Medieval Amsterdam was enclosed by the Singel, part of the city’s protective moat, but this is now just the first of five canals that reach right around the city centre, extending anticlockwise from Brouwersgracht to the River Amstel in a “girdle of canals” or Grachtengordel. This is without doubt the most charming part of the city, its lattice of olive-green waterways and dinky humpback bridges overlooked by street upon street of handsome seventeenth-century canal houses, almost invariably undisturbed by later development. It’s a subtle cityscape – full of surprises, with a bizarre carving here, an unusual facade there – but architectural peccadilloes aside, it is the district’s overall atmosphere that appeals rather than any specific sight – with the notable exception of the Anne Frank Huis. There’s no obvious walking route around the Grachtengordel, and indeed you may prefer to wander around as the mood takes you, but the description we’ve given below goes from north to south, taking in all the highlights on the way. On all three of the main canals – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – street numbers begin in the north and increase as you go south.
If you are looking for a place to stay in Amsterdam, you may find our expert’s guide to the best area’s to stay in Amsterdam helpful on deciding where to visit next.
The Anne Frank Huis
In 1957, the Anne Frank Foundation set up the Anne Frank Huis in the premises on Prinsengracht where the young diarist and her family were in hiding for two years. Since the posthumous publication of her diaries, Anne Frank has become extraordinarily famous, in the first instance for recording the iniquities of the Holocaust, and latterly as a symbol of the fight against oppression in general and racism in particular.
Anne Frank’s diary was among the few things left behind in the annexe after the Gestapo raid. It was retrieved by one of the family’s Dutch helpers and handed to Anne’s father on his return from Auschwitz. In 1947, Otto decided to publish his daughter’s diary and, since its appearance, Anne’s Diary of a Young Girl has been translated into over sixty languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. The rooms the Franks lived in for two years have been left much the same as they were during the war, even down to the movie star pin-ups in Anne’s bedroom and the marks on the wall recording the children’s heights. Remarkably, despite the number of visitors, there is a real sense of intimacy here and only the coldest of hearts could fail to be moved. Apposite film clips on the family in particular and the Holocaust in general give the background. Anne Frank was only one of about 100,000 Dutch Jews who died during World War II, but this, her final home, provides one of the most enduring testaments to its horrors. Her diary has been a source of inspiration to many, including Nelson Mandela. Otto Frank died in 1980 at the age of ninety-one; the identity of the collaborator who betrayed his family has never been confirmed.
The story of Anne Frank
The story of Anne Frank, her family and friends is well known. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was a well-to-do Jewish businessman, who fled Germany in December 1933 after Hitler came to power, moving to Amsterdam, where he established a successful spice-trading business on the Prinsengracht. After the German occupation of the Netherlands, he felt – along with many other Jews – that he could avoid trouble by keeping his head down. However, by 1942 it was clear that this was not going to be possible: Amsterdam’s Jews were isolated and conspicuous, being confined to certain parts of the city and forced to wear a yellow star, and roundups were becoming increasingly commonplace. In desperation, Otto Frank decided to move the family into the unused back rooms of their Prinsengracht premises, first asking some of his Dutch office staff if they would help him with the subterfuge – they bravely agreed.
The Franks went into hiding in July 1942, along with a Jewish business partner and his wife and son, the van Pels (renamed the van Daans in the Diary). Their new “home” was separated from the rest of the building by a bookcase that doubled as a door. As far as everyone else was concerned, they had fled to Switzerland. So began a two-year incarceration in the achterhuis, or rear house, and the two families were joined in November 1942 by a dentist friend, Fritz Pfeffer (the Diary’s Albert Dussel), bringing the number of occupants to eight. Otto’s trusted office staff continued working in the front part of the building, regularly bringing supplies and news of the outside world. In her diary Anne Frank describes the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of the annexe: the quarrels, frequent in such a claustrophobic environment, the celebrations of birthdays, or of a piece of good news from the Allied Front; and of her own, slightly unreal, growing up (much of which, it’s been claimed, was later deleted by her father).
By 1944, the atmosphere was optimistic; the Allies were clearly winning the war and liberation seemed within reach; it wasn’t to be. One day in the summer of that year, the Franks were betrayed by a Dutch collaborator and the Gestapo arrived and forced open the bookcase. The occupants of the secret annexe were arrested and dispatched to Westerbork – the transit camp in the north of the country where all Dutch Jews were processed before being moved to Belsen or Auschwitz. Of the eight who had lived in the annexe, only Otto Frank survived; Anne and her sister died of typhus within a short time of each other in Belsen, just one week before the German surrender.
