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Amsterdam: Dutch Life in the 17th and 20th Centuries, Side by Side

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam is one of Europe's best-preserved 17th-century cities. Built on pilings, it’s rich in architecture, art, and people expert at good living.

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Amsterdam is perhaps Europe's best-preserved 17th-century city. Yet at the same time, it's got a fun, contemporary edge. It's a progressive place invigorated by a time-honored spirit of live and let live.

We'll cruise the canals and bike the back lanes. We'll sample the Dutch masters from Rembrandt to Van Gogh. We'll drop into a coffee shop…that doesn't sell coffee, and we'll ponder the Red Light District. We'll remember Anne Frank, we'll feast on Indonesian food —Dutch style, and we'll relax in Amsterdam's Vondelpark.

The historic core of Amsterdam remains much the same today as when it was first laid out back in the 1600s. That was Holland's Golden Age, when Dutch merchant ships made this the world's richest city.

Amsterdam's touristy main drag, Damrak, was once the main canal. Today it connects the train station with the city's main square and the Royal Palace. From this spine, the city opens like a fan, with hundreds of bridges and a series of concentric canals.

Wealthy merchants built this city upon millions of wooden pilings, creating a wonderland of canals lined with trees and townhouses crowned with fancy gables.

Traditional bridges — like this one, which crosses the Amstel River — were built with a clever counterbalance. They were fine-tuned: Bridgekeepers bragged they could raise and lower one with a single finger. The city's founders built a dam on the Amstel back in the 13th century. The community that gathered here was named for that Amstel dam — eventually, "Amsterdam."

This is where the river hit the sea. From here, boats could sail into the interior of Europe, and out to the rest of the world. Dutch merchant ships would sail right up the main canal, loaded down with material delights — silks, spices, and porcelain — from faraway lands.

Amsterdam's port is still huge. But it's being transformed from a gritty industrial area into a vibrant, modern, and very livable district. A striking film museum and art cinema is bringing new life to this now-revitalized neighborhood. You can hop on a free shuttle ferry to see this evolving district, or you can cruise a different way, by joining the hedonists and tourists on Amsterdam's myriad canals. Surprising to me, anyone can hire one of these electric boats for a little independent exploring. For some help with the navigation, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Rolinka Bloeming.

Rick: Tell me about the difficulty of building here.
Rolinka: Well, the soil is very swampy. So, everything you see, Rick — all the houses, all the bridges, and the walls of the canals — are built on wooden pilings. It's actually oak wood, and it comes from the Black Forest in Germany. We have about a hundred canals, and they were all dug out in the 17th century, entirely by hand — took them about 30 years. The most important one was the Gentleman's Canal, Herengracht, and then there is the Emperor's Canal, Keizersgracht, and then there's the Prinsen Canal.
Rick: This has got to be the most beautiful canal in town.
Rolinka: It's my favorite canal, Rick.
Rick: So what is this neighborhood called?
Rolinka: It's called, uh, "Jordaan," this area.
Rick: This has gotta be the most characteristic part of Amsterdam.
Rolinka: Oh, today it's one of the most popular places to live.
Rick: Beautiful.

The characteristic Jordaan district offers a quiet slice of Dutch urban life. Built in the 1600s for warehouses and to house workers, it's now home to artists and inviting little restaurants and cafés. While just a few blocks from the busy center, the Jordaan feels like another world. Everything's in its place, and life seems very good.

Amsterdam has about a million people — and as many bikes. This multi-story bike garage is for commuters who ride the train and then pedal to work. This is one of Europe's most bike-friendly cities. Bike lanes run next to the sidewalks, and bikers whiz by silently — walk carefully!

One of the joys of visiting Amsterdam is simply being in this swirl of healthy, busy, biking Dutch. Bikers everywhere, doing chores, flirting, delivering, texting…you name it: Around here, it happens on two wheels.

The city is decorated with ornate gables. The frugal Dutch made their simple buildings look fancy by adding ornate facades. Amsterdam's famous gables include the point gable, bell gable, step gable, and neck gable.

Seventeenth-century land was expensive, and taxes were based on the width of the house. So the Dutch built skinny — and straight up.

In a merchant's house the shop was on the ground floor, the family lived in the middle, and the attic served as a kind of warehouse. With their cramped interiors and steep stairs, houses came with a pulley, so goods could be hoisted up and down on the outside with a rope. That original design still works today.