Not more than 10 minutes’ walk from the centre of Amsterdam Mark Caswell loses himself in the Jordaan district, an area of quiet canals, peaceful cafes and absorbing museums
1. The Houseboat Museum
Many of Amsterdam’s finest houseboats are moored along the quiet canals of the Jordaan district, so it seems only appropriate that this is also the area to dive into their history. The Hendrika Maria dates back to 1914, and was formerly a sail-propelled working boat, transporting sand, gravel and coal across the city. It was converted into a houseboat in the 1960s, and subsequently into a museum. The cargo area is now spacious living quarters, measuring 80sqm, but the worker and his family would have had to cram into just a fraction of this. Their original deckhouse is still intact, complete with its diminutive cupboard-bed – barely enough space to swing a mouse, let alone a cat. Photographs, model boats and guidebooks plot the history of the houseboat through the decades. The Houseboat Museum is on Prinsengracht 296, tel +31 20 42 70 750, houseboatmuseum.nl. Open 11am-5pm, Tues to Sun (Mar to Oct), and Fri-Sun (Nov to Feb). Entrance €3.
From the Houseboat Museum walk along Elandsgracht until you come to Hazenstraat on your right. The whole of the Jordaan district is littered with quirky antique shops, boutiques and dusty bric-a-brac stores, and no street typifies this more than Hazenstraat. Within 100 yards you’ll find a funky hat shop, confusingly named Petsalon (petsalon.nl); Olivaria, a store dedicated to the world of olive oil; Cats and Things, a shop selling cat paraphernalia (catsandthings.nl), Kop & Schotel (bowls and dishes – no explanation needed there then); a handful of designer clothes and shoe shops; an English bookstore; and the workshop/gallery of local artist Joep Buijs (joepbuijs.nl). If you’re not too weighed down with scratching posts and crockery by this point, turn right at the top of the street into Lauriergracht and follow the canal back to Prinsengracht.
3. The Westerkerk
Walk north along Prinsengracht past Hotel Pulitzer (see hotel review, page 24) and you’ll come to the Westerkerk. Literally meaning “Western church”, it was opened in 1631 and is the largest Protestant church in the Netherlands. The bell tower is undergoing renovation, but visitors can still admire the Dutch renaissance-style interior and the huge organ that was added in 1686. The Westerkerk’s most famous “resident” is, or at least was, Rembrandt. The Dutch painter was buried here on October 8, 1669, but he could only afford a rented grave, so 20 years later his remains were removed to make way for another body. In 1906, 300 years after his birth, a memorial plaque was erected inside the church. Westerkerk is on Prinsengracht 281, tel +31 20 62 47 766, westerkerk.nl. Open Mon to Fri, 11am-3pm, Apr-Sep.
4. Anne Frank House
Just a few steps from the Westerkerk is undoubtedly the most famous house in Amsterdam. On July 6, 1942, fearing Nazi persecution, the Frank family took up residence in a secret rear annexe of Otto Frank’s jam-making factory. From where Anne Frank wrote her diary, which has been published in more than 60 languages. The family’s furniture was taken away when the annexe was discovered on August 4, 1944, but there are several reminders of the Franks’ time in hiding. A door is still disguised by a bookcase, and the walls remain decorated with postcards, posters, and markings from the family’s two years in self-imposed captivity. Excerpts from Anne’s diary pepper the walls and steep staircases, and many make for sober reading – “The English radio says they’re being gassed – I feel terribly upset.” But the museum brings hope too – interactive sections educate today’s generations about the dangers of discrimination. Anne Frank House is on Prinsengracht 267, tel +31 20 55 67 105, annefrank.org. Open 9am-9pm daily (Mar 15 to Sept 15), 9am-7pm daily (Sep 16 to Mar 14). Entry €7.50. Note: the house is visited by more than 1.5 million people every year, and queues can be up to two hours during peak periods – the best time to visit is usually after 3pm. Or buy an evening ticket from your hotel concierge (valid after 5pm), allowing you to bypass the queues.
5. The Pancake Bakery
With cafes on practically every corner, no visitor is going to go hungry in Amsterdam, but for something a bit different try the Pancake Bakery, a couple of minutes from Anne Frank House. Located in the middle of three 17th-century warehouses, the cafe has been serving up myriad sweet and savoury pancakes since the mid-1970s. The menu includes an international section, with choices such as the Indonesian pancake – a delicious and filling mixture of chicken, onions, mushrooms and satay sauce – or for those with a sweet tooth, the traditional Dutch variety with cherries, vanilla ice-cream, cherry liqueur and whipped cream. The cafe also serves omelettes and poffertjes – the Dutch equivalent of the thicker American pancake, served with sugar and butter. Grab an outside table overlooking the canal and watch the world go by while you enjoy your snack. The Pancake Bakery is on Prinsengracht 191, tel +31 20 62 51 333, pancake.nl. Open daily 12pm-9.30pm. Pancakes start from around €5.
If you’ve time for one last wander, cross back over the Prinsengracht and stroll past the whitewashed Noorderkerk (Northern church) to the Brouwersgracht. Here you will see some of the best examples of houseboats in the Jordaan, along with beautiful shuttered townhouses and still-functioning swing bridges. You’ll feel a million miles from the hustle and bustle of a capital city, but will be no more than 10 minutes’ walk from the centre of Amsterdam.