All of Amsterdam is worth exploring -- naturally, some parts more than others.
Few traditional sights clutter the old Jordaan district that lies just west of the Canal Belt's northern reaches -- though 800 of its buildings are protected monuments. But the area does provide an authentic taste of Old Amsterdam. The neighborhood of tightly packed houses and narrow streets and canals was built in the 17th century for craftsmen, tradesmen, and artists. Its name may have come from the French jardin (garden), from Protestant French Huguenot refugees who settled here in the late 17th century. Indeed, many streets and canals are named for flowers, trees, and plants. Some of today's streets used to be canals until they were filled in during the 19th century (there's talk of reversing that and bringing back some of the lost canals).
The neighborhood's modest nature persists even though renewal and gentrification has brought in an influx of offbeat boutiques, quirky stores, cutting-edge art galleries, and trendy restaurants.
The Red Light District
The warren of streets and old canals of the Rosse Buurt (Red Light District), around Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Oudezijds Voorburgwal -- also known as De Wallen (the Walls) or De Walletjes (the Little Walls) -- is on most people's sightseeing agenda for its open attitude to the world's oldest profession. This is one of the few traditional Amsterdam "industries" still practiced in its original setting, and the first guide to the district's peculiar attractions dates from the 17th century.
However, a visit to this area is not for everyone. If you're liable to be offended by the sex trade exposed in all its garish colors, don't go. If you do choose to go, exercise caution; the area is a center of crime, vice, and drugs. As always in Amsterdam, there's no need to exaggerate the risks. Plenty of tourists visit the Rosse Buurt and suffer nothing more serious than a come-on from one of the prostitutes. Stick to busy streets and be leery of pickpockets at all times. There can be a sinister air to the weird-looking men who gather on the canal bridges; there's a sadder aura around the "heroin whores" who wander the dark streets. Finally, do not take photographs of the women in the windows. Large, observant men are on the lookout, and they won't hesitate to throw your camera (and maybe your person) into the canal.
Still, it's extraordinary to view the prostitutes in leather and lace sitting in storefronts listening to their iPods as they knit or adjust their makeup, waiting patiently for customers. The district seems to reflect Dutch pragmatism; if you can't stop prostitution, you can at least confine it to a particular area and impose health, tax, and other regulations on it.
The fact is that underneath its tacky glitter, the Red Light District contains some of Amsterdam's prettiest canals and loveliest old architecture, plus some excellent bars and restaurants, second-hand bookstores, and other specialty stores (not all of which aim at erogenous zones). To get there, take tram no. 4, 9, 14, 16, 24, or 25 to the Dam, then pass behind the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky.
Whipped Into Shape -- Back in the 17th century, the City Fathers were disposed to be strict with "fallen women" -- when they weren't availing themselves of their services. Some were sent to the Spinhuis, a females-only corrections house on Spinhuissteeg, off Oudezijds Achterburgwal, just beyond the Red Light District's southern edge. Here they were returned to the straight and narrow path by a strict regimen of spinning cloth. A relief above the entrance shows women being whipped, accompanied by the inscription: Schrik niet ik wreek geen quaat maar dwing tot goet. Straf is mijn hand maar lieflyk myn gemoet (Cry not, I avenge no wrong but compel to the good. Stern is my hand but kind is my aim). The building now houses the University of Amsterdam's Faculty of Politics and Social and Cultural Studies.
The Jewish Quarter
Amsterdam was once renowned as the "Jerusalem of the West," and there remain mementos and memorials of what was a thriving Jewish community. For more than 350 years, the city was a center of Jewish life -- you still hear locals calling the city Mokum, from the Hebrew word makom, meaning "sacred place" -- and its Jewish community was a major contributor to the city's vitality and prosperity. The Jodenbuurt (Jewish Quarter) was centered on Waterlooplein and neighboring streets such as Jodenbreestraat (Broad Street of the Jews). In this area, they built their synagogues and held their market. Of the five synagogues built during the 17th and 18th centuries, only the Portuguese Synagogue continued to serve as a house of worship after the devastating depletion of the Jewish population during World War II.
The Jewish Quarter has changed almost beyond recognition since then. Wartime damage followed by postwar redevelopment eliminated much of its physical character. The Holocaust decimated most of the area's Jewish population, and wartime damage followed by postwar redevelopment eliminated much of its physical character.
