The Golden Age Canals
Start: Herenmarkt (off Brouwersgracht).
Finish: Amstel River.
Time: 3 hours to all day, depending on how long you linger in museums and stores along the way.
Best Times: Begin in the morning.
The three 17th-century canals you explore on this tour -- Herengracht (Gentlemen's Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal), and Prinsengracht (Princes' Canal) -- are the very heart of Golden Age Amsterdam, emblems of the city's wealth and pride in its heyday. Each one deserves at least a morning or afternoon to itself. Time being limited, we're going to combine them in one monumental effort; if you're not so pushed, by all means slice the tour up into two or three segments for a more leisurely experience.
You stroll along miles of tree-lined canals and pass innumerable old canal houses with gables in various styles (bell, step, neck, and variations), classical facades, warehouses converted to apartments, houseboats, bridges, museums, cafes, restaurants, boutiques, offbeat stores, and battered bikes secured to lampposts. I'm only going to mention the most special sights and point out some insider tips along the way. This should leave you with plenty of space for making your own discoveries.
The jump-off point, within easy walking distance of Centraal Station (tram: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 13, 16, 17, 24, or 25), is at Herenmarkt, just off Brouwersgracht:
1. West Indisch Huis (West India House)
The 17th-century headquarters of the Dutch West India Company that handled trade (including the slave trade) between Holland, the Americas, and Africa later became the offices of a social-welfare organization, and a Lutheran orphanage, and now houses a U.S.-associated educational institute.
Walk along tranquil, residential:
2. Brouwersgracht (Brewers' Canal)
Humpback bridges, moored houseboats, and 17th- and 18th-century brewery pakhuizen (warehouses) that have been turned into chic and expensive apartments combine to make this one of Amsterdam's most photogenic corners. Worth special attention are nos. 204 and 206, "Het Kleine Groene Hert" (the Little Green Deer) and "Het Groote Groene Hert" (the Big Green Deer). Each has a gable crowned with a green-painted sculpture of a deer. Take note for possible future reference of two 17th-century brown cafes in this area: Tabac at Brouwersgracht 101 and Papeneiland at Prinsengracht 2-4.
On Prinsengracht, which in the 17th century was home to storekeepers and craftsmen, your first stop is:
Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., this old market square hosts a Farmers' Market for "bio" (organic) products. A popular flea market takes over Mondays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Clothes that were fashionable a decade and more ago are, for some reason, highly esteemed, and dealers recycle everything from Golden Age antiques to yesterday's junk. Pause for a moment to admire the elaborate gables of the houses at nos. 15-22, each one decorated with an agricultural image -- a cow, a sheep, a chicken -- from the time when a livestock market was held here. No. 16 has a Louis XIV neck gable and a beautiful gable stone from 1726 depicting Fortuna and advertising the textiles store that once occupied the building.
The Noorderkerk (North Church), the last masterpiece by architect Hendrick de Keyser, the guiding hand behind many of Amsterdam's historic churches, dominates the square. It's something of a rarity in this nominally Calvinist city, since it has a large and active congregation. On the facade, a plaque recalls the February 1941 strike in protest at Nazi deportation of the city's Jewish population. A three-figure sculpture-group outside recalls the dead and wounded from the 1934 Jordaanoproer, street riots to protest poverty, which were suppressed by the army. Maybe you'll hear the church's carillon playing as you go by.
Continue along Prinsengracht to the bridge at Prinsenstraat, and cross over. A few steps back along the canal on this side is:
4. Zon's Hofje
At Prinsengracht 159-171, a hidden almshouse surrounding a courtyard garden at the end of a long passageway. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the outer door is open and you can walk discreetly (people live here) through the passageway to the courtyard, which belonged to the city's Mennonites. They worshiped at a clandestine church, De Zon (The Sun), and held meetings in the courtyard, which they called De Kleine Zon (The Little Sun). In 1720, the church's name was changed to De Arke Noach (Noah's Ark) and in 1755 it was demolished. Above the lintel of nos. 163-165, a carved plaque from the vanished church shows animals piling two-by-two into Noah's Ark, watched over by a brightly shining sun.
Farther back along the canal, at nos. 85-133, is another former almshouse, the beautifully restored and immensely restful Van Brienen's Hofje, from 1804 (also known as De Star after the De Star Brewery foundation that took over the site in 1841). Merchant Jan van Brienen supposedly had it built in gratitude for his escape from a vault in which he had accidentally been locked. It has a lovely garden and benches where you can rest, but if you don't want to have to backtrack too far, and aren't much of a hofje enthusiast besides, you can let it alone.
