Walking Tour 2: The Old Center
Start: The Dam.
Finish: Prins Hendrikkade, close to Centraal Station.
Time: 2 1/2 to 4 hours or more, depending on how long you spend in museums, attractions, cafes, and stores (and perusing the windows in the Red Light District).
Best Times: If you want to visit one or more of the museums or other attractions, most of them open at 10am (some are closed Mon). Morning is a good time to do the Red Light District, because by then most of its bizarre night owls -- and raptors -- have crashed for the day.
Worst Times: Daylight hours are bad for perusing the Red Light District if you want to be there when business is humming. Then again, after-dark hours are bad for perusing the Red Light District if you don't want to be there when business is humming. It's a free country; the choice is yours.
This tour takes you past some of the main city-center points of interest in the Nieuwe Zijde (New Side). It then goes into the Oude Zijde (Old Side), the oldest part of town, the first part of which is a place of tranquil canals; then it weaves through the bawdy Red Light District, a sex-for-sale zone which actually occupies a handsome area of 16th-century canals and gabled houses. "Ordinary" people still live in this area and go on with their daily lives, as you'll observe if you take your eyes for a moment off the barely clad women behind red-lit windows. I don't recommend you do the Red Light section after dark; the district is seedier and more sinister then, and while it's fascinating, it no longer falls under the category of a casual stroll through town.
The starting point, reached by tram 1, 2, 4, 5, 9, 13, 14, 16, 17, 24, or 25, is the:
1. The Dam
It can be one hot Dam at times, especially in summer, when the city's main monumental square becomes a hangout for young and old, visitors and natives. Don't waste your time looking for a dam on the Dam, though; there hasn't been one here for centuries. Let's make a clockwise circuit of the square.
Dominating the western side is the neoclassical:
2. Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace)
Constructed between 1648 and 1655 as the Stadhuis (Town Hall), this was later chosen to be the royal family's official residence.
Cross over Mozes en Aäronstraat to the:
3. Nieuwe Kerk
Since 1814, all the kings and queens of the Netherlands have been inaugurated at the New Church (Dutch monarchs are not uppity enough to actually be crowned). Built between the late 15th and mid-17th centuries in elaborate late-Gothic style, the Nieuwe Kerk often hosts temporary exhibits expensive enough to maybe make you think twice.
Outside the church, take narrow Eggertstraat at the side of the Nieuwe Kerk's cafe, 't Nieuwe Kafé. On adjoining Gravenstraat, at no. 18, is:
4. De Drie Fleschjes
A character-rich proeflokaal (tasting house) dating from 1650, where merchants sampled liqueurs and spirits, it now specializes in jenever (Dutch gin). Among a warren of tiny alleyways around here, Blaeustraat, behind a locked gate next to De Drie Fleschjes, recalls the store at nearby Damrak 46 where the 17th-century mapmaker Johannes Blaeu sold his superb world atlases.
Return to the north side of the Dam and glance upward at the painted 15th-century wall sculpture of Sinter Claes (St. Nicholas), the city's patron saint, and Santa Claus's forerunner, on the building just before the corner at Damrak.
Cross over busy Damrak to Amsterdam's answer to Bloomingdale's:
5. De Bijenkorf
"The Beehive" department store dates from 1915. In front is the NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky. A short stroll along Damstraat at the side of the hotel would bring you right into the Red Light District, but we're not going there -- not yet!
Cross over to the:
6. Nationaal Monument
Holland's obelisk-shaped World War II memorial was erected in 1956.
From here, cross over to the Amsterdam Diamond Center on the corner of Rokin, then cross over busy Rokin to:
7. Madame Tussauds
Amsterdam's Madame Tussauds contains well-known characters, many of them sporting a peculiarly Dutch waxen stare.
Continue to Kalverstraat, and go left on this bustling, pedestrians-only shopping street lined with department stores and cheap, cheerful boutiques. Turn right on Sint-Luciënsteeg to the:
8. Amsterdams Historisch Museum
A porch from 1592 that used to be the city orphanage's entrance is now the museum entrance. The outer courtyard was for boys (to the left are cupboards where they stored their tools), and the inner courtyard was for girls. Exit the museum through the Schuttersgalerij, a covered arcade lined with group portraits of 16th- and 17th-century militia companies.
