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Amsterdam Travel Guide | History, Sightseeing & Tips

by Steven
Published: Last Updated on

Are you planning a city trip to Amsterdam? Forget the weed, the marijuana, or the prostitution in the Red Light District, and discover another side of this beautiful city in the Netherlands: its history. Did you know that Amsterdam was built on 11 million wooden poles? That its 165 canals total more than 75 kilometers in length? And that it is also called Mokum, the Hebrew name for “city”?

These are just a few of the interesting facts that can be discovered about Amsterdam. Curious about what your historical city trip to Amsterdam could look like? In this travel guide, you’ll discover the beautiful history of Mokum and I’ll take you to the best sights in town. And where is the best place to stay? Finally, I’ll take you to a few of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Let’s go to Amsterdam…

In this Travel Guide about Amsterdam

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Beautiful old houses in Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s canals have been on the Unesco World Heritage List since 2010

A brief history of Amsterdam

Before you visit Amsterdam, ask yourself that one question: What makes Amsterdam so special historically? The answer: The inner city with its special buildings and canals from the 17th century. But there is more and you can read about it below….

But it started around 1250 as a small hamlet of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. There, in the Amstel River, a dam was built, giving Amsterdam (Amstel + dam) its name. In 1300 it received city rights and around that time the Old Church was built, a landmark near the Red Light District. The city grew steadily and in the 15th century, it became a place of pilgrimage with the construction of 20 monasteries and the Nieuwe Kerk. After some fierce city fires and the Reformation of 1566, in which Catholic statues were destroyed, Amsterdam was ready for the Golden Age.

In the Golden Age, as they also call the 17th century, Amsterdam was the center of the world. The VOC (United East India Company) was founded in 1602, canals were dug and the money earned was invested in beautiful canal mansions. Fortunately, there is still a lot to discover about this beautiful history in this travel guide.

Geschiedenis van Amsterdam in 1544
Dit is hoe Amsterdam in 1544 eruit gezien moet hebben
Door Cornelis Anthonisz. – www.cultuurwijzer.nl : Home : Info, Publiek domein, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3863044

Around 1800, the opulence and wealth of Amsterdam were over. The VOC went bankrupt in 1795, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was busy conquering Europe and in 1806 his brother Louis Napoleon, administrator of the Netherlands proclaimed Amsterdam the capital of the Kingdom of Holland. The decline had begun, but at the end of the 19th century, there was light on the tunnel with the introduction of industrialization.

Amsterdam benefited considerably from this. The city grew considerably (520,000 inhabitants around 1900), important buildings came into beings, such as the Concertgebouw (1888), the Rijksmuseum (1885), and the Stedelijk Museum (1895), and social services were generally good.

The Second World War did not do much damage to Amsterdam’s historic buildings. Nevertheless, it may well be called a jet-black period in the city’s history. Of the 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam, the majority were deported and killed in concentration camps in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

The Palace on the Dam in Amsterdam
The Palace on the Dam

Sightseeing – Discovering Amsterdam’s history?

You can’t discover Amsterdam in one day, you need at least 3 full days. If you really want to enjoy the beautiful city center with its special attractions then 5 days is ideal. Another advantage: Amsterdam is open all year round, although in winter the temperature is around 5 degrees Celsius.

Looking for the best sights in the city? Here are some of the must-see attractions in Mokum.

Take a cruise through the canals

A bit standard, but I would advise everyone to take a canal cruise through Amsterdam. It’s a great way to discover the history of the city. Sail along the Singel-, Heren-, Keizers- or Prinsengracht and see the historic canal houses from the 17th century. The tour takes about an hour and with the help of an audio guide, you will learn more about the Golden Age and the VOC (Dutch East India Company) in detail. In short: indispensable for a day trip or city break in Amsterdam.

Visit important museums

Mokum has a number of leading museums that should not be missed during a city break. The Rijksmuseum, for example, is one of the finest museums in the world. Especially the Gallery of Honour, with famous paintings by Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, and of course the Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn is of unparalleled beauty.

Other impressive museums are the Vincent van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum for modern art. Together with the Rijksmuseum, they are located on the Museumplein. Do not forget to visit the Anne Frank House. Here you will learn more about the hiding place of the Frank family during World War II. For more than two years they were ‘locked up’ behind a bookcase in a building on the Prinsengracht.

Would you like to know more about the Anne Frank House? Read the article Anne Frank and the Secret Annex | The Girl with the Big Dreams.

Visit Amsterdam’s famous squares

By now you know the Museumplein with its special museums. But a visit to the Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein, and Dam Square is also a must. For the Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, you go for the nice and cozy restaurants, cafes, and clubs.

To the Dam, you go to discover more of the history of the city. Here you will find the Palace on the Dam from the 17th century and the New Church from the 15th century. You can also visit Madame Tussaud and the department store de Bijenkorf. Both are located in buildings that are more than 100 years old.

Here you will also find the monument on the Dam, in memory of the victims of the Second World War. Every year on May 4, the commemoration of the dead takes place here, during which the king and the cabinet lay a wreath, and at 8 o’clock in the evening, 2 minutes of silence are held.

Finally, one of the leading hotels in Amsterdam is Krasnapolsky. 5 stars, a lot of luxury, and double rooms from 150 euros per night, but you’re at a prime location and in a historic building from the 19th century.

