of modern art is worth a detour. Hundreds of artworks of the CoBrA avant-garde movement (1948–1951) are on permanent display here, including paintings, sculptures and ceramics by Dutchman Karel Appel, CoBrA’s biggest name. An acronym from the initials of the members’ home towns of Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, CoBrA proved to be a milestone in the development of European abstract expressionism. In addition to its own collection, the museum organizes temporary exhibitions of modern art. To get here, take Bus No. 170 or 172 from Leidseplein to Amstelveen Busstation. You can also take Bus No. 5 or 51 from Centraal Station.
On sunny days, Amsterdam’s “green lung” is the most densely populated section of the city. Vondelpark is the place where sun is worshipped, joints are smoked, beer is quaffed, picnics are luxuriated over, bands are grooved to, dogs are walked, balls are kicked, and lanes are biked, jogged, and rollerbladed on. By evening, the park has invariably evolved into one large outdoor café. The great thing about this park is that, as long as you stay relaxed and go with the flow, you can dress however, hang however, and do whatever. A mysterious man danced around the park for years on 1970s silver roller skates, wearing silver body paint and a silver G-string (even in winter), with shaved legs and chest, headphones, and a silver cap with propeller, and nobody batted an eyelid, and his spirit still lives on today.
In 1865 the Vondelpark was laid out as a 25-acre “walking and riding park” for residents of the affluent neighborhood rising up around it. It soon expanded to 120 acres and was renamed after Joost van den Vondel, the “Dutch Shakespeare.” Landscaped in the informal English style, the park is an irregular patchwork of copses, ponds, children’s playgrounds, and fields linked by winding pathways. The park’s focal point is the open-air theater, where there is free summer entertainment from Friday through Sunday.
Over the years a range of sculptural and architectural pieces have been installed in the park. Picasso even donated a sculpture, The Fish, on the park’s centenary in 1965, which stands in the middle of a field to deter football players from using it as a goalpost. The terraces of the Blue Teahouse, a rare beauty of functionalist Nieuwe Bouwen (Modern Movement) architecture, built beside the lake in 1937, are packed throughout the day (it’s open from 9 am to 10 pm daily, serving sandwiches and snacks www.blauwetheehuis.nl); in the winter there are electric heaters outside, so you can still enjoy the park. On the west side of the park, you can stop in at the Neoclassical-era Hollandsche Manege (the oldest riding school in the Netherlands; Vondelstraat 140) and enjoy a cup of tea in one of Amsterdam’s best-kept secrets: inspired by the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna the building’s café is open to the public and overlooks the riding arena where classes are regularly held.
The Netherlands’ greatest museum, the famed Rijksmuseum’s many rooms exhibit paintings, sculptures, and objects from both the West and Asia, dating to the 9th through the 20th centuries. The bulk of the collection is of 15th- to 17th-century paintings, mostly Dutch (the Rijksmuseum has the largest concentration of these masters in the world). Long the nation’s pride, the museum has abandoned the art/design/history divisions and has instead put the three previously disparate collections into one panoply of art and style presented chronologically, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Don’t be surprised, in other words, if you see a vase in a 17th-century painting by Gerard Dou and the same, real Delft blue-and-white vase next to it.
When architect P. J. H. Cuypers came up with a somewhat over-the-top design in the late 1880s, it shocked Calvinist Holland. Cuypers was persuaded to tone down some of what was thought as excessive (i.e., Catholic) elements of his Neo-Renaissance decoration and soaring Neo-Gothic lines. During the building’s construction, however, he did manage to sneak some of his ideas back in, and the result is a magnificent turreted building that glitters with gold leaf and is textured with sculpture.
If your time is limited, head directly for the Gallery of Honor on the upper floor to admire Rembrandt’s The Night Watch with its central figure, the “stupidest man in Amsterdam,” Frans Banningh Cocq. The militia buddies that surround him each paid 100 guilders to be included—quite a sum in those days, so a few of them complained about being lost in all those shadows. It should be noted that some of these shadows are formed by the daylight coming in through a small window. Daylight? Indeed, The Night Watch is actually the Day Watch but it received its name when it was obscured with soot—imagine the conservators’ surprise. The rest of this “Best of the Golden Age” hall features other well-known Rembrandt paintings as well as works by Vermeer, Frans Hals, and other great artists of the 17th century.
The 20th-century section on the third floor of the two towers include works by Mondrian and the Cobra movement, a Nazi chess set (with tanks and cannons instead of castles and bishops), and even a complete Dutch-designed fighter plane, built in 1917 for the Royal Air Force.
In one wing of the ground floor are the Special Collections, room after room of antique furniture, silverware, and exquisite porcelain, including Delftware. An overlooked—and freely accessible—part of this museum is its sculpture garden formed in the triangle by Hobbemastraat and Jan Luijkenstraat.