The canals of the Grachtengordel
The three main canals of the Grachtengordel – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – were dug in the seventeenth century as part of a comprehensive plan to extend the boundaries of a city no longer able to accommodate its burgeoning population. Increasing the area of the city from two to seven square kilometres was a monumental task, and the conditions imposed by the council were strict: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht were set aside for the residences and businesses of the richer and more influential Amsterdam merchants, while the radial cross-streets were reserved for more modest artisans’ homes; meanwhile, immigrants, newly arrived to cash in on Amsterdam’s booming economy, were assigned, albeit informally, the Jodenhoek and the Jordaan. Of the three main canals, Herengracht, the “Gentlemen’s Canal”, was the first to be dug, followed by the Keizersgracht, the “Emperor’s Canal”, named after the Holy Roman Emperor and fifteenth-century patron of the city, Maximilian. Further out still, the Prinsengracht, the “Princes’ Canal”, was named in honour of the princes of the House of Orange.
In the Grachtengordel, everyone, even the wealthiest merchant, had to comply with a set of detailed planning regulations. In particular, the council prescribed the size of each building plot – the frontage was set at thirty feet, the depth two hundred – and although there was a degree of tinkering, the end result was the loose conformity you can see today: tall, narrow residences, whose individualism is mainly restricted to the stylistic permutations among the gables. The earliest extant gables, dating from the early seventeenth century, are crow-stepped but these were largely superseded from the 1650s onwards by neck gables and bell gables. Some are embellished, others aren’t, many have decorative cornices, and the fanciest, which almost invariably date from the eighteenth century, sport full-scale balustrades. The plainest gables are those of former warehouses, where the deep-arched and shuttered windows line up on either side of loft doors, which were once used for loading and unloading goods, winched by pulley from the street down below. Indeed, outside pulleys remain a common feature of houses and warehouses alike, and are often still in use as the easiest way of moving furniture into the city’s myriad apartments.
Descartes: Spy or philospher?
The French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) once lodged at Westermarkt 6. Apparently happy that the Dutch were indifferent to his musings – and that therefore he wasn’t going to be persecuted – he wrote “Everybody except me is in business and so absorbed by profit-making that I could spend my entire life here without being noticed by a soul”. However, this declaration may itself have been a subterfuge: it’s quite possible that Descartes was spying on the Dutch for the Habsburg King Philip II of Spain, a theory explored in detail in A.C. Grayling’s book, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius. In the event, Descartes spent twenty years in the Netherlands before accepting an invitation from Queen Christina to go to Stockholm in 1649. It was a poor choice: no sooner had he got there, than he caught pneumonia and died.
Han van Meegeren and the forged Vermeers
Keizersgracht 321 looks innocuous enough today, but this was once the home of the Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren (1889–1947). During the German occupation of World War II, Meegeren sold a “previously unknown” Vermeer to a German art dealer working for Herman Goering; what neither the agent nor Goering realized was that Meegeren had painted it himself. A forger par excellence, Meegeren had developed a sophisticated ageing technique in the early 1930s. He mixed his paints with phenol formaldehyde resin dissolved in benzene and then baked the finished painting in an oven for several hours; the end result fooled everyone, including the curators of the Rijksmuseum, who had bought another “Vermeer” from him in 1941. The forgeries may well have never been discovered but for a strange sequence of events. In May 1945 a British captain by the name of Harry Anderson discovered Meegeren’s “Vermeer” in Goering’s art collection. Meegeren was promptly arrested as a collaborator and, to get himself out of a pickle, he soon confessed to this and other forgeries, arguing that he had duped and defrauded the Nazis rather than helping them – though he had, of course, pocketed the money. It was a fine argument and his reward was a short prison sentence – but in the event he died before he was locked up.
The Museum Willet-Holthuysen
The Museum Willet-Holthuysen offers an insight into the life and tastes of one of Amsterdam’s leading families, the coal-trading Holthuysens, who occupied this elegant, late seventeenth-century mansion until the last of the line, Sandra Willet-Holthuysen, gifted her home and its contents to the city in 1895. The museum is entered via the old servants’ door, which leads into the basement, where there’s a small collection of porcelain and earthenware on display. Above are the family rooms, most memorably the Blue Room, which has been returned to its eighteenth-century Rococo appearance – a flashy and ornate style that the Dutch merchants of the day held to be the epitome of refinement and good taste. The Ballroom, all creams and gilt, is similarly opulent and the Dining Room is laid out for dinner as of 1865 complete with the family’s original Meissen dinner set. The top floor displays the fine and applied art collection assembled by Sandra’s husband, Abraham Willet, principally Dutch ceramics, pewter and silverware. Behind the house are the formal gardens, a neat pattern of miniature hedges graced by the occasional stone statue, and framed by the old coach house.