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Amsterdam Travel guide

Amsterdam hotels, Amsterdam vacation packages 2024 - 2025

Amsterdam, Capital of Inspiration, is filled with character, culture and history. Amsterdam’s simmering big-city feeling and historical setting stimulate all the senses. In hospitable, many-coloured Amsterdam, all the cultures of the world are represented. This can be seen in the international cuisine, the variety of shopping possibilities, and the art and culture. Amsterdam is refreshingly surprising and exciting.

Enjoy the charms of Amsterdam, of the beautifully lit city and the many priceless works of art exhibited by the museums of Amsterdam. Amsterdam Winter Adventure offers an overview of the most important museum exhibits in Amsterdam.


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Amsterdam Travel information

Travel Guide

Amsterdam - History

The early days

The first written mention of Amsterdam comes in 1275. In that year Count Floris V granted the people living near the dam on the Amstel River freedom to navigate the waters of the Province of Holland - without paying tolls.

This tax-exemption was an important step in a long-standing power struggle. The lands around the Amstel (Amstel-lands) actually belonged to the Bishop of Utrecht, but were ruled on his behalf by the Lords of Amstel.

They were threatening to declare independence from the Bishop. Floris V put a stop to this. A separate, independent Amstel-land did not fit in with his plans. And to win the hearts and minds of the population he granted freedom from tolls - a foretaste of the benefits of joining mighty Holland! The ploy worked. The Lords of Amstel were obliged to accept the Count of Holland as their feudal master. But they were not happy about it, and in 1296 they kidnapped and assassinated Floris. Amsterdam duly reverted to the bishopric of Utrecht.

City charter

In 1300 or 1306 - the year can't be fixed for sure - Amsterdam was granted a city charter by its feodal lord, the Bishop of Utrecht. When the bishop died in 1317, the situation turned around again. Lordship over the city passed to his near relative, William III, Count of Holland. Amsterdam was back in the powerful arms of Holland for good.

The city was developing fast. The first church - the core of today's Old Church - was built around 1300. Dikes were built along the banks of the Amstel river. And in the river itself, at the spot where the National Monument now stands, they built a dam. This became the site of the 'Plaetse' market.


Amsterdam's economy floated on beer and herring. In 1323 the city was awarded a monopoly on the import of beer from Hamburg - something which had been prohibited for a long period. This gave Amsterdam a valuable competitive advantage. Baltic countries had traditionally dominated the herring trade. But when the fish shifted their spawning ground to the North Sea, Amsterdam saw its chance to penetrate a new market. This coincided with new gutting techniques enabling the catch to be kept fresh even longer. The fishermen could now get bigger catches to market and profits rose apace.

Political unity

The region which now forms the Netherlands was politically fragmented. The gradual move towards greater unity got underway in the 15th and 16th centuries. The process was pushed along by the young city - quick to see the benefits of burgeoning trade.

During the 15th century Amsterdam became part of the powerful and widespread Dukedom of Burgundy, under Duke Philip the Good. The duke sought to keep his lands together, but ran up against opposition in Holland and from Countess Jacoba of Bavaria who feared Burgundian encirclement. Sides were chosen and the sets of supporters - calling themselves the 'codfish' and the 'hooks' - battled it out. Amsterdam backed Duke Philip and his successors.

Centre of commerce

Political unity of the Low Countries - roughly covering the area of today's Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - came in 1543. The man responsible was Charles V, the great-great-grandson of Philip the Good.

The hub of the new state was in the south, with Brussels as capital. Amsterdam's importance came from its status as a centre of commerce. The city imported wood and grain from the Baltic region - also the place to buy iron-ore, furs and cod. The salt to preserve the cod came from Portugal. This made Amsterdam into a central clearing-house where goods from north and south could be stored, processed and sold on. And to service the growing business community and international trade, Amsterdam developed a range of trades and professions like cartography, printing, banking and insurance.

