The Old Centre was where Amsterdam began, starting out as a fishing village at the mouth of the River Amstel and then, when the river was dammed in 1270, flourishing as a trading centre and receiving its municipal charter from a new feudal overlord, the Count of Holland, in about 1300. Thereafter, the city developed in stages, each of which was marked by the digging of new canals and, after a particularly severe fire in 1452, by the abandonment of timber for stone and brick as the main building materials. Today, it’s the handsome stone and brick buildings of subsequent centuries, especially the seventeenth, which provide the Old Centre with most of its architectural highlights.
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A wide but unenticing avenue lined with tacky restaurants, bars and bureaux de change, Damrak slices south from Stationsplein into the heart of the city, first passing an inner harbour crammed with the bobbing canal boats of Amsterdam’s considerable tourist industry. Just beyond the harbour is the imposing bulk of the Beurs, the old Stock Exchange – known as the “Beurs van Berlage” – a seminal work designed at the turn of the last century by the leading light of the Dutch Modern movement, Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856–1934). It’s used for concerts and occasional exhibitions these days, so you can’t often get in to see the graceful exposed ironwork and shallow-arched arcades of the main hall, but you can pop into its café, round the corner on Beurssplein, to admire the tiled scenes of the past, present and future by Jan Toorop.
Stretching along the Damrak, the long-established De Bijenkorf – literally “beehive” – department store posed all sorts of problems for the Germans when they first occupied the city in World War II. It was a Jewish concern, so the Nazis didn’t really want their troops shopping here, but the store was just too popular to implement a total ban. The bizarre solution was to prohibit German soldiers from shopping on the ground floor, where the store’s Jewish employees were concentrated, as they always had been, in the luxury goods section. These days it’s a good all-round department store, with the usual floors of designer-wear and well-known brands.
Dominating Dam Square is the sturdy bulk of the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace), although the title is deceptive, given that this vast sandstone structure was built as the city’s Stadhuis (Town Hall), and only had its first royal occupant when Louis Bonaparte moved in during the French occupation (1795–1813). The exterior of the palace is very much to the allegorical point: twin tympani depict Amsterdam as a port and trading centre, the one at the front presided over by a female representation of the city with Neptune and a veritable herd of unicorns at her feet. Above these tympani are representations of the values that the city council espoused – at the front, Prudence, Justice and Peace, to the rear Temperance and Vigilance on either side of a muscular, globe-bearing Atlas. One deliberate precaution, however, was the omission of a central doorway – just in case the mob turned nasty (as they were wont to do) and stormed the place.
The palace interior proclaims the pride and confidence of Amsterdam’s Golden Age, principally in its lavish Citizen’s Hall, an extraordinarily handsome, arcaded marble chamber. Here, the enthroned figure of Amsterdam looks down on the earth and the heavens, which are laid out before her in three circular, inlaid marble maps, one each of the eastern and western hemispheres, the other of the northern sky. Other allegorical figures ram home the municipal point: flanking “Amsterdam” to the left and right are Wisdom and Strength, while the reliefs to either side of the central group represent good governance – on the left is the god Amphion, who plays his lyre to persuade the stones to pile themselves up into a wall, and to the right Mercury attempts to lull Argos to sleep, stressing the need to be vigilant. All this is part of a good-natured and witty symbolism that pervades the Hall and its surrounding galleries: in the top left gallery, cocks fight above the entrance to the Commissioner of Petty Affairs, while in the gallery to the right of the main hall, above the door of the Bankruptcy Chamber, a medallion shows the Fall of Icarus below marble carvings depicting hungry rats scurrying around an empty money chest and nibbling at unpaid bills.
The decorative whimsy fizzles out in the narrow and cramped High Court of Justice at the front of the building, close to the entrance. Inside this intimidating chamber, the judges sat on marble benches overseen by heavyweight representations of Righteousness, Wisdom, Mercy and so forth as they passed judgement on the hapless criminal in front of them; even worse, the crowd on Dam Square could view the proceedings through barred windows, almost always baying for blood. They usually went home contented; as soon as the judges had passed the death sentence, the condemned were whisked up to the wooden scaffold attached to the front of the building and promptly dispatched.
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