Walking Tour 1: The Golden Age Canals
Start: Herenmarkt (off Brouwersgracht).
Finish: Amstel River.
Time: 3 hours to all day, depending on how long you linger along the way.
Best Times: First thing in the morning from spring through fall, so you can watch as city life along the canals wakes up and gets going. If you're not an early riser, then any hour (yes, even after dark) is fine.
Worst Times: Mondays, when most museums are closed.
The three 17th-century canals you explore on this tour -- Herengracht (Gentlemen's Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal), and Prinsengracht (Princes' Canal) -- are the very heart of Golden Age Amsterdam, emblems of the city's wealth and pride in its heyday. Each deserves at least a morning or afternoon to itself. Time being limited, we're going to combine them into one monumental effort. If you're not so pressed, by all means slice the tour up into segments for a more leisurely experience.
You'll stroll along miles of tree-lined canals, crisscrossed by smaller canals, and you'll pass innumerable 17th-century canal houses with gables in various styles (bell, step, clock, neck, and variations), classical facades, warehouses converted to apartments, houseboats moored along the banks, bridges, museums, cafes, restaurants, boutiques, offbeat stores, and battered bikes secured to lampposts. I'm going to mention only the most special sights and point out some insider tips along the way. This should leave you with plenty of space for making your own discoveries.
Take tram 1, 2, 5, 13, or 17 to Martelaarsgracht, or the Stop/Go bus direct to the starting point, on Herenmarkt, just off Brouwersgracht:
1. West-Indisch Huis
The 17th-century Dutch West India Company's headquarters handled trade -- including slave trade -- between Holland, the Americas, and Africa. It later became the offices of a social-welfare organization and a Lutheran orphanage, and now houses a U.S.-linked educational institute.
Walk along tranquil:
Humpback bridges, moored houseboats, and 17th- and 18th-century brewery pakhuizen (warehouses) that have been turned into chic, expensive apartments combine to make the Brewers' Canal one of Amsterdam's most photogenic corners. Worth special attention are nos. 204 and 206, Het Kleine Groene Hert (the Little Green Deer) and Het Groote Groene Hert (the Big Green Deer). Each has a gable crowned with a green-painted deer sculpture. Take note for possible future reference of two fine 17th-century "brown cafes": Tabac at Brouwersgracht 101 and Papeneiland at Prinsengracht 2-4. In the 17th century, Prinsengracht was home to storekeepers and craftsmen.
Along Prinsengracht, your first stop is:
Saturdays from 9am to 5pm, this old market square hosts a farmers' market for "bio" (organic) products. A popular flea market takes over Mondays from 8am to 2pm, at which clothes fashionable a decade or more ago are highly esteemed, and dealers peddle everything from Golden Age antiques to today's junk. Pause for a moment to admire the elaborate gables of the houses at nos. 15-22, each one decorated with an agricultural image -- a cow, a sheep, a chicken -- from the time when a livestock market was held here. No. 16 has a Louis XIV neck gable and a gable stone from 1726 depicting the goddess Fortuna and advertising the textile store that once occupied the building.
The Noorderkerk (North Church) -- the last masterpiece by architect Hendrick de Keyser, who was the guiding hand behind many of Amsterdam's historic churches -- dominates the square. It's something of a rarity in nominally Calvinist Amsterdam, since it has a large and active Calvinist congregation. On the facade, a plaque recalls the February 1941 strike protesting Nazi deportation of the city's Jews. A group of sculptures outside recalls the dead and wounded from the 1934 Jordaanoproer (Jordaan Insurrection) street riots protesting poverty; the army suppressed these. If you're lucky, you'll hear the church's carillon playing as you go by.
Continue along Prinsengracht to the bridge at Prinsenstraat, and cross over. A few steps back along the canal on this side is:
4. Zon's Hofje
At Prinsengracht 159-171, a hidden almshouse surrounds a courtyard garden at the end of a long passageway. People live here, but from 10am to 5pm the outer door is open and you can walk discreetly through the passageway to the courtyard, which belonged to the city's Mennonites. They worshiped at a clandestine church, De Zon (the Sun) -- demolished in 1755 -- and held meetings in the courtyard, which they called De Kleine Zon (the Little Sun). Above the lintel of nos. 163-165, a carved plaque shows animals piling two by two into Noah's Ark (referencing the fact that in 1720 the church's name was changed to De Arke Noach).
Farther back along the canal, at nos. 85-133, is another former almshouse, built for the sick, elderly, and indigent: The carefully restored and immensely restful Van Brienen's Hofje, dating from 1804 (and also known as De Star after the De Star Brewery foundation that took over the site in 1841). A wealthy merchant named Jan van Brienen supposedly had it built in gratitude for his escape from a vault in which he'd accidentally been locked. It has a lovely garden with benches, but if you don't want to have to backtrack too far, and aren't much of a hofje (almshouse) enthusiast, you can let it alone.