Biggest city

A blooming economy helped Amsterdam to grow into the biggest city in the province of Holland, with some 30,000 inhabitants. We can get an idea of the size and spread of the city from 16th century maps. The IJ waterway (pronounced: 'eye') was still an estuary; in it was a port directly connected to Damrak. Ocean-going vessels could sail right into the city, up to what is today Dam Square. Back then, the Dam was covered in small houses, with a medieval, gothic city hall. The New Church (as opposed to the Old Church built a century earlier in 1300) was also surrounded by clusters of houses. And the city limits were defined by the Singel canal to the west, and the Kloveniersburgwal (wall) to the east.

The Republic

Amsterdam was not immune to the Reformation which raged through Europe. For a long while it remained a Catholic stronghold, but protestantism gradually took the upper hand. Religious rivalry actually halted the city's growth between 1535 and 1578. One early group, the Anabaptists, wanted the equality of all men in heaven to be applied on earth. To make their point, sect members stripped off their clothes and took to the streets in 'honest nakedness'. They were rounded-up and executed with all the cruelty of the time. The authorities whose laxity had allowed matters to reach such a stage were replaced by a tougher regime.

Eighty years war

Wars of religion stopped the unification of the Netherlands. Charles V's son Philip II, inherited the throne of Spain. And as King Philip of Spain he sought to annihilate the reformation in the Netherlands. Many of the Dutch rebelled. They wanted to keep their freedom and opposed the idea of religious persecution. Prince William of Orange became their national leader. His ironic nickname, William the Silent, came from his skill as a negotiator - never committing himself until the last possible moment. In 1572, the province of Holland chose the side of William of Orange. Only Amsterdam remained loyal to Spain. Indeed, Amsterdam helped the Spanish army capture Haarlem. At this point the advantage started to shift. The Spanish troops were forced to retreat, and the Sea Beggars - pirates to some, patriots to others - gained the upper hand over the Amsterdammers. The city was now isolated. A peace treaty with the rest of the province of Holland was signed in 1578, and within a few months a new city government was in place, made up of protestants and allies of William of Orange.

Seven provinces

A definite break-up of the Netherlands came in 1579. The provinces clustered in two 'Unions', of Utrecht and Atrecht. The seven provinces in the Union of Utrecht continued the war with Spain until 1648 and the Peace of Munster. This treaty marked the end of the eighty years war.

The seven provinces - the basis for the modern Netherlands - were known as 'the Republic'. Together they formed a loose state. William of Orange was given the title of 'Stadholder'. In broad terms this made him a semi-hereditary president/commander-in-chief, with wide powers in time of war, but subject to a mass of checks and balances in peacetime. (A unique construction reflecting the Dutch relish for compromise and consensus.)

Stadholder William of Orange was based in The Hague. While Amsterdam was outside the centre of power, under the Republic, the 'say' of city or province was measured by how much money it contributed. The Dutch Republic was neither a democracy as we know it, nor the sort of absolute monarchy which reigned in most neighbouring countries.

Rights and privileges awarded to the city in the middle ages, added to a flair for wheeling-and-dealing in business, ensured a degree of freedom and tolerance.

A touch of spice

Merchant adventurers from Amsterdam sailed the seas to the far-off Indies or 'spice-islands' (today's Indonesia).

Big risks brought bigger rewards. Soon, a process had been launched that would boom into the 'Golden Century'.

Towards the end of the 15th century, the great maritime powers of Portugal and Spain undertook epic voyages of discovery to the Americas and the Indies. Holland soon became involved in trading exotic imports from these regions, initially by collecting cargoes in Lisbon for sale and distribution to wider markets.

The seven seas

The situation changed in 1580 when Spain annexed Portugal. The northern Netherlanders now had to make the trip to the Indies under their own flag. Meanwhile many rich merchants from the southern Netherlands had moved to Amsterdam after Antwerp fell to the Spanish. Their arrival gave the city's business community an extra boost.

