The best of Jodenbuurt & Plantage: 14 things you can't miss

Tucked into the narrow slice of land between the curve of the River Amstel, Oudeschans and the Nieuwe Herengracht lies the Old Jewish Quarter, home to Amsterdam’s Jewish community from the 16th century until World War II. There are moving reminders of the area’s history amidst its modern life, while this neighbourhood is also home to one of the city’s top markets. Meanwhile, for a serious dose of greenery, make your way to the genteel Plantage and the world’s oldest botanical gardens.

Most of the thriving Jewish community here was wiped out in the Holocaust, but a number of Jewish elements remain in this distinctive part of the city, from synagogues to memorials. On a more prosaic note, keep your eyes peeled for kosher bakeries and Israeli shops, ideal for grabbing lunch or picnic ingredients.

1. Rembrandthuis

Once the centre of Jewish life, Jodenbreestraat, is perhaps not one of Amsterdam’s more picturesque thoroughfares, but it is home to the Rembrandthuis, whose intricate facade is decorated with pretty wooden shutters. Rembrandt bought this house at the height of his fame and popularity, living here for over twenty years and spending a fortune on furnishings.

The city council now owns the building and it’s now an intriguing museum, bringing the great artist’s home back to life. The collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings is particularly attention-grabbing, as is the intriguing ‘Art Cabinet’, a room crammed with objets d’art and miscellaneous curios including African spears and Pacific seashells. Beyond the Art Cabinet, the rest of the Rembrandthuis is usually given over to temporary exhibitions on the artist and his contemporaries.

2. Gassan Diamonds

Feeling flash? Let’s face it, you might not have the money to actually shop here, but a spin round Gassan Diamonds – which occupies a large and imposing brick building – is fascinating for learning all about diamonds. Before World War II, many local Jews worked as diamond cutters and polishers, but there’s little sign of the industry hereabouts today, this factory being the main exception. Tours include a visit to the cutting and polishing areas, as well a gambol round Gassan’s diamond jewellery showroom.

3. Stopera – Stadhuis en Muziektheater

Jodenbreestraat runs parallel to the Stadhuis en Muziektheater, a sprawling, modern complex dating from the 1980s and incorporating the city hall and a large auditorium, the Muziektheater. The latter offers a varied programme of theatre, dance and ballet as well as opera from the country’s first-rate Netherlands Opera, but tickets go very quickly. One of the city’s abiding ironies is that the title of the protest campaign aiming to prevent the development in the 1980s – “Stopera” – has passed into common usage to describe the finished item.

4. Waterlooplein

Waterlooplein was the site of the first Jewish Quarter, but by the late nineteenth century it had become an insanitary slum. The slums were cleared in the 1880s and thereafter the open spaces of the Waterlooplein hosted the largest and liveliest market in the city – and today, it is still the site of the city’s main flea market, held Monday to Saturday. If you’re after a bargain, be sure to get there early as it’s very popular. There are many diverting antique and junk stalls to comb for that unique souvenir.

Nearby, at the very tip of Waterlooplein, where the River Amstel meets the Zwanenburgwal canal, there is a sombre memorial – a black stone tribute to the dead of the Jewish resistance.

5. Mr Visserplein

Just behind the Muziektheater, on the corner of Mr Visserplein, is the Mozes en Aaron Kerk, a Neoclassical structure built on the site of a clandestine Catholic church. The square itself, a busy junction for traffic speeding towards the IJ tunnel, takes its name from an active member of the Jewish resistance during World War II, Mr Visser, President of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in 1939. He was dismissed the following year when the Germans

occupied the country, and worked for the illegal underground newspaper Het Parool (“The Password”) while refusing to wear the yellow Star of David. He died in 1942, a few days after publicly – and famously – denouncing all forms of collaboration.

6. Esnoga

To really get a feel for the one-time community in the area, a visit to the Esnoga, or Portuguese synagogue, is a must. Its brown and bulky brickwork was completed in 1675 for the city’s Sephardic community. One of Amsterdam’s most imposing buildings, it has been barely altered since its construction.

Inside, a set of superb brass chandeliers holds the candles that remain the only source of artificial light. When it was completed, the synagogue was one of the largest in the world; today, the Sephardic community has dwindled to just a few families, whose traditions are celebrated in the surrounding outhouses, from the mourning room to the rabbi’s room and the intimate winter synagogue. The mystery is why the Nazis left the building alone.