Head down Prinsenstraat to Keizersgracht. A short detour to the left brings you to the:
5. Groenland Pakhuizen
Built in 1621 to store whale oil, the Greenland Warehouses are now chic apartments (nos. 40-44).
Cross the bridge over Keizersgracht. Note the houseboats moored on the canal. Ahead of you is Herenstraat, and at the far end of this short street, if you want to jog for a look, is Amsterdam's shortest canal, Blauburgwal, all 68m (74 yd.) of it. To stay on route, go right before Herenstraat on Keizersgracht, to the:
6. Huis met de Hoofden (House with the Heads)
At no. 123, the heads on the 1622 facade by Hendrick de Keyser represent, from left to right, Apollo, Ceres, Mars, Athena, Bacchus, and Diana.
Turn left along Leliegracht, then right on Herengracht, to the:
7. Herengracht 168 & the Bartolottihuis
Herengracht was the ultimate address for flourishing 17th-century bankers and merchants. The graceful house at no. 168, known as Het Witte Huijs (the White House) for its neoclassical facade made from gray-white German sandstone, was designed by Philips Vingboons in 1638 for Michiel Reyniersz Pauw, who established a short-lived trading colony in America at Hoboken, facing Nieuw Amsterdam (New York), and named it Pavonia after his august self. Note the classical neck gable, the city's first of its style. Dazzling interior ornamentation from around 1730 includes a spiral staircase, intricate stuccowork, and painted ceilings by Jacob de Wit.
Next door at no. 170-172, the flamboyant Bartolotti House, dating from 1618 and designed by Hendrick and Pieter de Keyser, was built for Guillielmo Bartolotti, who began life as homey old Willem van den Heuvel; he switched to the fancy moniker after making a bundle in brewing and banking. The house has an ornate redbrick gable and Dutch Renaissance facade. Its illuminated ceilings and other interior decoration also are by Jacob de Wit.
Backtrack to Leliegracht, and cross over Keizersgracht on the bridge. Note at Keizersgracht 176 a rare Amsterdam Art Nouveau house (1905), designed by architect Gerrit van Arkel. Continue up Leliegracht and take a left on Prinsengracht to the:
8. Anne Frankhuis
This house at no. 263 is where the young Jewish girl Anne Frank (1929-45) hid from the Nazis and wrote her imperishable diary. The earlier you get here the better, because the line to get in grows as the day progresses.
You might be tempted by a pedalo tour from the Canal Bikes dock outside the Anne Frankhuis. But if you're more in need of lunch, cross over Prinsengracht by the canal bridge and pop into:
9. De Prins
Cafe-restaurant De Prins, Prinsengracht 124 (tel. 020/624-9382), which is my Best Value restaurant recommendation, and a great spot for a leisurely meal.
Along this bank, at no. 170, Galleria d'Arte Rinascimento sells both old and new hand-painted Delftware from Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles. Continue to Rozengracht and turn left (east) to Westermarkt and its:
The Dutch Renaissance church, begun by Hendrick de Keyser in 1620, became his son Pieter's project after Hendrick died. The church opened in 1631.
In 1635, French philosopher René Descartes lived in the house at Westermarkt 6; this is where he wrote Treatise on the Passions of the Soul. Descartes evidently thought he was in need of some more down-to-earth passion -- therefore he was -- and had an affair with his maid, which produced a child whose reality could scarcely be doubted. Also on Westermarkt: A somber bronze sculpture of Anne Frank, and the Homomonument's pink marble triangles, dedicated to persecuted gays and lesbians.
Cross over Westermarkt to Rozengracht, which once was a canal. Continue along Prinsengracht to Reestraat, where you turn left. At Keizersgracht go right, across Berenstraat, to Keizersgracht 324:
11. Felix Meritis
Jacob Otten Husly built this structure in 1788 as the headquarters of a Calvinist philosophical society. The name (which was the group's motto) means "happiness through merit," and they invited such luminaries as Czar Alexander I and Napoleon to this Palladian setting, with Corinthian columns and triangular pediment, to experience this philosophy's consolations. The building later housed the Dutch Communist Party, and now hosts avant-garde theater, music, and dance performances.
The next stretch of Keizersgracht goes from:
12. Berenstraat to Runstraat
On this stretch of Keizersgracht, instead of standing directly in front of buildings of interest, craning your neck skyward, walk along near the canal's bank (on the side with even numbers) and look across the water to the other side, so you can view things in panorama. In summer, though, elm trees screen some facades, and you might prefer to cross over for a closer look.
