If you’re heading off to one of Amsterdam’s Christmas Markets, which are packed with “gezellig” charm, Russell Shorto‘s walking tour of the world’s most liberal city is indispensable…
1. EYE Film Museum - Brand new, so not of historical interest, but a spectacular place to see films and, more to the point, sitting on the cafe you have a view out across the IJ (harbor) to the skyline of Amsterdam. This is the ideal spot from which to ponder Amsterdam’s rise and its Golden Age. This harbor was, in the 17th century, the famed “forest of masts.” Then you can hop on the (free) ferry and ride across to the city center.
2. New Bridge - If you get off the ferry, Central Station will be in front of you. Walk straight through the station, and you’ll come out the “front” entrance and be faced with an ugly sprawl of buses and trams. Just beyond is an even uglier bridge, which has a name, The New Bridge. Stand on it and you’ll be looking out on a square of still water, lined by old canal houses. In the 17th century, people got off ships in the harbor, behind where you stand, and stepped onto this bridge to cross into the city. After the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, people on this bridge began trading pieces of paper, engaging in a new, world-historic activity. They were buying and selling something they called “shares of stock.” The bridge was the world’s first stock market.
3. Dam Square - Continue straight and you’ll come to Dam Square. It ain’t pretty, but it’s the ragged heart of Amsterdam, and always has been. It’s in the name. The Amstel River used to flow this way and continue to the harbor. Medieval peasants dammed the river here in order to control it. The Dam on the Amstel gave the city its name, and Dam Square became the site of all big events, from coronations to demonstrations.
4. Kalverstraat - Continue up the pedestrian shopping street called the Kalverstraat. It’s tacky and always crowded, and always has been. It was named after a butcher’s market that once stood here. In the 14th century, the Miracle of Amsterdam happened in a building here, when an old man who was dying vomited up the Catholic host he was given, and when his nurse threw it on the fire it did not burn. The flame-retardant host was such a wondrous thing that people came from all over Europe to pay homage, so that Amsterdam’s rise began as a center of Catholic worship. A shrine was built to house the host; oddly enough, that spot today is taken by the “Amsterdam Dungeon,” so that the spot that was once considered the holiest is now arguably the city’s cheesiest tourist trap.
5. Spui: Begijnhof - The Kalverstraat will take you to a leafy square called the Spui, lined with bookshops and cafés. A door on one side opens into a hushed courtyard lined with tiny houses. This is the Begijnhof, historically a convent that began during Amsterdam’s days as a Catholic center. Meanwhile, in the center of the Spui is an unassuming statue of a little boy, called Het Lieverdje, or the Little Darling. In the mid 1960s it became the center of anti-war, anti-corporate happenings that kicked off Amsterdam’s flower power era.
6. De Jaren - A few steps from the Spui is a big, modern, light-filled café called De Jaren. Though you’d never guess it, this site was Rembrandt‘s first home in Amsterdam. He rented a house here when he moved from Leiden, and commenced making himself into a local celebrity by painting portraits of the people who lived in the streets of this neighborhood, which was then the city’s most fashionable. The building on the corner, now a hotel, was the headquarters of the Kloveniers civic guard company, which commissioned him to paint their group portrait. The result, The Night Watch, is one of the world’s best known artworks.
7. Merwedeplein / Zuid - We’ve traveled a more or less straight path from Amsterdam North, across the harbor, and right into the city center. Now take a tram or ride a bike to the southern end of Amsterdam and start back from that direction into the center. Sit first in a quiet residential square called Merwedeplein. The buildings are 1930s-modern. You are tipped off to the square’s historical noteworthiness by the small statue of a girl in the center. Anne Frank lived in one of these apartments (at number 37) with her family. The much more famous Anne Frank House, in the city center, was where the family spent two years in hiding from the Nazis. But this is where they lived. It was the modern, prosperous center of Jewish Amsterdam until the war.
8. Amsterdam Hilton - Heading from Merwedeplein toward the city center takes you into the area called Zuid, or South. It was built in the early 20th century by architects and planners who were infused with a passion for developing a good life for the middle class. Theirs wasn’t a socialist ideal so much as an ideal that combined socialist and capitalist influences. The houses and apartment buildings of the school of architecture that emerged–called Amsterdam School–are all brick, and employ a vast array of themes and varations. Note the sculpted animals and objects and the intricate curves and shapes of the seemingly traditional buildings.
9. Rijksmuseum - Back at the edge of the city center sits the recently reopened Rijksmuseum, the nation’s treasurehouse of art and history. The new building is flat-out breathtaking. All the big guns of Dutch art are here, placed alongside objects from their period, so that art and history reflect off one another.
10. Nieuw Spiegelgracht - Stepping out the front door of the museum takes you down the Nieuw Spiegelgracht. If you wanted to get all that Amsterdam is in one block, I’d say this is the place to find it. There’s the quiet, still canal, lined with cute boats and pretty gable-topped canal houses. The bicycle path runs here runs right alongside the canal. The antique shops are just perfect. And there are cafés at both ends of the street from which to take it all in.
Russell Shorto, for Waterstones.com/blog
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