Amsterdam is a cornucopia of cafés, coffee shops, cozy bars, and outdoor markets. Set on 160 man-made canals, Amsterdam also has the largest historical inner city in Europe. The French writer J. K. Huysmans once called Amsterdam “a dream, an orgy of houses and water.” It’s true: when compared with other major European cities, this one is uniquely defined by its impressive gabled houses, rather than palaces, estates, and other aristocratic folderol. Most of the 7,000 registered monuments here began as residences and warehouses of humble merchants.
When to Go
Amsterdam is bustling in the summer, as travelers and locals flock to city parks for sunbathing, before and after cooling off with a few cold drinks at one of the hundreds of neighborhood outdoor cafés. In the summer, Amsterdam can be the most fascinating city in the world; a sun-bleached blend of old and new, crazy and subdued. From October to May, lines for most museums and attractions are smaller, and off-season accommodations are cheaper, but it’s colder, rainier, and windier. Queens Day (April 30) and Museum night (November 4th), are worth visits in their own right.
How’s the Weather?
Amsterdam was built on a swamp and is only 7 feet above sea level, so the city is always a little damp. There is high humidity in the summer and a fair amount of rain, especially in the winter. But moisture aside, Amsterdam’s weather is ultimately comfortable. The temperatures are rarely extreme and there are lots of balmy days, especially in June, July, and August. November to April is consistently overcast and windy, but not too cold. Rule of thumb—always wear layers to put on or take off, have sturdy shoes for walking on the cobblestones, and bring a good umbrella.
Amsterdam’s Historic Almshouses
Hidden behind innocent-looking gateways throughout the city center, most notably along the main ring of canals and in the Jordaan neighborhood, are some of Amsterdam’s most charming houses. There are about 30 hofjes (little courtyards surrounded by almshouses), mainly dating back to the 18th century when the city’s flourishing merchants established hospices for the old and needy. Their philanthropy was supposed to be rewarded by a place in heaven. But be warned (and be prepared for disappointment): today’s residents of these hofjes like their peace and quiet, and often lock their entrances to keep out visitors.
Begijnhof. Here, serenity reigns just feet away from the bustle of the city. The Begijnhof is the tree-filled courtyard of a residential hideaway, built in the 14th century for the Begijntes, a lay Catholic sisterhood. Created as conventlike living quarters for unmarried or widowed laywomen—of which there were many since most able-bodied men were shipped off and killed in the Crusades—this almshouse required them to follow three simple rules: no hens, no dogs, no men. Rent was paid in the form of caring for the sick and educating the destitute. One resident loved living in the Begijnhof so much that she asked to be buried in the gutter here in 1654—so out of respect, don’t tap-dance on the slab of red granite on the walkway on the left side of De Engelse Kerk.
No. 34 is the oldest house in Amsterdam and one of only two remaining wooden houses in the city center (horrific fires forced the city to outlaw the construction of wooden buildings in the 15th century). The small Engelse Kerk (English Church) across from No. 48 dates from 1400. Its pulpit panels were designed by a young and broke Piet Mondriaan. After the Calvinst coup (the Altercation of 1578) the church was confiscated from the Beguines, who later built the supposedly clandestine Mirakel- or Begijnhof-Kapel (Miracle- or Begijn-Chapel), across the lane at No. 29. Entrances on the north side of Spui and on Gedempte Begijnensloot opposite Begijnensteeg, Centrum. Mirakel- or Begijnhof-Kapel Mon. 1-6:30, Tues.-Fri. 9-6:30, weekends 9-6.
The Begijnhof is by far the most famous hofje, but there are a few other little gems that you could explore in a day. The Sint Andrieshofje (Egelantiersgracht 105-141, Jordaan), founded in 1614, is the second-oldest almshouse in Amsterdam. Take notice of the fine gables, including a step gable in the style of Hendrick de Keyser.
The Claes Claeszhofje (Junction of Egelantiersstraat 28-54, Eerste Egelantiersdwarsstraat 1-5, and Tuinstraat 35-49, Jordaan) was founded in 1616 by the textile dealer Claes Claesz Anslo (note his coat of arms atop one entry). The houses here were renovated and are now rented out to artists, the happiest of whom must occupy the Huis met de Schrijvende Hand (“House with the Writing Hand”), the oldest and most picturesque of the lot, topped by a six-stepped gable.
The Zevenkeurvorstenhofje (Tuinstraat 197-223) was founded around 1645, though the houses standing today are from the 18th century, and the Karthuizerhof (Karthuizerstraat 21-131, Jordaan) was founded in 1650 and has a courtyard with two 17th-century pumps.
On the Prinsengracht, between the Prinsenstraat and the Brouwersgracht, are two hofjes right close to one another. The Van Brienen (Prinsengracht 85-133, closed to the public) and De Zon (Prinsengracht 159-171, open weekdays 10-5) both have plaques telling their stories.
For a moment of peace, visit the Suykerhoff-hofje and take in its abundantly green courtyard. These houses opened their doors in 1670 to Protestant “daughters and widows” (as long as they behaved and exhibited “a peace-loving humor”) and provided each of them with free rent, 20 tons of turf, 10 pounds of rice, a vat of butter, and some spending money each year. If only the same was done today. Lindengracht 149-163, Centrum.
Dining Like the Dutch
One thing you should be aware of is the Dutch custom of early dining; in fact, the vast majority of the city’s kitchens turn in for the night at 10 PM—though many of the newer establishments are moving away from this long-held tradition. It should also be noted that many restaurants choose Monday as their day of rest. Lunches are usually served between noon and 2 PM, but many restaurants in Amsterdam are open for dinner only.
Because Amsterdam is a casual sort of town, “jacket and tie” means more “if you feel like it” than “required.” The truly elitist dining spots have long learned to have a supply of jackets on hand for the underdressed. So, “jacket” yes, possibly, though “jacket and tie” is a true rarity.
Although there are strict anti-public smoking laws on the horizon, the cafés and restaurants of Amsterdam remain puffing paradises. Most restaurants provide no-smoking sections, but the fervently pink-lunged antismoker should really call ahead to get the full scoop.
A 15% service charge is automatically included on the menu prices. However, the trend is for most diners to throw in an extra euro or two on smaller bills and EUR 5 or EUR 10 on larger bills.