Head down Prinsenstraat to Keizersgracht, named after the Austrian Emperor Maximilian, whose crown graces the summit of the Westertoren. A short detour to the left brings you to the:
5. Groenland Pakhuizen (Greenland Warehouses)
Built in 1621 to store whale oil, these are now chic apartments (nos. 40-44).
Cross the Keizersgracht bridge, noting the houseboats tied up on either side, to Herenstraat, and go right on Keizersgracht, to the:
6. Huis met de Hoofden (House with the Heads)
At no. 123, the heads in question on the facade from 1622 by Hendrick de Keyser represent, from left to right, Apollo, Ceres, Mars, Athena, Bacchus, and Diana.
Turn left along the pretty Leliegracht side canal, then, right onto Herengracht, the ultimate Amsterdam addresses for flourishing bankers and merchants in the 17th century. Pause for a moment at the:
This graceful house at no. 168 was built in 1638 for Michiel Pauw, who established a short-lived trading colony in America at Hoboken, facing Nieuw Amsterdam (New York), and named it Pavonia after his august self. Note the classical neck gable, the first example of this style in the city. The museum extends into the flamboyant Bartolotti House at nos. 170-172, built in 1617 for Guillielmo Bartolotti, who began life as homey old Willem van den Heuvel and switched to the fancy moniker after he made his bundle in brewing and banking.
Backtrack to Leliegracht, and cross over Keizersgracht on the bridge, noting on the corner, at Keizersgracht 176, a rare Amsterdam Art Nouveau house (1905), designed by architect Gerrit van Arkel, which houses Greenpeace International headquarters. Continue up Leliegracht onto Prinsengracht and take a left, to the:
This house at no. 263 is where the young Jewish girl Anne Frank (1929-45) hid from the Nazis and wrote her imperishable diary. The earlier you get here the better, because the line to get in grows as the day progresses.
Afterward, with miles and miles to go before you sleep, you may be tempted to stow away on a water bike from the Canal Bikes dock outside the Anne Frankhuis. But at this point, you may be more in need of a break for lunch, so cross over Prinsengracht by the canal bridge and pop into:
Take A Break -- Cafe-restaurant De Prins, Prinsengracht 124 (tel. 020/624-9382), which is my Best Value restaurant recommendation, and a great spot for a leisurely meal.
A little further along on this bank, at no. 170, is a great store, the Galleria d'Arte Rinascimento, which sells both old and new hand-painted Delftware from Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles. Continue a few steps to Rozengracht and turn left (east) to Westermarkt and its:
The Dutch Renaissance church by Hendrick de Keyser was begun in 1620. Hendrick's son Pieter took over after his father's death, and the church opened in 1631. Should you be passing between June and mid-September, from Wednesday to Saturday, you can climb to near the summit of the Westertoren, 85m (277 ft.) high, nicknamed "Lange Jan" (Long John).
Westermarkt 6 is the house where the French philosopher René Descartes lived in 1634, writing his Treatise on the Passions of the Soul. Descartes evidently thought he was in need of some additional passion -- therefore he was -- so he had an affair with his maid, which produced a child whose reality could scarcely be doubted. Also on Westermarkt are a somber bronze sculpture of Anne Frank and the pink marble triangles of the Homomonument, dedicated to persecuted gays and lesbians.
Cross over Westermarkt to Rozengracht, which once was a canal (in 1658, after he went bust, Rembrandt moved with his son Titus and his mistress Hendrickje from his fine mansion in the Jewish Quarter to a plain house, that no longer exists, on Rozengracht). Continue along Prinsengracht to Reestraat, where you turn left. At Keizersgracht go right, across Berenstraat, to Keizersgracht 324:
10. Felix Meritis
This structure was built in 1788 by Jacob Otten Husly as the headquarters of a Calvinist philosophical society. The name (which was the group's motto) means "Happiness Through Merit," and they invited such luminaries as Czar Alexander I and Napoleon to this Palladian setting, with Corinthian columns and triangular pediment, to experience the consolations of this philosophy. The building later was home to the Dutch Communist Party, and now hosts avant-garde theater, music and dance performances.
On this stretch of Keizersgracht, from Berenstraat to Runstraat, instead of standing directly in front of buildings of interest, craning your neck skyward to eyeball the detail, walk along the near bank of the canal (with even-numbered houses) and look across the water to the other side, so that you can view things in panorama (in summer, leaves on elm trees along the canal screen some facades, and you might prefer to cross over for a closer look).
11. Berenstraat to Runstraat
The third building along from Wolvenstraat (no. 313), an office block from 1914, is almost modern in Keizersgracht-time.
