When walking through the old Amsterdam I find the city quite typical but not monumental.
I miss the monumental buildings, palaces, one sees along the avenues of Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Budapest or Venice.
The houses of Amsterdam are very "middle class" for the simple reason I think that they were not build by noblemen who wanted to show their power and richness like in the other European countries but by the merchants of a Calvinist republic.
No Louvre, no Buckingham Palace, no Schönbrunn in Amsterdam!
The citizens of the Gouden Eeuw were actually working hard, discreet about their money, preferring to decorate the inside of their houses with these wonderful Dutch paintings and porcelain decorative objects.
A walk along the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht shows townhouses or merchant houses, built in or after the 17th century, who served as a residence as well as a workshop. They are often characterized by the facade and entrance, the door above the stairs was for high visit, the door under the stairs for staff and vendors. Because space was scarce, the houses are often narrow and high, with a lifting beam just below the roof furniture. Furthermore as the city was built on piles in the mud it is not surprising that so many houses have problems with verticality.
“The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word.”
— Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, A.K.A. Mata Hari (1876-1917)
Is your astrological sign Leo, the lion? If it is, or if you travel with some who is a Leo as I do, let me suggest a fun way to recognize the Leo in your life and in the process take some unique and fun photos: pose with architectural and decorative lions.
One notorious Dutch woman born under the sign of Leo was Mata Hari, the stage name of Margaretha Zelle. Born on the 7th of August, she was an exotic dancer, a courtesan, and an accused spy.
Amsterdam is filled with lions because they are part of the nation’s and the city’s coat-of-arms. The present version of the national coat-of-arms was adopted in 1907. It differs slightly from the version adopted in 1815, which showed all three lions wearing the royal crown and the supporting lions faced each other rather than facing outward as they now do.
The royal arms were adopted by William I, the first king of the Kingdom of the Netherlands when he became king after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. For a new coat-of-arms, he combined elements coat-of-arms of his family (the House of Orange-Nassau) and the former Dutch Republic, established in 1581 and ended by Napoleon in 1795.
The Rijksmuseum has a pair of them near its entrance (see photo #1). There are two large, white marble Leos at the National Monument in Damplein (see photo #4). There are indoor and outdoor lions; ancient and modern ones; large and small lions; some are on doors as knockers, while others are integrated into fountains; there’s a lion for every Leo in Amsterdam.
If you don't have much time and want to see more - the best way is to take guided walking tours. Guides are very enthusiastic and funny. You will find out many interesting facts about the city... and more. The tour lasts 2 hours and is based on tips. Highly recommend it.
“Amsterdam is built like a horse-shoe, or, rather, like a lot of horse-shoes, one inside the other, or like a great amphitheatre with the river Ij as the stage, and the streets and canals the rows of seats. For they run in semi-circles, beginning and ending in the Ij, and in the centre is the Dam, where the routes of all tram-cars also begin and end.”
— from “The Spell of Holland: the Story of a Pilgrimage to the Land of Dykes and Windmills,” 1911 by Burton Egbert Stevenson (1872–1962, American author, anthologist, and librarian)
Amsterdam’s city center was formed by the semi-circular rings of its canals, bordered by mostly 17th century residences. These were the homes of wealthy merchants, financiers, craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians and artists. Because land was at premium, these houses were narrow, not more than 30-feet wide. They are characterized by tall, narrow windows, decorative neck gables, very narrow, steep inside staircases.
I really like the stark contrast between the painted gable decoration and its matching unpainted neighbor (see photo #2). Dolphins, scrolls eagles and all manner of real and imagined creatures decorate the neck gables of Amsterdam’s house. Look up; look up at these unique architectural flourishes.
“Great eagerness in the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, or honor, cannot exist without sin.”
— Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)
And sin, like crime in this world, is always punished.
This grand-looking gate, topped with the personification of the city of Amsterdam wielding a cat o’ nine-tails, with two muscular, manacled men flanking her, and the Latin word for punishment, castigatio chiseled in a rectangular cartouche, was the entrance to a prison for young men. Notice that the personification of the city of Amsterdam holds a shield with the city’s coat-of-arms. (See von.otter’s Amsterdam Thing-To-Do Tip ‘Arm Yourself’ for more detailed information on the coat-of-arms.)
Located on Heiligeweg (Holy Way), the Rasphuis was a prison, established in 1596 in the former Convent of the Poor Clares. In 1815 it was shuttered, and in 1892 the building was demolished. Today the gate leads to the Kalvertoren, a shopping mall.
