Before visiting Amsterdam for the first time, some 20 years ago, I purchased a guidebook and was briefly taken in by the banal tourist description of the city as ‘the Venice of the North’. Both destinations are indeed waterborne. Both were built on bog and marshland reclaimed from the sea. But there, as any visitor will quickly discover, the comparison ends.
The novelist Henry James saw Venice as “perfect poetry” and Amsterdam as “perfect prose”, a description that still applies to present-day Amsterdam. For there is something essentially prosaic and unpretentious about the Dutch city, and these are qualities that stem in large part from its history.
Amsterdam had its origins, about 1,000 years ago, at the junction of the Amstel and Ij rivers. In the 17th century it succeeded in throwing off the former domination of the Catholic church and the foreign power of Spain to develop as a great trading centre.
The voyages of the Dutch East India Company at the beginning of the 1600s brought back great riches, spawning the creation of the world’s first market in the sale of company shares. Foreigners flocked to the city and at one point Amsterdam had four times the income per capita of Paris.
Three new canals were constructed, wrapped in a semi-circle around the medieval centre in perhaps the greatest engineering feat of the age: seven miles of canal, dug by hand. Now a Unesco-recognised World Heritage site, it was a masterpiece of town planning and bourgeois architecture.
Walk around the canals today, in that cold, bright northern light, and it’s impossible to resist the attraction of the gracious gabled homes built by the newly prosperous merchant class. Each one rests on 40 or so pairs of piles, solid foundations driven into the peat and clay. They were designed to serve as storehouses, workshops, and as homes, with the householder often living under, not over, the shop.
I say ‘walk’ because that is the best way to see the city, though when crossing the road watch out for bikes! The city has 1 million bicycles (for an estimated population of 1.1 million) and 68 per cent of journeys by Amsterdammers are made by bike. Rush-hour bike-jams are a constant problem.
For an insight into the bourgeois individualism of 17th-century Amsterdam, head to the Rijksmuseum where – alongside pieces by Van Gogh and Vermeer – you’ll find extraordinary works by Rembrandt. Rembrandt didn’t paint the canals or houses. Instead, in paintings such as De Staalmeesters, a group portrait of the sampling officials of the Drapers’ Guild, he reinvigorates genre painting by transforming mundane subject matter into something tantalising and mysterious. He brings a sense of interiority to his representations of these six men engaged in examining a swatch of fabric.
Gedogen is a Dutch expression meaning ‘technically illegal, but officially tolerated’, and has obvious relevance to Amsterdam’s attitude to soft drugs and the stench of marijuana permeating the streets from its coffee shops. The Dutch, and Amsterdammers in particular, have been famous for centuries for their tolerance. However, this ‘live and let live’ approach was born out of expediency and not, as mythologisers would have us believe, from visionary idealism. The disparate elements of Amsterdam society in the golden age, religiously and ethnically eclectic, submerged their differences to maintain their trading empire.
The reality of this situation broke through with sudden, inhuman ferocity during the Second World War. Of the 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam in 1940, an estimated 58,000 had been killed by 1945, most of them in concentration camps. The sight today of long queues of visitors, many of them youngsters, snaking from the entrance to the ‘secret annexe’ where Anne Frank and her family were kept hidden from the Nazis, is comforting as a testament to Frank’s precious immortality. So too is Amsterdam’s record in the postwar years of a renewed determination to extend personal freedoms – from the legalisation of prostitution to the celebration of the first legal gay weddings.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
April and May are especially good months in which to see the city and visit the nearby famous bulb and tulip fields.
Eurostar has recently introduced a twice-daily train direct from London to Amsterdam, taking just 3 hours 41 minutes. There are also direct flights to Amsterdam from a variety of UK airports.
What to pack
Russell Shorto’s book Amsterdam (2013) presents a fascinating argument for the view that Amsterdam is the world’s most liberal city. Donna Tartt’s challenging novel about a Dutch painting, The Goldfinch (2013), is partially set in Amsterdam.
What to bring back
A copy of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which can be purchased from the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht. Since its publication in 1947 the book has sold 31 million copies in 70 languages.
Walk, boat the canals, visit the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank’s house. Moreover, just wander about the old downtown @hppily_
Take a boat ride on the canals and river Amstel @kellydanceclub
Mark Bostridge is a writer and critic. His books include The Fateful Year: England 1914 (Viking, 2014).
This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine