What to see in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam has one of the most extensive historic city centres in Europe, with about 7,000 registered historic buildings. The street pattern has been largely unchanged since the 19th century — there was no major bombing during World War II. The centre consists of 90 islands linked by 400 bridges, some of which are attractively floodlit at night.
The inner part of the city centre, the Old Centre, dates from medieval times. The oldest streets are the Warmoesstraat and the Zeedijk located in the Nieuwmarkt area of the Old Centre. As buildings were made of wood in the Middle Ages, few buildings from the period have survived. Exceptions are two medieval wooden houses at Begijnhof 34 and Zeedijk 1. Other old houses are Warmoesstraat 83 (built around 1400), Warmoesstraat 5 (around 1500) and Begijnhof 2-3 (around 1425). The Begijnhof is a late-medieval enclosed courtyard with the houses of beguines, Roman Catholic women living in a semi-religious community. Beguines are found in Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and north-western Germany. Number 34 Begijnhof is the oldest house in Amsterdam. Entry to the courtyard and surrounding gardens is free, but be careful not to disturb the community living here.
One of the most prominent features is the Canal Ring, a concentric ring of canals built in the 17th century. The merchant-based oligarchy that ruled the trading city of Amsterdam built canal houses and mansions in the most prestigious locations here, especially along the main canals. Typical of the area are the traditional white draw bridges. The best example has to be the Magere Brug in the Canal Ring, which is over 300 years old and practically in its original state. It is a beautiful place to view the river and take in some traditional Dutch architecture.
The Jordaan was built around 1650 along with the Canal Ring, but not for the wealthy merchants. For a long time it was considered the lower class area of Amsterdam, and included some notorious slums. Apart from a few wider canals, the streets are narrow, in an incomplete grid pattern. This district is the best example of “gentrification” in the Netherlands, as recently it has been turned into a fashionable shopping district.
There are several large warehouses built originally with specific roles in mind. The biggest is the Admirality Arsenal (1656-1657), now the Maritime Museum (Scheepvaartmuseum) at Kattenburgerplein. Others include the former turf warehouses (1550) along the Nes, now the municipal pawn office; a similar warehouse at Waterlooplein 69-75 (Arsenaal, 1610), now an architectural academy, and the warehouse of the West India Company (1642) at the corner of Prins Hendrikkade and ‘s-Gravenhekje. The city office for architectural heritage, BMA, has an excellent online introduction to the architectural history and the types of historical buildings available. The website includes a cycle route along important examples. There are also several warehouse galleries in Amsterdam Noord, including Nieuw Dakota, a young gallery space for contemporary art.
Windmills were not built in urban areas, since the surrounding buildings obstructed the wind too much. The Amsterdam windmills were all originally outside its city walls. There are a total of eight windmills in Amsterdam, and most of them are in West. However, the best one to visit is De Gooyer, which is not far from the city centre, and is used as a brewery open to visitors. The only windmill fully open to the public is the Molen van Sloten in Sloten, a former village now part of West.
Churches and synagogues
Since the Middle Ages and throughout the 17th century, the Netherlands was a country with a relatively high degree of freedom and tolerance towards other religions and cultures, especially compared to other countries in Europe. Between 1590 and 1800, the estimated foreign-born population was never less than 5 percent, many of them settling in Amsterdam. This led to a large diaspora of Jews, Huguenots (French protestants), Flemish, Poles and other peoples in the city. The Jewish people especially have always had a large presence in Amsterdam, notably in the Old Jewish Quarter (though this quarter has been in a status of decay since World War II). The most prominent synagogue is The Esnoga (or The Portuguese Synagogue) , built in 1675 in an austere Classicist style.
As the Netherlands was a protestant nation, most of the churches are from this branch of Christianity. Some of the most notable churches:
Oude Kerk (1306). Located on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, in the red-light district. The oldest of the five main churches in the historic centre. You can climb the tower from April to September on Saturday & Sunday, every half-hour – but make sure you either do that early or stop by to book a climb in the morning, it could be sold out by the end of the day. Also open in the winter by group appointment.
