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Amsterdam city guide

Distinct and instantly recognisable, Amsterdam is a modern city steeped in history with a rich cultural diversity that demands then commands the attention of visitors.

Amsterdam ©Thinkstock

Population: 800,000
Area: 219km²
Altitude: 2m above sea level

Amsterdam is full of happy contradictions. A vibrant, modern city steeped in history; a cultural metropolis you will never get too disorientated in; a quick-paced place whose most famous modes of transport are the bike and barge. There is plenty to see and do: the challenge is to see and do it while remaining gezellig, something akin to cosy that is notoriously difficult to translate – but easy to experience in this fine city.


Amsterdam traces its aquatic origins back to a dam on the river Amstel (the name is derived from Amstelredamme), and has followed a watery path ever since. A small fishing village at the end of the 12th century, the canals of the medieval centre were dug around the 1380s and the settlement thrived. Within 250 years it was a global city, the home of the Dutch East India Company, of Dutch hegemony.

Amsterdam declined with Dutch mercantilism and was briefly absorbed into the French empire before the creation of the Netherlands in 1815. Then came a second golden age, when prosperity flowed into the city along new canals linking the centre with the Rhine and North Sea, and the construction of the Dutch railway system. Amsterdam remains a global city today, a centre of finance and culture.


• Joost van den Vondel, poet and playwright (1587-1679) – the chief chronicler of the Dutch Golden Age who lends his name to the popular Amsterdam Vondelpark.

• Rembrandt van Rijn, artist (1606-1669) – the symbol of the Dutch masters who produced many of his 600 paintings, 2,000 drawings and 300 etchings in Amsterdam.

• Hendrik Petrus Berlage, architect (1856-1934) – designer whose modernist imprint is still seen in Amsterdam,  most famously the Beurs van Berlage and Berlage bridge.

• Anne Frank (1929-1945) – Jewish girl whose diary of her time in hiding during the Second World War has been published and translated into over 60 languages.

• Johan Cruyff, football player (1947-) – one of the all-time greats, instantly recognisable in his No14 shirt, he was at the vanguard of the rise of Dutch Football and AFC Ajax.

• André Hazes, singer (1951-2004) – discovered raising money to buy his mother a gift, he made his name performing 'smartlappen' (tear-jerkers) and 48,000 filled the Amsterdam ArenA for his funeral.


Amsterdam's canals
Amsterdam's canals©Thinkstock

It is captivating, but if you escape the welcoming web there is much reward. The Museumplein is home to three major art houses – Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Rembrandthuis – and the Jordaan and Pijp neighbourhoods are well worth exploring. Venture north and you will find the Waterfront, known locally as the Ij, while in the other direction, by Schiphol, is the Amsterdamse Bos, an enormous park.


To and from
Schiphol is the fourth busiest airport in Europe, handling over 50 million passengers travelling to more than 250 destinations each year. Located 18km south-west of Amsterdam, it is a 20-minute train journey to Centraal Station in the heart of the city. That is also the international train hub, with regular services to destinations throughout Europe, including Cologne (2.5 hours), Frankfurt (4 hours) and, via Brussels, Paris (4.5 hours) and London (5.5 hours).

In and around
Transport buffs will not get bored in Amsterdam. The impressive public network includes metros, buses, ferries (there is a free service behind the Centraal Station), trains and, perhaps most useful for visitors, trams. You can buy tickets for one hour or multiple-trip smartcards called the OV-chipkaart, which cost an initial €7.50 but journeys are cheaper. The I amsterdam City card, which provides entrance to many museums and attractions, gives you unlimited use of public transport. With 400km of cycle paths and so many bike rental shops, two wheels are just as good.


The football landscape would be incomplete without AFC Ajax. For so long the dominant force in the Netherlands, in the late 1960s and 1970s they helped redefine the game worldwide. Under Rinus Michels, a side led by Cruyff refined the fluid style of 'Total Football' to devastating effect. 'Gloria Ajax' claimed six Dutch championships between 1966 and 1973, an achievement eclipsed by three successive European Cup wins from 1971.

Ajax celebrate their 1995 triumph
Ajax celebrate their 1995 triumph©Bongarts

Conversations about Amsterdam and football invariably start and end with the 31-time Dutch title holders – it has not always been that way. The city's original powerhouses with SV RAP, a club formed by members of three cricket teams, RUN, Amstels and Progress which claimed five Dutch titles at the end of the 19th century.

Ajax were founded in 1900, winning five championships themselves in the 1930s, but had to compete for Amsterdammers' affections. DWS, Door Wilskracht Sterk (Through Willpower Strong), were chief among the rivals, especially after becoming Dutch champions in 1964 in their first season since promotion – a feat that has never been matched.

By 1972 DWS were no more, however, merging with Blauw-Wit Amsterdam and De Volewijckers to form FC Amsterdam. Playing in the Olympic stadium, there were initial highs as they beat FC Internazionale Milano en route to the 1974/75 UEFA cup quarter-finals. Yet relegation to the second division sounded the death knell and the club was disbanded in 1982. Ajax, meanwhile, were going from strength to strength.


Amsterdam has a long sporting tradition. It is home to the Netherlands' oldest hockey club, past European champions in both the men's and women's game. Ice hockey, tennis, volleyball, baseball, basketball and ice skating are popular as, of course is cycling: Amsterdam was the first non-French city to host the grand départ of the Tour de France in 1954. Venue for the 1928 Olympics, the city is the birthplace of korfball, a popular regional game where men and women play together.