Amsterdam is the capital and the largest city in the Netherlands. The city is also the largest in the Netherlands in terms of population. Although Amsterdam is the capital, the government and parliament are in The Hague (the seat of government). Amsterdam is located in the province of Noord-Holland. Amsterdam is not the capital of this province, that is Haarlem. Together with The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht and many cities and towns in between, Amsterdam forms what the Dutch call the Randstad. The history of Amsterdam is a very interesting one. The city is old – older than most people realize and has a wonderful story of tolerance and beauty that can be found both in her inhabitants and architecture. The city also has her share of tumultuous history – from playing a major part in the Eighty Years’ War and being in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte to being occupied by the Nazis. It has all contributed to shaping her up to be the liberal, tolerant and accepting city that she is today.
History of Amsterdam
1200 – 1572
Amsterdam is a very old city and used to be called Amstelerdam. Even today, the inhabitants still call it Mokkum. The city is named after a 13th-century dam in the River Amstel and after it was granted city rights in the 1300s, the city soon developed into a prosperous trading city. During the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was one of the largest and most important cities in the world. Nowadays, those glory days can be seen in, for example, the Grachtengordel, the many mansions of rich 17th-century inhabitants, the Old Church and the New Church and some of the precious artefacts in museums like the Amsterdam Museum and Rijksmuseum. Tourists from all over the world still come to Amsterdam to visit these museums and marvel at the wonders of a city that has been the pillar of tolerance and change for many centuries. Internationally, Amsterdam is also known as a tolerant and liberal city, among other things because of the Pride Amsterdam and the coffeeshops.
The city is located at the mouth of the Amstel and the IJ. From the Amsterdam port you can go to the North Sea via the North Sea Canal. The most important airport in the Netherlands is south of the city, Schiphol Airport in the municipality of Haarlemmermeer. The city is also an important junction for train and car traffic and the city also has its own metro and tram.
In terms of economy, the city is also one of the most important in the Netherlands. Various international companies are based in Amsterdam, mainly in the Zuidas. However, international politics takes place in The Hague, where most of the foreign embassies in the Netherlands are located.
Amsterdam originated where the Amstel River flowed into the Zuiderzee. The Zuiderzee is nowadays called the Ijsselmeer. The Amstel branched out where it ran into the Zuiderzee. At these branches, or delta, an area was created where fish was abundant and other people wanted to go deeper into the country via the Amstel. These are the reasons why people started living in the hamlets in the delta. It started out as a fishing village/settlement.
Around the turn of the century of the 12th and 13th centuries, a flood defence structure was installed to protect the residents against flooding. Halfway through the 13th century, a dam was built in the mouth of the IJ against the fight against the wild water. After the dam was completed, a safe area was created for unloading and loading ships. When that was finally finished, the heart of Amsterdam appeared now better known as the Dam.
Amsterdam got her name from a dam that used to be in the River Amstel. In 1300 or 1306, the date cannot be determined unambiguously, Amsterdam received city rights from the then Bishop of Utrecht. Although ‘city rights’ are often understood to mean several rights (on markets, tolls and city walls), it essentially concerned the right of the city to its own jurisdiction. Due to the family ties of the Bishop of Utrecht with William III, Count of Holland, the city finally passed into Dutch hands when he died in 1317.
1572 – 1795
The history of the Netherlands can never be narrated without talking about Amsterdam. For hundreds of years, the economy of Amsterdam has been driven by the Amsterdam waterways. While the city’s waterways played its part, beer and herring also helped usher the city into the Dutch Golden Age. In 1323, the city acquired the exclusive right to import beer from Hamburg. This gave the city an important trade monopoly in Holland. The herring trade had traditionally been in the hands of the Baltic Sea countries, but because the herring were going to spend their mating time in the North Sea instead of the Baltic Sea, Amsterdam had the opportunity to interfere. Moreover, at that time the herring jaws were invented. This is an old Dutch method of removing the entrails of the herring immediately after the catch to keep it fresh for longer. This allowed the fishermen to catch more fish and thus make more profit.