On the right side of narrow Gedempte Begijnensloot is the entrance to the:
Devout women lived in this cloister from the 14th century onward. The house at no. 34, Amsterdam's oldest, was built in 1425 and is one of only two timber houses remaining in the city.
Pass between nos. 37 and 38, to:
An elegant and animated square, Spui has at its west end a statue of a small boy, Het Lieverdje (the Little Darling), meant to represent a typical Amsterdam kid. Across the street, at no. 21, is the Maagdenhuis, the University of Amsterdam's main downtown building.
Go up on Spuistraat, to:
11. Café Luxembourg
Spuistraat 24 (tel. 020/620-6264), which the New York Times considers "one of the world's great cafes," for drinks, snacks, or one of their renowned sandwiches.
Walk to the end of Spui and cross over Rokin, past a statue of Queen Wilhelmina, a canal tour-boat dock, and the Allard-Pierson Museum. Go straight ahead on Lange Brugsteeg to Grimburgwal, in the district known as De Wallen (the Walls). The first street on the left, Nes, is lined with alternative theaters. Keep straight ahead, though, to:
12. Gebed Zonder End
This alleyway's odd name, which means "Prayer Without End," comes from the convents that used to be here. It's said that the murmur of prayers from behind the walls could always be heard.
Stay on Grimburgwal across Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal. Between these two canals and the adjacent Grimburgwal canal is the:
13. Huis aan de Drie Grachten
At Oudezijds Voorburgwal 249, the House on the Three Canals (1609) is a handsome redbrick, step-gabled, Dutch Renaissance house.
Go a short way along Oudezijds Voorburgwal to the:
You'll easily recognize the building at no. 231 by its elaborate ornamental gateway from 1571. This was St. Agnes Convent's chapel until the Protestants took Amsterdam over. The Agnietenkapel later formed part of the Athenaeum Illustre, the city's first university, and now houses the university museum (which isn't very interesting unless there's a special exhibit).
Return to the House on the Three Canals and cross the bridge to Oudezijds Achterburgwal's far side, where you pass the Gasthuis, once a hospital and now part of the University of Amsterdam.
Turn right into the:
A second-hand book market (Mon-Sat 10:30am-6pm) popular with students occupies this dimly lit arcade. Midway along, on the left, a doorway leads to a courtyard garden with a statue of Minerva. At the far end of the arcade, above the exterior doorway, is The Liberality, a sculpture of a seated female figure with three objects: A cornucopia symbolizing abundance, a book symbolizing wisdom, and an oil lamp symbolizing enlightenment. An old man and woman represent old age and poverty. City sculptor Antonie Ziesenis created these statues in 1785.
Turn right on Kloveniersburgwal, cross over the canal at the next bridge, and go left on the far bank of the canal to Kloveniersburgwal 95, the:
Architect Philips Vingboons designed this classical mansion in 1642 for Joan Poppen, a dissolute grandson of a rich German merchant and heir to his fortune. The youth hostel next door at no. 97 was originally a home for retired sea captains.
Continue on Kloveniersburgwal -- behind the buildings to your right front as you cross Raamstraat, you'll see the tip of the Zuiderkerk (South Church) spire -- to Kloveniersburgwal 29, the:
The Trip brothers commissioned Philips Vingboons to create their ideal mansion (1664). They were arms dealers, which accounts for the martial images and emblems about the house. Originally, there were two houses behind a single classical facade, but the two have since been joined. It now houses the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science.
Backtrack to the canal bridge and cross over to Oude Hoogstraat and the:
18. Oost-Indisch Huis
Enter the East India House (1606) via a courtyard on the left side of the street, at no. 24. Once the headquarters of the V.O.C., the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company), it now belongs to the University of Amsterdam. Next door, at Oude Hoogstraat 22, is Amsterdam's narrowest house, just 2.02m (6 2/3 ft.) wide.
Back on Kloveniersburgwal, go left. At no. 26 is the Klein Trippenhuis, the narrow house of the Trip brothers' coachman, which now houses a fetishist fashion store called Webers. Note a few doors along, at nos. 10-12, the drugstore Jacob Hooy & Co., which has dispensed medicinal relief since 1743. A little farther along, at nos. 6-8, is the:
19. Amsterdamsche Stoombierbrouwerij De Bekeerde Suster
The city's smallest brewery, in a surviving portion of the 16th-century Bethaniënklooster (Bethanien Convent), produces 10 different beers and serves them from copper vats. The nuns who once brewed beer here have long since departed, but this brewery maintains their beer-making tradition. It's got a rustic-chic, wood-floored bar and a restaurant attached. A part of the old convent, which belonged to the Sisters of St. Mary Magdalen of Bethanien, has been restored and is now used as a concert hall for chamber music recitals.