Don’t leave the country without visiting the mini-museum at Schiphol Airport (Behind passport control, Holland Boulevard between Piers E and F; free; daily 6 am–8 pm).
STEDELIJK MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
Amsterdam’s celebrated treasure house of modern art, the Stedelijk reopened in September 2012 following a massive refurbishment of the wedding-cake Neo-Renaissance structure built in 1895. In true Amsterdam fashion, the locals were quick to nickname the futuristic addition by globally acclaimed local architects Benthem/Crouwel the “Badkuip” (Bathtub); it incorporates a glass-walled restaurant (which you can visit, along with the museum shop, without a museum ticket). The new Stedelijk has twice the exhibition space as the old museum, with temporary exhibitions in the addition.
As for the Stedelijk’s old building, it’s home to the museum’s fabled collection of modern and contemporary art and design pieces. While this collection harbors many works by such giants of modernism as Chagall, Cézanne, Picasso, Monet, Mondrian, and Malevich, there is a definite emphasis on the post–World War II period: with such local CoBrA artists as Appel and Corneille (CoBrA was the avant-garde art movement from 1948 to 1951; the name comes from the initials of the members’ home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam); American Pop artists like Warhol, Johns, Oldenburg, and Liechtenstein; Abstract Expressionists including de Kooning and Pollock; contemporary German Expressionists such as Polke, Richter, and Baselitz; and works by Dutch essentials of the De Stijl school, including the game-changing Red Blue Chair that Gerrit Rietveld designed in 1918 and Mondrian’s 1920 trail-blazing Composition in Red, Black, Yellow, Blue, and Grey.
VAN GOGH MUSEUM
Opened in 1973, this remarkable light-infused building, based on a design by famed De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld, venerates the short and productive career of tortured 19th-century artist Vincent van Gogh. Although some of the Van Gogh paintings scattered throughout the world’s museums are of dubious provenance, this collection’s authenticity is indisputable: its roots trace directly back to Vincent’s brother, Theo van Gogh, who was his artistic and financial supporter.
The 200 paintings and 500 drawings on permanent display here can be divided into five basic periods, the first beginning in 1880 at age 27 after his failure in finding his voice as schoolmaster and lay preacher. These early depictions of Belgian and Dutch country landscapes and peasants were notable for their dark colors and a refusal to romanticize. The Potato Eaters is perhaps his most famous piece from this period. In 1886, he followed his art-dealing brother, Theo, to Paris, where the heady atmosphere—and drinking buddies like Paul Signac and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—inspired him to new heights of experimentation. While heavily inspired by Japanese woodcuts and their hard contrasts and off-kilter compositions, he also took the Neo-Impressionist obsession with light and color as his own, and his self-portraits (he was the only model he could afford) began to shimmer with expressive lines and dots. With a broadened palette, Vincent returned to the countryside in 1888 to paint still lifes—including the famous series of Sunflowers (originally meant to decorate the walls of a single bedroom in the Maison Jaune he had set up to welcome Paul Gauguin)—and portraits of locals around Arles, France. His hopes to begin an artists’ colony there with Paul Gauguin were dampened by the onset of psychotic attacks, one of which saw the departure of his ear lobe (a desperate gesture to show respect for Gauguin—in southern France, matadors cut ears cut off of bulls and presented them to their lady loves). Recuperating in a mental health clinic in Saint-Rémy from April 1889, he—feverishly, one assumes—produced famous works like Irises and Wheatfield with a Reaper, whose energetic brushwork powerfully evoke the area’s sweeping winds. In May 1890, Van Gogh moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where he traded medical advice from Dr. Paul Gachet for paintings and etching lessons. The series of vibrantly colored canvases the pained painter made shortly before he died are particularly breathtaking. These productive last three months of his life were marred by depression and, on July 27, he shot himself while painting Wheatfield with Crows and died two days later.
In 1999, the 200th anniversary of Van Gogh’s birth was marked with a museum extension designed by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, which provides space for superb temporary exhibitions. In 2015, a glass structure was added to create a new entrance hall on the Museumplein side and to connect the original museum building to the Kurokawa wing.
ALLARD PIERSON MUSEUM
Once the repository of the nation’s gold supply, this former National Bank with its stern Neoclassical facade is now home to other treasures. Dynamite helped remove the safes and open up the space for the archaeological collection of the University of Amsterdam in 1934, and the museum traces the early development of Western civilization, from the Egyptians to the Romans, and of the Near Eastern cultures (Anatolia, Persia, Palestine) in a series of well-documented (if old-fashioned) displays. The building is connected to the University of Amsterdam’s Bijzondere Collecties (Special Collections) showcase with interesting exhibitions and a stylish café.