The Dutch East India Company (V.O.C) also plays a major role in the flourishing of Amsterdam. The V.O.C. was one of the first multinationals in the 17th century. The company sailed to India with ships and brought spices and herbs to the Netherlands. The merchants brought these spices from afar and stored them in large warehouses. These warehouses were important because merchants needed them to store their wares. If they sold everything in one go, they would receive less money than if they sold it in smaller quantities.
In the first decades of the 17th century the number of artists increased enormously and there was an explosion of art production and art trade in Amsterdam. Due to the economic boom, people had more money to spend on luxury such as art. Amsterdam became a thriving cultural city and attracted some of the world’s best painters, writers and creative minds. Bredero, Vondel and P.C. Hooft did some of their famous works in the city. Rembrandt and his students had their workplace in Amsterdam as well. Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer also showcased their best works in the city. Philosophers such as Spinoza and Descartes put their thoughts on paper there.
The Amsterdam Canals
1672 – 1813
Amsterdam has about a hundred kilometres of canal, ninety islands and fifteen hundred bridges. The four main canals, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Singel, form concentric semicircles around the old city centre. This part of the city centre is called the Canal Belt. More than fifteen hundred monumental buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries can be found along these canals.
The history of the Amsterdam canals is an interesting one. The famous Amsterdam canal system dates from the 17th century, which is also called the Dutch Golden Age because of the then cultural, economic and political prosperity that the city as well as the Dutch Republic enjoyed in that time. The tidal wave of newcomers led to housing shortages and lack of space. This forced the city council to develop an expansion plan that would eventually make the city five times larger. The plan, which combined utility and beauty, made a cautious start at the end of the 16th century. The major expansion only followed from 1613 when, among others, Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht were dug and a new neighbourhood was developed to the west of the canals, the Jordaan.
Museum Het Grachtenhuis or Canal Museum is where the exceptional story of Amsterdam’s canals and canal houses are told. The first major canal was called the Herengracht. This canal was so named because the Netherlands was a republic at the time. The Republic was governed by a group of gentlemen referred to as High Lords, thus the Gentleman’s Canal or Herengracht.
With the city growing in leaps and bounds, more people came to live in Amsterdam. At this time, the municipality decided that it was time to build another canal — the Keizersgracht. This was so named because of Napoleon Bonaparte came to power. He was the emperor of almost all of Europe and therefore the Amsterdam. Hence, the name Emperor’s Canal or Keizersgracht.
Amsterdam grew even further and then the Prinsengracht was dug. At the time, Prince William of Orange was the Stadholder of the Netherlands. The city kept growing as more people came to Amsterdam to live. It was home to poets, traders and merchants, doctors, writers, painters, etc. More houses were constructed and more streets and canals were also built.
1813 – Present Day
Today, Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most visited cities and attracts millions of tourists every year. Tourists come for attractions like coffeeshops, the Red Light Districts, museums like Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Museum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, Maritime Museum, Royal Palace on the Dam Square, Stedelijk Museum, Diamond Museum, Eye Film Museum, Ons Lieve Heer op Solder, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution, Kattenkabinet, Foam Museum, Museum Vrolik, Cannabis Museum, Tropenmuseum and Nemo Science Museum.
There are also boats in the Amsterdam Central Station offering canal cruises through the Amsterdam canals and definitely one of the top 3 things to do for tourists pouring into the city. The city’s Amsterdam Pride also attracts thousands of visitors every year. This has cemented Amsterdam’s status as one of the most tolerant and liberal cities in Europe and the world.
Summer in Amsterdam also presents residents and tourists the opportunity to visit beaches like Amsterdam Beach – Zandvoort and Scheveningen as well as picnic and chill infamous parks like Vondel Park, Westerpark, Saphartipark and Oosterpark. Events like the annual Keukenhof and Amsterdam Light Festival also offer a chance to admire the country’s tulips and the artworks on its famous canals.
Note: There are lots of people outside of the Netherlands and Europe who think that Amsterdam is a country or even a continent. Well, Amsterdam is neither a country nor a continent. It is a city and the capital of the Netherlands.
Amsterdam on the Map
On this page you can easily get to the Amsterdam city map
Day trip from Amsterdam
Discover the rest of the Netherlands. There is more history and older city’s than Amsterdam to discover. Enjoy the ride:)!
Discover Rembrandt’s nightwatch and many more famous Dutch artists