Culture Trip’s walking tour will take you through old church squares and past scarlet-lit alleyways to discover tucked-away cultural treasures. Following that, it’s on to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed canal district, with its gabled merchants’ mansions, tipsy-toed warehouses, world-class museums and delightful shopping districts, and the Jordaan district with its unique charm and hidden hofjes.
There’s no better place to start your exploration than at the largest of Amsterdam’s nine railway stations, Amsterdam Centraal. Designed by the premier architect of the 19th century, Pierre Cuypers, who also designed the Rijksmuseum, this red-brick, Gothic-Renaissance Revival-style Rijksmonument is a sight in itself. Before you set off across the Kamperbrug bridge, take notice of a little tower to the east on Prins Hendrikkade. It’s the Schreierstoren, originally part of the Medieval city wall, and the location from which Henry Hudson set sail on his journey to North America.
Walking west along Prins Hendrikkade, past the beautiful Basilica of Saint Nicholas, turn into buzzing Zeedijk, an old sea dyke and one of Amsterdam’s most historic streets. Keep a lookout for monkey-themed brown café In ’t Aepjen at no. 15 – it’s one of the city’s last original wooden buildings. Cross into Sint Olofssteeg to reach Amsterdam’s oldest canal, Oudezijds Voorburgwal. There’s plenty to see here, including the ravishing red-shuttered, wood-framed, stepped-gabled Leeuwenburgh House, built in 1605 by a wealthy merchant. Continuing along the former 14th-century beer quay, you may notice microbrewery De Prael at No. 30, and it’s well worth stopping off at No. 38 to admire a Catholic church hidden in the attic of a canal house at Our Lord in the Attic Museum. Keep ambling along and you’ll come to the Oudekerksplein, once called the “living room of Amsterdam”, with its bustling market square and 13th-century Oude Kerk, the city’s oldest church (now an exhibition space).
Ironically, it’s also the heart of the Red Light District, and you’ll still find neon red windows down the narrow, winding alleyways here; you will also increasingly find galleries, boutiques and shops, as the city continues its efforts to revamp the district. Do try to plan your visit here as early in the day as you can, because it only gets busier and rowdier as the day goes on. Down Sint Annenstraat, you can admire some of the city’s earliest brick houses, including several from the early 1500s. Head south along vibrant Warmoesstraat, home to Amsterdam’s elite in the 16th century and now packed with action 24/7. If you have time, stop off at the sweet-scented Metropolitan at No. 135 for superb single-estate hot chocolate, or pick up a singular souvenir at the famous novelty condom specialist Condomerie at No. 141. Around the corner on Dam 1, you’ll spot Amsterdam’s best and most beloved department store, De Bijenkorf.
You’re now standing on the former site of an actual dam in the Amstel River, lined with architectural attractions such as the Royal Palace, the 15th-century New Church (now an art gallery) and the National Monument obelisk. The famous Dam Square is also home to many of the city’s major celebrations, memorial ceremonies and festivals, and some annoyingly persistent street “performers”. Head away from the crowds by crossing Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. That big building in front of you at No. 182 is Magna Plaza, a 19th-century post office turned shopping centre. Fancy a snack? There’s a fun food hall called The Food Department tucked away on the top floor (with great views of the Royal Palace). If not, walk past Hotel Die Port Van Cleve, the site of the original Heineken brewery, and down Molsteeg. Cross Spuistraat into Torensteeg, where you’ll hit Singel, the first-built of the city’s concentric Golden Age canals.
You’ve now entered the part of Amsterdam that was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. Here, you’ll find Torensluis, the city’s oldest bridge still in its original state. Constructed in 1648, it was part of a moat around Amsterdam and boasts a former prison cell in its walls (now the student-run academic café Het Spinhuis). If you continue along the Singel going south, you’ll reach the Nine Streets shopping district. Made up of nine narrow streets that cross the four main canals, this area is jam-packed with hip boutiques, vintage stores, galleries, restaurants and bars, and some interesting lesser-known museums, such as the canal house-museum Cromhouthuis, the interactive Museum of the Canals, and Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography.
Once you’ve shopped your way across the nine streets, head back up the Prinsengracht to Westermarkt Square, with its iconic church, the Westerkerk, at No. 279. Famous for its tinkling carillon, which Anne Frank mentions in her diary, and for being the final resting place of Rembrandt, this Dutch Renaissance-style church was the largest Protestant church in the world back in the 17th century. Its 86-metre-high (282-foot) spire, topped with a bright blue crown, is still the tallest church tower in town. From the square, you can follow the long line of tourists to one of Amsterdam’s most significant museums, the Anne Frank House at Nos. 263-267, the famous hiding place of the ill-fated diarist and her family.
Cross to the other side of the canal to reach the long-gentrified Jordaan, where you can discover remnants of the old almshouses that populated this once-poor part of town. You really have to know where to look to find these charming hidden courtyards; an especially pleasing one is the Claes Claesz Hofje (from Prinsengracht, head down Egelantiersstraat and around the corner: the entrance is at Eerste Egelantiersdwarsstraat 1). Now head back the way you came, and then walk north up Prinsengracht, where there’s a big black-and-white mural of a “totem-pole lad constructed by a Bob Gibson robot” at No. 70. It’s by world-renowned graffiti artist The London Police.
Across the next bridge lie The Royal Streets, which are still relatively undiscovered and bursting with great boutiques, jewellers and high-end stores. If you’ve already gotten your retail fix back in the Nine Streets, you could continue along the Prinsengracht to Noordermarkt Square, where there’s a great little antique market on Mondays and the city’s most famous organic farmer’s market on Saturdays that fills the air with the scent of artisan bread, cheese and fresh-cut flowers. At No. 2 sits Café Papeneiland, a brown café that’s been going strong since 1642. It serves up some of the city’s best apple pie along with a slice of local history. You can still see the entrance of a (now-closed) secret tunnel that led to a clandestine Catholic church on the other side of the canal (actually, the clue’s in the name, “Papists’ Island”).
You’ve reached the northern border of the Canal District, and because the construction of the Canal Belt began here, the houses start their count from the Brouwersgracht. Named for the breweries that lined its sides in the 17th century, and commonly considered one of the city’s most scenic canals, the Brouwersgracht’s red-shuttered warehouses are now mainly residential. Cross the Papiermolensluis to the other side of the canal and continue in an easterly direction until you reach West Indisch Huis at Herenmarkt 99. Built as a meat market in 1617, it later became the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company and is now a wine bar. This is where the order was given to build a fort on Manhattan island, laying the foundations for New York City. You’ll find a bronze statue of Peter Stuyvesant (first governor of New Netherlands) in the courtyard. At the end of Brouwersgracht, follow Singel north, crossing at Nieuwendijk bridge. If you have time to catch one last sight, before heading back to Centraal Station, check out what some call the “Narrowest House in the World” at Singel 7. Otherwise, simply follow Singel back to Prins Hendrikkade, from where you’ll be able to see the station.