The Old Centre: Amsterdam's most vibrant district

Amsterdam’s Old Centre may be medieval in structure, but it’s also the city’s most vibrant district, its handsome streets buzzing at all hours with visitors and good-time seekers. Join them in this tangle of antique streets and narrow canals to admire the gorgeous houses and historic buildings, hit up some of the best bars and restaurants in the city, and take a peek at the world’s oldest profession, in Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District.

Centraal Station

Amsterdam’s major rail station is designed with a sense of occasion – think a Gothic, Renaissance Revival exterior, sweeping grand arches and a huge main hall – that makes it an exciting place to arrive. From here, all of the city lies before you – and given its dominance on most transport routes, most visitors will start their exploration of Amsterdam at Centraal Station. The terminus is located on an artificial island in the IJ lake, so it almost seems to stand slightly apart from the city centre, its grand form reflecting in the lake’s water.

Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas

Just across from the station, you can see the grand form of Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas, the city’s foremost Catholic church. You may want to admire its whopping twin towers and cupola from a bit of a distance to get the best view, but it’s worth peeking inside at the cavernous interior. The church is dedicated to the patron saint of sailors – and of Amsterdam. Above the altar is the crown of the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian, very much a symbol of the city.


Explore Amsterdam

This picturesque, hip city has something for everyone, from beautiful canals and architecture to fascinating museums and galleries. Enjoy coffee and culture with a city break in Amsterdam.


Damrak

It doesn’t take long to reach the heart of Amsterdam. From Centraal Station, a stroll across the bridge will take you onto the Damrak, which separates the Oude Zijde (Old Side) of the medieval city from the smaller Nieuwe Zijde (New Side), and runs to Dam Square. Humming with activity and packed with people at most hours, Damrak is lined with busy restaurants, bars and useful businesses like bureaux de change, as well as some grand buildings harking to the city’s Golden Age.

Beurs van Berlage

You can’t miss the Beurs – the old Stock Exchange – located on Damrak. Its bulky form is impressive and certainly communicates the grandeur of the building’s original purpose. The Beurs has long since lost its commercial function and today it’s used for exhibitions, concerts and conferences, which means that sometimes you can go in, sometimes you can’t.

Inside, the main hall is distinguished by the graceful lines of its exposed ironwork and its shallow-arched arcades as well as the fanciful frieze celebrating the stockbroker’s trade. If it’s closed, stop by the bistro that fronts onto Beursplein around the corner for a coffee and admire the tiled scenes of the past, present and the future by Jan Toorop.

The Dam

Damrak leads to Dam Square – usually known as The Dam – located at the very heart of the city. It’s an open and airy space, not that you’d necessarily know, as it’s almost always packed with both locals and tourists. Grab a pavement café perch – if you can find an empty one – and enjoy the hustle and bustle. There are food stalls dotted around too, if you want to eat on the go.

This is the location of the main municipal war memorial, a prominent stone tusk adorned by rather bleak figures and decorated with the coats of arms of each of the Netherlands’ provinces (plus the ex-colony of Indonesia). The Dam is what gave Amsterdam its name: the River Amstel was dammed here, and the fishing village that grew around it became known as “Amstelredam”.

Koninklijk Paleis

You simply can’t miss the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace), a huge, grandiose pile which dominates The Dam and is used by the Dutch royal family for state occasions. Take a spin around the building to take in all the details: the maritime symbolism of the exterior hints at the trade routes that made the city rich, while the interior proclaims the pride and confidence of Amsterdam’s Golden Age, principally in the lavish Citizen’s Hall where the enthroned figure of Amsterdam looks down on the earth and the heavens, laid out before her in three circular, inlaid marble maps.

Nieuwe Kerk

Another important and grand building; another slightly misleading name. Adjacent to the Koninklijk Paleis is the Nieuwe Kerk, which despite its name – ‘new church’ – dates from the decidedly old 15th century and is actually now an art gallery, used for interesting temporary exhibitions. Check out the details from the space’s previous life as a church while you browse the art.

Magna Plaza

For a shopping foray, or just a refreshment break before delving deeper into the city, the Magna Plaza shopping mall – located behind the Royal Palace – is a useful resource. Home to smart mid-market brands, this old neo-Gothic post office is an impressive home for a very modern shopping experience.

Red Light District

Let’s be honest, Amsterdam’s Red Light District is one of the first things that springs to mind when you think of the city – whatever your perspective on it. The red-lit picture windows make an incongruous contrast to the Oude Zijde’s elegant architecture and seeing sex advertised so blatantly can be somewhat confusing.

