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«Amsterdam today looks much as it did in its Golden Age, the 1600s. It’s a retired sea captain of a city, still in love with life, with a broad ...»

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From the Train Station to the Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam today looks much as it did in its Golden Age, the 1600s. It’s

a retired sea captain of a city, still in love with life, with a broad outlook

and a salty story to tell.

Take this barrier-free Dutch sampler tour from one end of the old

center to the other, tasting all that Amsterdam has to offer along the

way. It’s your best single roll or stroll through Dutch clichés, hidden churches, surprising shops, thriving happy-hour hangouts, and eight centuries of history.


The tour starts at the central-as-can-be train station. You’ll roll or stroll about three miles, heading down Damrak to Dam Square, continuing south down Kalverstraat to the Mint Tower, then wafting through the Bloemenmarkt (flower market), before continuing south to Leidseplein and swinging left to the Rijksmuseum. To return to Central Station, catch accessible tram #5 or #2 from the southwest corner of the Rijksmuseum.

If this tour proves too much to tackle all at once, consider breaking it up into easy-to-tackle chunks. Along the way, tour the museums that you find interesting and suitable to your level of personal mobility (I’ve listed accessibility details for each one).

You can find public toilets at fast-food places (generally €0.30, often accessible) and near the entrance to the Amsterdam History Museum (fully accessible). Beware of silent transport—trams and bikes. Stay off the tram tracks. If you’re walking, keep off the bike paths and yield to 15_RSEZA06_AmstRS.indd 443 3/16/06 2:32:08 PM 444 Rick Steves’ Easy Access Europe bell-ringing bikers. If you’re using a wheelchair, you may have to use these bike paths at times—do your best to avoid bikers.


Central Station Here where today’s train travelers enter the city, sailors of yore disem- barked from seagoing ships to be met by street musicians, pickpockets, hotel-runners, and ladies carrying red lanterns. When the station was built (on reclaimed land) at the former harbor mouth, Amsterdam lost some of its harbor feel, but it’s still a bustling port of entry.

Central Station, with warm red brick and prickly spires, is the first of several neo-Gothic buildings we’ll see from the late 1800s, built during Amsterdam’s economic revival. One of the towers has a clock dial; the other tower’s dial is a we

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Damrak You’ll pass every Dutch cliché at the tourist shops: wooden shoes, plastic tulips, Heineken fridge magnets, and windmill saltshakers. Listen to a hand-cranked barrel organ. Order french fries (called Vlaamse frites, or Flemish fries, since they were invented in the Low Countries) and dip them in mayonnaise, not ketchup. Eating international cuisine (Indonesian rijsttafel, Argentine steak, Middle Eastern shoarma—pronounced SHWAHR-mah) is like going local in cosmopolitan Amsterdam. And you’ll find the city’s most notorious commodity displayed at the Damrak Sex Museum (1st floor is moderately accessible—AE, AI—but upper level is not; see page *TK).

The street was once a riverbed, where the Amstel River flowed north into the IJ (pronounced “eye”) river behind today’s train station. Both rivers then emptied into a vast inlet of the North Sea (the Zuiderzee), making Amsterdam a major seaport. Today, the Amstel is channeled into canals, its former mouth has been covered by Central Station, the North Sea inlet has been diked off to make an inland lake, and 100,000 ships a year reach the open waters by sailing west through the North Sea Canal.

Local landowners are concerned that the tunneling for the new subway line will cause their buildings to settle. The snoopy-looking white cameras mounted on various building corners (such as the Beurs) are monitoring buildings to check for settling.

• The long brick building with the square clock tower, along the left side of Damrak, is the...

–  –  –

Back when “stock” meant whatever could be loaded and unloaded onto a boat, Amsterdammers gathered to trade. Soon, rather than trading goats, chickens, and kegs of beer, they were exchanging slips of paper and “futures” at one of the world’s first stock exchanges. Traders needed moneychangers, who needed bankers, who made money by lending money...and Amsterdam of the 1600s became one of the world’s first great capitalist cities, loaning money to free-spending kings, dukes, and bishops.