The third building along from Wolvenstraat (no. 313), an office block from 1914, is almost modern in Keizersgracht-time. Two houses farther down (no. 317) is the stately canalside home that belonged to Christoffel Brants, who counted Peter the Great among his acquaintances. A story goes that Peter sailed into Amsterdam in 1716, planning to stay a night here. The Czar of All the Russias got royally drunk, kept the mayor waiting at a reception in his honor, then retreated to the Russian ambassador's residence (at Herengracht 527) to sleep off his hangover.
Next door (no. 319) is a work by architect Philips Vingboons from 1639, as you can easily tell from the inscribed Roman numerals MDCXXXIX. It's interesting to compare this ornate neoclassical facade with its graceful neck gable to the Theatermuseum building, by the same architect, at Herengracht 168.
Note the narrow facade of the seventh building before Huidenstraat (no. 345A), and run your eyes over the trio of graceful neck gables on the last three houses (nos. 353-357).
At Runstraat, cross over to Huidenstraat and go along to Herengracht. Turn right to Herengracht 366-368, for the:
13. Bijbels Museum (Biblical Museum)
Comprised of two of a group of four 1660s' houses (nos. 364-370) with delicate neck gables, this museum was designed by architect Philips Vingboons for timber merchant Jacob Cromhout. The four structures are known both as the Cromhuithuizen and as the "Father, Mother, and Twins." The museum features Bibles and things biblical, but its canal-house setting and illuminated ceilings by Jacob de Wit are at least as interesting.
Continue a few doors farther along Herengracht, to nos. 380-382, the:
14. Nienhuys Mansion
This princely residence was constructed in 1889 for Dutch tobacco tycoon Jacob Nienhuys. Polite society was amused that the coach-house entrance was too narrow for coaches to make the turn in one go. The mansion now houses the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Across the canal, on Herengracht 395's facade (hard to see unless you cross over for a close-up look), a stone cat stalks a carved mouse that's on the facade of the neighboring house, no. 397.
Cross elegant Leidsegracht (dug in 1664 for barge traffic to and from Leiden) to busy Leidsestraat. Go along Leidsestraat to its junction with Keizersgracht, and turn right into:
Keizersgracht 449 (tel. 020/625-3544). A cafe that's just about hung on to its once-undisputed trendy rep, and that (more importantly) still serves great food.
Retrace your steps to Herengracht, and turn right to the:
16. Golden Bend
You can trace the development of rich folks' wealth and tastes as you progress up the house numbers on the section of the Herengracht canal between Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat. Built with old money around the 1670s, in the Golden Age's fading afterglow, when French-influenced neoclassicism was all the rage, the opulent mansions here are mostly built of sandstone (rather than brick) on double lots with central entrances. Compare these sober baroque facades to the exuberant gabled houses from a half-century earlier, back along the canal. Look across the water to no. 475 for a particularly fine example of the later style.
Turn right on Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, a street lined with antiques stores, and go along it to Keizersgracht. A short detour to your right brings you to No. 529, which in 1781-82 was the residence of John Adams, the then U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, and later the second U.S. president. The canalside house was in effect the first-ever embassy of the United States, and a plaque placed there in 2005 by Amsterdam's John Adams Institute records the fact. Turn around and cross over on the bridge at Nieuwe Spiegelstraat to the far bank of Keizersgracht, for the:
17. Museum Van Loon
This museum (at no. 672) gives a rare glimpse beyond a patrician post-Golden Age house's gables.
Cross Reguliersgracht and return to Herengracht -- from the bridge over Reguliersgracht at Herengracht, you can see no fewer than 15 bridges (including the one you're standing on). Skim the edge of neat little Thorbeckeplein, and go right along the canal across Utrechtsestraat, a cornucopia of good restaurants and variegated stores, to the:
18. Museum Willet-Holthuysen
At Herengracht 605, this patrician canal house dating from 1687 is richly decorated in Louis XIV style. A table, under a big chandelier in the dining salon, is set for a meal being served more than 300 years late.
Stroll to the end of Herengracht and finish at the:
19. Amstel River
At this point, the river should be thick with houseboats and canal barges. To your left is the refurbished Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge), built in 1884; to your right is the famous Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), a double drawbridge. Step out onto either of these for great views of the comings and goings on the water.
Walking the short distance along the river to Waterlooplein, or backtracking to Utrechtsestraat, puts you on the tram net. If you're footsore and hungry, hobble the short distance to:
20. Café Schiller
Rembrandtplein 36 (tel. 020/624-9846). Take the weight off your feet amid Art Deco surroundings, or on the glassed-in terrace next to the square.
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.