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Amsterdam Journal

Amsterdam is a city of canals, flowers and bicycles. Though relatively small in size and population, it is one of the most popular destinations for tourists who want to discover all it has to offer. We love to visit Amsterdam in the early fall when it feels a bit more quiet, the weather is cooler and often with changing skies of rain, clouds and sun. I find it's the city’s small details that provide moments of inspiration. There are still plenty of flowers in bloom and the northern light is magical.

Amsterdam’s cityscape of impossibly narrow row houses with graphic facades can best be enjoyed by simply walking along the canals. Just be careful to not fall in the canal as you admire the views!

I love the warehouse districts of any city we visit, and Amsterdam has one of the best. The Jordaan area, in the western section of the city, was once home to the merchants and their buying and selling activities. Amsterdam’s golden years were in the 17th century and it was a world power, trading, among other things, spices from the Far East. You can see the hoists at the top of the roof, which brought heavy items to the top floors. These buildings are now repurposed as offices and apartments, and the bright red shutters are not atypical as a color accent in these iconic facades.

Rembrandt van Rijn is Amsterdam’s most famous painter. His use of light versus dark and layering of heavy oil paint on the canvas made him a master of portraiture. Wherever you are in Amsterdam you feel his presence, but you can find this self portrait at a young age at the Rijksmuseum. In 2019 Amsterdam celebrated the 350 year anniversary of this genius artist.

Bicycles are the way of life in Amsterdam. As a tourist, you have to learn to look both ways over and over again before crossing the street because they are so quiet…and fast. But they show how a city can function without cars, and it changes your thinking. The bikes are usually old and not expensive, because, as our guide told us, they are often stolen and resold at the Flea Market. Rain doesn’t seem to impact the riders, and they manage without an umbrella.

While the vast majority of Amsterdam’s houses are narrow, these two houses are unique in that they are each double width. They must have larger interior staircases to bring heavy furniture to the upper floors, as there is no hoist at the roof’s peak. The houses are also similar in their crisp black and white exterior, yet each has its own facade of smaller paned windows and graphic patterning. Built centuries ago, houses like these tend to lean into one another and their neighbors. Built on pilings, they need to be re-supported every few hundred years or so.

Amsterdam has a wealth of world class museums, three of which are located within a short distance of each other on the MuseumPlein. The Stedelijk features contemporary art and design from the 20th-21st century while next to it the Van Gogh Museum is devoted to that renowned artist’s paintings. Nearby is the Rijksmuseum with its breathtaking collection of Dutch painters including Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Stedelijk’s 2012 addition, designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects, has been nicknamed “The Bathtub” because of its seemingly porcelain surface and unequivocal shape.

In the early 1600’s Holland experienced a tulip buying frenzy known as Tulip mania. A single bulb would sell for many times a person’s annual salary, until the bubble burst in 1637. But as we wandered the street of the city, it was clear that Holland still is the world’s biggest supplier of flower bulbs. Horticultural references are everywhere and the florist shops are a visual delight. These autumn crocus are ready to be planted.

In exploring the streets of Amsterdam, we were struck by the beautiful quality of paint that is used for door and window frames. It has a smooth glossy surface that reflects the surroundings.

How do you like your chocolate? In Amsterdam you can find shops that sell this delicious confection in any shape or variety.

The houses may be small, and without a yard, but homeowners find a way to make their own gardens.

The tree lined canals give Amsterdam its unique character and add to its charm. The houses have a neutral color scheme with rhythmic placement of windows and doors while cars manage to park alongside the quays and bicycles sit precariously close to the edge. Our guide said thousands of bicycles are dredged up from the canals each year.

In this city of horticulture enthusiasts, you can even find Venus Fly Traps.

The Anne Frank House, at 263 Prinsengracht, is where 13 year old Anne Frank, her family and four others hid from the Nazi’s during WWII. It is now a museum that offers a view into the secret annex behind the office spaces where they lived for two years before being discovered and sent to the concentration camps. You enter the secret annex through the bookcase, just as the family did, and climb the steep stairs into the small rooms that offered safety for those short years. Besides the actual hiding place, the museum’s sobering exhibits also document persecution and discrimination. This is the street view of the door to the building’s offices.

Rembrandt, Amsterdam’s most esteemed artist, lived during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. The extraordinary wealth of the times brought him numerous commissions, and he painted a variety of subjects including landscapes, historical biblical figures and portraits. He also painted self portraits and there is a sense of honesty in their portrayal. After years of great success as an artist, Rembrandt unfortunately fell on hard times by living beyond his means and actually died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave. This self portrait, painted in his later years, is in the Rijksmuseum, along with his other masterpieces.

The canals are the main streets of Amsterdam, and along with stationary house boats there is regular traffic on these waterways, both commercial and made for tourists. There is always a chance of that ubiquitous rain.

There is a long history of growing flowers in Holland and it’s not just tulips that are popular in this country. Amsterdam has numerous street corner flower stands selling brightly colored seasonal flowers and exotics.

The Rijksmuseum underwent a major update in 2013 with architects Cruz and Ortiz and Jean-Michael Wilmotte redesigning the space, interior colors and layout. The museum now showcases its collection of 8,000 objects in chronological order from the Middle Ages through the 20th century. The galleries are painted in rich tones of grey that complement the artwork. This new entry hall was created to facilitate easy access and its dramatic architectural grid structure brings the museum into the 21st century.

At the Rijksmuseum you can get up close and personal to Rembrandt’s seemingly abstract paintings and marvel at his use of rich colors and use of thick dabs of oil paint.

The Stedelijk Museum commissioned the firm Inside Outside to design a 14 meter high black and white weaving titled “Damask” for its public atrium that connects the old and new wings of the museum. Produced by a carpet mill, the hanging woven design adds acoustic qualities to the open space while its three dimensional weaves and dramatic horticultural imagery reference the original farmlands on the museum’s site as well as traditional French and Belgian Gobelin tapestries.

Amsterdam’s Golden Age was in the mid 1600’s and most of its iconic canal houses were built during that century. But tucked among side streets and parks you can find even older examples of the city’s early architecture. This one made of wood is the oldest house in Amsterdam and is located in the Begijnhof, an inner courtyard with a group of historic houses built in the Middle Ages.

Even the train station feels like a work of art and exiting the tracks you are immediately in front of the water that surrounds Amsterdam. This glass roof spells out the name of the city.

The Rijksmuseum also owns four paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Amsterdam’s other master artist of the 17th century. Known for their unique sense of light, his quiet, intimate and rare works offer a look into every day life in Delft. This one, “The Milkmaid”, plays with rich colors of blue, gold and clay in a careful composition designed to pull you into her setting.

Throughout Amsterdam, bulbs for sale.

There are 1200 bridges in Amsterdam, crossing its many canals and waterways. This is the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) which can be found on the Amstel River. The legend tells the story that two well-to-do sisters lived on either side of the Amstel and built an extremely narrow bridge to visit each other. The original was eventually replaced with this one so more pedestrians could cross the river at the same time.