The inmates at Rasphuis were tasked with shaving wood from the brazilwood tree. Using an eight- to twelve-bladed rasp, these beggars and thieves would reduce the wood to a powder. The use of the rasp gave the prison its name. The wood powder was destined for paint factories, where it was mixed with water and boiled to form a red pigment, which was used to dye cloth.
The prison was a change for Dutch society. It signaled that corporal punishment for criminals was no longer the best approach to dealing with those who broke the law. Instead these institutions developed the idea of reform through work. Doubtless there was exploitation and physical cruelty; but it was seen an advancement.
“In one of George Eliot’s novels there is a portrait of a thrifty farmer’s wife who rose so early in the morning to do her work that by ten o’clock it was all over, and she was at her wit’s end to know what to do with her day. This good woman seems to me an excellent image of the genius of Amsterdam as it is reflected in the house-fronts—I penetrated no deeper.”
— Henry James (1843-1916) from his travels of August 1874
Exterior windows shielded with shuttered are a common sight in Amsterdam. Unlike in southern Europe these shutters are solid rather than louvered.
Shutters were first used in ancient Greece to control light, ventilation and temperature. Those first shutters were constructed with fixed louvers made of marble. Gradually, shutters spread throughout the Mediterranean, and the style changed. Wood replaced marble as a more suitable material, and designers started developing movable louver shutters to vary the light and air let into a room.
“Het doel van de staat is de vrijheid.” (“The purpose of the State is freedom.”)
— Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) the inscription on the Spinoza memorial
On Monday, 24.November.2008, at 13:26 a bronze tribute to the 17th century Amsterdam philosopher Baruch Spinoza was unveiled by Mayor Job Cohen. This date was the philosopher’s 376 birthday!
Calling himself Benedictus (the Blessed One) later in life, Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher, born in Amsterdam, of a Sephardic Jewish family. The ideas he advocated were freedom of expression, tolerance and freedom of religion. Classified as a rationalist, his philosophy laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. His radical ideas resulted his expulsion from his synagogue, the Portuguese Synagogue.
Nicolas Dings designed the bronze for the Spinoza Monument Foundation, which made of it a gift to the city. Located in Zwanenburgwal, where Spinoza was born, the bronze consists of Spinoza’s head and face and by his side there is an icosahedron, a geometric form with 20 sides symbolizing the universe created by man’s imagination. The birds covering his cloak are rose-ringed parakeets (see photo #4), an exotic bird that has settled in Amsterdam in the past 20 years. These bright green birds first settled in the Vondelpark, but today they be seen throughout the city. These birds are meant to symbolize Amsterdam as an immigrant city, both in the 17th century and today. The roses on his cloak refer to his name; spinoza is Portuguese for thorn.
This is not the first sculpture of Spinoza in Amsterdam. For decades one has stood in front of the Spinoza Lyceum, a high school in Amsterdam South.
“But because there was in Holland no geometrical foundation for this art, and they only proceeded by rule of thumb, which could only be learnt by the practice of long years, and because Pool was not able to teach him by drawing, it was very unpleasant to the Tsar to have travelled so far and not to have reached the desired goal.”
— from the preface to the “Maritime Regulations” by Russia’s Peter the Great, who is referring to the request he made of his teacher, to instruct him in the science of proportions with regard to ship building
Peter the Great used the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular as the models for his emerging new capital, St. Petersburg. He spent time in Zaanstreek incognito learning the ship builder’s craft.
The double house was Herengracht, 527 was built in 1667 for the widow Anna Robijns, owner of a silk cloth shop on the Rokin.
In 1716, Jacob Jacobsz Hinlopen the owner of the house, leased it to the Russian merchant and agent Joseph Soloffihoff. In 1717, Soloffihoff had the honor of offering hospitality to Tsar Peter the Great and his retinue during the tsar’s a second visit to Holland. Reports have it that on the tsar’s departure the house was left in disarray.
Today the building houses a private bank, GE Artesia Bank, and can only be viewed from the outside.
“Everybody hates a prodigy, detests an old head on young shoulders.”
— Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536, Roman Catholic priest and theologian)
From the street you will pass through an unremarkable green door, leading to a Delft-blue tiled corridor (see photos #1 & #4). This is the start of a special tour of Sint Andrieshof, one of Amsterdam’s hofjes, a courtyard surrounded by small houses. This arrangement was made centuries ago to house the old and poor residents of the city.
The peaceful courtyard is named after Saint Andrew, who has a special relationship with the city through the use of the three St. Andrew crosses used for the coat-of-arms of Amsterdam.