Among the new arrivals were Portuguese jews; having fled their home country for Antwerp, they were refugees once again.

Economic success

The very first trading voyages to the Indies from Amsterdam were a phenomenal success, yielding shareholders an awesome 400% profit. Anxious to share these riches, ships were fitted-out and dispatched from every port in the country. In 1602 all these fragmented efforts were clustered in the Dutch East Indies Company. Amsterdam provided more than half the capital. Other investors included ordinary people, alongside the wealthy merchant classes. Amsterdam was prevented from having half the seats on the board, for fear of over-domination. All the same, the city was still a powerful force within the organisation.

Golden century

The 17th century was boom-time for Amsterdam. Riches, power, culture and tolerance burgeoned in the city.

The canals

Not surprisingly, Amsterdam's magnificent network of canals was set out in the 17th century. And along the canals which girdle the city, the citizens built houses taller than any seen in any other Dutch city centre. The city authorities encouraged this 'tall is prestigious' idea to add to the glory of Amsterdam. Two massive places of worship were built in the first half of the century, the Zuiderkerk and Westerkerk - respectively the South and West churches. The gothic city hall was destroyed by fire in 1652, and the present building (now the Dam Palace) rose up on the same site. Dam Square - still De Plaetse in those days - was expanded considerably. The city also grew apace, and by 1700 it boasted some 200,000 inhabitants.


Culture flourished alongside business. Poets and playwrights like Bredero, Vondel and P.C. Hooft created their immortal works. Rembrandt and his pupils had their ateliers here. And the philosophers Spinoza and Descartes ('I think therefore I am') fashioned new insights as food for thought.

Economic crash

Amsterdam looked rich and powerful, but its prosperity was fragile. War with England prevented the arrival of a crucial merchant fleet from the Indies, bringing the city to the brink of bankruptcy. For people at the lower end of the social scale this meant no work. They went hungry, and discontent smouldered.

Baltic trade was still the traditional pillar of the city's economy. And when war came to the Baltic, Amsterdam ships fought on the Danish side against Sweden and Norway.

The year 1672 brought a new trial of strength, with war between the Republic and France of Louis XIV. On top of this, England attacked. Making good use of the turmoil, William III of Orange seized power. And when the direct danger to the country had been quickly disposed off, William III wanted to continue the war. Amsterdam opposed these plans - in the eyes of the city fathers it was 'pouring money down the drain'.

Marking time

Amsterdam's period of boom had run out by the end of the 17th century. The city lost its status as heavyweight commercial sea-power. In turn, that eroded its position as universal clearing house. Money itself started to play a greater role and the city became Europe's financial and banking centre (indeed, the concept of shares was born in Amsterdam). Princes and potentates came here to borrow the funds to fill their war-chests. War has never been cheap. Meanwhile, the middle-classes were becoming politically aware ....

The social divide

By around 1600 wide gaps had grown up between the classes in Amsterdam. At top were the Regents - wealthy families who effectively ran the city, filling their pockets along the way. Nepotism was rife. A newborn baby from the right family could be appointed to well-paid sinecure (i.e. a job with a formal title but no work to do).

Meanwhile, basic necessities were heavily taxed and unemployment was widespread. Gradually, a new middle class arose, between the rich regents and the poor at the bottom of the ladder. These new burgers were literate and open to new ideas from England and France - and they wanted a slice of power. The 18th century brought an age of enlightenment to Europe. The old order was being questioned. The air was alive with new ideas and theories around democracy and the sharing of power. These middle-class burgers saw the House of Orange as a natural ally against the regents. And in 1747, middle-class pressure secured many of the powers of a monarch for William IV of Orange.


A reform movement sprang up in Amsterdam, demanding an end to the corruption of the regents. By 1748 this had grown into a widespread popular drive. Rioting erupted across the Seven Provinces, with the violence directed at the hated tax-gatherers. Their houses were systematically plundered and destroyed. The authorities acted with an iron fist: the ring-leaders were captured and hanged.

