Amsterdam is one of Europe's foremost travel destinations. The city is famed for its wonderful canals, world-class art galleries and museums, and its unique, eclectic nightlife. Although relatively young by European city standards, Amsterdam became the seat of a prolific trading empire during the Dutch Golden Age.
Here, we'll explore the history of Amsterdam, from its humble beginnings through to the modern-day.
From “Watery Area” to Fledgling Settlement
Before its rise as a thriving European city, Amsterdam was little more than a small fishing town on the banks of the Amstel river. It was difficult to establish a permanent settlement due to the IJ, a nearby saltwater bay that repeatedly flooded the area. This created the wet peatlands known as the Amestelle, which translates as “watery area”.
In 1170, the All Saint's Flood swamped the area. The IJ grew in size to become a large estuary that connected the Amstel to the North Sea. Sensing an opportunity, the locals began constructing a dam sometime between 1264 and 1275 to control the flow of the river. Amsterdam was born.
Amsterdam's Early Years (1275 to 1565)
The first historical reference to Amsterdam occurs in 1275 AD. The Count of Holland, Floris V, decreed that residents were exempt from paying bridge tolls across Holland. This opened up new trading opportunities for the fledgling town, and money started flooding in.
The oldest of Amsterdam's major churches, the Oude Kerk, was built in approximately 1213 AD. As the city's population grew larger, another major church – Nieuwe Kerk – was constructed in 1408.
Sometime between 1300 and 1306, Amsterdam was granted city rights by the Bishop of Utrecht. During the 14th and 15th Centuries, Amsterdam developed rapidly. Always keen to pursue trading opportunities, the city joined the Hanseatic League – a trading network stretching throughout Europe.
This allowed Amsterdam to bring in large shipments of grain and timber, which local merchants could then sell across Holland. By the 15th Century, Amsterdam was Holland's most important trading hub. But it wasn't all plain sailing. Two devastating fires, one in 1421 and another in 1452, obliterated many of Amsterdam's wooden houses. After losing approximately ¾ of the city, all new buildings in Amsterdam were built from stone.
Amsterdam's Golden Age (1585 to 1672)
Amsterdam's Golden Age took place against the backdrop of the Eighty Years War. The conflict began with the Dutch Revolt in 1566, when the northern provinces of the Netherlands rebelled against Philip II, King of Spain. In 1588, these provinces declared independence and formed the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, otherwise known as the Dutch Republic.
Although it wasn't the official capital of the Republic, Amsterdam was the epicenter of the Dutch Golden Age during the 16th and 17th Centuries. After the Republic seized control of several Portuguese and Spanish colonies, Amsterdam quickly became the center of a worldwide trading network.
Two trading organizations were established to control Amsterdam's vast sphere of economic influence. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established, followed by the Dutch West India Company (GWC) in 1621. Both companies had headquarters located in the city. Ships left Amsterdam bound for ports in North America, the West Indies, Africa, India, and major Asian ports like Indonesia.
Amsterdam also became the world's first major modern banking and financial center. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company created the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and became the world's first public company, laying the foundation for our modern business practices.
But it wasn't just goods and wealth that poured into the city. During the 17th Century, Amsterdam was faced with a rising tide of immigrants from across the world. The city needed more space, so the regents of the city government decided to build a series of canals.
This mammoth undertaking began in 1613. Three of these canals; Herengracht (Patricians' Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal), and Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal) were designed to be residential areas. The fourth canal – Singelgracht – was built on the outskirts of the city as a defensive canal that could help manage the water flow.
Alongside the four major canals, several smaller stretches and over 100 bridges were created to form a network of waterways spanning the city. And it's these waterways that still define Amsterdam's unique character today.
During the Eighty Years War, Amsterdam became a safe haven for religious refugees fleeing the conflicts erupting throughout Europe. Most of these immigrants were Protestants and Jews who had been persecuted in their home countries. These newcomers arrived in droves; Flemish refugees, French Huguenots, German Protestants, and Jews from Portugal and Spain.
