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History of Amsterdam

A brief history of Amsterdam

Published on : 24-12-2012, 09:25 by Perfect Housing

Is your knowledge of Amsterdam limited to its picturesque canals and famed nightlife? You're not alone: most expats in Amsterdam know very little about the city before moving here. 

Amsterdam's beauty, vibrancy and relaxed atmosphere is the result of its exceptionally rich and diverse history. Time to brush up on some facts and figures! 

Small-town fishing port

Amsterdam began as a small fishing village in the early thirteenth century and soon established itself as an important commercial port. At the time, the city extended only as far as today's Singel canal, which served as a moat. Very little of these medieval beginnings remain. Most buildings were destroyed in fires before a government decree mandated that buildings be built from stone. The Wooden House (Begijnhof 34), the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) are examples from this period.

Amsterdam's Golden Age

Amsterdam benefited enormously from Spain's conquest of Antwerp in 1585. At the time, Antwerp was the most important port in the world and under terms of surrender the Protestant population was given the option to either convert or leave the city. Many, including significant numbers of rich merchants and skilled craftsmen, went north and settled in Amsterdam. As a result, Amsterdam transformed into a worldwide commercial centre. Trade flourished throughout the 1600s with rise of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), established to exploit Dutch business interests in the country's Asian colonies. 

Amsterdam developed rapidly throughout this period, known as the Golden Age. Wealthy residents were eager to build new houses around the old city centre and the city expanded outwards. During this period, the three famed canals - the Herengracht, the Keizergracht and the Prinsengracht - were added alongside the Singel canal.  Many of the buildings lining these canals date back to the Golden Age, including the Royal Palace, the Westerkerk (West Church) and the House with the Heads (Keizersgracht 123).

A second age of prosperity

Amsterdam's Golden Age came to an end in 1672 when the country became embroiled in wars with France and England. Commerce continued and wealth peaked again in the 18th century. Much of the city's architecture reflects this second period of prosperity, including the House of Brienen (Herengracht 284), House of Vicq-De Steur (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 237), and Zeevrugt and Saxenburg (Keizersgracht 224). 

Amsterdam's Industrial Revolution

Severe economic recession set in during French occupation in the early 1880s but the Industrial Revolution on the eve of the 20th century triggered a new Golden Age. The city quickly expanded and new working-class neighbourhoods were built to accommodate a huge influx of workers from the countryside. The historic centre did not escape untouched, and many canals were filled in and roads modernised to accommodate more cars and public transportation. Many large-scale projects date from this time, including the Noordzee Canal, the Amsterdam-Rijn Canal, Central Station, the Concertgebouw and many museums.

Canals and bridges

Today Amsterdam is world-famous for its network of canals and bridges - and the historic canal houses that still line. The city has more than 200 canals, quays, locks and ramparts! The best known canals are found in and immediately surrounding the old city centre. The Oudezijds Voorburgwal, the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Gelderse Kade form the heart of the old centre, while the four famous U-shaped canals encircle it: the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. The canal district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ensuring that the city's attraction remains intact for years to come.

Amsterdam in a glimpse

  • Capital of the Netherlands
  • Largest city in the Netherlands
  • Population of 790,654 within the city limits


Area (2006): 

  • Total: 219 km2 (84.6 sq mi) 
  • Land: 166 km2 (64.1 sq mi) 
  • Water: 53 km2 (20.5 sq mi)


Useful Links for Expats in Amsterdam

City of Amsterdam website

Amsterdam tourist information

Overview for expats moving to Amsterdam

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