Over the last millennium, Amsterdam has slowly developed from small fishing village to medieval powerhouse; wartime occupied territory to modern, graceful world city. Its growth can be tracked in the unique layout of the city, with concentric canals circling the oldest part with most parkland and institutions further out. During the Golden Age of the 17th century, the city became wealthy and underwent a renaissance of art and architecture still evident today, from the art museums to the gorgeous canal houses. The city has also long had a reputation for liberal-thinking and many visitors today visit to experience the permissive drug and nightlife scene. Each of Amsterdam’s inner districts are captivating, and represent different sections of Dutch culture, pastimes and history. Take a little time to explore them all, and discover some oft overlooked treasures!
The Old Center
The Old Center of Amsterdam has been inhabited for almost a thousand years, first by fishing communities before the Amstel River was dammed (hence the name Amsterdam) and the town began to develop and prosper. The district is tipped by the Amsterdam Central Railway Station, and with several medieval blocks packed with history, it’s a good place to start exploring Amsterdam. From the station, the lively Nieuwendijk shopping strip leads down to the Dam Square, the true heart of the city and site of the grand Royal Palace, the gothic Nieuwekerk church and the towering 72 ft high National Monument to WW2. Nearby is the De Wallen area, known worldwide as the Red Light District of Amsterdam. At the Nieuwmarkt Square, look out for the imposing medieval De Waag building and check out the cafes, typical Amsterdam ‘coffee shops’ and nearby Chinatown restaurants. Visitors looking for a party and excellent transport connections will enjoy staying here, and will have ample opportunities to meet other travelers.
The Grachtengordel (Canal Ring)
The Grachtengordel, or ‘Canal Belt’ area describes the series of rounded canals that cup the Old Center. Developed during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ of the 17th century, the Grachtengordel reflects the wealth and ambition of Amsterdammers during that period. The whole area had to be engineered significantly to expand the old city and to create the canals, which were used as roads. Their grand and ornate mansions, stacked neatly along the canal, have survived remarkably well and are now protected by UNESCO World Heritage status. This is the Amsterdam of postcards, all delicate bridges, cobbled paths and gingerbread-like terraces, with only a few exceptions, one of them being the Anne Frank House museum on the Singelcanal. The former warehouse where young Jewish diarist Anne Frank and her family hid from persecution during World War Two is now a moving and considered museum dedicated to her life and combating discrimination of all forms. A stay in a Grachtengordel apartment by the waters edge is a wonderful experience that offers insight into the traditional Amsterdam lifestyle.
Wedged alongside the western edge of the Grachtengordel is The Jordaan, a crescent shaped district whose unique layout and architecture due to its working class roots. Developed in the 17th century as housing for workers and the poor, The Jordaan crammed thousands of workers into tiny tenements along what were at that time, stinking, waste-filled waterways. Rembrandt was famously forced to move to The Jordaan’s Rozengracht street from his fashionable city townhouse after he was bankrupted in 1656. Like many of The Jordaan’s impoverished working class, he was buried in a paupers grave at the Westerkerk church. By the 19th century, this fairly small area was packed with 80,000 residents and had deteriorated further, and when a restoration effort began in the 1970s, many buildings were in serious disrepair. Though popular with students and artists at that time, the Jordaan has more recently gentrified and its characteristic terrace houses are now tenanted by more upmarket establishments. The Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht streets are among the most beautiful and with dozens of top eateries, there’s no need to look far for a delicious meal after a day spent perusing galleries and boutiques.
Oud-Zuid, the old southern district of Amsterdam, was developed in the 19th century after the wall surrounding the Singelgracht Canal was removed to expand the city once again, this time beyond the Grachtengordel. Amsterdam’s well-heeled built stately homes on orderly, tree lined streets, and the city opened up new green spaces and grand institutions. Today the Oud-Zuid is still one of the most desirable places in Amsterdam to live, and many families visiting Amsterdam also favor this elegant residential retreat for its proximity to the city and museums. It’s also home to the favorite outdoor playground of Amsterdammers – the 126 acre Vondelpark, a blooming wonderland of ponds, gardens, teahouses, outdoor theaters and public art. The adjacent Museum Quarter houses the world-class Van Gogh Museum and newly-renovated Rijksmuseum. In the De Pijp neighbourhood at the north-east end of the Oud-Zuid district, locals shop and mingle at the multicultural Albert Cuyp street market. Further south, towards the newer end of Oud-Zuid, is the business district of Amsterdam and luxe shopping strips at the Beethovenstraat and P.C. Hooftstraat.
The Oud-West was also developed in the 19th century and though not as grand as neighboring Oud-Zuid, it’s an area of great charm and appeal. The streets are laid-back and easy to cycle around, with friendly cafes and bars on every block, including some of Amsterdam’s traditional ‘brown cafes’, small bars named for their wood-paneled walls, stained ceilings and cozy atmosphere. The Oud-West is also a great area in which to see live music, and smaller art exhibitions by local artists and design students. It’s hip and lively without the wild atmosphere often found in the backpacker-heavy city center.
Plantage and the Oost (east)
Plantage is small district just to the east of the city center and as the name suggests, it’s very green and leafy. Once mostly parkland, its canal-encircled blocks now house many museums alongside friendly residential buildings. Both Plantage and the connecting Oost (east) district are regarded as foodie havens, with a steadily increasing stream of bistros and bars moving in to the old warehouses and rooftops. The fare is international, fresh and often experimental, and in the summer there’s no better place to cool off and try something new in style. Like the West, the Oost is well connected to the major landmarks but offers a chance to discover a part of Amsterdam well off the beaten path.