Amsterdam: Introduction

  • © Vee,

    © Vee,

The narrow-fronted houses lean on each other at a slight angle. A cyclist crosses a bridge on his squeaking bike, and outside the café on the corner, people sit in the sun enjoying a cup of coffee. In the distance you can hear a tram rumbling across Leidseplein. Amsterdam is a beautiful city.

Visitors can admire the noble simplicity of the architecture of the old patricians' houses, and sense the sequestered charm of the canals with their Venetian smells and perspectives, as Klaus Mann wrote in the 1930s. Today, millions of visitors fall for the charm of the city on the Amstel. No wonder: Amsterdam is an incredibly diverse city.

Old and new, calm and bustling, artistic and commercial, small-town and cosmopolitan atmosphere – there is no way to describe the city without contradictions. With almost 7,500 listed buildings, Amsterdam boasts the highest density of historic monuments in the Netherlands. Since 2010, the historic Canal Ring has been a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the old core of the city there is something historic to discover on every corner, from carved gables to old shipyards and a secret church below the roof of a canalside house.

As its centre is compact, Amsterdam, which is built on more than 90 islands, is a wonderful city for strolling about. Only by walking along the brick-paved little streets by the canals can you take in the elegance of the tall, narrow-fronted houses, spot the heron on the roof of a houseboat, or discover here and there a hidden courtyard or a little antique shop. The historic ensemble of the Canal Ring has been preserved in its entirety over centuries. For this reason the whole city centre was given protected status in 1999. And in other districts too, for example villagey Jordaan, time seems to have stood still.

The fact that Amsterdam is nevertheless no lifeless open-air museum but a vibrant city has to do, on the one hand, with the relaxed attitude of the Dutch to their monuments – as in the case of neon signs on a Gothic stepped gable – and on the other hand with its exceptionally cosmopolitan and youthful population. 37 per cent of Amsterdam residents do not come from the Netherlands, and almost half of them are under 35 years of age. This is what gives the entertainment quarters around Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein such a buzz, makes the range of shopping options unlimited, and means that guests at the countless restaurants are faced with a tantalising choice of specialities.

Amsterdam is appealing at any time of the year – in summer, when the cafés put tables out on the street and an almost Mediterranean atmosphere prevails, or in winter, when the canals are veiled in mist and the bridges sport pretty illuminations. Its main attractions include three major museums, the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum with their unique art treasures, and the numerous little shops ('winkels') in the city centre. The popularity of Amsterdam as a destination for visitors from all over the world is also down to the open and good-natured character of its people.

A commercial spirit and proverbial tolerance

The mentality of the Amsterdamers, their commercial spirit and proverbial tolerance, have had a decisive influence on the history of the city. It originated as a marshy fishing village at the point where the river Amstel flowed into the IJsselmeer, which is now a lake but was then part of the North Sea. In 1275 the village of Amstelledamme was granted freedom from customs duties, gained a town charter in 1300 and from then onwards thanks to its location controlled the flow of goods between the North Sea and the Dutch countryside.

The commercially minded Amsterdamers were always on the lookout for new opportunities: it was not long before they were trading with the whole of the Baltic Sea and the North Sea regions. To protect themselves against high tides, they started to construct a line of defences, the wallen. The oldest quarter of the city between Oudezijds and Nieuwezijds Achterburgwal, which has to a large extent been preserved, is today Chinatown and the red-light district.

At the end of the 16th century, the northern Netherlands freed themselves from Spanish rule in the 80 Years War. In this period Amsterdam gained an early reputation for being liberal, and attracted many Protestant and Jewish refugees from places like Antwerp and Lisbon, which were still ruled by Spain. These waves of immigration by wealthy merchants extended trade connections and ushered in the so-called Golden Age.

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) was established, with a monopoly of maritime trade with the Far East and India, and in 1621 the Westindische Compagnie was founded to carry on trade with America and the west coast of Africa. Over the following 150 years the Netherlands became one of the leading European naval and commercial powers, and Amsterdam grew to be a rich and important port, its warehouses filled with cloves, cinnamon, silk, coffee and porcelain. Within a few decades the number of residents increased by a factor of five. 

