When you think of Amsterdam, forget about the drugs and the Red Light District. What started as a small fishing village around the year 1200 has now become one of the most visited cities in Europe and for a good reason. Amsterdam’s museums, culture and architecture are just few of the reasons I wanted to come here. Well, that and the curiosity about those wooden clogs.
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Based on my experience so far, arriving in Amsterdam from the airport is the easiest and most convenient process. Once you get past all the necessary checks at the airport, you are walking into the train station. It’s so simple. You buy a ticket, get on the train and after a short ride, you are in the centre of the city.
Outside the station on the Amsterdam side, there are trams, buses and a tourism kiosk. Everything you need when you arrive in a new city is right in front of you. If only it was this easy in all the places.
The architecture in Amsterdam is something that I didn’t fully appreciate until I got there. I’ve seen images of the buildings, the canals and everyone riding bikes everywhere. All of it made Amsterdam look a bit like a Scandinavian version of Venice, without the gondoliers.
Once we arrived in Amsterdam, however, I noticed the little quirks that are so typical of the architecture here. At a closer inspection, you’ll notice that some buildings are narrower, some are uneven and most of them have these hooks on the top, just under the roof.
Many of the canal houses that make Amsterdam so unique were built during the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Today, they are a throwback to the glory of those days and what makes Amsterdam architecture so fascinating.
There is so much to discover once you know a bit more about the city’s history and its architecture.
The famous canal houses of Amsterdam, built by merchants flaunting their wealthy, have a dual purpose of storing goods as well as serving as living quarters.
Many of them date back to the 17th century. After the earlier fires that destroyed wooden houses, the architecture from this time was done in brick. There are a couple of wooden homes left in Amsterdam today, a throwback to a different time.
Trade was good and money was flooding the hands of merchants who lived here. As the cost of living went up, so did the population. To accommodate the population growth, parcels of land were divided into more narrow plots as property taxes were calculated by the width of the house. The buildings became long and narrow with large attic and basement storage areas. To compensate for the narrow space, owners got creative with decorating the facades of their homes. This also is the reason why there are so may steep stairs in the many Amsterdam buildings. Going up was cheaper.
Most of the Amsterdam buildings of that time functioned as businesses and residences. Many merchants also used them as storage for goods. You can see the doors at canal level that once provided an easy access from boats to the house. During the boom, the city revamped the canal structure to accommodate the flow and distribution of goods through Amsterdam.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a cool feature. Definitely, something I didn’t expect to learn about the Amsterdam architecture. You can even play a game of trying to spot these entrances and wonder what are they used for (if anything) today.
Hidden gems of Amsterdam buildings
Little alleys, hidden gardens and plenty of stories from the past surround many of the houses in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we didn’t give ourselves enough time to explore Amsterdam in more detail. That includes these canal homes and their surroundings. There are tours that you can take to learn more about them, their history and the role they played in the city’s development. I definitely am going to do that the next time I’m there.
Gables and hooks: staples of Amsterdam architecture
The ever-present hooks and gables actually add a touch of personality and play an important function. As the homes were narrow and tall, this made it challenging to gets goods in and out. You might notice some of the homes leaning forward and that is quite intentional.
Building on a slant ensured that there was no damage (or at least less of it) to the ornate facades that decorated the exterior. As goods were stored in attics, the outside pulley system made it easier to bring items in and out as needed.
Gables also had the purpose of camouflaging the sharp and unappealing edges of rooftops.
To admire an example of an authentically preserved house from 1622, head over to Keizersgracht 123. There you’ll find a house decorated with gargoyles, pillars and the heads that give it the name Het Huis met de Hoofden (the House with the Heads).
I love visiting museums and as far as Amsterdam’s museums go, there is plenty to choose for everyone. As we didn’t have a lot of time there, we decided to hit a variety of them.