Curious about what really goes on in the Red Light District? Have your eyes opened in the safest way possible on an evening walking tour of the area. Led by an experienced guide, this is a great way to find out more about everything from the serious (the Prostitution Information Centre) to the titillating (specialist sex shops) and the downright eye-popping (hardcore leather emporiums). Check out New Europe Tours for more.

Oude Kerk

Located at the heart of Amsterdam’s red-light district, the Oude Kerk (Old Church) is the oldest building in the city but also one of the city’s quirkiest attractions. How so? Well, Oude Kerk is not another old, musty church. In the 1500s, artist Jacob van Oostsanen was commissioned to produce new works for the church, and this tradition of commissioning has continued to the present day. Indeed, the Oude Kerk is the biggest commissioner of art in the entire country and visitors will find cutting-edge art installations sitting next to the works of Jacob van Oostsanen and his contemporaries.

But if art isn’t your thing then you’ll be delighted to know that the view from the top isn’t bad either. The Oudekerkstorern (the Oude Kerk tower) is open to the public and offers panoramic views of the whole city.

There’s been a church on this site since the middle of the thirteenth century, but most of the present building dates from a century later, funded by the pilgrims who came here in their hundreds following a widely publicised ‘miracle’ (regarding a host that wouldn’t burn when thrown on a fire) in 1345. Thousands of the faithful still come to take part in the annual commemorative Stille Omgang in mid-March, a silent nocturnal procession terminating at the Oude Kerk.

Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder

A few metres north of the Oude Kerk is the lovely Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (‘Our Dear Lord in the Attic’), a former Catholic chapel, now one of Amsterdam’s most enjoyable museums. Venture in to wonder at the details of the city’s sole surviving clandestine church (schuilkerken), here in the loft of a wealthy merchant’s home.

The church dates from the early 17th century when the city’s ruling Protestants decreed that Catholics could no longer practise their faith openly. The result was an eccentric compromise: Catholics were allowed to hold services in any private building providing that the exterior revealed no sign of their activities.

The church’s narrow nave has been skillfully shoehorned into the available space and, flanked by elegant balconies, there’s just enough room for an ornately carved organ at one end and a mock-marble high altar. The time capsule sense is heightened by the rest of the house, its original furnishings reminiscent of interiors by Vermeer or De Hooch.

Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum

Leave behind the serious artefacts of Dutch history and religion – it’s time for a change of pace, and a really chilled one at that. The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum is an appropriately-located repository of everything and anything weed-related, and claims to hold the “world’s largest collection of cannabis-related artefacts”. It features a truly mind-bending range of displays on different kinds of dope and the huge number of ways to consume it.

Among the six thousand items on show are old tins of prescription cannabis, a hemp electric guitar and running shoes, plus pamphlets explaining the medicinal properties of weed. There’s also a shop selling pipes, books, videos and plenty of souvenirs for the blazer in your life.

Nieuwmarkt

On the far side of the Red Light District is the Nieuwmarkt, a wide open cobbled square that was one of the city’s most important markets – still one of the most highly rated in Amsterdam. Its focus is the multi-turreted Waag, a delightful building dating from the 1480s, when it served as one of the city’s fortified gates, the Sint Antoniespoort. Thereafter it was turned into a municipal weighing-house (waag), with the rooms upstairs taken over by the surgeons’ guild. You can admire the setting close up, as it has now been converted into the café-bar and restaurant, In de Waag.

Schreierstoren

A few minutes’ walk north from Nieuwmarkt, the squat Schreierstoren (Weepers’ Tower) is a rare surviving chunk of the city’s medieval wall. Originally, the tower overlooked the River IJ and it was here (legend has it) that women gathered to watch their menfolk sail away – hence its name. Look out for a plaque recalling the departure of Henry Hudson from here in 1609, when he stumbled across an island the locals called Manhattan.

Het Scheepvaarthuis

Now occupied by the five-star Amrath hotel, this flamboyant Expressionist building is definitely eye-catching. Check out the welter of maritime references – the entrance is shaped like the prow of a ship, and surmounted by statues of Poseidon and his wife, and representations of the four points of the compass.

Kloveniersburgwal

Nieuwmarkt lies at the northern end of Kloveniersburgwal, a long, dead-straight waterway framed by old, dignified facades. One house of special note is the Trippenhuis, at no. 29, a huge overblown mansion built for the Trip family in 1662, once one of the richest families in Amsterdam during the city’s Golden Age.

Almost directly opposite the Trippenhuis, on the west bank of the canal, the Kleine Trippenhuis at no. 26 is, by contrast, one of the narrowest houses in Amsterdam. Legend asserts that Mr Trip’s coachman was so taken aback by the size of the new family mansion across the way that he exclaimed he would be happy with a home no wider than the Trips’ front door – which is exactly what he got. This is a fun spot for a photo, demonstrating just how skinny this house is.