The alms houses Andries is one of the oldest courts of Amsterdam. It was built in 1616 by a wealthy Catholic merchant, Jan Jansz. By 1617 impoverished Catholic elderly had moved here. In 1623 the chapel was completed on the east side of the courtyard; and today, in the left wall where the floor of the chapel once was, there is a plaque (see photo #3) that reads ‘Peace to you SIJ.’ From the second half of the seventeenth century the courtyard was reserved for widows only. This courtyard was founded when year official Roman Catholic institutions were banned and it had no official founding act.
“Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I do not wonder that the artists have gone mad over it. Imagine having in front of your door a row of trees, then a broad beautiful river, then on the other side another row of tall elms, and on the bosom of the river the most quaint and most impressive of Dutch galleons, of that dark-brown color like old mahogany, for which Dutch ships and Dutch sails seem to have taken out a patent. Yes, a dozen of them, with families living on the ship. Even the family washing, which the boatman’s wife hangs out, with an occasional red shirt, helps the picture. It is a dream of color and tender tones.”
— Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood (1826-1903, American writer)
Amsterdam’s coat of arms can be seen throughout the city in traditional and more contemporary versions.
In its most simple form (see photos #3 & #5), the coat-of-arms is made up of a red shield with a black pale emblazoned with three white Saint Andrew’s crosses. Additionally, it is topped by the Imperial Crown of Austria, referring a time when the Netherlands was ruled by the House of Habsburg; and two golden lions flank the shield (see photo #4). Sometime the motto of Amsterdam, Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig Valiant, Steadfast, Compassionate, is included.
The city’s use of XXX dates to 1505, when Amsterdam was a fisherman’s town. As the symbol for the city and as its flag, which flew on all ships registered in Amsterdam, the city made its connection with St. Andrew, patron saint of fishermen, through the style of cross on which he was martyred. St. Andrew, fisherman and Christ’s apostle, was crucified on an X-shaped cross.
What a coincidence: XXX symbolizes the sex industry; something that Amsterdam knows a thing or two about.
“Amsterdam furnishes a tremendous brain stimulant to the student of American history. The city recalls cradle memories of the founders both of New England and of New Netherland. Here is one of the first homes of our nation’s chief glory, religious freedom.”
— from “The American in Holland” 1907 by William Elliot Griffis (1843-1928)
The Dutch have a penchant for shutters, opened or closed. Even newly constructed buildings use shutters.
Walking is definitely a great thing to do in any trip. It gives us the big opportunity of seeing things closer. After done sight seeing at Dam Square, we crossed the street in front of the souvenir shop with a big wooden clog in front of it (not sure what's the name of the street) to check out souvenirs. The shop has very good choices of souvenirs. I will write more about it in the shopping tips. There were restaurants along this street and many people were walking too. We walked and walked, till we got to Red Light District by accident.
Too good to be true? No, this is for real...
Two times a day (11.15h and 13.15h), a FREE 3 HOUR GUIDED WALKING TOUR starts from the National Monument at Dam Square.
EVERY DAY except Queens Day, in every kind of weather. Tours are in English or Spanish.
Enthusiastic young guides will take you through the center of Amsterdam for three hours. Our guide did not only tell us the facts, but also threw in a good dose of humor. As a local I really liked the tour, and so did all the tourists in our group.
Of course, you are expected to give the guide a GOOD TIP if you liked the tour...The smart thing about this concept is that the guides really do their best to give you a good tour, because the better they are, the better their tip will be (in contrast to tours where you pay first and the guides can be as boring as they want).
Besides the free tour, they also offer a Red Light District tour and a Biking tour, for which you do have to pay.
See the website for most up-to-date information.
If you enjoy walking tours led by people that really love this city Mee in Mokum is for you.
It is a group of senior citizens that know Amsterdam very well and are happy to share it with you.
Very small groups only. I lucked out and was alone - a private tour for Euro 4 !!
All tours begin at 1100 hours.
The tour was originally supposed to be 2 1/2 hours but became extended...we took a coffee break, started to talk and altogether spent almost 4 hours chatting, walking and visiting the inner city.
The site is in Dutch only, but if you write to them in English they will answer in the same language.
I love this view even tho it is right in the middle of traffic in front of the Richtsmuseum---I know I did not spell that correctly---right on the canal near the main entrance to the museum is this lovely villa with an old willow tree that has been there for years---I have many shots of this tree, and it is very lively still. These villas/homes on the canal around here are beautifully huge and decadent and can be viewed on a leisurely walk around the area any time.
This is part of what captivates me in Amsterdam every time I come....