This impressive building, built in 1903 in a geometric, minimal, no-frills style, is one of the world’s first “modern” (i.e., 20th-centurystyle) buildings, emphasizing function over looks. In 1984, the stock exchange moved next door (see the stock prices readout) to the Euronext complex—a joint, if overly optimistic, attempt by France, Belgium, and the Netherlands to compete with the power of Britain’s stock exchange.

The old Beurs building now hosts concerts and a museum for temporary exhibits.

Amsterdam still thrives as the center of Dutch businesses, such as Heineken, Shell Oil, Philips Electronics, KLM Airlines, and Unilever.

Amsterdammers have always had a reputation for putting business above ideological differences, staying neutral while trading with both sides.

• Damrak opens into...

Dam Square The city got its start right here around 1250, when fishermen in this marshy delta settled along the built-up banks of the Amstel River.

They blocked the river with a damme, and created a small village called “Amstel-damme.” Soon the fishermen were trading with German riverboats traveling downstream and with seafaring boats from Stockholm, Hamburg, and London. Dam Square was the center of it all.

The dam on the Amstel divided the damrak (meaning “outer harbor”—for sea traffic) from the rokin (“inner harbor”—for river traffic).

Land trade routes converged here as well, and a customs house stood here.

Today, the Damrak and Rokin (rohKEEN) are major roads, and the city’s palace and major department stores face the square, where mimes, jugglers, and human statues mingle with locals and tourists. This is the historic heart of the city. As the symbolic center of the Netherlands, it’s where political

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demonstrations begin and end.

Pan the square clockwise to see the following: the Royal Palace (the large domed building on the west side), the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), an ABN Amro bank, Damrak, the proud old De Bijenkorf (literally, “The Beehive”) department store, the Krasnapolsky Grand Hotel, the white, phallic obelisk of the National Monument, the Rokin, touristy Madame Tussaud’s, and the entrance to pedestrian-only Kalverstraat (look for Rabobank sign).

Royal Palace The name is misleading, since Amsterdam is one of the cradles of modern democracy. For centuries, this was the Town Hall of a self-governing community that prided itself on its independence and thumbed its nose at royalty. The current building, built in 1648, is appropriately classical (like the democratic Greeks), with a triangular pediment featuring— fittingly for Amsterdam—denizens of the sea cavorting with Neptune (with his green copper trident.) After the city was conquered by the French, Napoleon imposed a monarchy on Holland, making his brother Louis the king of the Netherlands (1808). Louis used the city hall as his “royal palace,” giving the building its current name.

When Napoleon was defeated, the victorious powers dictated that the Netherlands remain a monarchy, under a noble Dutch family called the House of Orange. If the current Queen Beatrix is in town, this is, technically, her residence (thought it’s currently under renovation, and closed to visitors through 2008; when open, it’s Level 1—Fully Accessible).

Amsterdam is the nominal capital of the Netherlands, but all governing activity—and the Queen’s actual permanent home—are in The Hague (a city 30 miles southwest).

New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) Access: AE, AI, AT, Level 1—Fully Accessible. The associated restaurant (to the right) is also fully accessible and has adapted toilets.

Cost and Hours: €8, covered by I amsterdam Card, Mon–Sat 10:00– 18:00, Sun 13:00–18:00.

The Sight: The “New” Church is 600 years old (newer than the 700-year-old “Old” Church in the Red Light District). The sundial above 15_RSEZA06_AmstRS.indd 448 3/16/06 2:32:15 PM Amsterdam City Roll or Stroll 449 the entrance once served as the city’s official timepiece.

The church’s bare, spacious, well-lit interior (often occupied by temporary art exhibits) looks quite different from the Baroque-encrusted churches found in the rest of Europe. In 1566, clear-eyed Protestant extremists throughout Holland marched into Catholic churches (like this once was), lopped off the heads of holy statues, stripped gold-leaf angels from the walls, urinated on Virgin Marys, and shattered stainedglass windows in a wave of anti-Catholic vandalism.

This iconoclasm (icon-breaking) of 1566 started an 80-year war against Spain and the Hapsburgs, leading finally to Dutch independence in 1648. Catholic churches like this one were converted to the new dominant religion, Calvinist Protestantism (today’s Dutch Reformed Church).