Jodenbreestraat was for centuries the center of Amsterdam's Jewish life. Now, its north side consists of mostly modern buildings with little in the way of distinctive character. On the south side, though, at nos. 4-6, is the stellar Museum Het Rembrandthuis. Across the handsome Sint-Antoniesluis bridge, on the south bank of Oude Schans canal, lies an island that from the 17th century until World War II was home to many Jewish diamond workshops and other small crafts houses. Walk a little way along Sint-Antoniesbreestraat, to no. 69, to view the magnificent Huis De Pinto, a mansion that dates from the early years of the 17th century. In 1651, it came into the possession of the Jewish businessman and scholar Isaäc de Pinto, and later in the century was remodeled in the ornate Italian Renaissance style. It now houses a branch of the Amsterdam Public Library.
In the middle of Waterlooplein, the square that hosts the Waterlooplein Flea Market, are the city's modern opera and ballet house, the Muziektheater, and the Stadhuis (Town Hall). You can assess the likelihood of getting your feet wet in Amsterdam, at the Normaal Amsterdams Peil (Normal Amsterdam Level), a fixed point against which experts measure sea level -- NAP is Europe's standard for altitude measurements. Next to a bronze plaque in the passageway between the Muziektheater and the Town Hall are three acrylic columns filled with water. The first two show the current sea level at Vlissingen in the province of Zeeland and IJmuiden on the North Sea coast west of Amsterdam; the third, 4.6m (15 ft.) high, shows the high-water mark during the disastrous Zeeland floods of 1953. Grand Café Dantzig aan de Amstel, Zwanenburgwal 15 (tel. 020/620-9039), is a large, modern, trendy place built into a corner of the Stadhuis (City Hall) complex, with an alfresco terrace beside the Amstel River where you can soak up sunrays.
Also on Waterlooplein is the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Moses and Aaron Church), which started as a secret church for Catholics who were forbidden to worship in public when the Calvinists rose to power in the 16th century, and (on the corner of Zwanenburgwal) the Monument Joods Verzet (Jewish Resistance Memorial), a black marble monument to the Dutch Jews who engaged in armed struggle against the Nazi oppression during World War II.
Just before the Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge), look for the outline of Megadlei Yethomin, an orphanage established in 1836 for German and East European Jewish boys. During World War II, the boys were deported to Sobibor concentration camp. After the war, the orphanage reopened, this time as a home for boys who wanted to get to Israel; it successfully placed many orphans in Israel before closing in 1955. Only the building's outline remains today, as a memorial to the orphans and their caretaker who died in Sobibor. The rest was demolished in 1977 to make way for the Metro and, later, for the new Town Hall and the Muziektheater.
The district's main focal points are the Portuguese Synagogue on Mr. Visserplein, and the Joods Historisch Museum on Nieuwe Amstelstraat. Across the street from the main museum is the Arsenal, which served as a munitions storage space in the 19th century, and now forms part of the museum. On nearby Jonas Daniël Meijerplein, pause to view De Dokwerker (The Dockworker; 1952). This bronze statue by Mari Andriessen was erected in 1952 to commemorate the 1941 February Strike by Amsterdam workers protesting the Nazis' persecution of the city's Jews. The strike, one of the biggest collective anti-Nazi actions in all of occupied Europe, was ruthlessly suppressed.
Along Weesperstraat is a small garden, a resting spot that contains a monument to the Dutch people who protected their Jewish compatriots during World War II. The memorial, known as the Monument van Joodse Erkentelijkheid (Monument of Jewish Gratitude; 1950), is a white limestone altar, and has five reliefs of mourning men, women, and children.
A plaque at the offices of Artis Zoo commemorates Jewish resistance fighters who attempted to destroy the city registers to prevent the Nazis from discovering how many Jews were in Amsterdam and where they lived. This brave effort could have kept thousands of Amsterdam Jews from dying in concentration camps. But tragically, the attempt failed and 12 resistance fighters were executed.
