Lying to the west of the city centre and the Grachtengordel, its boundaries clearly defined by the Prinsengracht and the Lijnbaansgracht, the Jordaan is a likeable and easily explored area of slender canals and narrow streets flanked by an agreeable mix of architectural styles, from modern terraces to handsome seventeenth-century canal houses. In all probability the district takes its name from the French word jardin (“garden”), since the area’s earliest settlers were Protestant Huguenots, who fled here to escape persecution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Another possibility is that it’s a corruption of the Dutch word for Jews, joden. Whatever the truth, the Jordaan developed from open country – hence the number of streets and canals named after flowers and plants – into a refugee enclave, a teeming, cosmopolitan quarter beyond the pale of bourgeois respectability. Indeed, when the city fathers planned the expansion of the city in 1610, they made sure the Jordaan was kept outside the city boundaries. Consequently, the Jordaan was not subject to the rigorous planning restrictions of the Grachtengordel, and its lattice of narrow streets followed the lines of the original polder drainage ditches rather than any municipal outline. This gives the district its distinctive, mazy layout, and much of its present appeal.
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.
At its peak from around 1910 to 1930, the Amsterdam School brought together the leading Dutch architects of the period in a loose alliance that was Expressionistic in style and politically committed: the School’s leading practitioners were eager to build housing for the working class that was of the highest possible standard. Several of these utopian ventures have survived here in Amsterdam, but perhaps the most architecturally pleasing is the delightful Het Schip just west of the city centre. A municipal housing block designed by Michael de Klerk (1884–1923), it takes its name from its ship-like shape and is graced by all manner of decorative details, such as wavy brick facades and misshapen windows.
Housed inside the complex’s former post office at Spaarndammerplantsoen 140, the Museum Het Schip (Tues–Sun 11am–5pm; €7.50; w hetschip.nl) explores the history of the Amsterdam School and details the building’s principal features. Regular half-hour guided tours take you inside one of the restored residences – the block is still used as social housing today – and up to the main turret. It takes about 15min to get there from Centraal Station on bus #22 – get off at the terminus and it’s a short walk.
The streets and canals extending north from Rozengracht to Westerstraat form the heart of the Jordaan and hold the district’s prettiest moments. Beyond Rozengracht, the first canal is the Bloemgracht (Flower Canal), a leafy waterway dotted with houseboats and arched by little bridges, its network of cross-streets sprinkled with cafés and bars. There’s a warm, relaxed community atmosphere here which is really rather beguiling, not to mention a clutch of old and handsome canal houses. Pride of architectural place goes to Bloemgracht 89–91, a sterling Renaissance building of 1642 complete with mullion windows, crow-step gable, brightly painted shutters and distinctive facade stones, representing a steeman (city-dweller), landman (farmer) and a seeman (sailor).
From Bloemgracht, it’s a few metres north to Egelantiersgracht (Rose-Hip Canal), where, at no. 12, Café ’t Smalle is one of Amsterdam’s oldest cafés, opened in 1786 as a proeflokaal – a tasting house for the (long-gone) gin distillery next door. In the eighteenth century, when quality control was intermittent, each batch of jenever (Dutch gin) could turn out very differently, so customers insisted on a taster before they splashed out. As a result, each distillery ran a proeflokaal offering free samples, and this is a rare survivor. A narrow cross-street – Tweede Egelantiersdwarsstraat and its continuation Tweede Tuindwarsstraat and Tweede Anjeliersdwarsstraat – runs north from Egelantiersgracht, flanked by many of the Jordaan’s more fashionable stores and clothing shops as well as some of its liveliest bars and cafés.
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website