This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
After centuries as a pokey little place famous only as a centre of pilgrimage, Amsterdam has morphed into the global hub of art, commerce and science. And what better way of navigating the city than on its staggeringly efficient waterways.
When to go
Any time is good, though high summer is the malaria season along the canals. The tulips for which the city is famous – even after the tulip mania of a decade ago, when the price of bulbs soared and then collapsed – still pop up in the spring. In winter you can skate on the canals.
What to take with you
Layers! The northern winds blow strong here. Look at the locals: they aren’t all fat, just protecting themselves from the elements. If you want to fit in, bring a crisp, white lace collar.
This is the world’s greatest city right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most expensive. The Dutch are great ones for bargains. Haggle with merchants, and you’ll be respected. Amsterdam is the emporium of the world. Along its canals you can buy live elephants, stuffed monkeys, Delft tiles and spices from the East Indies. Everything is cheaper here than elsewhere in Europe, because most goods arrive here first before being shipped elsewhere.
Sights and activities
Leaders from other European cities come to marvel at the new canal zone, which is about three-quarters finished now. Nearly four decades ago the city fathers laid out a massive urban expansion programme, which involved wrapping a horseshoe ring of canals around the medieval city centre, increasing the size of the city fivefold.
Thousands of gable-topped brick houses, miles of road and canal, and dozens of humpbacked bridges later, the result is a place unlike any other. For the first time, a city has been crafted around the needs and comforts of individual residents.
The homes themselves are a reflection of this. Think of homes in other European cities. Who lives in them? An extended family, its servants, renters, assorted others. An Amsterdam canal house is smaller, and it is meant to house a man, his wife and their children. What a concept! The city has brought about a new emphasis on this family unit, and so has redefined the meaning of ‘home’.
With that comes a new approach to comfort. The Dutch have a word – gezellig – that doesn’t have an English translation. It means something like cosy, comfortable, warm. Go inside a canal house and you’ll find lots of gezelligheid. There are cosy beds tucked into closets, to keep out drafts. The family gathers around the fireplace. You’ll see that everyone hangs paintings on their walls.
And the paintings will amaze you – for they are not religious subjects. Instead – you won’t believe this – they depict ordinary people. A woman pouring milk into a bowl. An old man selling fish on the street. Imagine making art out of such commonplace material! Yet this is the key to Amsterdam: it’s geared to the individual.
One stop you must make, therefore, is at one of the city’s art dealers. Why not see the great man himself: Rembrandt van Rijn? He’s not only one of Europe’s most celebrated artists (his Night Watch painting of the civic guard company on patrol hangs in their headquarters a few steps from his house), but a dealer in his own right.
Dangers and annoyances
As of the Treaty of Munster, which was signed this year, the threat of a Spanish invasion, which has loomed over the city for 80 years, is over. The Dutch have won their long war of independence.
That doesn’t mean you don’t have to watch yourself along the canals. But the threat will be from pickpockets, who prey on the thousands of newcomers hoping to make a go of it in the city where, 40-odd years ago, the stock market and the concept of ‘shares of stock’ were born.
Sleeping and accommodation
Most inns are clustered near the harbour. You get off your ship and cross into the city via the New Bridge. In front of you is a canal called the Damrak. It’s lined with cheap places to stay.
For something finer, go straight ahead until you come to the Stock Exchange Building. Around it are accommodations for the merchants and traders who flock to Amsterdam.
Eating and drinking
In two words: herring and beer. You can’t go wrong with either. Beyond that, the national dish is hutspot, a stew of vegetables, meat, ginger and lemon juice. And in winter, pea soup is the thing. For quick bites as you stroll, you can find street stalls hawking cinnamon cakes.
If you’re coming to Amsterdam from another Dutch city you’ll be astounded by the public transport boats. They are clean. They ride the waterways that connect cities. They usually depart hourly, and are efficient.
You can walk anywhere in the city in 15 minutes. If you’re rich and want to flaunt it, you can hire a coach, and laugh as commoners dash to the sides of the narrow roads to avoid being run down.
Russell Shorto is the author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (Little, Brown)
Canals, characterful small houses and art like Rembrandt’s Night Watch remain a powerful draw to the Dutch capital – just as they were in 1648.
Though today two-wheeled transport has replaced boats as the most popular way of getting around, the water remains the best way to appreciate the canal ring, now an ancient treasure admired the world over.
You can enjoy art all over the city, including the Van Gogh Museum and, most stunning of all, Rijksmuseum, newly opened after a decade-long restoration.
Anne Frank’s House does more than nod at the recent history of the city. Most of all, Amsterdam is a thoroughly modern European metropolis which preserves its past while advancing confidently into the future.
For all that, brown cafes offering gezelligheid by the glass still abound. As an added bonus, Amsterdam is brilliantly connected with airports all over the UK. There’s little excuse not to go and see it for yourself.
If you like your canals Dutch, try Leiden, a short train ride from Amsterdam. Another cycle-friendly European capital with a fascinating history is Copenhagen, Denmark.
Tom Hall, travel editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of his articles at the website