Originally, the region that spawned a giant trading community was an inhospitable patchwork of lakes, swamps and peat, at or below sea level, its contours shifted with the autumn storms and floods. The oldest archaeological finds here date from Roman times, when the IJ river lay along the northern border of the Roman Empire. Too busy elsewhere, and no doubt put off by the mushy conditions, the Romans left practically no evidence of settlement.
Isolated farming communities tamed the marshlands with ditches and dykes. Between 1150 and 1300 the south bank of the IJ was dyked from the Zuiderzee westwards to Haarlem. Around 1200, a fishing community known as Aemstelredamme – ‘the dam built across the Amstel’ – emerged at what is now the Dam. On 27 October 1275, the count of Holland waived tolls for those who lived around the Amstel dam, allowing locals to pass the locks and bridges of Holland free of charge, and the town of Amsterdam was born.
Situated on the confluence of the River Amstel, which gave the city its name, and an arm of the sea called the IJ, Amsterdam's location provided a deep and safe natural harbor for international shipping. In the sixteenth century the city was able to capture a substantial share of the expanding trade between Holland and the Baltic, which helped feed the city's waterlogged hinterland. Amsterdam became the most significant of Antwerp's satellite ports in the northern Low Countries.
Amsterdam's position changed dramatically in the course of the Dutch Revolt. Initially loyal to the Spanish king, the city was blockaded for years before it decided to join the rebel side in 1578. Then, in 1585, Antwerp was reconquered by the Spaniards, and in retaliation the rebels cut off shipping on the River Scheldt. Antwerp's merchant community dispersed, with many eventually settling in Amsterdam. Together with the local merchants they initiated a remarkable boom.
Amsterdam is a compact, instantly likeable city. It's appealing to look at and pleasant to walk around, an intriguing mix of the parochial and the international; it also has a welcoming attitude towards visitors and a uniquely youthful orientation, shaped by the liberal counter-culture that took hold in the 1960s. Also engaging are the buzz of open-air summer events and the intimacy of its clubs and bars, not to mention the Dutch facility with languages: just about everyone you meet in Amsterdam will be able to speak near-perfect English, on top of their own native Dutch, and often French and German too.
The city's layout is determined by a web of canals. The historical centre, which dates from the thirteenth century, is girdled by five concentric canals – the Grachtengordel – dug in the seventeenth century as part of a planned expansion to create a uniquely elegant urban environment. It is here that the city's merchant class built their grand mansions, typified by tall, gracefully decorated gables, whose fine proportions are reflected in the still, olive-green waters below.
Amsterdam has a broad spectrum of recreational and cultural sights that range from fascinating old buildings, like the Oude Kerk, to oddities such as the Hash Marihuana Museum.
Museums are the main tourist attraction in Amsterdam. Everyone knows the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum, but there is much, much more. Amsterdam has over fifty museums which attract many millions of visitors every year. Read more about the museums in Amsterdam. The following sites and monuments should also be of interest and are an essential part of the Amsterdam experience.
This old church with little houses clinging to its sides, remains a calm heaven at the heart of the freneric Red Light District. Its buildings, especially the Gothic-renaissance style octagonal bell tower, was used by sailors to get their bearings.
The Dam is the very centre and heart of Amsterdam, although there are arguably prettier sights in the city. As an historical site however, it is fascinating and worth taking the time to appreciate. The Dam has seen many historical dramas unfold over the years, and was for example, the reception area for Napoleon and his troops during the 1808 take-over of the city. The impressive history of the square is well documented in the Amsterdam Historical Museum.
The Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis) which dominates the square, was originally used as the town hall and its classical facade and fine sculptures were intended to glorify the city of Amsterdam and its government. In contrast to its turbulent history, the square is now a peaceful place and is home to hundreds of pigeons and tourists resting their tired feet.
The number of canals have led Amsterdam to become known as “The Venice of the North”. And thus, a trip to Amsterdam is not complete without a boat cruise. A canal tour can be both fascinating and relaxing by day and enchanting and romantic at night when many of the houses and bridges are illuminated. The four main city center canals are Prinsengracht, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Singel. There are also numerous smaller canals in the neighbourhood of Jordaan, of which the Brouwersgracht, the Bloemgracht and the Leliegracht are especially pleasant.
Rembrandtplein is lined with pubs, restaurants, cafes and hotels and is thus a tourist magnet. A popular centre for nightlife, it also includes traditional Dutch pubs which play real Dutch music. In summer, the terraces are packed with people enjoying a drink and watching the world go by. In the centre of the square is a small but pleasant park where you can relax or pay homage at the statue of Rembrandt. Around the area you’ll also find quality night clubs, gay venues, respectable diamond dealers and the inevitable tacky souvenir shops.
Amsterdam Red Light District
Beer and party atmosphere, sex for sale, and limitless people-watching. The stores are full of hardcore videos, magazines and sex toys. The Red Light District is somewhat of a sexual amusement park and often not taken too seriously by the hordes of tourist who frequent it. The famous red window lights are striking against the quaint, old canal houses and even the fairy lights that line the bridges at night are coloured red. Although it is generally considered to be a very safe area, care should still be taken when walking through the quieter streets of the area. There is a strict “no photography” policy.