Medieval Beginnings

The first settlers came to Amsterdam in the 13th century and founded a small fishing village. The modern Dam Square commemorates the site where these settlers built their original dam. The town grew rapidly as the canny Amsterdammers became known for their herring, their beer, and their shipbuilding. Few structures remain from this period, through the Oude Kerk (old church) is one stunning example of medieval Dutch architecture. In 1300, Amsterdam received its first official charter.

The Golden Age

The city continued to grow in size and in wealth, and by the middle of the 1500’s, Amsterdam had become a major player on the global economic stage. The years between 1585 and 1672 are known as the Dutch Golden Age, when the nation’s economic and cultural power was at its peak. Most of the Netherlands’ success during this period was due to the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602. The company’s trading expeditions brought great prosperity to its home country–and to Amsterdam in particular, which served as a principal port.

Much of the city’s iconic architecture dates to the Golden Age, including such structures as the royal palace and the most prominent canal houses. The city also built many of its beautiful canals at this time. Amsterdam dominated the art world during the Golden Age, giving us gifted painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Transition to the Modern Era

Despite battles with France and England, Amsterdam maintained much of its wealth well into the 1700’s. But after the government was overthrown in 1795, the French began an occupation, and the country fell into a recession.

The Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s brought some life back to the city. Workers completed construction of the North Sea Canal, which finally connected Amsterdam directly to the sea. Many of Amsterdam’s most stately buildings came about at this time, including Centraal Station and the Koninklijk Theater Carré. New neighborhoods spread from the city’s central point to accommodate the swift population growth.

World Wars

During the first World War, the Netherlands remained neutral. However, a decline in trade caused food shortages and an economic downturn, leading to increased civil unrest. There were the Potato Riots of 1917, as well as a major revolt in the Jordaan district in 1934. Though the buildings of Amsterdam survived World War II mostly unscathed, the same cannot be said of its people. Amsterdam’s Jews suffered the most–many were killed under Nazi rule. The famous young diarist Anne Frank and her family hid in Amsterdam during the war. Tourists can still visit her secret annex today.


Though the beginning of the 20th century was a dark period for Amsterdam, the city and its resilient citizens managed to bounce back. Much like in the United States, many Amsterdammers moved to the suburbs after World War II. At the same time, many immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the former Dutch colony of Suriname began to move into the city.

Today Amsterdam is known for its tolerance – a multicultural, liberal safehaven that celebrates people’s differences.