Nicknamed the Stopera from the combinatin of “Stadhuis” (City Hall) and “Opera,” this brick-and-marble complex, opened in 1986, houses both. The building has been described as a set of dentures, and there were moans that its “two for one” nature was a tad too typical of the bargain-loving Dutch. Before the first brick was in place, locals protested over the razing of historic houses in the old Jewish Quarter and around Nieuwmarkt to make way for it. (In particular, look for the moving memorial that marks the spot of a Jewish orphanage, which honors the saga of how, in 1943, three teachers voluntarily accompanied 100 children to the extermination camp of Sobibor: “None of them returned. May their memory be blessed.”)
Amsterdam’s most famous flea market was once an area bordered by the Leper and Peat canals that often took the brunt of an overflowing Amstel River; the area also housed only the poorest of the city’s Jews. In 1893 it became the daily market for the surrounding neighborhood—a necessity, because Jews were not allowed to own shops at the time. It became a meeting place whose chaos of wooden carts and general vibrancy disappeared along with the Jewish population during World War II. And yet it still provides a colorful glimpse into Amsterdam’s particular brand of pragmatic sales techniques. The stalls are filled with clothes, bongs, discarded electronics, and mountains of Euro knickknacks. Browsing often leads to finds worth negotiating over.
Landmarked by its now-famous pair of chiseled spectacles set over the Oudezijds Achterburgwal pediment—a sweet reference to old age—this passage led to a pensioners’ house or “Oudemannenhuis,” first built in 1754. Today, bikes, not canes, are in evidence here, as this former almshouse is now part of the University of Amsterdam. One charming relic from its founding days is the covered walkway, which would have been lined with tiny shops whose rents helped subsidize the 18th-century elderly. Adorned with red shutters, the stalls now house an array of antiquarian booksellers. At the Kloveniersburgwal end stands a statue of Mother Amsterdam protecting two elders, sculpted by Anthonie Ziesenis in 1786.
MOZES EN AÄRONKERK
Landmarking the eastern corner of the Waterlooplein flea market, this structure once had a warehouse facade to disguise its function as a clandestine Catholic church. If this rarely used church could speak, it would name-drop the great philosopher Spinoza (it was built on the location of his birth house) and Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (it hosted a recital of his that he considered his all-time best). Originally built in the 1640s, it was rebuilt in 1841 by architect T. F. Suys, then refurbished in 1969. The name of the church refers to the figures adorning two gable stones of the original edifice, now seen in the rear wall. In a rare move in a rapidly secularizing country where churches are sometimes turned into carpet stores or bowling alleys, the Mozes en Aäronkerk was reconsecrated in 2014, after a hiatus of 34 years. It’s used today by the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio.
HUIS DE PINTO
Scholar Isaac de Pinto escaped the Inquisition in Portugal to become a significant investor in the Dutch East Indies Company in Amsterdam. He bought this Italian Renaissance–style house in 1651. It was grandly renovated by his son, together with architect Elias Bouwman, in the 1680s. In the 1960s it was almost demolished so that the street could be widened, but activist squatters saved the building. The interior is lushly decorated, and particularly notable are the painted ceilings by 17th-century master Jacob de Wit, with more recent additions by the entrance: spot the little cherub reading a book, a reference to the building’s current manifestation as a literary and cultural center.
Rembrandt loved to sketch this slightly leaning redbrick tower, which was built in 1516 as part of the city’s defenses. In 1606, the Dutch sculptor and architect Hendrick de Keyser oversaw the building of a new tower complete with clockworks that was known as Malle Jaap (“Crazy Jaap”) by locals, because the bells pealed at odd times. The year 1610 saw the tower embark on a lean too far, and with lots of manpower and ropes it was reset on a stronger foundation. From 1878 to 2006, it housed the City Water Office. Today it’s the office of a company that rents out saloon boats (captain included).
Gorgeous enough to have inspired both Sir Christopher Wren and Claude Monet, this famous church was built between 1603 and 1611 by Hendrick de Keyser, one of the most prolific architects of Holland’s Golden Age (he also chose to be buried here). It was one of the earliest churches built in Amsterdam in the Renaissance style and was the first in the city to be built for the (Protestant) Dutch Reformed Church. During the Dutch famine of 1944 (known as the Hunger Winter), it was a morgue. The church’s hallowed floors, under which three of Rembrandt’s children are buried, are now rented out as an events venue. The church tower—a soaring accumulation of columns, brackets, and balustrades—is one of the most glorious exclamation points in Amsterdam, but due to ongoing restoration work, the tower will be closed early 2017.
This street is a refreshingly quiet corridor filled with theaters and restaurants. In earlier days it was packed with monasteries and convents, until the Alteration (or Protestant changeover), which kick-started Amsterdam’s march toward the Golden Age. The Frascati Theater (No. 59-65) began life as a coffeehouse in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that the street really blossomed with cafés filled with dance, song, and operetta performances, the stars of which often represented the less uptight segment of the Jewish community. Adjacent to the southern end of the Nes is Gebed Zonder End, the “Prayer Without End” alleyway, which got its name because it was said you could hear prayers from behind the walls of the convents that used to line the alley.