From then on, Dutch churches downplayed the “graven images” and “idols” of ornate religious art.

From just inside the door, you can get a free look at the 1655 organ (far left end, often encased in its painted wooden cupboard); the stainedglass window (opposite entrance) showing Count William IV giving the city its “XXX” coat of arms; and the window (over entrance) showing the inauguration of Queen Wilhelmina. She grew to become the steadfast center of Dutch Resistance during World War II.

This church is where many of the Netherlands’ monarchs are married and all are crowned. In 1980, Queen Beatrix—Wilhelmina’s granddaughter—said “I do” in the New Church. When Beatrix dies or retires, her son, Crown Prince Willem Alexander, will parade to the center of the church, sit in front of the golden choir screen, and—with TV lights glaring and flashbulbs popping—be crowned the next sovereign.

• Looking between the Royal Palace and the New Church, you’ll see the fanciful brick facade of the Magna Plaza shopping center. Back in Dam Square, on the wall of the ABN Amro bank, find the colorful little stone plaque of...

Sinterklaas—St. Nicholas Jolly old St. Nicholas (Nicolaas in Dutch) is the patron saint of seafarers (see the 3 men in a tub) and of Amsterdam, and is also the model for Sinterklaas—the guy we call Santa Claus. Every year in late November, Holland’s Santa Claus arrives by boat near Central Station (from his legendary home in Spain), rides a white horse up Damrak with his servant, Peter (in blackface), and arrives triumphant in this square while thousands of kids cheer.

December 5, the feast day of St. Nicholas, is when the Dutch exchange presents and Sinterklaas leaves goodies in good kids’ wooden shoes.

(Smart kids maximize capacity by putting out big boots.) Many Dutch

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National Monument The obelisk, which depicts a crucified Christ, men in chains, and howling dogs, was built in 1956 as a WWII memorial. Now it’s considered a monument for peace.

The Nazis occupied Holland from 1940 to 1945. They deported more than 100,000 Amsterdam Jews, driving many—including young Anne Frank and her family—into hiding. Near the end of the war, the “Hunger Winter” of 1944–1945 killed thousands and forced many to survive on tulip bulbs. Today, Dutch people in their 70s—whose growth-spurt years coincided with the Hunger Winter—are easy to identify, because they are uniformly short.

Circling the Square You’re at the center of Amsterdam. A few blocks to the east is the top of the Red Light District. Amsterdam is a world center for experimental theater, and several edgy theaters line the street called the Nes (stretching south from Krasnapolsky Grand Hotel).

Office workers do afternoon happy hours at crowded bars that stock jenevers and liqueurs in wooden kegs. De Drie Fleschjes (AE, AI, Level 2—Moderately Accessible), a particularly casual pub, is tucked right 15_RSEZA06_AmstRS.indd 450 3/16/06 2:32:17 PM Amsterdam City Roll or Stroll 451 behind the New Church. The more upscale Wynand Fockink (AE, AI, Level 2—Moderately Accessible; 100 yards down the alley along the right side of Hotel Krasnapolsky) serves fruit brandies produced in its adjoining distillery (which you can visit). Though the brew is bottled and distributed all over Holland, what you get here in the home-office bar is some of the best Fockink liqueur in the entire world.

At the Amsterdam Diamond Center (Level 4—Not Accessible;

free, Mon–Sat 10:00–18:00, Sun 11:00–18:00, where Rokin street meets Dam Square), see cutters and jewelry-setters handling diamonds, plus some small educational displays and fake versions of big, famous stones.

Since the 1500s, the city has been one of the world’s diamond capitals.

Eighty percent of industrial diamonds (for making drills and such) pass through here, as do many cut and polished jewels, like the Koh-I-Nohr diamond.

• From Dam Square, head south (at Rabobank sign) on...

–  –  –

De Papegaai Hidden Catholic Church (Petrus en Paulus Kerk) Access: AE+A, AI, Level 2—Moderately Accessible. The wheelchair user can ring a bell to gain entry through the regular door instead of trying to get through the revolving door. The interior of the church is accessible, with flat aisles.

Cost and Hours: Free, daily 10:00–16:00.

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