Amsterdam has a lot f of interesting areas to explore. Here are some of them.
Amsterdam’s Old Town
Amsterdam’s old town is the city’s most historic and one of the most interesting sections. It contains the city’s oldest existing building (Old Church), one of the city’s “hidden churches” and a number of less gentile sites, such as the city’s Red Light District and a number of the city’s drug shops (“Coffee Bars” where you can buy, but not smoke), smoking bars (where you can smoke, but not buy), and shops that sell drug-related products.
- Old Church was originally built in the 13th century (from which its original tower still remains), and rebuilt after a fire in the 15th century. It was restored in the 17th century after Protestants destroyed most of its Catholic symbols and art. .
- Our Lord of the Attic Hidden Church, a 17th-century house whose top floor and attic were homes to one of the city’s hidden or clandestine churches where Catholics could practice their religion during the period (the mid-17th through the end of the 18th centuries) when it was forbidden. The top floor contains worship halls while the attic houses the priest’s room.
- Warmoesstraat is one of the oldest streets in Amsterdam. Today, this narrow old Town Street contains a number of sex shops and a broad range of drug-related shops. These include the Cannabis Museum, shops that sell cannabis-based products (from therapeutic rubs to edibles), hallucinogenic mushrooms (to help you “resolve your boundaries”) and all types of cannabis-related products and paraphernalia. The street also contains bars in which you can smoke, but not buy cannabis.
- Prostitute Information Center, an educational organization established by a former prostitute. The Center educates the public as to the nature of sex work and the women who work in the trade.
- The Red Light District, which contains various types of sex businesses including strip clubs, sex shows, sex shops, and prostitute windows (see our separate blog on the district)
- Jewish Quarter In the early 20th century, this area housed many of the city’s Jews, a group that accounted for about 15 percent of the city’s pre-war population. While few of the Jews ever returned, the Jewish population has dispersed more widely throughout the city. Today the Jewish Quarter is largely a memory, except for a few mementos to its heritage and to the hundreds of thousands of the city’s Jews that the Nazis killed and persecuted during the occupation. The quarter contains the
- Jewish Historical Museum. The museum explains the migration patterns of Western and Eastern European Jews to the city, how they prospered despite their exclusion from guilds and of course, the sealed ghetto and horrors of WWII);
- Portuguese Synagogue is a huge, 17th-century box that was originally a secret Jewish worship place. It became the largest synagogue in the world in the 17th century.
- Stumble stones are embedded in the pavement as remembrances of those who died.
- Rembrandt’s House is where Rembrandt lived and painted for 20 years.
- Nieuwe Spiegelstraat is a street between Old Town and the Museum Quarter. It is lined with a number of interesting galleries with a wide range of art, from traditional to abstract. When we were there, one window contained sculptures created with taxidermied animals.
- New Market Square is considered part of Chinatown. It contains the Weigh House, an imposing 15th structure that is the oldest in the city. The building originally was one of the city gates. Later it was used as a guildhall, fire station, theater, and museum. The square contains one of the largest houses in the city at Koestraat, 29. The Trips, the Trip family (who owned the city’s largest manufacturer of armaments) owned the house. Interestingly, the area also contains the city’s smallest house at Koestraat, 26. The Trip’s family coachman owned this 6’8’’ by 16’5’’ house.
- Multatuli statue honors Dutch civil servant Eduard Dekker (under his pen name). Dekker relentlessly worked to expose and to inflame moral outrage over how the Dutch government was treating, taxing and failing to provide required services to its Indonesian colony.
Amsterdam’s Jordaan area is in the northeast corner of the city. It was developed as a working-class suburb outside the city wall. Like some of the other neighborhoods, the Jordaan section was built along the city’s outer rings of canals to house immigrants, craftsmen, and laborers, rather than the patricians of the inner rings. The individual homes are smaller and more utilitarian than those in the inner rings. Many of the larger homes were designed to house numbers of small rental apartments, rather than large, single-family homes. The buildings contain few of the decorations or architectural and design flourishes that mark the more upscale neighborhoods.
Moreover, since the city’s strict building standards didn’t reach this area, the roads are more narrow, the structures are more diverse and the area is more cramped.
But with inner-city housing prices rapidly increasinging, the area is gentrifying. Young professionals are purchasing and fixing up homes. This, in turn, attracts more upscale restaurants, stores, and trendy boutiques. The northern section, further from the city center, remains more bohemian, with more functional shops and more basic, neighborhood restaurants.
West Church Area
Amsterdam’s West Church area is just to the southeast of the Jordaan neighborhood. It was home to the trading company and warehouse that Otto Frank (Anne Frank’s father) managed. Frank was a German businessman who moved his family to Amsterdam to escape the tide of anti-Semitism infecting his home country. The Frank family, along with another Jewish family, hid in the upper floor and attic of this building. With the help of Frank’s colleagues, they escaped detection for two years before they were discovered and sent to concentration camps (see our separate blog on the Anne Frank House Tour). The neighborhood is also home of:
- West Church, which is supposed to be one of the city’s architectural masterpieces. It is certainly lovely from the outside and has the city’s tallest spire at 275 feet. It is also the burial spot of Rembrandt. As a pauper when he died, he had an unmarked grave. The interior of this church was closed for renovations during our visit.
