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See also: history
The Venice of the North

In the course of the 17th century the famous crescent shape of the Amsterdam city centre was designed and realised resulting in the unique ring of canals. A number of narrow streets and canals, fanning out from the centre of the crescent, traversed the network of concentric semicircular canals. On the outskirts of the city centre, the canals ended in squares, where the city gates were located. The squares were used as parking places, since vehicles were not always allowed into the city itself. The Venice of the North consists of approx. 90 islands, separated by some 100 kilometres of canals and linked by about 400 stone bridges.

Aerial view of the old city centre.

About 20,000 buildings make up the historical city centre (800 hectares). One third was built before 1850. About half of all building in the center are either declared national monuments, municipal monuments, or are labelled "original premises" because of their intrinsic cultural historical interest. This monumental whole is included in the list of protected Dutch cityscapes. Moreover, the city centre is eligible for a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. After all, Amsterdam is the proud owner of one of the most important intact historical city centres of the world.
Citizens' architecture prevails
Amsterdam is not a city of churches and palaces, but of monumental mansions. The only two houses in Amsterdam worthy of the name palace are the Royal Palace in the Dam Square and the Trippenhuis, Kloveniersburgwal 29. And even these two were not commissioned by royalty or aristocratic patrons. Originally, the Royal Palace was designed to serve as Amsterdam's town hall and the Trippenhuis was built for wealthy citizens.

Historical photograph showing the former town hall (1648-55), now the Royal Palace.


The monumental character of the Amsterdam city centre is largely determined by numerous 17th and 18th century houses, once owned by wealthy merchants and prominent citizens. Moreover, the warehouses deserve mention. Amsterdam warehouse architecture is unique in the world. Most of the state controlled monuments, however, are dwellings. The ring of canals (Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht; Dutch "gracht" means "canal") is the location of approx. 2,200 buildings, 1,550 of which are listed as historic buildings. Amsterdam's beauty is largely determined by the style of these buildings, better described as "citizens' architecture". The choice of this style was a conscious one. The aim: to replace the Gothic style with its vertical accents and religious overtones by a profane Classicist style. The Royal Palace e.g. contains many supreme examples of symbolism derived from Classical Antiquity.

Historical photograph of NZ Voorburgwal near Sint Nicolaasstraat.
Canals and Driving don't mix..

In the second half of the 19th century this monumental whole was severely threatened. Canals were filled in, streets were widened and bridges lowered. Many irreplaceable buildings were demolished in the process of making the city centre more easily accessible to modern traffic. In the 1950s further plans were made to fill in canals and pull down historical buildings. Fortunately, these plans were only partially realised. Had not the city come to its senses, the characteristic Nieuwmarkt and Jordaan areas would now have resembled the Weesperstraat, where a large-scale restructuring (1968) resulted in demolition of all original buidlings and the creation of a motorway thoroughfare. However, the successful restoration of the important Huis De Pinto proved a turning point. The municipal policy involving large-scale urban development was abandoned.

Historical photograph of NZ Voorburgwal near Pijpenmarkt.
Back to basics
Large-scale projects affecting the historical city centre in order to accommodate the needs of modern traffic are no longer to be expected. The monumental mansions which underwent drastic alterations during the 19th and 20th centuries, when many of them were turned into offices, are now being restored to their original residential functions. Since the Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites was founded in 1953, over 4,000 premises underwent restoration. The historic buildings are lovingly restored and saved from destruction. Twenty years ago, only 60,000 people actually lived in the city centre. Over the past two decades this number has gone up to 80,000. Though there are many "endangered" monumental dwellings which urgently require restoration, the ring of canals is to become once more the stylish residential area it once was.

You can also browse the city's history, from the 12th century onwards.
- photographs and parts of this text  Amsterdam Heritage


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