Only the shell remains of the Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theater), Plantage Middenlaan 24 (tel. 020/626-9945; www.hollandscheschouwburg.nl; tram: 9 or 14). Behind the facade of this former Yiddish theater is a memorial plaza of grass and walkways. Nazis used the theater as an assembly point for Dutch Jews -- 60,000-80,000 of whom passed through here on their way to death camps. A granite column rising out of a Star of David emblem commemorates "those deported from here 1940-45." On a marble memorial, watched over by an eternal flame, are inscribed 6,700 family names of the 104,000 Dutch Jews who perished in the Holocaust. An educational exhibit shows how the Nazis gradually isolated Amsterdam's Jewish community before beginning to exterminate its members. The site is open daily from 11am to 4pm. Admission is free. Some deportees' children were able to sneak across the street to a kindergarten -- these lucky ones were saved by residents in the attached houses. A plaque on the school building celebrates the children's escape. Opposite the theater, notice the bright primary colors of architect Aldo van Eyck's Moederhuis (1978), a residence for single mothers.
The Verzetsmuseum Amsterdam (Resistance Museum) at Plantage Kerklaan 61A eerily evokes the dark years of Amsterdam's Nazi occupation and the slow but sure implementation of Hitler's "Final Solution" to rid Europe of Jews. Though really more like a large garden with benches, the small Wertheimpark on the corner of Plantage Parklaan and Plantage Middenlaan is a good place for a rest. At its heart is a memorial (1993) to Auschwitz victims by Dutch sculptor Jan Wolkers. Six large broken-seeming mirrors laid flat on the ground reflect a shattered sky and cover a buried urn containing ashes of those who died in the concentration camp. NOOIT MEER AUSCHWITZ (Never Again Auschwitz), reads the dedication. An information board lists in impersonal round numbers some of the Holocaust's gruesome statistics: Of Holland's 140,000 Jews, 107,000 were deported to concentration camps. Just 5,200 returned. One of those who perished (at Bergen-Belsen) was Anne Frank. At the park's far end, there's a street named after her.
Visitors suffering from a kind of linguistic seizure could be forgiven for wishing Amsterdam's waterfront had been given a different name. What to make of Het IJ? The first word is the neuter form of the word "the," and pronounced more or less as it looks. But IJ? (Yes, that is two upper-case letters.) Idge? Eyedge? Say Aye, as in "Aye aye, skipper," and you'll be close enough. The narrow ship channel takes its name from a river that used to flow into the Zuider Zee hereabout until, centuries ago, its course was washed away by an expanding sea. Then, last century, the Zuider Zee transformed into a freshwater lake called the IJsselmeer (after the IJssel River that still flows into it farther east).
Amsterdam's biggest redevelopment project is underway in the IJ channel's Oostelijk Havengebied (Eastern Harbor), once a major part of Amsterdam Port. City government touts the project as "a new life on the water." Java-Eiland, KNSM-Eiland, and other artificial islands and peninsulas have been cleared of most of their warehouses and other harbor installations. Modern housing and infrastructure take their place. A visit here is a good way to see how Amsterdam sees its future, away from its Golden Age heart.
A fast tram service (line 26) connects Centraal Station with the old Eastern Harbor's redeveloped districts along Het IJ. Among its stops are ones for the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ and Bimhuis concert halls, the Passenger Terminal Amsterdam cruise-liner dock, and the Eastern Islands' new residential, shopping, and entertainment zones. The service goes out as far as the new IJburg suburb, on an artificial island in the IJsselmeer's southern reaches.
Some of the redevelopment focus has switched to the area west of Centraal Station.
In English, the city's monumental main square is generally referred to as "Dam Square." Amsterdammers call it just de Dam (the Dam) -- some even find it amusing to direct hapless foreigners to "the Dam Square": by taking "this damn street and then crossing over at that damn canal." You'll look in vain for any sign of a dam on the Dam, but this is the likely site of the original dam built around 1200 on the Amstel River, which allowed Amsterdam to begin the growth trajectory that took it from backwater village to world-class watering hole.
Dedicated in 1956 to honor the World War II dead, the Nationaal Monument, an obelisk 22m (72 ft.) high on the square's east side, is embedded with three sculptures: War, symbolized by four male figures; Peace, represented by a woman and child; and Resistance, signified by two men with howling dogs, all flanked by two stone lions symbolizing the Netherlands. In the base are 12 urns, containing soil from the 11 Dutch provinces (before the 12th, Flevoland, was established), and the former Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). A memorial ceremony happens here every May 4, when the queen places a wreath on the spot. For the rest of the year, it's a hangout for teens.
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