In a city with almost 7,000 officially recognized historical buildings and monuments, you'll find you're just about tripping over them. That Amsterdam has such a great mass of historical structures gives the city its overall character, but a few stand out head and gables above the crowd. See the listings for the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace).
Follow the Money
A massive edifice of colored brick and stone enclosing three arcades with glass-and-iron roofs just off the Dam, the Beurs van Berlage (Berlage Exchange), or as it was originally known, the Koopmansbeurs (Merchants' Exchange, or Stock Exchange), Beursplein 1 and Damrak 243 (tel. 020/530-4141; www.beursvanberlage.nl; tram: 4, 9, 14, 16, 24, or 25), represented a revolutionary break with 19th-century Dutch architecture. Designed by Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934), the father of modern Dutch architecture and an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, the old exchange's refined style illustrates Berlage's theories advocating a return to simplicity of form and clarity of line and structure. Now retired as an exchange, the refurbished building, constructed between 1896 and 1903, is used as a space for concerts, conferences, and exhibits. It's well worth visiting as an architectural masterpiece and a prime inspiration for the Amsterdam School of Architecture, but unless you're a fan of this period you won't need to spend much time getting the general idea. Climb the 156 steps (there's no elevator) of the Beurs tower for fine views of Old Amsterdam. Open hours and admission vary for exhibits, concerts, and other events.
A Pious Retreat
A cluster of small homes around a garden courtyard, the Begijnhof, Spui (www.begijnhofamsterdam.nl; tram: 1, 2, or 5), dates from the 14th century and is one of the best places to appreciate the city's earliest history, when Amsterdam was a destination for religious pilgrims and an important Catholic center. The Begijnhof was not a convent, but a cloister founded in 1346 for pious women -- begijnen -- involved in religious and charitable work. These kinds of institutions gave options for women who wanted to live without a husband and children, but didn't want to become a nun, at a time when there were few alternatives. Originally, the Begijnhof was surrounded by water, with access via a bridge over a canal that was called the Begijnensloot. Even after the city's 1578 changeover from Catholicism to Protestantism, the Begijnhof remained in operation. The last begijn died in 1971, but you can still pay homage to these pious women by pausing a moment at the small flower-planted mound that lies at the center garden's edge and across from the Engelse Kerk (English Church). Despite its name, this church, built in 1607 and enlarged in 1665, was actually used by Scottish Presbyterians.
Opposite the church, at no. 30, is the Begijnhofkapel, a "secret" Catholic chapel from 1671. It's still in use, and dedicated to the Begijnhof's patron saints, John and Ursula. It wasn't all that much of a secret, since the city's Protestant fathers authorized its construction. It just couldn't be visible as a church from the outside, and the noted Catholic architect Philips Vingboons drew up the plans accordingly. The interior stained-glass windows depict scenes from the Miracle of the Host in 1345, a religious event that led to Amsterdam becoming a place of pilgrimage. Only one of the old (ca. 1425) timber houses, Het Houten Huys, at no. 34, remains.
Visit the Begijnhof daily from 9am to 5pm -- but take note that senior citizens now reside in the 47 homes, most of which date from the 17th and 18th centuries, and their privacy and tranquillity must be respected. Access is on Gedempte Begijnensloot, an alleyway off Spui. Admission is free. In fine weather, you might easily want to let a couple of hours slip by here.
More Historical Buildings
You may be starting to get the impression that Amsterdam is one big historical monument. Still, some buildings are more historic and monumental than others and therefore more worth going out of your way for. You won't have to go far out of your way to see Centraal Station (Metro: Centraal Station). Designed by architect Petrus Josephus Hubertus Cuypers, the city's main rail station was built between 1884 and 1889 on three artificial islands (supported on 30,000 pilings) in the IJ channel. Amsterdammers thoroughly disliked it at the time. Now it's an attraction, partly for its extravagant Dutch neo-Renaissance facade, partly for the permanent liveliness that surrounds it. The left one of the two central towers has a gilded weathervane; on the right one, there's a clock. Take time to soak up the buzz that swirls around the station in a blur of people, backpacks, bikes, trams, buses, vendors, pickpockets, and junkies. There might even be a street organ -- perhaps a century-old Perlee hand-ground barrel-organ, made from richly carved and painted wood.