A generation later the so-called Patriot movement fought for the same ideals. But this time they targeted not only the regents, but also the House of Orange and the way the province of Holland and Amsterdam dominated the Republic. There were some ugly incidents and skirmishes, and many of the Patriots fled to France. This was on the eve of the French Revolution. Helped by French sympathizers and inspired by ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood, they returned - effectively taking over the Dutch Republic in 1795. The city authorities of Amsterdam were ejected and replaced by provisional representatives of the people. These were the first experimental shoots of democracy.

Capital city

It was a short interlude. Napoleonic French influence turned into interference then dictatorship. The Republic was given a single head of state, only to become a Kingdom, under Napoleon's brother Louis. Louis-Napoleon chose Amsterdam as his official place residence, making it the country's focal point and capital. In 1813, the allies defeated Napoleon and the French left the Netherlands. In 1815, William I became king. Formally, Amsterdam remained the capital city, but - as in times gone by - the government went to The Hague.

Amsterdam Sights, sightseeing, culture:

Travel Guide

Amsterdam Culture and Leisure Pass / Museumjaarkaart (Museumyearcard)
You could make your visit to Amsterdam more attractive and economical with The Amsterdam Culture and Leisure Pass. The Pass, containing 31 coupons, gave you free entry or substantial discounts to many of Amsterdam’s museums and other attractions. Also included, a free canal tour by boat. The pass cost only NLG. 39.50. (E 17.90) and was obtainable from the Amsterdam Tourist Offices. The Amsterdam Culture Leisure Pass also included numerous discounts on meals, drinks, canal tours and cruises, and discounts on museums One bad piece of news: This card is gone!

One good piece of news: It has been replaced by The Amsterdam Pass and the Museumjaarkaart. The Amsterdam Pass is good for those who are just visiting Amsterdam for a couple of days. Among many other free entries and discounts listed, it includes free "Entry Rijksmuseum or van Gogh museum." As we have mentioned, it's good for those who only plan to visit Amsterdam once a year or less . It costs 26/36/46 Euros for 1/2/3 day passes.

While the Amsterdam Pass only provides free entry or discounts on certain sights in Amsterdam, the Museum Year Card is for those who have more time. The "Museumjaarkaart" pass is for people who love museums and plan to visit at least 4-6 of them. This pass is good for a year, permits entrance to more than 400 museums and costs only 25 euro for adults (+ 4.95 for administration costs, payable only the first time you issue the card) and 12.5 euro for children (+4.95) or if you have a student card) (check into the International Student Identity Card, or ISIC, available through student travel agencies). (Note: The Museum Card does NOT include entry into the Anne Frank museum, so you will have to pay for that separately.)
It is also good if you wish to travel outside Amsterdam. The first museum to see outside Amsterdam is the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, which also accepts the Museumjaarkaart. You can buy the Museum Year Card at museums or VVV tourist offices but make sure you carry an extra passport type picture to glue onto the pass. You can even order it on line. We could not find a form in English, so you'll have to fill out the form in Dutch. For us to help you, please note that you must put in the following personal data in the fields provided, in order: Family Name, First Name, Sex, Residence address (Street, Street Nr, + floor), Postal code and district, Telephone Nr, E-mail address, Birth data (Date-Month-Year). To proceed please click HERE

Amsterdam, City of Lights
During the winter, Amsterdam is literally in the spotlights. Within the framework of the ‘Verlicht Amsterdam’ event, historical bridges, beautiful facades and the canals will be festively lighted, and a number of events are planned.

The museums of Amsterdam are organizing impressive exhibitions, and the theatres and concert halls are presenting much-discussed international programs. Visit the lovely Christmas Circus in Carré or one of the special concerts in the Concertgebouw. With a bit of luck, you may even be able to discover the sensation of skating on the canals.

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