The canals, the canal houses, the bridges, the Red Light District, the legal prostitution, the museums, the bicycles: Amsterdam is easily one of the world’s most identifiable cities. Among all that, during my leisurely walks around the largest Dutch city, stand magnificent structures that date way back to the country’s Golden Age, and even before that. These are my favorites.
#1 Old Church (Oude Kerk)
Constructed in 1306 as a Roman Catholic church (and altered pretty much every century since), Old Church stands in the heart of both Amsterdam’s medieval center and, somewhat inappropriately, its Red Light District. In 1325, the oldest building in Amsterdam received a wood tower, which served as a bell tower, lookout post for approaching enemies and possible fires, and the city clock. In 1565, the tower received a new spire, and it was given a brick exterior in 1749. Soaring 220’ high, it contains four bells (Faith, Hope, Love, and Freedom). Before the introduction of street lighting, the bells would ring in the evenings to announce that, for the rest of the night, citizens were allowed in the streets only if they toted lanterns; those without lanterns were considered criminals. After the Iconoclasm, not many elements of the Catholic mass remained, other than the church itself and its windows. Religious extremists destroyed faces on statues or smashed them altogether, removed altars, painted over faces in paintings and frescoes, and stole or melted down the ceremonial silver.
Upon entering this fantastic church, I was immediately awed by the stained-glass windows from the 15th and 16th centuries—huge, colorful, and tremendously detailed. A long ramble around revealed the spectacular organ (from 1726); the paintings on the vaulted ceiling (spared the destruction of the raging Protestants—they simply couldn’t reach them); the memorials and gravestones (about 12,000 people are buried in the church, under roughly 2,500 tombstones, the oldest from 1280 and the most recent in 1865, when indoor burials became illegal in the country); and the suspended model boats (donated by sailors in gratitude for a safe return to the city from the high seas) that are not only a nod to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, travelers, and Amsterdam, but also a reference to the concept of the “church as a ship,” guided by God and captained by St. Peter, and to the most legendary ship of all, Noah’s ark. The pews of the choir—one of the oldest sections of the church, where the high altar used to be—feature charming medieval misericords, seats that could be folded out to give the choir the opportunity to rest during lengthy services. Most date from the late 1400s. On the underside of each seat is a carving—some purely decorative; others a sort of descriptive pictorial, like the two faces under one roof, signifying two people who agree on everything; two men in a fight, one representing anger, the other self-control; the indecisiveness of a man who can’t choose which of two chairs to sit on, so he remains standing. A beautiful oak screen from 1681 separates the choir from the rest of the church. One side of the screen bears the Dutch words for “In order to keep religion and knowledge pure according to the word, one must no longer make unto thee any graven image.” That’s a direct reference to the defacing of statues at the time of the Alteration of 1578, when the pulpit (nearing 400 years old), not the altar, became the focal point of the now Protestant church. Opposite the pulpit are nobility pews, where aristocrats and mayors sat. Due to the height of the pews, the occupants had a good view of the minister. Because the sermons tended to be rather long, they often even had their own cushion to sit on. The less privileged, of course, had to lug their own chairs with them.
#2 New Church (Nieuwe Kerk)
In a corner of Dam Square, next to the Royal Palace, stands the tremendous New Church, although “New” is a little misleading—it was built in 1410. But it’s newer than the Old Church, about a 10-minute walk away. Restored and beautifully decorated after the great fire of 1645, New Church no longer operates as a religious establishment (with the occasional exception of a royal wedding); rather, it hosts special events, like the World Press Photo Exhibition and a historical fashion collection. The exterior is a riot of pinnacles and balustrades, Gothic windows, horizontal bands of brick, and a sundial way up top in one of the gables. The inside, however, is fairly plain, all the Catholic decorative elements swept aside and destroyed during the Reformation, when the Protestants took control of the country in 1578 and threw Spain out, renounced Catholicism and outlawed its public worship, and destroyed church altars and statues. But some elements remain, reminding me that this is no mere exhibition space: the grave slabs of the deceased (numbering about 10,000), some lovely stained-glass windows from the 17th century through 2005, the intricate brass choir screen, and the massive gilded organ (from 1655, it’s the largest historic organ in the Netherlands) that bears a resemblance to a classical temple. Perhaps the most arresting element is the fantastically elaborate wood pulpit with a positively tremendous and ornate sounding board topped by a three-tiered tower with half a dozen angels, one of whom holds the Ten Commandments while another plays a harp.
#3 Basilica of St. Nicholas (Sint Nicolaaskerk)
I arrived in Amsterdam from the airport via train, and as soon as I emerged from Centraal Station (one of the world’s most beautiful train stations), I stopped in my tracks, taken aback by the magnificent Basilica of St. Nicholas just across the water. Flanked by slender five-story townhouses on either side, the basilica dominates the scene at this particularly active part of the city. Completed in 1887, the church, named after the patron saint of Amsterdam, was elevated to basilica status in 2012, making it the only one in the city. Due to its special architectural style, a combination of baroque and Dutch neo-Renaissance, the basilica is one of the city’s most important 19th-century ecclesiastical monuments. Two tall towers frame the dark-brown façade. Between them, a rose window features a sculpted bas relief of Christ in the center and the symbols of the four Evangelists at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Above the window, in a niche in the gable top, a sculpture of St. Nicholas watches over the city. Behind it all, an octagonal dome rises 190’, topped by a lantern and a cross. Inside, my eyes had to adjust to the unexpectedly dark interior, but once they did, I was enthralled. I took a seat to soak it all in, but the pew was curiously uncomfortable: The back rose only about a third of the way up my spine. So I walked around instead, awed by the size, the gorgeous dome, the largest 19th-century German organ in the Netherlands, the decorative side chapels and the two corner chapels devoted to Mary and Joseph, and the beautiful Stations of the Cross (which took seven years to complete, and whose artist chose parishioners as models for the figures). During a subsequent restoration, the basilica had been given more light in the form of new stained-glass windows that, unlike the older still extant windows that portray a Biblical message or story for those who couldn’t read, have no particular theme, as literacy rates had risen. The fantastic murals especially caught my attention, particularly the highly curious Last Supper mural—only 11 of the 12 apostles are included: Apparently, Judas didn’t deserve a spot at the table when it was created.