As family home to the two Trip brothers, who made their fortune during the 17th-century Golden Age, this noted house’s buckshot-gray exterior and various armament motifs—including mortar-shaped chimneys—designed by Justus Vingboons, are easily explained. But the Corinthian-columned facade actually covers two symmetrical buildings (the dividing wall is positioned behind the middle windows), one for each brother, making it the widest residence (at 22 meters) in Amsterdam. From 1815 to 1885 it housed the national museum or Rijksmuseum and is now the home of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). Be sure to look across the canal to No. 26, the door-wide white building topped with golden sphinxes and the date of 1696, which is known as the “Little Trip House” or “House of Mr. Trip’s Coachman.” The story goes that the coachman remarked that he would be happy with a house as wide as the Trippenhuis door. By way of response, Mr. Trip built just that with the leftover bricks. There are a few other very narrow houses in Amsterdam, too: the narrowest rear gable is at Singel 7 at only 1 meter wide, and the building on Oude Hoogstraat 22 is only 2.02 meters (7 feet) wide and 6 meters (19 feet) deep.
MUSEUM HET REMBRANDTHUIS
This is the house that Rembrandt bought, flush with success, for 13,000 guilders (a princely sum) in 1639, and where he lived and worked until 1656, when he declared bankruptcy. He originally chose this house, on what was then the main street of the Jewish Quarter, to experience firsthand the faces he would use in his Old Testament religious paintings. The house interior has been restored with contemporaneous elegant furnishings and artwork in the reception rooms, a collection of rarities that match as closely as possible the descriptions in the inventories made when Rembrandt was forced to sell everything—but it doesn’t convey much of the humanity of Rembrandt himself. When he left here, he was not only out of money, but also out of favor with the city after relationships with servant girls following the death of his wife, Saskia. The little etching studio is perhaps the most atmospheric. Littered with tools of the trade, a printing press, and a line hung with drying prints (there are demonstrations), it’s easy to imagine Rembrandt finding respite here, experimenting with form and technique, away from uncomfortable schmoozing for commissions (and loans) in the grander salon. The museum owns a huge collection of etchings–-260 of the 290 he made–-and a changing selection is on permanent display. His magisterial prints Hundred Guilder and Three Crosses show that Rembrandt was almost more revolutionary in his prints than in his paintings, so this collection deserves respectful homage, if not downright devotion, by printmakers today.
Built in 1488, the Waag functioned as a city gate, Sint Antoniespoort, until 1617. It would be closed at exactly 9:30 pm to keep out not only bandits but also the poor and diseased who built shantytowns outside the city’s walls. When Amsterdam expanded, the structure began a second life as a weighing house for incoming goods. The top floor of the building accommodated the municipal militia and several guilds, including the stonemasons who did the evocative decorations that grace each of the seven towers’ entrances. One guild housed a teaching hospital for the Surgeons’ Guild. The Theatrum Anatomicum (Anatomy Theater), with its cupola tower covered in painted coats of arms, was the first place in the Netherlands to host public autopsies. For obvious reasons, these took place only in the winter. The building is now occupied by In De Waag restaurant and the Waag Society (institute for art, science, and technology).
NEMO SCIENCE CENTER
Opened in 1997, this green, copper-clad building designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano (co-creator of Centre Pompidou in Paris, among many others) is an international architectural landmark: a ship’s hull rising colossally out of the middle of the water, over the Coen Tunnel entrance to Amsterdam North. A rooftop café and summer “beach” terrace offer a superb panorama of the area. It’s worth a visit, just for the view but there are also five floors of fantastical, hands-on, high-tech fun, which make this a science wonderland. Attractions range from giant “bubbles” on the ground floor to experiments in the Wonder Lab and interactive exhibitions like Teen Facts. Kids and adults love it.
With its extravagantly phantasmagoric zinc-roof detailing spilling over various sculpted sea horses, boat anchors, sea gods (Neptune and his four wives), dolphins, and even shoals of fish, this is one of Amsterdam’s most delightful turn-of-the-20th-century structures. Built in the 1910s to sport a suitably prow-shaped front, it was used as the headquarters for the major shipping firms that brought back booty from Java and the Spice Islands during the final Dutch colonial years. It’s now a five-star hotel, the Grand Hotel Amrâth Amsterdam. 20th-century master architects Piet Kramer, Johan van der Mey, and Michel de Klerk all contributed to the design of the building; their structure was one of the opening salvos by the fantastic Amsterdam School. After you admire all the ornamentation on the facade, amble around the sides to take in the busts of noted explorers, such as Barentsz and Mercator, along with patterned brickwork and strutting iron tracery. Wander inside to check out the design of the Seven Seas restaurant and have a drink at the classically restored bar.
