Amsterdam (pop. 743,000, with suburbs 1,468,000) has been the official capital of the Netherlands since 1806, although the seat of the government and monarchy are still in The Hague, and the capital of the North Holland province is Haarlem.
Amsterdam is the largest city in the country, and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, with over 170 nationalities living there.
The city's name refers to a dam built on the river Amstel. Built on the southern tip of Lake IJssel (more like an inner sea connected to the North Sea), Amsterdam is a maritime city par excellence. Its hundreds of kilometres of canals, 90 islands and 1500 bridges have earned Amsterdam the nickname of "Venice of the North".
During the Dutch Golden Age (1584-1702), Amsterdam was one of the most important ports in the world, with innovative developments in trade, and became the leading centre for finance and diamonds. Nowadays, it is known for its historic port, the splendid Rijksmuseum, its red-light district (de Wallen), or its liberal coffeeshops selling soft drugs legally.
In many respects, Amsterdam is the antithesis of cities like The Hague or Brussels, which are dominated by ministries, international organisations, embassies, posh restaurants, and a stark contrast between rich suburbs and poor downtown neighbourhoods. Amsterdam surprises by the homogeneity of its architecture, its informal atmosphere and laid-back lifestyle for a city of its size. In short, it is definitely more hippie than yuppie.
Nevertheless, many large Dutch corporations and banks have their headquarters in Amsterdam, including Philips, ING Group, ABN Amro, Delta Lloyd Group, Akzo Nobel, Heineken International, Ahold, TomTom. Amsterdam also hosts the international headquarters of the Swiss company KPMG, and the European headquarters of the American Cisco Systems.
An early Frisian fishing village probably developed in the 12th century. The first known record of Amsterdam is 27 October 1275, when Count Floris V of Holland exempted the locals from paying a bridge toll relating to "the bridge on the Amstel" (there was only one at the time).
Amsterdam was granted city rights around 1300, and flourished on trade with the cities of the Hanseatic League. The so-called "Miracle of the Host", which occured near Kalverstraat on 12 March 1345, would make of Amsterdam an important pilgrimage destination until the Protestant Reformation. Today, a Stille Omgang (silent procession) is still conducted each year to commemorate the event.
In 1556, Emperor Charles V of Habsburg abdicated, giving Austria and Germany to his brother Maximilian, and Spain to his son Philip. The Low Countries were split from the Holy Roman Empire and came under Spanish rule. King Philip II of Spain was to become one of the most hated sovereign in the Netherlands, due to his imposition of new taxes, the tenth penny, and his religious persecution against Protestants with the infamous Spanish Inquisition. The revolt escalated into the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), which ultimately led to Dutch independence.
Under the leadership of William I of Orange-Nassau (better known among English-speakers as William the Silent), the Dutch Republic became known for its relative religious tolerance. Jews from Spain and Portugal, prosperous merchants and printers from Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges (economic and religious refugees from the part of the Low Countries still controlled by Spain), and Huguenots from France (persecuted for their religion) sought safety in Amsterdam. The influx of Flemish printers and the city's intellectual tolerance made Amsterdam a hotbed of the European free press.
The 17th century is considered Amsterdam's "Golden Age". In the early 17th century, Amsterdam became one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Ships sailed from Amsterdam to the Baltic Sea, North America, Africa and present-day Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Brazil, and formed the basis of a worldwide trading network.
Amsterdam's merchants had the biggest share in the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company. These companies acquired the overseas possessions which formed the seeds of the later Dutch colonies. Amsterdam was the most important point for the trans-shipment of goods in Europe, and it was the leading financial centre of the world. Amsterdam's stock exchange was the first to trade continuously.
The three first Anglo-Dutch Wars (between 1652 and 1674) had resulted in a Dutch victory and domination of world trade. However, the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784), caused by the discovery of a secret trade treaty proposed by the city of Amsterdam to the Americans, ended with a decisive British victory, and the decline of the Netherlands and Amsterdam as centres for international trade.
French Revolutionary troops invaded the Netherlands in 1795 and created the Batavian Republic (1795-1806), modelled on the new French Republic. In 1806, Napoleon I dissolved the Republic and created a new Kingdom of Holland, installing his brother Louis Bonaparte as king. Louis preferred Amsterdam to The Hague, and consequently moved the capital there, where it has since remained.
In 1815, following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was founded, encompassing the modern Netherlands and Belgium. But the Belgians decided to split in 1830, claiming favouritism towards the Protestant Dutch in administration.
The late 19th century is sometimes seen as Amsterdam's second Golden Age. New museums, the central train station (1881-1889), and the concert hall (1883-1888) were built, and the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal was dug in 1892. Note that Amsterdam's train station served as inspiration for Tokyo Station, and in turn also Seoul Station.
Germany invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, taking control of the country after five days of fighting. The Germans installed a Nazi civilian government in Amsterdam that cooperated in the persecution of Jews. Many Amsterdammers sheltered Jews at a high risk to themselves and their families and those that were discovered were also sent to the concentration camps. After the war approximately 120,000 Dutch were prosecuted as collaborators. More than 100,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands to concentration camps, of whom perhaps the most famous was a young German girl, Anne Frank. Only 5,000 Dutch Jews survived the war.
In the last months of the war, communication with the rest of the country broke down, and food and fuel became scarce. Many inhabitants of the city had to travel to the countryside to collect food. Dogs, cats, and raw sugar beets were consumed to stay alive. Tulip bulbs - cooked to a pulp - were a common food as well. Most of the trees in Amsterdam were cut down for fuel, and all the wood was taken from the apartments of deported Jews.
Amsterdam is a delightful city to stroll around when the weather is nice (not always a given in this part of the world). There are many beautiful townhouses, squares or bridges, and too many museums to describe here. Check our list of museums in Amsterdam for an extensive listing.
The first must-see attraction for arts and history buffs is the Rijksmuseum (National Museum). It is in fact the most famous branch of a dozen Rijksmuseums in the country. It has a large collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and a substantial collection of Asian art. The paintings collection includes works by artists Jacob van Ruysdael, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt and Rembrandt's pupils. The museum was founded under French rule in 1800. Originally situated in The Hague, it was moved to its present location by Louis Bonaparte.
Other museums well worth a visit include the Van Gogh Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum the Municipal Museum (Stedelijk Museum) and the Dutch Maritime Museum (Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum).
The Defence Line of Amsterdam, extending 135 km around the city, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1996. Built between 1883 and 1920, it is the world's only fortification based on the principle of controlling the waters.
Amsterdam's food scene reflects its cosmopolitanism. Be it kebab, babi pangang, pad thai, tajine, hamburgers, Indian curry, falafels, chop suey, sushi, bockwurst, pancakes or French haute cuisine, you will find it all in Amsterdam. Check out of list of best restaurants in Amsterdam.
How to get there
Amsterdam is easily reached from almost anywhere in the world thanks to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, which is the fourth busiest international airport in Europe in terms of passenger traffic.
The city is served by the Thalys TGV from/to Brussels (2h40min) and Paris (4h10min). The ICE is the fastest way to Germany. There are direct trains to Cologne (2h40) and Frankfurt (4h).
If you are comng by car, Amsterdam is also reached with ease from Belgium, France or Germany.
- The E19 motorway goes all the way to/from Paris, via The Hague, Rotterdam, Breda, Antwerp, Brussels, Mons, Valenciennes, Cambrai and Compiègne.
- The E22 links Amsterdam to Groningen, Oldenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, and Rostock.
- The E35 comes all the way down from Basel in Switzerland, and reaches Amsterdam passing through Freiburg, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Frankfurt-am-Main, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Arnhem and Utrecht.
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