Amsterdam’s always been a liberal place, ever since the Golden Age, when it led European art and trade. Centuries later, in the 1960s, it again led the pack – this time in the principles of tolerance, with broad-minded views on drugs and same-sex relationships taking centre stage. Today the cannabis coffeeshops and the Red Light District are still the city’s top drawcards, even if that can sometimes wear thin for the locals. But Amsterdam’s more than just an X-rated theme park for weekend warriors. Quite simply, it’s among the most distinctive of all European cities (it’s certainly one of the most eccentric). And it may well be the most beautiful, with its breathtakingly scenic, heritage-protected 17th-century housing and ubiquitous canals. Other cities in Europe’s premier league are nothing if not monumental, but Amsterdam by contrast is irreverent, intimate and accessible: you can walk across the city centre in around 30 minutes, less by bike, and the place has enough sensory delights to keep the shortest attention spans occupied. All of the major sights are found in or near the city centre: some of the continent’s best museums and galleries nestle among attractions that are just plain quirky or silly – but always fun. Walk or bike around the canal grid, down the historic lanes of the Jordaan district or through the Plantage and bask in the many worlds within worlds that make Amsterdam so thoroughly addictive.
A small fishing town named Aemstelredamme emerged in around 1200. The community was freed by the count of Holland from paying tolls on its locks and bridges, and ‘Amsterdam’ developed into a major seaport. Calvinist brigands captured Amsterdam in 1578, and the seven northern provinces, led by Holland and Zeeland, declared themselves a republic. The stage was set for the Golden Age, when merchants and artisans flocked to Amsterdam and a new class of moneyed intellectuals was born.
By the late 17th century Holland couldn’t match the might of France and England, but when the country’s first railway opened in 1839 the city was revitalised in a stroke. During the latter part of that century, Amsterdammers were certainly buoyant and in feisty mood – as the Eel Riot of 25 July 1886 proves. At the time, the sport of eel pulling was very popular throughout the city. The rules were very simple: a rope would be suspended over a canal, with a live eel attached to it. Underneath, competitors in boats would try to grab the poor creature, with the ever present threat of landing in the water adding a frisson to the proceedings. When the authorities made the game illegal – denouncing it as a ‘cruel, popular amusement’ – the Jordaan erupted in riots so intense and pitched that 25 people died from gunshot wounds inflicted by the police. The first part of the 20th century was characterised by more trouble, as unemployment, depression and WWI took their toll. After WWII, growth resumed with US aid (the Marshall Plan). However, in 1955 the French philosopher Albert Camus wrote, ‘Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams’. How incredible, then, to see the next few decades unfold. In the 1960s students occupied the administrative centre of the University of Amsterdam, and the women’s movement began a campaign that fuelled the abortion debate throughout the next decade. Meanwhile, pranksters, anarchists and radicals began a systematic programme to derail conservative attitudes – with a peculiarly Amsterdammer dose of absurdism. Nowhere was this more evident than in the antics of the Provos, whose members included poet Johnny the Selfkicker and Bart Huges, an ‘open-minded’ fellow who drilled a hole in his forehead to achieve enlightenment. During that decade, Amsterdam was known as Europe’s ‘Magic Centre’, the crux of a utopian dream where people believed anything could happen. Although the days of excess have been somewhat neutered, much of that famous swagger is still evident (and in some cases, institutionalised and parodied, as in the Red Light District; in fact, if you arrive here on Koninginnedag – you might think it never went away). In the ’70s city planners proposed a metro line through the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, earmarking a large portion of the derelict district to be razed. When the inhabitants turned to squatting, the area was violently cleared on 24 March 1975, a day fixed in history as ‘Blue Monday’. In the ’60s families and small manufacturers dominated inner-city neighbourhoods; by the early ’90s they’d been replaced by professionals and a service industry of pubs, coffeeshops, restaurants and hotels. Non Dutch nationalities made up 45% of the population and the city’s success in attracting large foreign businesses resulted in an influx of higher-income expatriates.