The Architecture Centrum Amsterdam is dedicated to promoting modern Dutch architecture and organizes exhibitions, lectures, and tours (there’s an extensive list of specialist tour companies and individuals on their website) They publish a wide range of maps and guides both in print and online, including ARCAM’s selection of the contemporary essentials for Amsterdam, 25 Buildings You Should Have Seen. Its swoopy and silver building has become an architectural icon. Every Friday at 1:30 ARCAM organizes an English language “Crash Course in Amsterdam” architectural history lecture (€7.50) followed by a guided tour (€20). Reservations are a good idea if you’re interested.
OPENBARE BIBLIOTHEEK AMSTERDAM
Europe’s biggest public library offers a multifarious collection of information to around 5,000 visitors per day. The €75 million building (the “bieb,” as locals call it), designed by architect Jo Coenen, has a large theater, seminar and conference rooms, an art space, and an extensive music library. A superb children’s section is set below a terraced central lounge area. You can make yourself comfortable in the designer furniture and peruse a mind-boggling international magazine collection. With 1,000 desks, many of them with PCs connected to the Internet, you can study and surf in peace–-for free if you’re a member or for €1 per half hour. The seventh-floor restaurant La Place has an outside terrace with a spectacular view over the city. Another bonus is that the Amsterdam Conservatory is right next door, with free recitals regularly given by students.
Designed by Daniël Stalpaert in 1656 as a storehouse for the Amsterdam war fleet, this excellent example of Dutch Classicism became the new home of the Maritime Museum in the 1970s. Even if you’re not much of a nautical fan, the building alone is worth a visit. The courtyard of the biggest remaining 17th-century storehouse (free admission) was roofed over with a 200-ton glass-and-steel construction, the design of which is a reference to compass roses and lines of longitude and latitude on old nautical charts. In the daytime, the roof casts ever-changing shadows on the courtyard floor (weather permitting); at night, hundreds of led lights on the rafters create the fairy-tale illusion of a star-spangled sky.
The actual museum is a two-faced affair. There are one-room exhibitions, each with a different theme. The East wing houses an impressive collection of maritime objects, with paintings (the pen drawings by 17th-century master marine painters Ludolf Backhuysen and Willem van de Velde the Elder are particularly beautiful), one of the most important globe collections in the world, nautical instruments, yacht models, and all sorts of symbolic ship decorations. The North and West wings are family-oriented and focus on experiential activities. You can go on a virtual sea voyage and take a trip to the Golden Age with video displays featuring actors reenacting historical scenes. The “Tale of the Whale” exhibition, examines not only how our idea of the largest creatures that ever lived has changed through the centuries, but also the fact that whales suffer from disturbingly large crab lice. There’s a restaurant and a museum shop (no admission needed), and moored on the jetty outside is the Scheepvaartmuseum’s biggest draw: a life-size replica of a 1748 ship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The original left for Asia shortly after it was built, but wrecked off the English coast. Exploring the ship while trying to imagine how people were able to live here for months on end is fascinating.
MUSEUM ‘T KROMHOUT
Started in 1757 by Doede Jansen Kromhout, a ship’s carpenter whose surname means “bent wood,” this is one of Amsterdam’s oldest functioning shipyards. Almost 300 ships were built here during its heyday in the late 19th century. In the early 20th century, ‘t Kromhout was producing the diesel engines used by Dutch canal boats. Boats and engines are still restored here, and the museum has a collection of historical ship’s engines on display.
A former gas factory founded in 1883 is now an arts and cultural center comprising 13 monumental buildings of various sizes and shapes that play host to film and theater companies, fashion shows, art exhibitions, operas, techno parties, and assorted festivals. There are also bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and a cinema.
The country’s largest anthropological museum was first built to educate the Dutch about their colonial history in Indonesia and the West Indies, but today it excels in hands-on exhibits covering all non-Western cultures. A gorgeous, skylighted, tiered interior is rich with wood, marble, and gilt, and displays not only many, many pieces of antiquity, art, and musical instruments, but also makes these accessible through workshops and in playful, simulated villages and bazaars that you walk through, touching, smelling, hearing music, and feeling the physical experience of life in Java, the Middle East, India, Africa, and Latin America. There’s also a great patio where you can enjoy food from the café.
At the Tropenmuseum Junior, children can participate directly in the life of another culture through programs involving art, dance, song, and sometimes cooking. Every weekend the smallest children (under six years) and their parents can visit the Kartini Wing, where they can enjoy drawing, building, and folding. For children aged four and over, there are special children’s routes through the museum and events on Wednesday afternoon and holidays. Most children’s activities are in Dutch.
