Celebrating Amsterdam's birthday: A (brief) history of the Dutch capital

Celebrating Amsterdam's birthday: A (brief) history of the Dutch capital

Amsterdam is a small city full of culture, with a history that spans hundreds of years. Walking around the city today, you can’t help but be confronted with the rich history that surrounds you and surprises you on every gable, every street corner, and every square. 

In honour of Amsterdam’s very impressive 748th birthday, let's take a look at the events throughout history that have made the city what it is today. 

The origins of Amsterdam

The first mention of the city of Amsterdam can be traced back to 1275 when the city was granted so-called toll privilege which allowed people living near the Amstel to travel freely along the waters. Around 30 years later, either 1300 or 1306 - the exact date isn’t certain - Amsterdam was granted official city status.

 Document from Count Floris V granting Amsterdam toll privilege. Source: Stadsarchief Amsterdam. Toll privilege Amsterdam 1275

In the early 14th century, Amsterdam developed quickly. The first church was built around 1300, which now serves as the base of the Oude Kerk in central Amsterdam, and a dam was built in the Amsteloever river, on the spot where the National Monument on Dam Square now stands (then known as Plaetse). 

Amsterdam’s trade and economy

Following the unification of the Netherlands in 1543, Amsterdam took on a key role as a trade hub, becoming the city where goods from both Northern and Southern Europe were stored, processed, and sold. Industries including cartography, printing, banking, and insurance thrived in this developing trading centre. 

This trade led to an economic boom in the city, and Amsterdam became the largest city in the province of Holland in the 16th century - in 1580 the city had a population of around thirty thousand people. 

The Dutch Golden Age

At the end of the 15th century, the Netherlands became involved in the trading of colonial goods and slaves, and in 1580 the country started sending their own fleets to the Indies - these first voyages set off from Amsterdam.

The trips to the Dutch East Indies were hugely financially successful for the Netherlands, and in 1602 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established. Amsterdam accounted for more than half of the VOC’s capital and consequently held significant power within the company. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) was founded in 1621, and played a significant role in the Dutch slave trade, contributing to the country's development as a global economic power. 

Amsterdam and the Golden Age

This booming trade industry and money earned through the slave trade led to huge profits for Amsterdam, allowing it to flourish in the 17th century, now known as the Dutch Golden Age. Wealth, power, culture and tolerance boomed in the city in this period. Several new Protestant churches were built, including the Noorderkerk and the Westerkerk, and Amsterdam built a new city hall. 

The city also expanded significantly in the 17th century, and the now-iconic canal belt and Jordaan area were built. It was during this time that the Amsterdam many know and love today started to take form. 

 Map from circa 1550 ca. t/m 1628. Source: Heinrich Holzmüller and Heinrich Petri via Stadsarchief Amsterdam. Old map of Amsterdam

Rebellion and democracy in the Netherlands

After the Golden Age came to an end at the close of the 17th century, a group known as the Patriots demanded an end to the corruption of the regents and, upon returning to the Netherlands from France in 1795, they occupied the Republic of the Netherlands and replaced the Amsterdam city government with provisional representatives of the people, introducing the idea of democracy to the city and the Republic as a whole. 

This didn’t last long, however, and in 1815, Prince Willem of Orange accepted the mantle of King and the country became a constitutional monarchy, before becoming a parliamentary democracy in 1848. 

The industrialisation of Amsterdam

Amsterdam was still reeling from the poverty brought on by the rebellions, but the city moved towards the idea of industrialisation. In this period, the North Holland Canal was built between Amsterdam and Den Helder to save the city’s main harbour from the threat of silting. 

Developments in the late 19th century, including the opening of the Suez Canal and the unification of Germany, brought prosperity back to the Dutch capital. The first shipment of diamonds from South Africa arrived in Amsterdam marking the beginning of the Amsterdam diamond industry. 

The opening of the North Sea Canal in 1876 provided Amsterdam with a direct connection to the sea, and an extensive rail connection to Amsterdam was established in 1889 with the opening of Amsterdam Centraal. The development and expansion of the city continued into the beginning of the 20th century, and Amsterdam further expanded in 1916 when a small Schiphol Airport was opened. A 900-hectare forest to the southwest of the city was created at this time, known as the Amsterdamse Bos, and last but certainly not least, Amsterdam hosted the Summer Olympics in 1928 in 14 venues across the city, a number of which have since been demolished. 

 The 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Source: Stadsarchief Amsterdam. Amsterdam Olympic Games 1928

Amsterdam and the Second World War

The persecution of the Jews during the Second World War led to Amsterdam losing 10 percent of its population, and while the city was lucky enough to avoid extensive material damage throughout the war, after it had become occupied by the Germans it was sadly hit by a number of misdirected ally bombs. 

Following defeat at the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, the Netherlands fell into what is known as the hunger winter of 1944 to 1945. Countless lives were lost in Amsterdam as a result. 

On May 5 1945, the German army surrendered, and Amsterdam celebrated liberation on May 7. Festivities didn’t last long, however, as a number of German soldiers staged an attack on Dam Square, firing from the Grote Club (opposite De Bijenkorf) and killing dozens of Amsterdammers. 

Post-war: Amsterdam in the 20th century

Following the end of the war, the city got to work rebuilding, focusing efforts on the port and Schiphol Airport, and adapting itself to modern-day traffic and transportation. Consequently, the IJ Tunnel was built, and a metro network and the Amsterdam Ring were constructed. New residential neighbourhoods were also built, including the Bijlmermeer to the southeast of the city.  

The city of Amsterdam also struggled with its image and was unable to determine whether it was a primarily residential capital or an economic and financial hub. However, in the 1960s, its reputation as a place of residence developed, and the explosion of youth culture made Amsterdam internationally renowned as many flocked to the city. This was cemented by the municipality’s decision to recognise Amsterdam as a residential city in 1978. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the local economy started to recover. While the historic centre held onto its residential function, the outskirts of the city welcomed an increasing number of businesses and offices. The Zuid-As area developed massively, and Amsterdam earned a reputation as a business and economic hub, with Schiphol growing to become the fifth-largest airport in Europe by 1993. From 1984 onwards, the number of inhabitants started to rise again as young people flocked to the city to study or find work

This population growth led to further expansion of the city in an attempt to battle the housing crisis. In the 1990s, the port in Amsterdam East was transformed into a residential neighbourhood, now known as Zeeburg, and other residential areas (i.e. Bijlmer and Zeedijk) were renovated to become more appealing areas to live in. 

 Amsterdam Centraal and Amsterdam North, May 2000. Source: Freerk de Vos via Stadsarchief Amsterdam. Amsterdam Centraal

Modern-day Amsterdam and the future of the Dutch capital

Over the past 25 years, Amsterdam’s economy has continued to flourish and the population has continued to grow. The city remains the cultural capital of the Netherlands and has also become a key tourist destination, welcoming millions of tourists every year. 

The city is now concerned with determining what it will become in the future, as it continues to struggle against the housing shortage and rising house prices, and concerns about the number of tourists overwhelming the city and its residents. Amsterdam Mayor, Femke Halsema, and the municipality are exploring options for transforming Amsterdam into a “real city centre” again, with residents and locals at its heart.

In honour of the big day on October 27, the municipality has a free exhibition at the city archives from October 27-29, and a Medieval Amsterdam Public Day on Sunday, October 29.

Happy birthday Amsterdam! What do you love most about the city? Let us know in the comments below!

Victoria Séveno


Victoria Séveno

Victoria grew up in Amsterdam, before moving to the UK to study English and Related Literature at the University of York and completing her NCTJ course at the Press Association...

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