The Fascinating History of Amsterdam

By Cedric Lizotte / 14 August 2017

The Fascinating History of Amsterdam

By Cedric Lizotte

Ever wondered how the city of Amsterdam was founded, considering it was literally knee-deep in water? Back in the 12th century, a group of adventurous young people sailed down the Amstel River in vessels made of logs they’d hollowed out. They began to dig dams and dykes in the swamps and marshy areas around the river in order to regulate the water levels and eventually created a modest but architecturally brilliant fishing village. It would go on to become one of the world’s greatest empires in the late 1500s, during Holland’s Golden Age and the hey-day of Amsterdam’s economic prosperity.

The city as a whole in incredibly fascinating, from a historical point of view. There are so many quirky and fun facts to discover in Amsterdam, and not just how many bikes end up in canals every year. Here are a few of the amusing and captivating facts that make up this city, and some of the addresses where history can still be witnessed today.

The oldest house on the oldest street

The oldest house in Amsterdam can be found on Warmoesstraat (“straat” means “street” in Dutch), and is more than 530 years old. It has an unassuming façade from the 19th century, but when the wooden beams from the house were analysed and it was discovered that the frame of the house was actually constructed in 1485.

Warmoesstraat itself was built by hand, by digging on either side of it. Year after year, the street would return towards the water, and because of Amsterdam’s less-than-firm swampy foundation, needed to be dug and rebuilt every few years.

Crooked houses in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Photo credit: Andrij Bulba

Crooked and charming houses

Speaking of Amsterdam’s old buildings, part of the architectural charm of this city is that its houses are quite noticeably crooked. They lean against each other almost by sheer magic and sometimes a whole block can have a conspicuous slant to the left or to the right. There are several explanations for this, beginning with the fact that Amsterdam is pretty much built on a swamp, and so houses have poles that go deep into the damp earth for stability.

Today these poles are reinforced with cement, but back when they were built, they were originally made out of wood. Without these poles, houses in Amsterdam would sink into the mud. And of course, the wood poles quite naturally have been rotting throughout the past few hundred years. All of this combined is causing the houses’ lopsided appearance. In Amsterdam, one would have to dig through 11 metres of clay and peat before one could even hit the top layer of firm ground. New buildings now have to dig down to 18 metres to install poles!

If you look up towards the sky while strolling Amsterdam’s picturesque streets and get the feeling that the houses are leaning towards you… well, that’s not just a feeling, they really are! In fact, until the 19th century, houses in this city were required to have top floors that were wider than the bottom storeys, a practice called jettying, so that rain would not enter into people’s homes. All these uneven quirks just add to the city’s charm.

Amstel River, Amsterdam
Photo credit: Milliped via Creative Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Going back in time

Way back in the beginning, Amsterdam’s inhabitants built dams and dykes on the Amstel River and charged toll fees to the herring and beer merchants from the bustling East Sea Trade from the Baltics. This gave rise to the “Aemstelledammers” eventually becoming brewers themselves – remember Heineken and Grolsch? – as well as master builders of boats, which drew even more people to town.

Merchants of beer and herring were eventually allowed to travel toll-free, which not only kept their prices down but in turn contributed to the city’s prosperity. In fact, herring is closely connected to the history of the city: cured herring quite literally saved the city’s economy, as fishermen realised they could store greater quantities of fish and therefore make more money.

The 17th century was a Golden Age for Amsterdam. 1602 saw the founding of the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational corporation, and in which Amsterdam had a majority stake. This prosperity encouraged the city leaders to undertake major expansions of Amsterdam and, being quite at ease in their finances, opted to focus heavily on beauty and functionality into these plans for growth.

Thus, Amsterdam’s famous canals and the Jordaan district were born. Incidentally, this was also the time when the art scene in Amsterdam exploded, as the talents of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Steen became known all over the world.

Amsterdam's canals, Netherlands
Photo credit : Peter K Burian under CC BY-SA 4.0

Amsterdam’s famous canals

Amsterdam is a city made of canals! Amsterdam is nicknamed the “Venice of the North”, and for good reason. Of course, these canals are necessary as Amsterdam is built below sea level, but they are also the product of careful city planning.

There are more than 100 kilometres of canals, 1500 bridges and 90 islands in Amsterdam. There are three major canals known as “grachtengordel” (belt of canals) that encircle the city, and you’ll find more than 1500 historical buildings along them.

Amsterdam’s famous flowers

Holland is accountable for 70% of the world’s commercial flowers. Visitors to Amsterdam in the spring cannot miss the Flower Strip, or “Bollenstreek,” as millions of flowers burst into bloom.

Another way to get a taste of Amsterdam’s flower craze is to visit the Keukenhof gardens, which are only an hour away from Amsterdam. Of course, there will be tulips, but also, hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses and other flowers as well.

The Keukenhof Garden, Amsterdam
Photo credit: Cszmurlo via Creative Commons under CC BY 2.5

Spring tulips at Keukenhof gardens in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Life on a houseboat

Some people say that if you live in Amsterdam, you might as well live on a houseboat because once you’ve tried it, you won’t be happy on land again. They are actually considered to be prestige homes in the city and the cost of living in one isn’t whole lot less expensive than a nice apartment.

There are several advantages to houseboat-living. Number one, you get to travel to different places. Number two, in a flood, you’re safe! Number three, unlike the buildings in Amsterdam, the houseboats aren’t sinking. Plus swans might even come up to your window, and you can feed them by hand.

Houseboat in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Plan your trip and book a flight to Amsterdam now, whether you choose to rent a bike, walk all over town or hop on a canal cruise!

Cover photo credit: Epiphonication via Creative Commons under CC BY-ND 2.0

The comments and contributions expressed are assumed only by the author. The recommendations, intentions or opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Transat AT Inc. or its affiliates. See terms of use of the Air Transat website.

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