- A number of small, scenic canals surrounded by lovely restored homes;
- The Tulip Museum, one of the many that we did not visit.
Canals are everywhere you go in Amsterdam. The city has five canals that form concentric rings around the city, plus several spokes that connect the rings. As the city was built on the banks of the Amstel River, it required canals to reclaim buildable land from brackish, swampy marshes. Additional canals were added as the city grew and as more land was required to accommodate them. The canals provided transportation routes. They were also a defensive mechanism in that the city could destroy (and if necessary, break the dikes to flood larger areas) should an enemy attempt to invade the city. The canals also initially served as the city’s sewage system. Fortunately, that practice has long-since stopped. But canals do still serve as graves for thousands of bikes and for the roughly 15 bodies per year of people who drowned after falling in and are unable to climb out. Today, the canals are amazingly clean due to a management system that flushes the canals about three times a week. They contain fish and even host swimming events.
Canals are now so integrated into the city that it’s hard to get anywhere without crossing several of them. While all the bridges are arched to allow low-lying boats to pass beneath, a few of the larger channels, especially on the river, are covered with lovely, old-era drawbridges that can be raised to accommodate taller boats.
The inner rings, especially Herrenracht, are the oldest, most desirable and the most expensive area. They, therefore, have some of the most elaborate homes. As they were built, they attracted many of the city’s wealthy families who lived in the increasingly crowded Old Town.
These wealthy and powerful families included the so-called ‘Magnificents”. These were the manufacturers and merchants who effectively ruled the city during the Golden Age. The area contains the former headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, the company that was instrumental in creating Amsterdam’s Golden Age. The public company diversified the huge risk of sending expensive ships (not to speak of their crews) on multi-year voyages. The strategy jump-started the company’s trading activities, secured new colonies and fortresses for the city, and made hundreds of shareholders (including previously lowly workers, craftsmen, and merchants) wealthy in the process.
Although these inner canals have many beautiful stretches, a few such as Herrenracht’s so-called Golden Bend, are particularly impressive.. This stretch of the Herren canal between two perpendicular roads, Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat, and the nearby area is home to a number of the largest, often double-fronted and grandest mansions with the most ornate decorations and the tallest, most elaborate gables—from step, bell to more elegant spout and neck gables, all to be superseded in the mid-1800s by even more elaborate Italianesque cornices and facades. One (Herrengracht, 380) is in the style of a French, Loire Valley chateau.
While most of these buildings had warehouses in basements, rather than on the upper floors of more publican houses, most were tilted forward to support the hoists required to lift goods and furniture to the upper floors. As we saw from walks along the streets and canals, these hoists are still used to this day.
The outer ring canals, such as Keizersgracht and especially Prinsengracht, by contrast, are newer and were located outside the city walls. The buildings, as evidenced in Jordaan, tend to be less ornate, with fewer and smaller single-family homes and more warehouses and apartments and workplaces. These neighborhoods, after all, were designed for the flood of immigrants and workers required to build the ever-expanding city and its canals, load and man the ships that fueled the city’s Golden Age and work as maids and butlers and stable boys for the inner canal patricians.
Many of these buildings, both upscale and downscale, were built on unstable marshland with wooden pilings that can decompose when exposed to the atmosphere. Thus they are often are tilted to one side or another. While this can be traumatic for owners, it adds to the charm of the city for tourists.
The differences in neighborhoods are also evident in the canals themselves. All are lined with boats that are tied up to the canal’s walls. These boats range from dinghies to huge, custom-built, luxury houseboats.
While the boats docked at the sides of the inner canals are generally smaller pleasure craft, those on the outer canals are more utilitarian including dinghies and delivery boats. Some of them are also larger—much larger. It is these areas that are becoming homes to growing numbers of houseboats. Living on docked boats is no longer a cheap, less than luxurious means of living in the city. As discussed in a recent New York Times article, these boats—and especially the spaces in which they are docked—can be very expensive. Some of these “boats”, most of which are now incapable of cruising, or in some cases, were never built to, can be well over 100 feet in length, have multiple stories and have well over 2,000 square feet of living space.
Prices of these water homes are also soaring, up more than 30 percent over the last five years, according to the article. The cost of berthing these ships can be even more expensive than the boats themselves, sometimes more than $500,000 to buy (or the equivalent amount to rent). Nor is it easy to find the space to put these new boats. A quick walk around the city shows that berthing spaces are at a premium, with waiting periods often stretching to many years. The only way to get access to space is to buy or rent an existing space, or in the case of the large houseboats, multiple spaces. This often means buying and disposing of the currently docked boats before buying and moving the new boat into its space.
Some of the smaller boats, meanwhile, cost little to dock. Once in place, they tend to stay there, even if they are no longer maintained or used. Some of these neglected boats accumulate water from rain or from small leaks and begin to sink. To rid the city of such flotsam, anyone who recovers and repairs a boat that is documented to be 80 percent submerged, can claim and take title to the boat.