This is part of a series of posts on Amsterdam written by guest contributor, David Gavenda, who spent a month in Amsterdam.
Most of Amsterdam’s important historical sites are located around Dam Square and the Jewish Cultural Quarter. The following are a number of those I found to be most interesting:
Built 350 years ago as Amsterdam’s City Hall, Napoleon transformed it into a palace in 1808. Still used for ceremonial events, the Palace contains magnificent sculptures, period furniture and gigantic chandeliers. The audio tour tells the story of the building’s uses throughout its history. Although Napoleon’s time in the building was interesting, I found the City Hall period to be the most informative. This section, for example, examines the Dutch government’s 17th– and 18th-century power structure, the history of the city and the country’s welfare programs and its efforts to help the poor. Although not exactly the the Palace of Versailles, it is a must see. You can see it all in 1-1/2 hours.
Oude Kerk (Church)
The Old Church is located in the middle of Amsterdam’s’ Red-Light district: Very convenient in that it allows sinners to quickly absolve their sins and go about their business. Built in 1306, it is recognized as the oldest building in the city. The most interesting thing about this church is that it once had over 12,000 dead bodies buried under its floor. Some of the “graves” contain multiple family members layered one on top of each other, beneath 2,500 floor gravestones. Each is numbered and records were kept as to who was in each grave. Eventually, the Dutch government stopped this profitable but unhygienic practice of church burials.
Meanwhile, back in the late 1500s, famous Dutch composer Jan Pietersz Sweelinck was the organ master and people would fill the church to listen to him play.
I originally wanted to see this church because of some of the interesting people that were buried here. “BUT” as with most “Museums”, this church regularly schedules artists to stage displays of their art as a means of attracting more visitors. In their wisdom, they chose Sarah Van Sonsbeeck for the current exhibition. Since she decided to cover the floor (and therewith, the gravestones) with 100’s of Mylar gold blankets, the gravestones were, unfortunately, not visible. Among the graves were those of Saskia Van Uylenburg (Rembrandt’s wife and frequent model) whose death at Age 29 led him into despair and prompted him to cease painting with oils for the next seven years. Also of note, the grave of Hester Hooft, a women that, as Casanova wrote, a simple kiss of her hand went straight to his heart.
Our Lord in the Attic Church
I know – another church. I include this one as it is an example of a “Hidden Church”. Built in 1663 during the Dutch Golden Age, it provides an example of the country’s religious tolerance, an important part of Dutch history. Although Catholic ceremonies were legally forbidden during the Golden Age, the Dutch government effectively turned a blind eye to these Hidden Churches. This church, located in the upper levels of a residential home/business, begins with a tour through the home, with its typical period kitchen, bedrooms, and sitting areas. The upper floors tell the history of Hidden Churches and answer such questions as how to move a church—not to speak of its organ—up to the 3-5th levels of a home using 16th-century technology. The church is located just around the corner from the Red-Light District and you can do the tour in 1 hour.
The Jewish Cultural Quarter
At the center of much of the city’s history, this a key stop for anyone interested in European Jewish history. Key stops include a number of restored buildings, a historic synagogue, and most importantly, the Anne Frank House.
The original building was built in 1675 It continues to be used as a temple, much as it was in the 17th century, lit by candles and natural sunlight. The Temple contains the oldest working Jewish library in the world and other artifacts. An audio guide enhances a self-guided tour which takes about 40 minutes.
Anne Frank House
This is a “don’t miss: You do, however, have to plan ahead. Reservations are needed to enter before 3:30 p.m. it is not unusual for reservations to be sold out two months in advance. After 3:30 p.m. no reservations are needed. However the line can be 2 hours or longer to enter.
This is the actual house that Anne, her family, and others hid in until they were discovered and deported to the Nazi death camps. It is amazing how much documentation is available. Many family photos and examples of Ann’s own writing, for example, are on display. So is much from Anne’s father, Otto, who was deported to Auschwitz, but lived through the war. He salvaged many of the displayed family photos and also created a couple of videos for the museum. One tells of his post-war discovery of family artifacts and photos. Another has him speaking about Anne—a video that elicited tears from just about everybody in the room. The museum offers an audio guide that gives great detail of the different displays.