Nieuwe Kerk (15th century). Located on Dam Square. Used for royal coronations, most recently the crowning of King Willem-Alexander in 2013, and royal weddings, most recently the wedding of crown prince Willem-Alexander to princess Máxima in 2002. Today, the church is no longer used for services but is now a popular exhibition space.
Zuiderkerk (built 1603-1611). Located on Zuiderkerkhof (“Southern Graveyard”) square. Now an information centre on housing and planning. You can visit the tower from April to September Monday to Saturday (with guide only) every half-hour. Also open in the winter by group appointment (maximum 15 people).
Noorderkerk (built 1620-1623). Located on Noordermarkt on the Prinsengracht.
Westerkerk (built 1620-1631). Located on Westermarkt near the Anne Frank House. The church is open (free) for visitors from Monday to Friday, 11AM-3PM, from April to September. You can also climb the tower (with guide only) every half-hour, Mon to Saturday. This is 6-person-at-a-time journey, thus the amount of visitors per day is limited – make sure you do the climb (or book it) in early hours. The tower is also open in the winter by group appointment (maximum 10 people). In good weather you can see all of Amsterdam, and as far as the coast.
The late-medieval city also had smaller chapels such as the Sint Olofskapel (circa 1440) on Zeedijk, and convent chapels such as the Agnietenkapel on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231 (originally 1470), now the University of Amsterdam museum. Later churches included the Oosterkerk (1669) in the eastern islands, and the heavily restored Lutheran Church on the Singel (1671), now used by a hotel as a conference centre. Catholic churches were long forbidden, and built again only in the 19th-century: the most prominent is the Neo-Baroque Church of St. Nicholas (1887) opposite Central Station.
Also, investigate some of the “hidden churches” found in Amsterdam, mainly Catholic churches that remained in activity following the Reformation. A prominent hidden church is Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic Chapel). Well worth the visit. Two hidden churches still in use are the Begijnhofchapel near the Spui, and the Papegaaikerk in the Kalverstreet (both Catholic).
Amsterdam has an amazing collection of museums, ranging from masterpieces of art to porn, vodka and cannabis. The most popular ones can get very crowded in the summer peak season, so it’s worth exploring advance tickets or getting there off-peak (e.g. very early in the morning). Some of the quality museums that you can’t miss:
Rijksmuseum — absolutely top-class museum that has a large collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. Some artists you can’t overlook are Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen. The must-sees are Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Vermeer’s Milkmaid. The museum also boasts a substantial collection of Asian art.
Van Gogh Museum — even someone with little knowledge of art must have heard about Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter whose work had a far-reaching influence on 20th century art for its vivid colors and emotional impact. This museum has the largest collection of Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings in the world. A hint: you can book a ticket online and skip the cashier line.
Anne Frank House — dedicated to Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding from Nazi persecution in hidden rooms at the rear of the building (known as the Achterhuis). It’s an exhibition on the life of Anne Frank, but also highlights other forms of persecution and discrimination. Mind that there could be quite a line in the evening/weekends in summer.
The Museum Card (Museumkaart). Covers the cost of admission to over 400 museums across the Netherlands and you can buy it at most major museums. It is valid for an entire year for Dutch residents (visitors receive a 31-day temporary card), and you will need to write your name, birthday, and gender on it. If you are going to the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, this card can quickly pay for itself. Another advantage of having this card is that you can visit the same museum twice at no extra cost (for example Rijksmuseum is so huge you may want to spread it over two visits), or try out museums you’re not sure you will like. The tickets to the major museums, including the audio guide, can be bought early from the tourist information desk at no extra cost. Alternatively, for short stays, you can consider buying the Iamsterdam card’, which includes “free” access to Amsterdam museums, public transport and discount on many tourist attractions.
The locals spend their summer days in Amsterdam opening a red wine in the Vondelpark — and so should you. Every district in Amsterdam has at least one park, but the Vondelpark in South is notable for its size and convivial atmosphere. The neighborhood best known for its greenery is the Plantage. Besides its leafy boulevards and grand mansions, it also features the botanical gardens of the Hortus Botanicus. Finally, Artis Zoo is a good attraction for the kids.