#4 Royal Palace
The massive Royal Palace occupies the entire western frame of the grand, cobblestoned Dam Square. Due to its unprecedented size in Europe, it was billed as “the eighth wonder of the world” when it was completed in 1665 as Amsterdam’s City Hall. In 1808, Napoleon’s brother became King of Holland and converted it into a palace. When the French Empire ended, Frederick of Orange-Nassau returned to the Netherlands. In 1813, he stayed in the palace, where he accepted the sovereignty of the Netherlands as William I, and initially made great use of the building. But his interested waned, and his successors spent only a handful of days per year in the building, despite it being ideal for official receptions and royal occasions. In 1935, the city sold it to the State of the Netherlands. Although the Dutch monarchy still uses the palace for state visits, award ceremonies, royal marriages, and other official functions, it remains open to the public. From the bustling square, I took in the façade of darkened yellowish sandstone and the subtle projections of the two corner pavilions and the central block; the pediment’s huge sculptural group depicting figures representing Justice, Peace, and Prudence looking at the Amsterdam City Maiden holding her olive branch and surrounded by sea gods and water deities; and the open, arched drum of the dome, topped with a lantern with a golden ship.
At the ground level, seven arches (reputedly symbolizing the seven regions of the northern Netherlands) form a passageway to the rather modest entry. Inside, I wandered around finely appointed rooms, chambers, and barrel-vaulted hallways, stopping to admire the fine art and furniture, clocks, and abundant big and little architectural details, ranging from the large and unsettling sculpture Zaleucus Having His Eye Put Out to smaller reliefs of Roman gods, musical instruments, and a sea monster entangled in an anchor rope. The impressive interior’s showpiece is the tremendous Citizens’ Hall, with its chandeliers, marble columns, and maps on the marble floor. The sculpture of Atlas supporting the world on his shoulders caught my eye. (You can also find him outside at the rear of the palace: His 20’-tall figure supporting the 2,200-lb. globe stands at the peak of a pediment, another sculptural highlight, with allegorical representations of Africa, America, Asia, and Europe bringing their bounties to the central Amsterdam City Maiden, including spices and tulips from the turbaned Asian woman.) But it was the sculpture underneath him, above the entrance to the Magistrates’ Chamber, that really tells quite the story. Justice sits in the center, holding her sword and scales. On her left is Death, with his hourglass, symbolizing Time and the revelation of Truth (in the end, Justice and Truth will always prevail); on her right sits Punishment, with various instruments of torture. She is treading underfoot two figures. One is King Midas, the personification of Avarice, who had asked for the gift of turning all that he touched into gold, but because the same thing happened to his food and drink, the gift soon became a curse. The other is Invidia, the personification of Envy, a woman consumed by jealousy who feeds on serpents and has an emaciated body, a sickly face, squinting eyes, and a venomous tongue. She is so poisonous that instead of hair, serpents grow from her head. This group represents the desire for a just Amsterdam, where avarice and envy—characteristics of thieves and murderers—are not tolerated.
Amsterdam’s most renowned museum positively deserves that accolade. And it’s no secret—more than two million visitors come here every year. At the head of the grassy Museumplein is the continuously photographed red and white I amsterdam sculpture, where you can scramble all over the letters. Behind it rises this gorgeous building. The museum began life in The Hague in 1800; Amsterdam didn’t receive the transfer until 1806, when the collection was housed in a series of two other buildings before arriving in this new structure in 1885. With at least half a dozen towers, intricate brickwork, and rich decorative elements that reference Dutch art and history, the museum building is a piece of artwork itself, so I made sure to admire all those wonderful details before joining the long line that had already formed before opening hours. It moved quickly once the doors opened, and my Museum Card granted me express access. While I marveled at the museum’s collection, crammed with 8,000 objects of art and history from its total collection of one million pieces dating from 1200 to today, I also marveled at the building itself. In the Passage, hefty columns support brick arches and the vaulted ceiling, relieved by tall windows overlooking the Atrium. By far, the stunning Great Hall is the highlight. A decorated vaulted ceiling spans the vast space. Each of the stained-glass windows presents a particular art—architecture, painting, and sculpture—in vibrant details and colors. I was reluctant to step on the gorgeous inlaid mosaics on the floor as I admired the space as well as the large paintings of patriotic virtues on the walls. Although you’ll come to the Rijksmuseum to see the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer and Van Gogh, you’ll be equally impressed by that of Pierre Cuypers, the architect responsible for this magnificent edifice.
- Magna Plaza (Former General Post Office, 1899)
- Amsterdam Central Station (Station Amsterdam Centraal; 1889)
- Museum of the Tropics (Tropenmuseum; 1926)
- International Theater Amsterdam (Stadsschouwburg; 1894)
- Concert Hall (Concertgebouw; 1886)
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