Not far away, across Prins Hendrikkade at the corner of Geldersekade, stands the Schreierstoren (Metro: Centraal Station), built in 1480, and once a strong point in the city wall. Its name, which means Tower of Tears, comes from the tears allegedly shed by wives as their men sailed away on voyages from which they might never return. A stone tablet on the wall shows a woman with her hand to her face. She might be weeping, but who knows what emotion that hand is really covering? Another tablet, placed in 1945, records the 350th anniversary of the Eerste Schipvaart Naar Oostindië 1595 (First Ocean Voyage to the East Indies 1595). The tower's ground floor now houses a traditional bar, the V.O.C. Café, Prins Hendrikkade 94-95 (tel. 020/428-8291; www.schreierstoren.nl;), named for the Dutch initials of the United East India Company.
The Munttoren (tram: 4, 9, 14, 16, 24, or 25), on Muntplein, sits at a busy traffic intersection on the Rokin and Singel canals. In 1487, the Mint Tower's base was part of the Reguliers Gate in the city wall. In 1620, Hendrick de Keyser topped it with an ornate, lead-covered tower, from which a carillon of Hemony brothers bells sings out gaily every hour and plays a 1-hour concert on Fridays at noon. The tower got its present name in 1672, when it housed the city mint.
The tilting Montelbaanstoren (Metro: Nieuwmarkt), the "leaning tower of Amsterdam," a fortification at the juncture of the Oude Schans and Waalseilandsgracht canals, dates from 1512. It's one of few surviving elements of the city's once-powerful defensive works. In 1606, Hendrick de Keyser added an octagonal tower and spire. The building now houses local Water Authority offices.
The 14th-century De Waag (Weigh House), Nieuwmarkt (tel. 020/557-9898; www.waag.org; Metro: Nieuwmarkt), is the city's only surviving medieval fortified gate. It later became a guild house; among the guilds lodged here was the Surgeon's Guild, immortalized in Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), which depicts a dissection underway in the upper-floor Theatrum Anatomicum (the painting's on display at the Mauritshuis in The Hague). Most of De Waag now houses a specialized educational and cultural institute, and is rarely open; admission (when possible) is free, except in the case of occasional special exhibits. You can, however, visit the exceptional cafe-restaurant In de Waag on the ground floor.
Most of Golden Age Amsterdam's wealth was generated by trade, and most of that trade was organized by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (V.O.C.), based at Oost-Indisch Huis (East India House), Oude Hoogstraat 24, off Kloveniersburgwal (Metro: Nieuwmarkt). Dating from 1606, the former headquarters of the first multinational corporation now belongs to the University of Amsterdam. Stroll into the courtyard and there's no problem with going inside, where corridors are hung with paintings depicting the 17th-century Dutch trading settlement of Batavia -- today's Jakarta, Indonesia.
Not far from East India House is Amsterdam's first university, the Athenaeum Illustre, at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231 (tram: 4, 9, 14, 16, 24, or 25). Founded in 1631, the Athenaeum moved here in 1632 to occupy the 1470 Gothic Agnietenkapel (Church of St. Agnes). The building now houses the underwhelming University of Amsterdam Museum. In a 17th-century lecture room are portraits of the Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus and of the Florentine strongman Lorenzo de' Medici. Across the Kloveniersburgwal canal from the university, at Kloveniersburgwal 95, is the opulent Poppenhuis (1642), designed by that indefatigable Golden Age architect Philips Vingboons in an Italianate style for Joan Poppen, a wealthy merchant's grandson and heir. It has a classically influenced triangular pediment and ornamental pilasters.