A more recent tradition is the opening of so-called city beaches. Yes, it’s now possible to lie in the sand far from any natural coastline! Amsterdam has three of these beaches, which are located in West, East and South. The one in the east is probably the best, and you get the fine architecture and atmosphere of the IJburg neighborhood thrown in for free.
Red Light District
The Red Light District consists of several canals, and the side streets between them, south of Central Station and east of Damrak. Known as ‘De Wallen’ (the quays) in Dutch, because the canals were once part of the city defences (walls and moats). Prostitution itself is limited to certain streets, mainly side streets and alleys, but the district is considered to include the canals, and some adjoining streets (such as Warmoesstraat and Zeedijk). The whole area has a heavy police presence, and many security cameras. Nevertheless it is still a residential district and has many bars and restaurants, and also includes historic buildings and museums — this is the oldest part of the city. The oldest church in Amsterdam, the Netherlands-gothic Oude Kerk on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal at Oudekerksplein, is now surrounded by window prostitution. The area has many sex shops and peep show bars.This section of town is a common attraction for bachelors celebrating a stag night, if you ever get hassled, a firm and loud “Leave me alone” will work most of the time.
Modern architecture is under-represented in Amsterdam (as opposed to Rotterdam), but as the outer districts were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, there is definitely some to be found. Immediately outside the Singelgracht (the former city moat) is a ring of 19th-century housing. The most prominent buildings from this period are the Central Station (1889) and the Rijksmuseum (1885), both by P. J. H. Cuypers. Amsterdam West, especially the neighborhood De Baarsjes, was built in the Amsterdam School and New Objectivity architectural styles from the 19th century. A completely different approach to architecture has been the Bijlmer, built in the 1970s and forseen as a town of the future for upper-middle class families. Large apartment buildings and relatively large rooms were combined with common grass fields and a separation of pedestrian and car traffic. It has been a revolutionary way of thinking in the architectural world, but eventually the neighborhood turned into a lower-class residential district home to people of over 150 nationalities, and it is often associated with crime and robberies. It has improved remarkably the last years though, and adventurous travelers might be interested to know more about the history of this bizarre district.
Since there was little large-scale demolition in the historic centre, most 20th-century and recent architecture is outside it. The most prominent in architectural history are the residential complexes by architects of the Amsterdam School, for instance at Zaanstraat / Oostzaanstraat.
Museum of the Amsterdam School. The best-known example of their architecture. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11AM to 5PM. guided tour.
Eastern Docklands. The largest concentration of new residential buildings. The zone includes three artificial islands: Borneo, Sporenburg, and KNSM/Java-island. The latter has been built as a postmodern interpretation of the old canal belt. Across from it, is the brand new Piet Heinkade, and some adjoining projects. Accessible by tram 10, tram 26 to Rietlandpark, or best of all by bicycle.
The largest concentration of box-like office buildings is in Amsterdam Zuid-Oost (South-East) around Bijlmer station (train and metro), but the area does have some spectacular buildings, such as the Amsterdam ArenA stadium and the new Bijlmer ArenA station.
Amsterdam is replacing older sewage plants by a single modern plant, in the port zone. Connecting existing sewers to the new plant requires long main sewers, and the use of sewage booster pumps – a new technique at this scale. The new booster pump stations are a unique type of building, designed by separate architects. The three complete pumps are located at Klaprozenweg in the north, on Spaklerweg (just east of the A10 motorway), and beside and under Postjesweg, in the Rembrandtpark.
EYE Film Institute is a futuristic building designed by Delugan Meissl Associated Architects and houses the film museum, cinema, shop and a good restaurant / cafe with a great view over the IJ river (IJ is also pronounced as eye). On the outside this white steel building reminds people of a bird, a plane or a space ship. On the inside it has modern design with a vintage feel and lots of wood, giving it a cozy vibe. A gem for architecture enthusiasts, photographers, film fans and foodies alike. Accessible by the frequent, free ferry from Central Station to ‘Buiksloterweg’ in only 5 minutes.