In Amsterdam, historic and modern buildings coexist in harmony. Daring additions enhance storied landmarks and modern architecture pops up in surprising ways throughout the city.
There’s a spectacular new atrium to accommodate the crowds that flock to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum, and many of the galleries have been redesigned to enhance the collection of medieval and Renaissance arts. The florid brick Stedelijk Museum, which has always pushed the boundaries of art and design, has expanded into a giant white bathtub. Traditionalists were shocked, but the addition provides two new floors of galleries for temporary exhibitions, a canopied glass foyer looking out to the Museumplein, and a spacious café-restaurant.
The courtyard of the Scheepsvartmuseum —an 18th-century naval store turned maritime museum—has been enclosed by a glass canopy supported on a delicate steel spider’s web. Central Station, a mock-historic landmark, is being remodeled with a new bus station to the rear, and a gorgeous Art Nouveau shipping office has been transformed into the Grand Hotel Amrâth nearby. Mass tourism has degraded the Damrak, across from the station, but you should be sure to see the Beurs van Berlage, a former exchange building that now contains many art spaces and is soon to be restored.
The 17th and 18th-century gabled houses that line the canals were revolutionary in their day—for their rationality, plain facades, and expansive windows. The pulleys that hoisted heavy loads to upper-level workshops are still used to raise a piano or sofa to an upstairs apartment. That spirit of innovation was revived a century ago by a brilliant generation of architects, artists, and designers, making the Netherlands a crucible of modernism. Housing societies sponsored some of the best living complexes in the world, using brick with expressive freedom, and incorporating landscaped courtyards. The 1930 Open Air School has been restored and brings joy to a new generation of children. It’s one of many public buildings that embody the idealism of a society that sought to improve the lives of the many rather than enrich a few.
Amsterdam is growing rapidly, and a new city is wrapped around the historic core. Land is precious (a third of the country lies below sea level) so the density of these new developments is high. Large apartment buildings open onto the waterfront or a network of canals, where former docklands and factory sites used to exist. In a city that is as flat as a billiard table, it’s easy to rent a bicycle to explore these new districts, hopping on and off free ferries or pedaling over the bridges that link them. One such path will lead you to the Eye Film Institute, across the water from the station, a jagged white dart that contains a multiplex, a museum of cinema, and a restaurant that opens onto the water.
Tucked into the dense network of canals at the heart of the city are showcases of iconoclastic Dutch design, notably Droog (Staalstraat 7B), a cooperative that features witty furniture, lighting and ceramics by Marcel Wanders, Helen Jongerius and other top names. You can buy distinctive pieces, take in an exhibition, lunch off soup and sandwiches in an old guildhall and even spend the night in Hotel Droog, a studio apartment. Another emporium, containing even wilder inventions, is the Frozen Fountain (Prinsengracht 645) and the Borzo Gallery (Keizergracht 516) is a classic canal house that has been sensitively remodeled into an art gallery.
Holland has a network of storied cities, a half-hour by train from Amsterdam, which boast the same inspiring mix of old and new. Utrecht is a pilgrimage site for admirers of Gerrit Rietveld, who designed the red-blue chair and the Schroeder house, a tiny masterpiece of De Stijl. You can also visit a little-known gem that was inspired by Rietveld: a triangular house that Mart van Schijndel designed for himself in 1991, shoehorned onto a hidden site once occupied by stables and now maintained by his widow, Natascha Drabbe, who gives regular tours of the property. Ms. Drabbe also launched the Iconic Houses Association to protect and promote modern house-museums in Europe and the US.
Close to Utrecht is Hilversum, with the City Hall of Dudok and Duiker’s Zonnestraal Sanatorium. Both are impeccably restored and serve as time capsules of progressive architecture ca 1930. The city was once a hub of European broadcasting, a legacy celebrated in the striking Institute for Sound and Vision, which doubles as a museum and archive. Further afield is Delft with its impressive university campus, and Rotterdam, a brash port city, extensively rebuilt after wartime devastation. There, the must-see is the Van Nelle factory, a marvel of enlightened planning and crystalline architecture that was completed in 1927 and is now an incubator for creative businesses.
Amsterdam Traveling Tips
Travelers to Amsterdam should pack stout shoes and a large umbrella. Book accommodations far in advance and be prepared to pay a high price for a desirable canal-side location when a big convention is in town. There’s a fantastic tram network, and a few buses serving more remote districts; be sure to buy a pass at the central station, for individual tickets are expensive. Trains to nearby cities are fast and frequent. Half the population is on two wheels, and bicycles rule: don’t stray into their path unless you want to be sent flying. Traditional Dutch food is stodgy, but there’s a great choice of cuisine from France, Italy, and Indonesia–a legacy of the colonial era. Recommended restaurants include Le Hollandais (Amsteldijk 41, 679 1248), The Lobby in the Hotel V (Nes 49, 662 3233), De Kas, an expensive but atmospheric place for an organic lunch that occupies a greenhouse in a park (Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3, 462 4562), Mamouche, an elegant Moroccan (Quellijnstraat 104, 6700 0736), Envy (Prinsengracht 381), and the Restaurant-Café Amsterdam in an old pumping station (Watertorenplein 6, 682 2666). To call Amsterdam from abroad, the code is 3120; in the city, it’s 020.
Photos by Michael Webb.