From May 14, 1940, to May 5, 1945, the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany and this museum looks at the population’s response: who resisted and how. All forms of resistance are covered: strikes, forging documents, hiding and escape (such as the Paris route), armed resistance, and espionage. There is a rich context of everyday life told through personal documents, interviews, and sound fragments that not only convey what occupied life really felt like but also engage visitors to consider their own behavior and choices today. The Resistance Museum Juniorfocuses on the stories of four eye witnesses: Eva, Henk, Jan, and Nelly, who were between 9 and 14 years old during the war, the same age group as the target audience. The children’s museum gives the concept of “resistance” a positive twist, using examples from World War II to make kids aware of the importance of mutual respect, freedom, the fragility of democracy, and their own responsibility in dealing with discrimination and persecution in their own lives. Displays also show how some of today’s main Dutch newspapers and magazines, like Het Parool (Password) and Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands), began as illegal underground newsletters.
By the beginning of the 18th century, Amsterdam had a virtual monopoly in the diamond industry in Europe, so when diamonds were discovered in South Africa in 1869, there was a windfall for Amsterdam’s Jewish communities, a third of whom worked in the diamond trade. Built in 1879, Gassan Diamonds was once home to the Boas diamond-polishing factory, the largest in the world, where 357 diamond-polishing machines processed around 8,000–10,000 carats of rough diamonds a week. Today, Gassan offers polishing and grading demonstrations and free hour-long tours, in more than 27 languages, of the building and its glittering collection of diamonds and jewelry.
From 1892 to 1941, this was a popular theater staging Dutch plays by luminaries such as Herman Heyermans and Esther de Boer-van Rijk and performed by artists like Louis “Little Big Man” Davids. In 1941, the Nazi occupiers made it into a Jewish-only theater before using it as a gathering point for deportation of the city’s Jews who were brought here between August 1942 and November 1943. In 1993, the Jewish Historical Museum renovated the theater, and turned it into a memorial where the 6,700 family names of 104,000 Dutch Jews who were deported are displayed. The very moving online memorial (www.joodsmonument.nl) features a colored dot for each person who was persecuted during the Nazi occupation and didn’t survive the Shoah. There is also an exhibition on the Nazi occupation and an educational program showing documents, photographs, and videos. The large and silent courtyard is also an effective remembrance of the 80,000 souls that began their journey to the extermination camps through this theater’s doors.
The name of this zoo, the first in the Netherlands, is short for Natura Artis Magistra (“Nature is the Teacher of the Arts”). Founded in 1838, the park hass more than 900 species of animals, more than 200 species of trees, a butterfly pavilion, an insectarium, and beautiful 19th-century architecture, of which the aquarium is a fine example. The Micropia, the world’s first museum dedicated to microbes, has lots of interactive exhibits.
JOODS HISTORISCH MUSEUM
Four Ashkenazi synagogues (or shuls, as they’re called in Yiddish), dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, were combined with glass-and-steel constructions in 1987 to create this warm and impressive museum commemorating four centuries in the history of the Jewish people in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Back in the 17th century, Ashkenazi Jews fled the pogroms in Central and Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews had already settled here–-and each community built its own synagogues. There are four of them in this complex: the Neie Sjoel (New Synagogue, 1752) shows the history of Jews in the Netherlands from 1900 until today; the Grote Sjoel (Great Synagogue, 1671) presents the tenets of Judaism as well as the history of Jews in the Netherlands before 1900; the Obbene Sjoel (Upstairs Synagogue, 1685) is home to the children’s museum; and the Dritt Sjoel (Third Synagogue, 1700/1778) houses the museum’s offices. The museum is also has home to one of the city’s few kosher cafés. Whether you tour the collections or regular exhibitions, check out the excellent tours of the Jewish Quarter conducted by this museum.
With Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon as inspiration, Elias Bouman designed this noted synagogue between 1671 and 1675 for the Sephardic Jewish community, the first Jews to settle in the Netherlands. They were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews (“Sepharad” is Hebrew for the Iberian peninsula), escaping the inquisitions or forced conversion to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries. When it was completed, it was the largest synagogue in the world, and its spare, elegantly proportioned wood interior has remained virtually unchanged through the centuries. It is still magically illuminated by hundreds of candles in two immense candelabra during services. The buildings around the synagogue house the world-famous Ets Haim (Tree of Life) library, one of the oldest still-functioning Jewish libraries in the world.
HORTUS BOTANICUS AMSTERDAM
This wonderful botanical garden was originally laid out as a medicinal herb garden in 1638 by the Amsterdam City Council before the collection expanded to include exotic plants from the East India Company’s forays into foreign lands. A total of 8,000 species are represented in the ornamental gardens and the three-climate greenhouse. There’s also a butterfly house. One of the treasures is a 300-year-old Eastern Cape giant cycad, perhaps the oldest potted plant in the world. The orangery houses a wonderful café terrace—one of the most peaceful places in the city to enjoy a cup of coffee. In fact, the Hortus harbors the leafy descendants of the first coffee plants ever introduced into Europe. A Dutch merchant stole one of the plants from Ethiopia and presented it to the Hortus in 1706; they in turn sent a clipping to a botanist in France, who saw to it that further clippings reached Brazil.
