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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Short History of Amsterdam (& 58 Cultural Attractions)



From its humble beginnings as a fishing village on the banks of the Amstel River to the thriving, cosmopolitan city it is today, Amsterdam's story is one of resilience, creativity, and transformation. In this article, we'll explore the city's iconic canals, its medieval past, and the Golden Age that left an indelible mark on its landscape and culture.

Amsterdam Skyline

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History of Amsterdam

Canals and Charm: Venice of the North

Amsterdam’s old city is made up of 90 islands, connected by 1,700 bridges. They cross a network of canals extending for more than 100 kilometres, which since their construction more than 300 hundred years ago have also extended into the traveller’s imagination. The lazily winding waterways, lined by handsome and typically gabled townhouses, have a picturesque beauty which has earned Amsterdam its nickname, the ‘Venice of the North’. These characterful canal houses, originally home to wealthy merchants, were built on wooden foundations driven deep into the mud. Four centuries on, their rotting foundations have left them rather charmingly lopsided. In more recent years, the canals have offered up links to a much more distant past. Archaeologists excavating a canal bed uncovered traces of Neolithic settlements, including a stone blade dating from 4,300 BC.

Progressive Roots: Fishing Village to Cosmopolitan Capital

However, the modern city of Amsterdam was settled as a fishing village on the Amstel River in the 13th century. The Amstel was dammed by local fishermen to control flooding, and the settlement’s name derives from this community effort. A mythic view of the city’s history contends that Amsterdam’s modern reputation as a centre of progressive energy stems from these radically collectivist beginnings. This might strike you as fanciful, but the Dutch capital’s association with tolerance stretches back far. The 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, conversed in Dutch, read Hebrew, wrote in Latin but spoke Portuguese and Spanish at home. He declared that in Amsterdam, people could converse ‘in the greatest harmony, no matter what their nation or sect’.

Wooden City: Glimpses of Medieval Amsterdam

Medieval Amsterdam was predominantly built from wood. Much of the old city was destroyed by fires in the 15th century, and the authorities forbade any new building out of timber. Only two of these historic wooden houses survive, but today’s Amsterdam still affords a few other glimpses of its medieval ancestor. In De Wallen, for example, a Gothic church has watched over the cobbled streets since the early 14th century – the Oude Kerk, the city’s oldest building. De Wallen itself is the city’s oldest quarter, nestled in the historic Canal Belt and home to the famed Red Light District. The association of this area with sex workers precedes the invention of neon lights, and can be explained by its proximity to the harbour.

Golden Age: Art, Architecture, and Expansion

Amsterdam owes its current shape and character to the Dutch Golden Age, the period of cultural and economic prosperity in the 17th century, following liberation from imperial rule by the Spanish Habsburg monarchy. Merchant houses dating from this period line the city’s canals, just as masterpieces by an abundance of great Dutch artists from this era adorn the grand museums. Above them all, the Rijksmuseum showcases the glory of the artistic creation and experiment funded by the Golden Age. Wealthy merchants commissioned art and furnishings for their waterside houses, and painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer showed the world for the first time the beauty of everyday life and everyday people.

Global Reach: Trade, Wealth, and Exploitation

The newly independent Dutch Republic was a federation of seven United Provinces. Amsterdam’s province was Holland, and this name is still used inaccurately to refer to the wider Netherlands. In this federated republic each region and town enjoyed a remarkable level of autonomy. Keen to establish strong trade links in the age of imperial expansion, the Dutch East India Company was formed by the government in 1602, and began trading in the Indian Ocean with extraordinary success. However, the city’s attractive traditions of cosmopolitanism and economic energy cannot be viewed in isolation; nor can we appreciate the architectural and artistic marvels this prosperity provoked without looking deeper into how Amsterdam got so rich. Just like many modern European cities, Amsterdam’s fortunes relied on the enslavement and exploitation of foreign peoples.

Haven and Tragedy: War and Anne Frank's Legacy

Forever turned outward to the world, Amsterdam also became a haven for the persecuted. That tradition came to a violently abrupt, if temporary, end during the Secord World War, when German forces occupied the city and the Netherlands fell to Nazi Germany. Over 100,000 Dutch Jews were deported to camps, the overwhelming majority never to return. A 13-year-old girl called Anne Frank hid with her family for two years inside a tiny secret annex, in her father’s office building along the Prisengracht canal, before their eventual discovery. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen, but her diary has become a canonical witness to the 20th century.

Amsterdam Reborn: Diversity, Creativity, and Connection

Since occupation, Amsterdam has assumed many different characters: a tawdry site of seediness and vice; a centre for the hippie movement; a green city filled with cyclists peddling through its winding streets. All these versions of Amsterdam, and more, co-exist and await today’s visitor. This capital’s rich history has spurred it on to become a hub of dynamic creativity, with plenty to see and do. Contemporary Dutch designer Marcel Wanders claimed that Amsterdam ‘is able to connect worlds that are not otherwise connected’, and as you wander its picturesque canals and grand galleries you’ll no doubt appreciate this unique quality.

Amsterdam's 58 Top Cultural Attractions

With an array of museums, historic sites, and architectural wonders, Amsterdam's vibrant cultural scene is truly unparalleled. In the following list, we present 58 of the city's top cultural attractions that capture the essence of its past, present, and future. So, grab your map (or download Urbs!) and let your curiosity guide you as you explore the myriad of unforgettable experiences awaiting you in Amsterdam.


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