In the center of Nieuwmarkt, the large, open square dead ahead, is:
20. De Waag
This massive edifice was once one of the city's medieval gates, and later the Weigh House and guild offices. It now houses a specialized educational and cultural institute (rarely open to the public), and a fashionable cafe-restaurant, In de Waag.
Take a turn around bustling Nieuwmarkt, the center of Amsterdam's diminutive Chinatown and site of a summertime Sunday antiques market, from May through October.
Now we're going to head into the Red Light District. If you don't want to come along, go instead along Zeedijk at the northwest corner of Nieuwmarkt and I'll pick you up again farther along that street (go straight to no. 23 on this tour). In compensation, you'll surely notice -- you can't easily miss it -- the Buddhist Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple at Zeedijk 106-116, on the left, about midway along the street. It's open Monday to Saturday from noon to 5pm, and Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Admission's free, but donations are welcomed.
If, on the other hand, you have no objection to viewing the Red Light District in all its scuzzy glory, take Monnickenstraat to Oudezijds Achterburgwal and turn right to the next bridge, going past windows that frame prostitutes waiting for customers or that have closed curtains to signify that a deal is being consummated. Then go through Oude Kennissteeg (or take a neighboring street if this narrow alleyway is closed) directly ahead to Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Should you require proof that you can do more here than ogle the "views" through the multitudes of red-lit windows, turn right to no. 57, a 1615 baroque Renaissance canal house by architect Hendrick de Keyser, dubbed De Gecroonde Raep (the Crowned Turnip) for its facade's motif. Take in its graceful accolade arches, double pilasters, and window cartouches.
Cross over the canal by the nearest bridge, to the:
21. Oude Kerk
Rembrandt's wife Saskia is interred within the Old Church, the city's first great Gothic church. Nowadays, the pretty little gabled almshouses around the church have red-fringed windows in which you can see scantily clad hookers.
Go north on Oudezijds Voorburgwal to no. 40:
22. Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder
Visit Our Lord in the Attic, a hidden Catholic church in a superb example of a 17th-century patrician canal house.
A couple of blocks north, at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 14, on the corner of Oudezijds Armsteeg, you'll notice a step-gabled, redbrick building that leans out to a crazy angle -- be careful not to trip over its projecting basement. It's called Het Wapen van Riga (the Arms of Riga), and it was built in 1605 in Dutch Renaissance style by a merchant from the Baltic city of Riga. It now houses a Leger des Heils (Salvation Army) hostel.
At the end of Oudezijds Voorburgwal, turn right on Sint-Olofssteeg to Zeedijk, one of the city's oldest streets. (Welcome back to anyone who forewent the Red Light District.) Go left now, to:
The fishermen's dog that, according to some city legends, marked the spot where Amsterdam began by throwing up, is said to have done the deed on the site of St. Olaf's Chapel, at Zeedijk 2A. Supposedly, fishermen founded the chapel in gratitude for their escape from the sea. But discrepancies exist: The chapel was built around 1425 and Amsterdam dates from the end of the 12th century. Sometimes you can enter the church -- which was over-restored in the 1990s and reopened as a congress center -- via a tunnel under Zeedijk from the NH Barbizon Palace Hotel ; at such times you'll be able to view its spacious columned interior.
From here, continue past two great Amsterdam taverns: Het Elfde Gebod at Zeedijk 5, which stocks 50 different kinds of beer, and the traditional bar In 't Aepjen at Zeedijk 1, in one of Amsterdam's two surviving timber houses (the other is in the Begijnhof, see above), which dates from 1550.
Emerge on Prins Hendrikkade and go right to:
The city's main Catholic church (since Protestants took over most of the others during the Reformation), St. Nicholas's dates from 1887 and was originally the harbor church -- primarily, but not exclusively, for seamen.
From here, you can get to Centraal Station by just crossing over busy Prins Hendrikkade. But before doing so, take a break next door at:
Prins Hendrikkade 59-72 (tel. 020/556-4564). A tiny place in the NH Barbizon Palace that serves light food and drinks.
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.