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Amsterdam History

Amsterdam has a long and colourful history which dates back to at least the 12th century. Indeed the very first recorded mention of the city is from 1204AD which suggests that there was a settlement there prior to this.

The settlement was founded by fishermen who would fish along the banks of the river Amstel. A bridge was subsequently built which formed a dam across the river giving the city its name - “dam across the Amstel” or Amstel Dam”, later to become Amsterdam.

It was in 1275 that the city received greater recognition when Count Floris of Holland granted the inhabitants (still largely fishermen) special privileges to levy tolls. This was followed in 1300 when Amsterdam received its first official charter. For the following two centuries Amsterdam thrived by earning money from the herring and beer trade (in fact it had the sole right to import beer from the important brewing city of Hamburg).

In the late 1400’s, the city was a thriving hub of trade and with the expulsion of the Jewish community from Antwerp, Amsterdam profited significantly from the sudden influx of many wealthy Jewish families. This enabled the city to broaden its horizons in the form of expeditionary trips to India ultimately leading to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 of which the city of Amsterdam was the largest stakeholder.

The next two centuries proved to be a “Golden Age” for the city during which time the intricate canal system was built along with some of the familiar districts such as Jordaan. On top of this economic and architectural expansion, the city was at the centre of a thriving artistic movement during this period which has left a rich and lasting cultural legacy.

From the late 17th until the mid 19th century, Amsterdam suffered a prolonged period of decline resulting in much poverty in the city. This period of decline was brought to an end by the ambitious North Sea Canal project which linked Amsterdam with the sea. This brought prosperity in the form of increased trade and steamships from around the world bringing spices from Indonesia and ultimately diamonds from South Africa.

The 20th century saw Amsterdam cement its position as one of the leading world cities. This was in spite of the harsh war years and the occupation which saw the city lose 10% of its population through the internment and deportation of most of its Jewish community. The latter half of the century saw a huge increase in population from many of the former Dutch colonies such as Surinam as well as many Turks and Moroccans.

Nowadays Amsterdam is seen as a thriving city full of character and a liberal laissez-faire attitude. Its history is evident in the canals, architecture and museums but beneath this façade lies a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan and bohemian city. A good start for getting a feel for the history of Amsterdam is to visit the Amsterdam Historical Museum (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 357). Housed in an old civic orphanage, it chronicles the development of Amsterdam from the Middle Ages to modern times. Although the subject sounds dry you won't regret spending an hour or two in the museum. The exhibitions detail Amsterdam's fascinating growth from small market town to international city of excellence and puts the unique culture into context.

The Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht 2673) is another highly recommended place to visit. Everyone knows at least the basics of this story. The Dutch girl Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in a secret annex of a Christian family's house during World War Two. This is the actual building, and now operates as the Anne Frank House Museum. We advise to get there early to beat the rush as it gets very busy during peak tourist times.

And of course just about every street in this very old city has its own story to tell. The watchword with Amsterdam is to observe what is around you - history can be found on every corner...