In this section we focus on the delightful center of town all around the Dam Square and nearby neighborhoods, from Damrak and Damstraat to a few blocks behind the Dam.
Upon first arriving in Amsterdam at the train station one of the first things you'll see out front is the boat harbor, called the Damrak, a marina for the canal boat tours, with buildings seemingly floating on their reflections.
Damrak is a photogenic spot, so even if you're walking by loaded down with two backpacks or suitcases, you'll still want to stop and take a picture. This little marina was part of the original main harbor, and the street was the major canal going into the center of town.
Canal tours start from this scenic location and bring you on a one-hour ride through the waterways of town, described at the end. Those boat tours usually get started about 10 AM with frequent departures throughout the day and into the evening. You can buy the ticket right here.
Damrak is the name of the marina and the busy main street running right next to it that connects the train station with Dam Square, just one kilometer away.
There is a wonderful shopping district one block in from Damrak along Nieuwendijk -- for pedestrians only, lined with stores all the way, with nine little side alleys offering more shops. Of course it has plenty of monotonous chain stores that you find everywhere, but there are many unique little places with one-of-a-kind items to be found only here, so take some serious time for shopping.
Later you can shop along the other end of this same street beyond the Dam, where it is renamed Kalverstraat. Hopefully you always wear a small backpack to carry your water bottle and stash away your purchases. There is one outstanding traditional snack you can purchase as you walk along -- patat, or frites -- French fries prepared as only the Dutch and Belgians know how, with a richly flavored mayonnaise sauce. Forget about calories and health, you’re on vacation.
Head back over to Damrak where trams come by every couple of minutes, so hop on, check in with your O-V chip card, have a seat or stand. It's only a few minutes ride and you'll soon be arriving in the center of Amsterdam at Dam Square, the main focus of action in the city, equivalent to Piccadilly Circus in London or a little Times Square.
The Royal Palace is the major building on the Dam, originally built as Europe's largest Town Hall in the mid-17th century. For a while it became the royal residence, now it's a historic monument open to the public, especially interesting for the vast Citizen’s Hall, one of the largest rooms of its time.
This Kingdom of the Netherlands still has a royal family, but the monarchs never played much of a role in running the country. Instead, it was controlled by the merchants. The other prominent landmark is the white obelisk, which is the National Monument, dedicated to the victims of the Second World War and to peace.
Dam Square is where the first dam was built across the Amstel River in 1270, which gave the city its name. Its central location makes this convenient, but the Dam is probably not a place you want to spend much time -- it can be hectic with the traffic whizzing by and is often just a big empty square. However, there are worthwhile sites surrounding it and sometimes you will see terrific street performers here.
The plaza is always like a three-ring circus with lots of acrobats, jugglers, magicians, musicians, clowns, and costumed characters doing all kinds of tricks for you. There is never any charge for this entertainment, but as always, if you like the show, and especially if you're taking pictures, it's nice to give them a tip. You'll also want to take care of your guide on the free walking tour that leaves from here.
The Dam is also a popular gathering place for pigeons, and they're so used to people they love to sit on your arm if you're going to feed them. Madame Tussaud’s wax museum is on the south side of the Dam, featuring interesting reconstructions of 17th century life along with the usual famous personalities. The most famous department store, Bijenkorf, is also on the square.
Streets around the Dam are a mix of pedestrians in the plaza and traffic along that busy street we’ve been walking along from the train station, Damrak, which changes name here to Rokin and continues south for another 700 meters.
A fun way to get around town is on a beer bike, or a pedal bar, with up to twelve riders guzzling and pedaling, steered by the designated driver. Another way you can do your sightseeing is in a horse-carriage ride around town. The Dam is a good place to flag one down because it's always so busy here.
One of the fascinating streets leading out from the south side of the Dam is Damstraat, just 200 meters long. It's a lively, fun place, mostly pedestrian and bicycle, but a few cars might come through. The people and bicycles pretty much controll the street, which is lined by a huge variety of fast food and sit-down restaurants. Here you can stock up on your psychedelic supplies, especially magic truffles.
The street can get crowded because it seems like every one of Amsterdam’s 20 million annual visitors wants to come walking on Damstraat. The resident population of the city is only one million, so the locals are really outnumbered by the visitors.
Damstraat continues across the lovely Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal, then changes names a few times as it gets into an older part of town on the east side, which we describe on another webpage. For now, we're heading briefly back to the Dam and to some streets beyond it.
We have walked behind the Dam Square, looking at the New Church, or Nieuwe Kerk, which dates back to 1408 but has been reconstructed several times after major fires. Like the rest of Amsterdam, it was originally made of wood, but after burning down a few times it was rebuilt in the beautiful brick and stone that we see today. The church is open from 10:00-5:00pm daily, with a small admission charge, and is worth having a quick look at the baroque wooden altar, stained glass, and various burial monuments.
Across the street, another building looking like a church is actually now a shopping mall, Magna Plaza. Originally it was built as the main post office, over 100 years ago, but in the 1990s it was converted into this luxurious shopping mall.
For the visitor it's a great place to look for souvenirs and knickknacks of all kinds, maybe a backpack or perhaps you're looking for designer clothing and fashion accessories. They even have a pottery shop where you can paint your own designs. Even if you're not doing any shopping, the building itself is so beautiful to see on the inside that you must come in that front door and have a look.
The central hall of the interior has galleries on two upper floors surrounded by arcades. This magnificent building was constructed in the neo-Gothic style similar to that of the main train station and the Rijksmuseum, but it is unique and special. The shopping mall has been added to the list of 10 Most Valuable Monuments of the city of Amsterdam.
Another block away brings us to Raadhuisstraat, noted for its curved arcade shopping gallery, built in 1899, influenced by similar modernistic developments in Paris in Vienna at that time.
Nearby is Westerkerk, the world's largest Protestant church when built in the 1620s. It was the burial place of Rembrandt, but his tomb has disappeared.
The church was designed in the Renaissance style, and has the town's highest church tower at 87 meters. It is possible to walk up inside the tower to see the 42-bell carillon on a regular tour. When you climb up in the tower you're also welcome to go outside for the stupendous view looking over the entire city. The Anne Frank house is one block away.