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Amsterdam is known for the series of canals that encircle in a horseshoe shape and crisscross each other throughout the city even though it is below-sea-level. As such, the residents have had to find ways of dealing with the water and soft ground. Houses are built on sturdy pilings to assure a solid foundation. Although you will see many cockeyed canal houses, some held up by huge logs, most buildings have been where they are for centuries.
The gables, oh, the gables. They are Amsterdam! If you look up, you will see many of the gables are adorned with a hook. Not a decoration, the hook is there to enable residents to pull large, bulky objects up and into a window at the proper floor. Most homes in Amsterdam have narrow, steep, often winding staircases that make it difficult to bring large, bulky objects upstairs. Voila, the hook. Many windows can be taken out of the wall completely for the same reason. In warm weather you will pass by many an establishment that has removed the windows to let the warm breeze waft through.
Many people are under the wrong impression that lots of old canal houses in Amsterdam are leaning forwards or have gone squinty over the years. Not so. They were mainly built like that so that the gable was further out into the street to make it easier to haul everything in via the hook and window. Clever, eh? You will still see this method being used by today's Amsterdamers for verhuizing (moving house) and it is actually quite hard work. Have you ever tried to lift a washing machine with a concrete base vertically with a rope? These days they have the assistance of eclectic winches or lifts similar to what you would use on a construction site to lift materials.
When property was sold in the early years of the city, it was valued by width, not depth. So you will see many narrow buildings throughout the city. After so many years and real estate transactions, many buildings that seem very tiny from the outside open into beautiful spaces. There a few very extreme examples of this but take a look at Google Street view of Singel 168 and you will see a house front only one window wide. All along the canals the rear end of the houses open on to beautiful well-kept gardens which are occasionally open to the public.
Just outside the large canals (Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Singel) you find the area that used to supply the city with fresh vegetables. This garden (in French; Jardin) area was later turned into a residential area with rather small houses, mainly for labourers, and is still named after the gardens, The Jordaan.
Charming houseboats line almost every canal. You will see them with gardens on decks and roofs, with cushy upholstered chairs on deck, with tables and chairs for al fresco. About 2,400 of these picturesque houses on water are docked in the city. In the 1950's Amsterdam was experiencing a housing shortage (still is?) and in a display of typical Nederlandic ingenuity they looked to their beloved canals and the houseboat was established.
A number of Amsterdam's famous residents have had their homes preserved and turned into museums, most notably Anne Frank and Rembrandt Van Rijn. One of the best examples of a preserved canal house is the Willet Holthuysen Museum, Herengracht 605 http://en.willetholthuysen.nl/ still owned by the family and well worth a visit to see how the rich merchants lived..
Anne Frank wrote her Diary of a Young Girl in this house from 1942-1944. It is perhaps the most renowned and widely-read accounts of daily life under German occupation during World War II. The actual house, located on the Prinsengracht, was constructed in 1635. It was listed for demolition in 1955. A campaign to save the house was successful, and the Anne Frank Foundation was established in 1957 with the purpose of preserving the house. It was opened to the public in 1960. Two large renovations closed the building temporarily in 1970 and 1999.
Rembrandt purchased this house in 1639 and lived and worked there until he went bankrupt in 1656. Over the following centuries, the house went through various occupants and alterations until the building was bought by the city in 1906. A foundation was set up in 1907 with the purpose of preserving the building. Today, it is a museum dedicated to Rembrandt etchings and drawings, and also houses works by Rembrandts teachers and pupils.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's Amsterdam need to expand to accommodate the ever increasing population and this raised again the ever present problem for the Dutch in that the land had to be drained and made suitable for building on. Areas outside the inner canal ring (grachtengordel) began to develop mainly to house workers so the housing was in no way as grand as the fine canal houses built in the past.
Neighbourhoods like West and Old South (including De Pijp) began to spring up. There are far fewer canals in these new areas but you can still se examples of classic Dutch architecture along the Hobbemakade. Away from the canals housing becomes more functional. Interestingly all the streets around De Pijp are named after famous Dutch painters e.g. Albert Cuyp, Ferdinand Bol etc. (just as an aside the famous FEBO fast food stores which you see all over NL originated in the Ferdinand Bol Straat and FEBO is a shortened version of the street name).
It is in districts like the West and Rivierenbuurt and Oude Zuid that you can start to see the influences of the Amsterdam School which was most prevalent during the period 1910 to 1930. The Amsterdam School used intricate brickwork to create flowing designs and even to some extent sculpture, influenced also by the Art Deco movement which sprung up in Paris in the same era.
After WWII he city expanded further in all directions where space was more readily available. For example in the area around Churchillaan, itself a wide, leafy boulevard, many apartments were built with green spaces/squares in between to give the area a much more open feel whilst still heavily influenced by the brickwork encompassed by the Amsterdam School.
During the war the Jewish quarter which lay approximately in the area of Waterlooplein was emptied by the Nazi's and practically destroyed meaning this area has some quite modern buildings by comparison. After the war the city expanded outwards again and
Modern day buildings can be seen in the Zuidas area around Zuid WTC train station. There are some stunning new building erected here where banks and insurance companies have their headquarters. Notably the ING building which encompasses a mini forest in its atrium (http://www.panoramio.com/photo/13405165).
You can think of Amsterdam as a felled tree. When you cut a tree down you see the growth rings where times were good and bad. Amsterdam perhaps does not have the grandeur of Paris or the towering skyscrapers of NYC but its more subtle than that and has something for everyone. A fact which was recognised last year when the Grachtengordel was granted a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.