From Renaissance masterpieces to the best of contemporary design, Amsterdam’s architectural highlights span a range of eras and styles. Take to the streets and wander through charming old neighbourhoods and reinvigorated industrial districts to discover some of most interesting buildings in the city.
Amsterdam’s canals are lined with iconic buildings mostly dating from the Dutch Golden Age
Amsterdam Canal District
Start your explorations in the Amsterdam Canal District, where the city expanded gradually with the digging of each new waterway. The 17th century was one of the most prolific periods for new development, with the rapid construction of grand mansions and merchants’ houses along the four main canals of Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht.
Known locally as the Grachtengordel, the Amsterdam Canal District was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010, and its best known buildings mostly date from the Dutch Golden Age. Characterised by their stepped gables, tall narrow form, and highly ornamental facades, these picturesque canal houses placed great emphasis on architectural symmetry and were often rendered in warm tones of red, terracotta and orange.
Today, several of the neighbourhood’s most famous buildings are museums, offering visitors a chance to experience them both inside and out. On Herengracht, the Canal House Museum (Grachtenmusem) details the development of the canal district, while on Keizersgracht, the Museum Van Loon is a classic canal house once home to Willem van Loon, co-founder of the Dutch East India Company. There’s also Foam Fotografiemuseum, a photography museum set within a quintessential canal house. It hosts several large exhibitions per year.
If you want to linger longer, have a cocktail or stay overnight in the aptly named Canal House Hotel in the neighbouring Jordaan neighbourhood. This 23-bedroom boutique hotel oozes glamour and history from every pore, and is filled with restored period features and Dutch antiques and artworks.
Amsterdam Zuid is home to some of the city’s best known tourist attractions, like the Rijksmuseum
The borough of Amsterdam South is one of the city’s most affluent, and is home to many of Amsterdam’s best-known tourist attractions – several of which are architectural highlights in their own right. At the top of the list are the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, both located at Museum Square.
Now a national heritage site, the Rijksmuseum combines elements of both Gothic and Renaissance styles and was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who was also responsible for designing Amsterdam Centraal Station. Nearby, the Van Gogh Museum comprises two distinct buildings. The main 1973-opened Rietveld building emphasises light, space and geometric shapes, with a cantilevered staircase in the atrium. Opposite, the elliptical Kisho Kurokawa Wing is more asymmetrical, and connects to the main building through an underground passage. In 2015 a further addition was made in the form of a new glass entrance hall, built using state-of-the-art construction techniques. The striking façade contains 650 square metres of ‘cold bent glass’, along with 20 glass columns up to 9.4 metres high.
Adjacent to the Van Gogh Museum is the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Housed in a grand 19th century redbrick building renowned for its natural light, this contemporary art gallery gained a bold new wing in 2012, with a jutting roof and a distinctive shape which has earned it the moniker of “the bathtub”.
On a more traditional note, around the corner on Van Baerlestraat is the 1888 Royal Concertgebouw. This famed concert hall was influenced by a similar concert venue in Leipzig which opened two years earlier, and is known around the world for its exceptional acoustics. Beloved among locals for its stately Neoclassical architecture, it was comprehensively renovated in the late 1980s when it was found to be sinking under rotting foundations.
Eastern Docklands is lined with impressive feats of contemporary architecture, like Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ
On an entirely different scale, the Eastern Docklands area east of Centraal Station is a hotbed of innovative architecture. By the middle of the last century this former industrial shipping district had begun to fall into a deep decline, and its decaying warehouses lay derelict for several decades before the visionaries moved in to reinvent the area for a new millennium.
Today, the neighbourhood appeals to urbanites, young professionals and creative types, and is full of trendy restaurants, imaginative apartment blocks and cutting edge cultural institutions. One of the most distinctive is the award-winning Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ (Music building on the IJ), a concert venue with a 24 metre glass façade overlooking the Amsterdam waterfront. It serves as one of the city’s major cultural hubs.
Across the water in the Java-Eiland and KNSM Eiland neighbourhoods, you’ll find some of the most interesting residential architecture in the city, including the circular, neo-classical Barcelona housing complex with its huge wrought iron fence; the sloping-roofed Piraeus block with its inner courtyards and galleries, and a number of small canals lined with post-modern canal houses.