Discover Jewish Amsterdam

A special place in Amsterdam is the Jewish quarter. When the Jews were driven out of Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century, they ended up in ‘Mokum’. More than 400 years of history can be found around the Waterlooplein. A characteristic is a Portuguese Synagogue, built around 1670 and at the time the largest synagogue in the world.

Other interesting sights are the Jewish Historical Museum and to the southeast the Wertheim Park and the Hollandsche Schouwburg. During World War II, this was the gathering place for arrested Jews, who were then transported via Westerbork to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. Now it is an impressive memorial site to the victims of this terrible drama of the 20th century.

Relax in one of the beautiful parks

Enjoying the beautiful weather and taking a break? You can do so in one of Amsterdam’s lovely parks. The most famous is of course the Vondelpark, named after the German poet Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679). Born in Cologne, raised in the southern Netherlands, and coming to Amsterdam at the age of nine, never to leave, he became one of the most famous poets in the Netherlands. In 1867 this park was named after him.

Other famous parks are the Oosterpark, the Westerpark, and the Sarphatipark. But most Amsterdammers still go mainly to the largest park in the city, the Vondelpark.

Accommodation – The 3 best historical neighborhoods

Have you already become enthusiastic about visiting historic Amsterdam? By now you know more about the city’s impressive history and best sights. But what’s the best place to stay? Below are three nice neighborhoods/areas in the center of Amsterdam. And did you know that in this city you can also find the worst hotel in the world? Okay, doesn’t sound appealing, but it’s only one of the many hotels in Amsterdam….

The Jordaan

Staying the night in a real Amsterdam neighborhood? Then the Jordaan is the place to be. During the Golden Age, this was a colorful working-class neighborhood, where the artist Rembrandt van Rijn lived. After the Golden Age, Amsterdam’s economy stagnated and the Jordaan fell into poverty.

Today it is a vibrant area with nice little streets, cafes, beautiful canal houses, and especially lots of fun. Be sure to enter a Jordanian pub, such as Lowietje (Baantjer), to discover the typical Amsterdam coziness. The Anne Frank House and the Westerkerk are also nearby.

Looking for accommodation in the Jordaan? Check here for the options.

The 9 streets

Cross the Prinsengracht from the Jordaan and you will arrive at the 9 streets. Picturesquely beautiful it is often described, with nice charming stores, trendy bars, and cozy cafes. Some of the 9 streets refer to the local craft carried out here in the 17th century: working with animal skins. Do you happen to be in the Reestraat, Berenstraat, Huidenstraat, Wolvenstraat? Then you are on one of the 9 streets. Amsterdammers love to come there and it is also extremely popular among tourists.

Looking for accommodation near the 9 streets? Check here for the options.

Burgwallen Oude Zijde

A third interesting district in Amsterdam is the Burgwallen Oude Zijde. This is in fact the oldest part of the city with a history that began around 1300. The Old Church from 1306 is an example of this. In addition, here you can also visit the Red Light District, one of the most famous prostitution areas in the world. If you stay in the Burgwallen Oude Zijde, you will be close to Dam Square and the Central Station. It is located in the center of the city.

Looking for accommodation in the Burgwallen Oude Zijde? Check here for options.

Amstel Hotel in Amsterdam
The Amstel Hotel, the most famous hotel in Amsterdam situated on the Amstel River

The worst hotel in the world?

Finally, there are three hotels that are more than worth reporting. These are the Amstel Hotel, Doelen Hotel and the Hans Brinker Budget Hostel. The Amstel Hotel and the Doelen Hotel excel in elegance, are therefore also more expensive than most hotels, and have an origin of more than 125 years. Historically interesting accommodation. Or would you rather go for the worst hotel in the world?

The Hans Brinker Budget Hostel is the opposite and advertises that they are the worst hotel in the world. Although the reviews vary and are not all negative, some people describe the rooms as prison cells. Positive is the location, within walking distance of the Leidseplein and the prostitution area. Or is that negative again? Fortunately, there are many other options for hostels, hotels, and guesthouses in Amsterdam.

Transportation – How to get there?

If you have the time, you can explore Amsterdam on foot. There are a few metro lines, the best known being the North/South line. However, it lacks a good underground metro system, as you have in Paris, London and Berlin. That is not so easy, since the North/South line has cost billions and the foundations of the old canal houses have been severely tested.

Therefore, your best bet is to use the buses and streetcars that go to every place in Amsterdam. Are you planning to use public transport a lot? Then purchase a ticket for public transport. These are valid for 1 to 7 days and you can use all buses, streetcars, metro lines, and ferries of the GVB (Local Transport Company).

The city’s main train station is Amsterdam Central Station. From here you can walk straight into the old center and the Dam Square is easy to reach on foot. Alternatively, you can take a bus or streetcar from Central Station to your next destination in Amsterdam.

Schiphol Airport is the main airport and is located about 25 kilometers southwest of the city. From the airport, you can reach the center of Amsterdam by taking the train. Within 25 minutes you can reach Central Station. It is also possible to take a bus, but these usually take much longer.

The International Airport of Amsterdam, Schiphol
The International Airport of the Netherlands, Schiphol

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