West-Indisch Huis (West India House), at Herenmarkt 93-99, off Brouwersgracht (tram: 1, 2, 5, 13, or 17), is also interesting. On the north side of this little square is a redbrick building, built as a meat-trading hall in 1615. In 1623, it became the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, which controlled trade with the Americas. A current tenant is the John Adams Institute (tel. 020/624-7280; www.john-adams.nl), a U.S.-oriented philosophical and literary society that has hosted lectures by guest speakers like J. K. Galbraith, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer. In the courtyard is a bronze statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged governor of Nieuw Amsterdam (later New York) from 1647 until the British took over in 1664. A wall sculpture depicts the Dutch settlement on Manhattan Island.
There are just three surviving guildhouses in Amsterdam. These lavish headquarters of artisanal, mercantile, and professional guilds with roots going back to the Middle Ages are worth seeking out, though all three buildings have new functions, and you'll only be able to view the outside. The Makelaers Comptoir (1634), Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 75 (tram: 1, 2, 5, 13, or 17), on the corner of Nieuwe Nieuwstraat, was the guildhouse of the city's mercantile brokers. Nearby, the Korenmetershuisje (1620), Nieuwezijds Kolk 28 (tram: 1, 2, 5, 13, or 17), housed the grain dealers. Finally, head to the Nieuwmarkt area to view the triple-gabled Wijnkopersgildehuis (1630), Koestraat 10-12 (Metro: Nieuwmarkt), where the wine dealers hung out.
For more than 2 centuries after Amsterdam's 1578 Protestant revolution, the Alteratie, other Christian denominations were forbidden to worship openly. Clandestine places of worship sprang up around the city. The best known of these was the Catholic Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder. Another, which is in fact Holland's oldest and largest, is the Remonstrantsekerk (Remonstrant Church) in a one-time hat store called De Rode Hoed (the Red Hat), Keizersgracht 102 (tel. 020/638-5606; www.rodehoed.nl; tram: 13, 14, or 17), in a fine canalside building -- look for the little red hat on the gable stone. The chapel at the back, with a balcony and an impressive organ, dates from 1630 and is now a venue for meetings and debates.
New York Loves Ya, Henry -- In 1609, English navigator Henry Hudson set out from the Tower of Tears aboard the sailing ship Halve Maen. He was under contract to the United East India Company to find a Northeast Passage to Asia. Instead, he sailed west and "discovered" Long Island, the Hudson River, and the future Nieuw Amsterdam, which would later become New York. The Greenwich Village Historical Society attached a memorial marker to the tower in 1927.
The Smallest Houses
The narrowest house in Amsterdam is at Singel 7 (tram: 1, 2, 5, 13, 14, or 17). It's just a meter (3 1/2 ft.) wide, barely wider than the front door. It is, however, a cheat. Only the front facade is really so narrow; behind that, it broadens out to more normal proportions. The real narrowest house is at Oude Hoogstraat 22 (Metro: Nieuwmarkt), next door to Oost-Indisch Huis . It has a bell gable and is 2.02m (6 2/3 ft.) wide and 6m (20 ft.) deep. A close rival, at 2.4m (7 3/4 ft.) wide, is nearby at Kloveniersburgwal 26 (Metro: Nieuwmarkt); this is the cornice-gabled Klein Trippenhuis, also known as Mr. Trip's Coachman's House. It faces the elegant Trippenhuis at no. 29, which, at 22m (72 ft.), is the widest Old Amsterdam house. The wealthy merchant Trip brothers had it built for themselves in 1660, and the story goes that their coachman exclaimed one day: "Oh, if only I could be so lucky as to have a house as wide as my master's door!" His master overheard this, and the coachman's wish was granted. The small house is now a fashion boutique, Webers Holland.
Floating Cat House -- The Poezenboot (Cat Boat), on the Singel canal facing no. 38 (tel. 020/625-8794; www.poezenboot.nl), is a temporary home to dozens of stray cats.