Amsterdam also experienced a flourishing of the arts and sciences during the Dutch Golden Age. One of the Dutch Republic's guiding principles was tolerance, making Amsterdam an attractive destination for artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Royal Palace, one of Amsterdam's most famous landmarks, was built in 1665 and reflected the city's immense wealth.
Decline and Renewal (1672 to 1939)
After waging various costly wars against other European nations during the Dutch Golden Age, the Republic's luck finally started to run out. Although Amsterdam's status as Europe's financial capital maintained the Netherlands as an economic power, the Republic collapsed in 1795.
Napoleon briefly took control of the Netherlands, and Amsterdam suffered from a bad recession from 1795 to 1813. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, the Netherlands transitioned into a monarchy. Despite all the political and economical upheaval, Amsterdam continued to grow. Some of the city's finest facades date from this area.
The Industrial Revolution helped drive further development. Large canals were dug to connect Amsterdam directly to the Rhine and the North Sea, creating another economic boom for the city. The population quickly multiplied, and the city had to be expanded past the old Singelgracht.
As thousands of workers moved into Amsterdam from the countryside, political tensions returned. Support for socialism grew but was suppressed by the authorities. Several riots broke out during the 1880s and 1890s.
However, even this couldn't stop Amsterdam from experiencing a second Golden Age at the close of the 19th Century. Some of Amsterdam's most famous landmarks, such as the Rijksmuseum (1885), the Royal Concertgebouw (1888), Centraal Station (1889), and the Stedelijk Museum (1895) were built during this period. A new defensive perimeter of 42 forts – the Stelling van Amsterdam – was established around the city.
The Netherlands remained neutral during the First World War, although Amsterdam did suffer from food shortages. After the conflict, the city continued to expand. The Afsluitdijk, a large causeway and dike, was finished in 1932. For the first time in the city's history, Amsterdam was cut off from the sea.
Horror and Freedom (1939 to present-day)
During World War Two, Amsterdam was occupied by the Nazis, who marched into the city in 1940. Throughout the occupation, Nazi soldiers hunted down Amsterdam's Jewish residents, who tried to hide. Many were sheltered by their Dutch neighbors, who also suffered repercussions if they were caught.
Despite this, thousands of other Jews were taken away from the city, including Anne Frank and her family. As well as the horrific human cost, this crippled Amsterdam's diamond trade, which had mainly been run by Jewish residents. Approximately 80% of Amsterdam's Jewish residents died during the war. To ensure that her legacy would never be forgotten, the Anne Frank House, located in the Jordaan district, was opened to the public in 1960.
As the Nazis lost their hold on Europe in 1945, Amsterdam would experience one last tragedy. As Dutch police attempted to arrest some German officers sheltering in a gentleman's club in Dam Square, the Nazis began to open fire. More soldiers began firing from the roof into the large crowd of citizens below. Approximately 30 people died, with around 100 being wounded. The city was finally liberated a couple of days later.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Amsterdam became one of the leading symbols of the global cultural revolution. Many of the younger generations became more liberal as “hippie” culture spread across the world. Museums like the van Gogh Museum (1973) reflected this new cultural flourishing.
However, various social movements, including the squatter's movement, clashed with the city authorities. In April 1980, Queen Beatrix was crowned in a royal ceremony. In response, various squatter groups across the city staged the “Coronation riots”, especially around Dam Square. As the largest incident of public disturbance since the war, the riots became known as the coronation riots. 600 people were injured, and the squatter movement lost a lot of public support.
Now, Amsterdam has a thriving tourist industry and is one of the most popular destinations in Europe. It has a bevy of world-class art galleries and museums, including the Rijksmuseum and van Gogh Museum. The canals are one of the city's most famous attractions, along with beautiful churches such as the Oude Kerk.
Major historical attractions:
- Oude Kerk – built approximately 1213
- Nieuwe Kerk – constructed approximately 1408
- Royal Palace – finished in approximately 1665
- Rijksmuseum – built in 1885
- Royal Concertgebouw – opened in 1888
- Centraal Station – opened in 1889
- Stedelijk Museum – opened in 1895
- Anne Frank House – opened in 1960
- Van Gogh Museum – opened in 1973
- Heineken Experience – built in 1867