Taking advantage of 300 years of historical links between Amsterdam and St. Petersburg, the directors of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and of the Nieuwe Kerk museum in Amsterdam, chose this spot on the Amstel for a new outpost. In 2009, the final refurbishment stage of the former home for the elderly Amstelhof was completed, with high white interiors and smaller side rooms connected by long unadorned corridors. The amount of exhibition space is actually much smaller than you might imagine from the outside (or the entry price) but the quality of the shows makes is generally excellent.
Since the 1970s, this bar has featured naked barmaids doing exotic erotic “performances” involving the namesake fruit. It and the Caso Rosso across the canal (whose show is deemed slightly classier), are Red Light District institutions.
The architect A. C. Bleys designed this church with its dark and eerie interior as a replacement for all the clandestine Catholic churches that operated during the Reformation. After the Oude Kerk and the Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic) chapel, this church, built in 1887, became the third and (probably final) Sint Nicolaas church in Amsterdam. Saint Nicholas, the all-purpose patron saint of children, thieves, prostitutes, sailors, and the City of Amsterdam, transforms into Sinterklaas in mid-November when he is popularly said to arrive from Spain on a steamboat with his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). The eve of his birthday on December 6 is celebrated as a family feast when everyone exchanges presents and poems. In recent years, the Black Pete phenomenon has received a lot of flak, with some claiming that Sinterklaas’s sidekick is nothing but a slave. There are daily tours in the church for groups with a minimum of seven participants. Call for reservations on Thursday 10–noon. The church hosts a Gregorian chant vesper service on Sunday at 5 September–June (free).
This rather touristy strip of hostels, bars, and coffee shops began life as one of the original dikes along the Amstel. It’s where the famous 17th-century poet Vondel did business from his hosiery shop at No. 101, and where Mozart’s father tried to unload tickets for his son’s concerts in the area’s upscale bars. It entered a decline in the 17th century when the proprietors decamped for fancier digs on the Canal Ring; sailors (and the businesses that catered to them) started to fill in the gaps. In the 19th century, the street evolved, along with its extension Nes, into the city’s primary debauchery zone.
ONS’ LIEVE HEER OP SOLDER
With its elegant gray-and-white facade and spout gable—the block atop the building that looks like a funnel, which used to signify a warehouse or trade house, rather than a residential property—this building appears to be another lovely 17th-century canal house, and on the lower floors it is. But tucked away in the attic is a clandestine place of Catholic worship, a schuilkerk (hidden church), one of the very few to survive more or less in its original state. Catholic masses were officially forbidden from 1578, but the Protestant authorities in Amsterdam turned a blind eye provided the churches were not recognizable as such from the outside. The chapel itself is a triumph of Dutch classicist taste, with magnificent marble columns, gilded capitals, a colored-marble altar, and the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (1716) by Jacob de Wit presiding over all.
The grandeur continues throughout the house, which was renovated by merchant Jan Hartan between 1661 and 1663. Even the kitchen and chaplain bedroom remain furnished in the style of the age, and the drawing room, or sael, looks as if it were plucked from a Vermeer painting. With its gold chandelier and Solomonic columns, it’s one of the most impressive 17th-century rooms left in Amsterdam. Besides boasting canvases by Thomas de Keyser, Jan Wynants, and Abraham de Vries, the house also has impressive collections of church silver and sculptures. The new part of the museum, on the other side of the alley, hosts temporary exhibitions.
Amsterdam’s oldest church has evolved over three centuries to look as it does today. What began as a wooden chapel in 1306 was built up to a hall church and then a cross basilica between 1366 and 1566 (and fully restored between 1955 and 1979). It was violently looted during the Reformation and stripped of its altars and images of saints—though the looters did leave the 14th-century paintings still visible on its wooden roof, as well as the Virgin Mary stained-glass windows that had been set in place in 1550. The famed Vater-Müller organ was installed in 1726. Don’t miss the carved choir stalls that illustrate proverbs relating to cardinal sins, among other things. Within this open, atmospheric space, there’s a gravestone for Rembrandt’s wife Saskia van Uylenburgh and also for Kiliaen van Rensselaer, one of the Dutch founders of what is now New York. Outside, embedded in the sidewalk by the door, is a bronze plaque of hand cupping a naked breast–-it’s one of a series of pieces of art anonymously placed throughout Amsterdam by an artist in the 1990s. The Oude Kerk is as much an exhibition space as a place of worship, hosting top-notch modern art shows. Its carillon is played every Tuesday at 2 and every Saturday at 4—the best place to listen is the bridge in front of the church. Prior to the Reformation, the Oude Kerk was known as the “living room,” because peddlers displayed their goods in the church and beggars slept there.