Made of African azobe wood, the famous Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), a double drawbridge, spans the Amstel between Kerkstraat and Nieuwe Kerkstraat (Metro: Waterlooplein). This is the latest successor, dating from 1969, to the 1672 original, which legend says was built to make it easier for the two wealthy Mager sisters, who lived on opposite banks of the river, to visit each other. The footbridge, one of the city's 60 drawbridges, is a big draw, especially after dark, when it's illuminated by hundreds of lights. A bridge master raises it to let boats through.
Though most of the Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge) over the Amstel at Waterlooplein (Metro: Waterlooplein) looks gray, renovation reinstated blue lanterns. Now Blauwbrug, at least at night, is once again as blue as when Impressionist artist George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) painted it in the 1880s. The cast-iron bridge (1884), inspired by Paris's Pont Alexandre III, is named after a 16th-century timber bridge painted Nassau blue after the 1578 Protestant takeover. The columns that bear the lamps are surmounted by sculpted copies of the Habsburg imperial crown.
The widest bridge in the old town, the Torensluis, Singel (at Oude Leliestraat; tram: 1, 2, 5, 13, or 17), stands on the site of a 17th-century sluice gate flanked by twin towers that were demolished in 1829. Its foundations were used for what must have been a particularly damp and gloomy prison. Sidewalk terraces from nearby cafes encroach onto the span, and the bronze statue on the bridge is of Multatuli, a 19th-century author.
From the bridge over Reguliersgracht at Keizersgracht (tram: 16, 24, or 25), you get a view of seven parallel bridges, which are floodlit at night.
Once upon a time, when Amsterdammers clomped around in clogs, there were hundreds of windmills right in town. Now there are only half a dozen, two of which are worth visiting. The De Gooyer, Funenkade 7 (tram: 10 or 14), at Sarphatistraat, a former corn mill built in 1725, still towers over the Nieuwevaart canal northeast of Artis Zoo. In it is Bierbrouwerij 't IJ, a terrific microbrewery. A century older (1636), but a total rebuild job, the thatched De Rieker, Amsteldijk at De Borcht in the Amstelpark (bus: 62), was moved to its current site way out on the banks of the Amstel River. Now an elegant private house (not open to the public) it was originally built to drain the Rieker polder, a tract of low, reclaimed land a few miles south of Amsterdam. You've doubtless seen this mill in all those Rembrandt paintings and engravings you know by heart; just to make sure you don't miss the connection, there's a statue here of Rembrandt at work.
On Westermarkt (tram: 13, 14, or 17) is the world's first-ever monument to the gays and lesbians killed during World War II and to those persecuted down the ages. The Homomonument (1987), by sculptor Karin Daan, and formally titled To Friendship, consists of three pink triangular granite blocks (the color and shape of the badge the Nazis forced homosexuals to wear), that together form a larger triangular outline. One block, symbolizing the future, points to the Keizersgracht canal; a second, at ground level, points toward the nearby Anne Frank House -- a bronze sculpture of Anne stands on the square; the third, a kind of plinth, points toward the offices of COC, a gay cultural organization.
An equally thought-provoking memorial honors another group of persecuted individuals -- black African slaves, of whom the Dutch did their share of abducting, transporting to the Americas, and setting to unrequited labor. The pleasant but undistinguished surroundings of the Oosterpark (tram: 3 or 7), a 19th-century park (modeled after a pristine English landscape style) in Amsterdam-Oost (East), experienced quite a jolt in 2002 with the installation of the spectacular Slavernijmonument (Slavery Monument). The lengthy sculpture recounts in bronze a journey toward freedom. At the rear, a group of African men, women, and children trudge along, roped together. In the center, one of them passes under a winged arch and enters freedom. At the front, a large figure with outstretched arms greets those emerging from the arch.
In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono "drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton" to do their famous Bed-In For Peace, from March 15 to March 31, in the hotel's room no. 902. This is now the expensive John and Yoko Suite. The Hilton (not reviewed here) is at Apollolaan 138 in Amsterdam-Zuid (South) (tel. 020/710-6000; www.hilton.com; tram: 5, 16, or 24).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.