The Amstel was at one time the city’s main artery. Amsterdam was named after this river, which until the 16th century flowed freely to the IJ. Once you have adjusted to the scale of the city’s canals, the breadth of the Amstel seems strangely out of place in the heart of the old city, but its banks are still pleasant for a stroll.
The river used to be an invisible border line that marked the beginnings of the Jewish Quarter. Nieuwe Keizersgracht and Nieuwe Prinsengracht, because of their position on the east side of the Amstel, were not popular among Amsterdam’s wealthier citizens, and this allowed some of the richer members of the Jewish community to move in. The effect has survived, and there is still a strong contrast between the streets on either side of the river.
Just north of the junction of Herengracht and the Amstel is the Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge), which leads to Waterlooplein. There was once a blue-painted wooden bridge here, but about the only trace of blue in this handsome 1884 replacement, based on the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, is on the ornamental lantern.
One of the most prominent landmarks on this stretch of the river is the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), further South, which connects Kerkstraat with Nieuwe Kerkstraat on the far bank. This rebuilt wooden drawbridge, 20th-century replacement for the 17th-century structure, gets its name from an even narrower bridge that once stood here.
Though there are many theories as to the origin of the name, experts tend to agree on the story of the two wealthy Magere sisters who lived on opposite sides of the Amstel; tired of making detours to visit each other, they built a bridge. Today, it is one of the last hand-operated drawbridges in existence. Featured on canal-boat tours, postcards and tourist brochures, the bridge has become one of the clichés of scenic Amsterdam, and is beautifully illuminated at night.
A noteworthy landmark on the eastern band is the neo-classical Amstelhof, a nursing home dating from 1681, when it was built for aged Protestant women. It has undergone major alterations to accommodate the Hermitage Amsterdam art gallery, a ‘branch’ of the famous Hermitage in St Petersburg.
The first section opened in 2004 in the Neerlandia Building, an annexe of the Amstelhof, with its entrance at 14 Nieuwe Herengracht. This joint project restores a connection between Amsterdam and St Petersburg that dates back to the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, who founded the Russian city and was a great admirer of Amsterdam, which he visited several times, and of Dutch maritime prowess. He based the design of the Russian flag on that of the Dutch.
Further upstream beside the Amstel’s houseboat-lined shore, the 19th-century Koninlijk Theater Carré (Royal Carré Theatre) was built as a circus, and its stage is circular. Today it is used for local and international productions.
The stately Amstel Hotel on this side of the Amstel has been the address for cosmopolitan society since 1897, when it first opened as a spa. Back then, a Baedeker Guide listed it as one of Amsterdam’s top hotels, its rooms priced at an astronomical three guilders a night. These days the prices are more amenable to captains of industry and the jet set.
After an extensive facelift in the 1990s, the Amstel was restored to its former glory as the temporary address for guests such as the Queen of England. It remains a popular spot to enjoy Sunday brunch or afternoon tea, and its French restaurant La Rive has two Michelin stars.