Amsterdam’s distinctive defense tower began life around 1487 as the end point of the city wall. The term schreien suggests the Dutch word for wailing and as lore would have it, this “Weeping Tower” was where women came to cry when their sailor husbands left for sea and to cry again when they did not return (there’s a gable stone from 1569 of a woman and a boat on the Gelderskade side). However, the word schreier actually comes from an Old Dutch term for “sharp” and because the old city wall made a sharp corner here, this is a rather more accurate derivation for the tower’s name. It’s also famous as the point from which Henry Hudson set sail to America. A plaque on the building tells you that he sailed on behalf of the Dutch East India Company to find a shorter route to the East Indies. In his failure, he came across Canada’s Hudson Bay and later—continuing his unlucky streak—the New York harbor and the Hudson River. He eventually landed at what is now Manhattan and named it New Amsterdam. The attached VOC café has a lovely view and serves jenever and other delights. On the next floor up, there’s a nautical shop for modern-day sailors.
This Neoclassical gatehouse, rebuilt in 1840, was one of four entrances to Amsterdam until the mid-18th century. It has been variously used as a military post, train station, fire station, and a police station; in 1986 it was restored and converted into private apartments. It’s a useful landmark to find your way to the Westerpark.
HET WEST-INDISCH HUIS
The former headquarters of the Dutch West India Company (WIC) has major historical significance. Although not as sovereign as the Dutch East India Company (also known as the VOC for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), it was essentially given free rein to trade on Africa’s west coast, the Americas, and all the islands of the West Pacific and New Guinea, and to oversee the infamous export of 275,000 slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean in the 17th century. In these rooms, the decision was made to buy Manhattan for 60 guilders. Silver bullion, piled up by Piet Pieterszoon Heyn (also referred to as Piet Hein), the director and admiral of the WIC, was collected here in 1628 after Piet won another of his infamous sea battles. The building is now used as an events space but you can visit the courtyard of the building via its side entrance on Herenmarkt to see the statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of Nieuw-Nederland–-today is better known as New York City.
Just beyond the Jordaan and across from the main canal that borders the Western Islands is one of contemporary Amsterdam’s most cherished spaces. It’s a park first and foremost, with lawns, playgrounds, water fountains, a fabulous designer paddling pool, and a couple of tennis courts. The sprawling terrain of the city’s old gasworks has been turned into the Westergasfabriek: cafés, galleries, clubs, and an art-house cinema occupy the former industrial landscape that has been lovingly detoxed, replanted, and refurbished, building by building. There’s even a bit of natural wilderness (or at least the organized Dutch kind of “wilderness”) behind the park, with a community farm, a children’s farm, a natural playground for kids, and some polder areas with footpaths between them. The lovely late-19th-century Sint Barbara cemetery is here, too.
A few miles south of the city, beyond Oud-Zuid and near the suburb of Amstelveen, the largest of Amsterdam’s parks covers almost a thousand acres and incorporates 137 km (85 miles) of footpaths and 51 km (32 miles) of bicycle paths traversed by 50 bridges—many designed in the early-20th-century Amsterdam School style with characteristic red brick and sculpted-stone detailing. The area was planted and constructed from 1934 onward, as a job creation scheme under the motto “five years’ work for a thousand men” and it ended up providing jobs for 20,000 people during the Depression. There are wide recreational fields, a boating lake, the impressive Olympic Bosbaan rowing course (overlooked by the terraces of grand café De Bosbaan), and numerous playgrounds and water play areas for toddlers. A popular family attraction is a Geitenboerderij “De Ridammerhoeve” goat farm (follow the blue signs past Boerderij Meerzicht, Nieuwe Meerlaan 4, Amstelveen. The kids can feed the four-legged kind of kids milk from a bottle, and cuddle bleating babies in the barn. The soft ice cream is made entirely of goat’s milk, and homemade goat cheese is on sale.
It takes about 30 minutes by bike from the Vondelpark: exit through the southern exit of the Vondelparkpark, take a left onto the Amstelveenseweg and follow this busy road under the highway on the bicycle path until you reach the visitor center for the park (De Boswinkel) on the right. For public transport to the Amsterdamse Bos, Buses 170 and 172 run from Leidseplein to Van Nijenrodeweg, opposite the visitor center. The museum tram passes through on Sundays from Easter through October between 11 and 5:30; get on at Haarlemmermeer Station. You can also rent bikes at the entrance of the Amsterdamse Bos opposite the De Boswinkel (visitor center), all year round (020/644–5473). Maps, suggested routes, and signposting are plentiful throughout the park.