Pintohuis

Stretching south from the wide open spaces of the Nieuwmarkt, St Antoniesbreestraat once linked the city centre with the Jewish quarter. Today, it’s lined with modern buildings featuring cubist, coloured panels. One of the few old buildings on St Antoniebreestraat is the Pintohuis, now a cultural centre. Pop in to look at the birds and cherubs of the original painted ceiling.

Oudemanhuispoort

You have arrived in a rather scholarly part of town. At the south end of Kloveniersburgwal, the Oudemanhuispoort is a covered passageway whose sides are lined with second-hand bookstalls (held on weekdays, noon–5pm); it was formerly part of an almshouse complex for elderly men – hence the unusual name. The buildings to either side of the passageway are now part of the University of Amsterdam, which dominates this part of town, its associated colleges and residences stretching south to Nieuwe Dolenstraat. At the end, seek out a little courtyard frequented by law students, a charming green space that’s perfect for a serene breather.

Staalstraat

A dinky little bridge spans the southern end of Kloveniersburgwal to reach pedestrianised Staalstraat, which cuts across one of the most delightfully picturesque corners of the city on its way to Waterlooplein. Try to grab a good leaning perch on Staalstraat and point your camera towards the especially lovely view down Groenburgwal, a narrow and almost impossibly pretty waterway framed by dignified old canal houses, with the Zuiderkerk looming beyond.

Rokin and Kalverstraat

The busy Rokin picks up where the Damrak leaves off, cutting south from the Dam in a wide sweep that follows the former course of the River Amstel, edged by the familiar border of stationary bicycles. This street was the business centre of the nineteenth-century city, and it is still flanked by an attractive medley of architectural styles incorporating everything from grandiose mansions to more utilitarian modern stuff.

Running parallel, pedestrianised Kalverstraat is a busy shopping street that has been a commercial centre since medieval times, when it was used as a calf market; nowadays it’s no different, but today it’s lined with a familiar line up of European chain clothes shops.

Allard Pierson Museum

It may not be what you instantly associate with Amsterdam, but if you’ve got even a passing interest in ancient civilisations, it’s worth checking out the Allard Pierson Museum, a good old-fashioned archeological museum. It’s not an especially large collection, but it does have a wide-ranging assortment of artefacts mainly retrieved from Egypt, Greece and Italy. There is a particularly fascinating section on the Coptic Christians of Egypt, while also of note is a delightful model of a ship and its crew from the Middle Kingdom – a funerary object designed to transport the soul of the dead to the afterlife.

Heiligeweg to the Spui

Heiligeweg, or “Holy Way”, which crosses Kalverstraat near Muntplein, was once part of a much longer route used by pilgrims heading into Amsterdam. Cut up Voetboogstraat and you soon reach the Spui, which opens out into a wide, tramclanking intersection. Right in the middle is a cutesy statue of a young boy, known as ’t Lieverdje (“Little Darling” or “Loveable Scamp”), a gift to the city from a cigarette company in 1960. The Spui is popular with a high-brow set of academics and journalists, thanks to its many bookshops and tempting cafés, perfect for settling in with a laptop.

Begijnhof

If pounding the streets of the old city has started to get wearing, you’re in luck, because hidden behind a door in the centre of Amsterdam is one of its most special places. A little gateway on the north side of the Spui leads into the Begijnhof, where a huddle of immaculately maintained old houses look out onto a central green; (if this door is locked, try the more prosaic main entrance, 200m north of the Spui on Gedempte Begijnensloot).

The Begijnhof was founded as a home for the beguines – members of a Catholic sisterhood living as nuns, but without vows and with the right of return to the secular world. The original medieval complex comprised a series of humble brick cottages, but these were mostly replaced by the larger, grander houses of today shortly after the Reformation, though the secretive, enclosed design survived. It’s extraordinary to be inside such a peaceful space right in the middle of the city, while the serene atmosphere remains as well as it can in a popular tourist location.

Amsterdam Museum

Amsterdam has such a storied history and has been at the centre of so many major European and world developments, you could do much worse than a visit to the Amsterdam Museum, for a comprehensive overview of the city’s development from its origins as an insignificant fishing village to its present incarnation as a major metropolis.

Rambling 17th-century buildings house equally diverse exhibits, ranging from Golden Age paintings to displays on the German occupation of World War II; the demise of the Amsterdam shipbuilding industry; the squatters’ movement and the Provos youth movement. 

Be sure to check out the glassed-in passageway – the schuttersgalerij – which is used for temporary exhibitions of group portraits – anything from Johan Cruyff and his footballing chums to paintings of the Amsterdam militia in their seventeenth-century pomp.

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