In the shadow of the Esnoga, in Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, Mari Andriessen’s statue The Dokwerker (Dockworker) stands memorial to the general strike staged in Amsterdam in solidarity with the Jews in February 1941, which was quickly suppressed. 

7. Joods Historisch Museum

To appreciate the life of the local Jewish community and the terrible tragedy it suffered, the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) offers a tough but fascinating education. It is cleverly shoehorned into four adjacent Ashkenazi synagogues and connected by walkways, while a range of permanent and temporary displays explore Dutch Jewish history from 1600 on, as well as provide an insightful look at its culture and religious practices.

If you’re travelling with children, the Jewish Historical Museum is also home to a special section designed for young ones: the JHM Children’s Museum. Kids can play in a replica of a typical large Jewish house and through play and clever exhibits, learn all about Jewish life and traditions. The youngest children, under the age of 6, can enter free of charge.

8. Hermitage Amsterdam

If you are in need of a change of tone at this stage, the Hermitage Amsterdam may be just the ticket. Backing onto the River Amstel, the stern-looking Amstelhof started out as a hofje, or almshouse, but was converted to this ambitiously-realised museum in 2009, with the building’s original historic exterior preserved and a light, modern interior added, packed with multiple galleries. It usually displays prime pieces loaned from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, but recently, it has begun to diversify and now also features a section entitled ‘Outsider Art Museum’ – outsiders being untrained artists, often from psychiatric hospitals and similar.

9.Plantage

Developed in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Plantage, with its comfortable streets spreading to either side of the Plantage Middenlaan boulevard, was built as part of a concerted attempt to provide good-quality housing for the city’s expanding middle classes. Nowadays, the Plantage is still a nice place to live, and with its wider streets and abundance of green spaces, a wander here makes a pleasant change from the more packed central areas.

10. Hortus Botanicus

Contrary to what you might have heard, you won’t find the best grass in Amsterdam at a coffeeshop. Found in the appropriately named Plantage, Hortus Botanicus is the only botanical garden in Amsterdam, and one of the oldest in the world.

Most of the outdoor sections are covered by plants, trees and shrubs from the temperate and Arctic zones. There’s also a three-climates glasshouse, where the plants are arranged according to their geographical origins, a capacious palm house, an orchid nursery and a butterfly house. It’s all very low-key – and none the worse for that – and the gardens make a relaxing break on any tour of central Amsterdam, especially as the café, in the old orangery, serves up tasty sandwiches, coffee and cakes.

So it goes without saying that this is the place to be if plants are your thing. But even if they aren’t, Hortus Botanicus is one of the more unusual things to do in Amsterdam and a welcome change of pace from the rest of Amsterdam’s busy streets.

11. Wertheimpark

The pocket-sized Wertheimpark, across the road from the Hortus Botanicus, is home to the Auschwitz Monument, a simple affair with symbolically broken mirrors and an inscription that reads Nooit meer Auschwitz (“Auschwitz – Never Again”). It was designed by the late Dutch writer Jan Wolkers.

12. De Hollandsche Schouwburg

Another sad relic of the war, De Hollandsche Schouwburg was once a thriving Jewish theatre, but the Nazis turned it into the main assembly point for Amsterdam Jews prior to their deportation. The building has been refurbished to house a small exhibition on the plight of the city’s Jews, but the old auditorium out at the back has been left as an empty, roofless shell. A memorial column of basalt on a Star of David base – the National Holocaust Memorial – stands where the stage once was, an intensely mournful monument to suffering of unfathomable proportions.

13.National Holocaust Museum

For a complete look at this dark period of history, the National Holocaust Museum presents a wide range of exhibitions that delve deep into the personal histories of the victims of the Holocaust, focusing on the Netherlands, but setting the disaster into its international context too.

14. Verzetsmuseum

The excellent Verzetsmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum) outlines the development of the Dutch Resistance from the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940 to the country’s liberation in 1945. The main themes of the occupation are dealt with honestly, noting the fine balance between cooperation and collaboration, while smaller displays focus on aspects such as the protest against the rounding-up of Amsterdam’s Jews in 1941 and the so-called Milk Strike of 1943. There are fascinating old photographs and a host of original artefacts that bring it all to life.

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