The Rijksmuseum is probably the most iconic of Amsterdam’s museums. It is a large place and you need more than just one day to see it. Opened in 1885, it houses an impressive collection of the Dutch Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer. In addition, you can see works by Flemish and Italian artists, Asiatic art as well as some more modern pieces.
Also worth checking out is the sweet looking Rijksmuseum Research Library as well as the area outside of the museum. Here you can find the famous Amsterdam sign.
Van Gogh Museum
I am a huge Van Gogh fan and I first learned about Vincent in my high school art class. I found his story to be very tragic. His life, filled with so much sadness and emotional turmoil, was also inspirational. I have always felt drawn to his work and have been fortunate to actually see a few of his original pieces.
When I was in Paris, I saw some of Van Gogh’s work in museums there. So, when we arrived in Amsterdam, I knew that we had to make a stop here as well. As one of Amsterdam’s museums focusing on Dutch artists, the Van Gogh museum has an impressive collection of his work, letters and other items. The floors are dedicated to different periods of his life. You can tour them chronologically, which is probably the best way to do it.
Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take pictures while inside. However, if you are a fan of the post-impressionist movement and Van Gogh, this is the place for you.
The Heineken Experience
It’s not a secret that I like beer. Whenever we visit a place that is known for its beer and offers tours (I really mean tastings), we can’t pass it up. Amsterdam was no different. We knew we had to check out the Heineken Experience.
Based in what was once Heineken’s brewery until 1988, you embark on an interactive experience of how the beer is made. Throughout the tour, you learn about the company’s history, how the beer is made and of course, sample it. Some parts of the tour are quite fun and you end up in a tasting room that has a feel of a European club or a soccer commercial. Either way, it’s a fun way to spend some time learning about the beer making process. The tasting helps too.
There are so many different types of museums in Amsterdam. You can really explore the city and find new gems around every corner. As a city that welcomes many tourists, there are many options to check out when you’re here.
- Het Grachtenhuis (Museum of the Canals): Dedicated to the canals of Amsterdam, you can learn more about the history of Amsterdam’s Canal Ring.
- Museum Van Loon: Residence of the wealthy Van Loon family, the co-founders of the Dutch East India Company. Members of this wealthy family held various position in government and banking. The home is a living museum with historical photographs, paintings, personal souvenirs and documents.
- Oude Kerk: First church in Holland to attain the official status of a museum, the Oude Kerk stands in the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Here you’ll find contemporary art mixed with the historical significance of the location.
- Stedelijk Museum: Museum dedicated to the modern and contemporary art. Collections include paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, applied artworks and (new) media.
- The Anne Frank House: In memory of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who hid in the attic with her family for two years during World War II. Anne w rote her famous diary here, providing us with an insight into her daily life during that time.
- The Hermitage: Once a nursing home for the elderly, today the museum is one of the branches of the famous Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, filled with works from the Russian collection.
- The Rembrandt House: The former residence and studio of the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt lived and worked here in the 17th century.
- The Tropenmuseum: A beautiful building in itself, the museum houses a collection from cultures round the world, from Africa to Southeast Asia and from India to Latin America. Here you’ll also find the permanent collection of treasures from the Dutch East Indies in the VOC era.
Bringing it all together
We enjoyed Amsterdam a lot more than we anticipated. However, for some reason it was never a place high on our list of places to visit. As Amsterdam is one of the options for direct flights from Canada, we decided to make a stop here. The idea was to fly in, check it out and move on to the next destination.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Amsterdam. As a place that is probably more known for accessible weed and the Red Light district, Amsterdam’s museums, architecture and culture are largely overlooked. The many wonderful restaurants, bars and shops make this a very delightful place. I personally loved walking around and checking out the neighbourhoods.
Amsterdam doesn’t feel very crowded and is easy to get around. Be on the lookout for the bike riders thought as they dominate the city. They are not too pleased if you stumble upon the bike path as you’re wandering around.
I would love to go back to Amsterdam for another visit. Have you been?
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