Amsterdam, Netherlands, the largest city, a seaport, and the official capital of the nation. It is in Noord (North) Holland Province, 25 miles (40 km) northeast of The Hague, seat of the government. Amsterdam's name stems from a 13th-century dam built on the Amstel River. This short canalized stream flows through the city to the IJ, an arm of the IJsselmeer (formerly Zuider Zee).
Amsterdam's main canals—such as Singel, Prinsen, Keizers, and Heren—are intersected by numerous short waterways, dividing the city into about 90 islands that are linked by more than 1,200 bridges. The city is often called “the Venice of the North.”
Damrak, a bustling thoroughfare, runs south from the IJ to the Dam, or town square, site of the Royal Palace (built 1648–65). North across the square is Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), the coronation church of Holland. Office buildings and fashionable shops, restaurants, and theaters line the streets radiating from the Dam. Along many of the streets and canals are narrow, steepgabled houses of medieval and Renaissance merchant princes; they are now used chiefly as warehouses. Beyond the old city are modern industrial and residential suburbs.
Amsterdam is the cultural center as well as one of the many educational centers of the Netherlands. The University of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Free University are the chief institutions of higher learning.
In the Rijksmuseum are collections of paintings by such renowned Dutch artists as Rembrandt and Vermeer. A separate museum, the Van Gogh Museum, is devoted to works by Van Gogh. In the Tropical Museum are exhibits of life in the tropics. The Royal Concertgebouw symphony orchestra is internationally renowned. Amsterdam maintains beautifully landscaped parks and zoological and botanical gardens.
Amsterdam is the nation's hub of commerce, industry, and finance. Its port, with excellent warehouse, shipbuilding, and repair facilities, is one of the busiest in Europe.
Manufacturing industries include the making of machinery, fabricated steel goods, aircraft, ships, beer, chemicals, clothing, and railway and bridge equipment. Since the mid-19th century Amsterdam has been the world center of the diamond-cutting industry. The city is important in national and international finance.
Amsterdam is a major crossroads of transportation. It is connected to the North Sea by the North Sea Canal. The Amsterdam-Rhine Canal accommodates barge traffic between the city and the Rhine River delta. The city is served by numerous express highways and railroads. Schiphol Airport, seven miles (11 km) southwest of downtown Amsterdam, is one of Europe's busiest airports.
There was only a fishing village on the site of Amsterdam until the 13th century, when feudal lords built a castle there and a dam across the mouth of the Amstel River to keep out the sea. A shipping community grew up rapidly, and in 1369 Amsterdam joined the Hanseatic League.
In the 16th century many Flemish Protestant merchants and Spanish and Portuguese Jewish diamond cutters fled to Amsterdam because of religious persecution by the Spanish. In the Peace of Westphalia (1648), commercial advantage for the newly independent Netherlands was assured by closing the sea outlet of Amsterdam's rival port, Antwerp, which was still held by Spain. Amsterdam became the trading and financial center of western Europe.
Under Napoleon Bonaparte Amsterdam was made capital of the Kingdom of Holland. It continued as the capital city of the independent Kingdom of the Netherlands founded in 1815. The gradual silting up of the channel to the Zuider Zee (now the IJsselmeer) threatened the city's future. During the 19th century, three canals were built to connect Amsterdam with the North Sea and the Rhine River.