Two houses along (no. 317), is the stately canalside home that belonged to Christoffel Brants, who counted Peter the Great among his acquaintances. A story goes that Peter sailed into Amsterdam in 1716, planning to stay a night here. The Czar of All the Russias got royally drunk, kept the mayor waiting at a reception in his honor, and then removed to the Russian ambassador's residence at Herengracht 527 to sleep off his hangover.
Next door (no. 319), is a work by Philips Vingboons from 1639, as you can easily tell from the Latin numerals MDCXXXIX inscribed on it. You can compare this ornate neoclassical facade with graceful neck gable to the Theatermuseum building by the same architect, at Herengracht 168.
Note how narrow is the facade of the seventh building before Huidenstraat (no. 345A), and run your eyes over the trio of graceful neck gables on the last three houses (nos. 353-357).
At Runstraat, cross over to Huidenstraat and go along it to Herengracht. Turn right to Herengracht 366-368:
Two of a group of four 1660s houses (nos. 364-370) with delicate neck gables, this museum was designed by architect Philips Vingboons for timber merchant Jacob Cromhout, and known as the Cromhuithuizen and as the "Father, Mother, and Twins." The museum, naturally enough, features Bibles and things biblical, but its canal house setting and illuminated ceilings by Jacob de Wit are at least as interesting.
Continue a few doors farther along Herengracht, to nos. 380-382:
13. The Vanderbilt Mansion
Well, it's not the elaborate Loire-château-style Fifth Avenue mansion built for U.S. tycoon William H. Vanderbilt in New York, but a replica (the original no longer exists, the only example) constructed in 1890 for Dutch tobacco merchant Jacob Nienhuys. It now houses the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. Across the canal, on the facade of Herengracht 395 (but not easy to see unless you cross over for a close-up look), a stone cat stalks its prey -- a carved mouse on the facade of the neighboring house, no. 397, on the other side of the tiny Beulingsluis canal.
Cross elegant Leidsegracht, dug in 1664 for barge traffic to and from Leiden, to busy Leidsestraat. Since this has been a long tour, I suggest you go along Leidsestraat to its junction with Keizersgracht, and turn right to the:
Take A Break -- Het Land van Walem, Keizersgracht 449 (tel. 020/625-3544), a cafe that has just about hung on to its once undisputed trendy rep, and that (more importantly) serves up some good food.
Retrace your steps back to Herengracht, and turn right to the:
14. Gouden Bocht (Golden Bend)
You can trace the development of the rich folk's wealth and tastes as you progress up the house numbers on Herengracht, and this section (on both sides of the canal), so named because of its opulent palaces, is the top of the heap. Built with old money around the 1670s, in the fading afterglow of the Golden Age, when French-influenced neoclassicism was all the rage, they are in the main built of sandstone, rather than brick, on double lots with double steps and central entrances. Compare the sober baroque facades here with the exuberant gabled houses from half a century earlier, back along the canal. Look across the water to no. 475, for a particularly fine example of the later style.
Turn right onto Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, a street lined with expensive antiques stores (at its end you can see the Rijksmuseum). Go left on the far bank of Keizersgracht to the:
15. Museum Van Loon
This museum (at no. 672) gives you a rare glimpse behind the gables at a patrician house of the post-Golden Age.
Cross Reguliersgracht and return to Herengracht -- from the bridge over Reguliersgracht at Herengracht, you can see no fewer than 15 bridges (including the one you're standing on) -- skim the edge of neat little Thorbeckeplein, and go right along the canal, across Utrechtsestraat, which is a cornucopia of good restaurants and variegated stores, to the:
At Herengracht 605, this patrician canal house dating from 1687, is richly decorated in Louis XIV style. The table, under a big chandelier in the dining salon, is set for a meal being served more than 300 years late.
Stroll to the end of Herengracht and finish your trek at the:
17. Amstel River
At this point, the river is thick with houseboats and canal barges. To your left is the refurbished Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge) over the river, built in 1884 on the lines of Paris's Pont Alexandre III; to your right is the famous Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) double drawbridge. Step out onto either one of these for great views on the comings and goings on the water.
Walking the short distance along the river to Waterlooplein, or backtracking to Utrechtsestraat, puts you on the tram net for return to your hotel. Maybe you're footsore and hungry, though, and want to eat and drink right now. You can do no better than to hobble the short distance to Rembrandtplein, to:
Winding Down -- Café Schiller, Rembrandtplein 36 (tel. 020/624-9864), where you can take the weight off your feet amid Art Deco surroundings, or on the glassed-in terrace next to the square.
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