In the early 17th century, with the city bursting at the seams, construction was started of concentric rings of canals: outside the old wallen, rich merchants built fine residences with attached warehouses on Herengracht, Keizersgracht or Prinsengracht. The arts and literature flowered at the same time. The greatest works of the Golden Age, such as Rembrandt‘s Nightwatch and Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid, can be admired in the Rijksmuseum today – testimony to a bourgeois Protestant culture in which commercial shrewdness and openness to the world formed a fruitful combination. 

Around 1700 Amsterdam boasted approximately 220,000 inhabitants and had reached the peak of its prosperity. By 1750 the great age of the Netherlands  had already passed. This was partly the result of the increasing strength of other maritime powers such as England, but was also due to the bureaucratic management style of the VOC. Only in the mid-19th century did the economy recover thanks to industrialisation and the construction of the Nordzeekanal, which enabled ocean-going ships to enter the port of Amsterdam.

In the Second World War the Netherlands fell to German forces after five days of fighting. The speed of the capitulation meant that Amsterdam suffered little damage, although it was later hit several times by misdirected Allied bombing. Resistance to the German occupation formed, but was not able to prevent the almost complete annihilation of the Jewish community. 

The changing tides of coffee shops for tourists

In the 1970s Amsterdam was a mecca for hippies, squatters and drop-outs from all over the world. Thousands of backpackers camped out in Vondelpark and on the Dam in summer, and by 1980 the population of the city included some 20,000 squatters. Liberal politicians achieved the legalisation of soft drugs, and every marginal group was free to do its own thing. Today this reputation still clings to Amsterdam – not just tulips and canals, but also ‘coffee shops’ where drugs can be consumed freely.

A few years ago, however, a change in mentality took place, and the Dutch became noticeably more conservative. The party of anti-Islamic right-wing populist Geert Wilders is the country’s third-largest political grouping, squatting has been illegal since the end of 2010, and the government plans to restrict access to coffee shops to customers who reside in the Netherlands. This change has already come into place in some regions of the Netherlands, and although it is being met with fierce opposition in Amsterdam, is due to become law from January 2013. Worries about falling tourism are becoming widespread, although some coffee shops are determined to continue serving tourists once the law is passed, which could lead to ensuing court battles.

Amsterdam still has its own special position within the Netherlands, however. Despite rising criticism in the city of poor integration and high rates of unemployment among immigrants from Morocco and Turkey, Geert Wilders’ party only plays a marginal role in the city council. The prohibition on squatting has been implemented, however, so that occupied houses, known as kraakpand and once a familiar sight all over the city, are becoming increasingly rare. 

By way of contrast, cranes and building sites are more and more common. A lot has happened in recent years, especially on the banks of the IJ. Whereas completely new quarters of the city have risen up in the former dockland area to the east of the main station, construction work around the new Eye Filminstitut on the north bank and in the old timber docks to the west of the inner city is still going ahead. From north to south, too, a conspicuous chain of building sites crosses the city: it is planned to open a new underground line in 2017.

Compact, remarkably laid-back, sometimes chaotic

In the historic centre you don’t notice much of all this. Amsterdam is and will remain a compact, remarkably laid-back, sometimes rather chaotic metropolis with about 730,000 inhabitants. Amsterdamers’ preferred means of transport is still the ecologically correct fiets (bicycle), usually rusty.

On summer weekends a popular activity is to chug along the canals in little boats drinking a glass of rosé, or to sit in the sun with a cup of coffee on the pavement in front of the house. Cafés are an important part of everyday life. Whether dark pubs, cool design bars or candle-lit snugs – what matters is that they are gezellig, cosy and sociable.

Thanks to its enormous diversity, Amsterdam attracts many different kinds of visitors. But when the elms are reflected in the water of the canals and the glockenspiel of the Westerkerk chimes in the background, they are all equally fascinated.

    © 2015 Marco Polo Travel Publishing | Pinewood | Chineham Business Park | Crockford Lane | Chineham | Basingstoke | RG24 8AL | Great Britain