Finding a happy balance in Amsterdam
In West, quiet, handsome residential areas alternate with bustling shopping streets, and Amsterdam residents from all walks of life live alongside one another in fraternal harmony. You'll find street markets as well as elegant mansions, upmarket furniture shops, underground cultural centres and plenty of cafés, often with great terraces.
The olden days in Oud-West
Oud-West, this leafy yet lively and eminently liveable part of town, is the part of West that’s closest to the city centre. Occupying an area bordered by the stately Vondelpark and the Singelgracht canal, Oud-West and neighbouring De Baarsjes are the result of rapid urban expansion in the last quarter of the 19th century. Prior to that, the semi-circular Singelgracht had demarcated Amsterdam’s outer limits, and earlier still, the Overtoom – nowadays a busy arterial road running parallel to the Vondelpark, and the best place in town for furniture shopping – was a footpath connecting Amsterdam with the town of Sloten. As such, it was part of the route that had brought thousands of European pilgrims to Amsterdam following the 1345 ‘Miracle of Amsterdam’, providing the city with its very first tourists.
The vast majority of the four neighbourhoods’ first inhabitants were working-class, hence the buildings are mostly four-floor terraced houses split into apartments, with perilously steep staircases and few of the ostentatious flourishes that characterise the grand homes of the Canal Ring. Although it emerged from the same marshland, Oud-Zuid on the other, pricier, side of the Vondelpark has always been a much more extravagant affair. West even used to have a gangland image of mean streets and organised crime.
Nowadays, following a period of regeneration – some might say gentrification – West is firmly en route to its glory days. The Overtoom, although still dotted with cheap Chinese massage parlours and kebab joints, was selected as the location for the first ever Marqt, the organic supermarket that has spread like wild quinoa through Amsterdam’s better-heeled enclaves. The industrial heritage complex De Hallen, located in an intensely spruced-up former tram depot, houses a weekly food and design market, creative, media and fashion businesses, various cafés and restaurants and the four-star Hotel de Hallen. Having shaken off its Wild West reputation, the area has become hugely popular with expats, especially those looking to start a family. Numerous child-friendly cafés, activities and children’s clothes and toy shops bear witness to the fact.
The small streets on both sides of the Overtoom are perfect for a stroll. Walk past ancient trees, grand 19th-century buildings and the Vondelkerk. The Zevenlandenhuizen (‘Houses of the Seven Countries’) in the Roemer Visscherstraat from 1894 are a surprise; each house in the row represents an architectural style from another European country. On Overtoom lies the Hollandsche Manege. Built in 1882, the oldest equestrian centre in the Netherlands was inspired by the neoclassical splendour of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. It was designed by AL Van Gendt, also responsible for such functional architectural icons as the Royal Concertgebouw and the Amsterdam Central railway station, and was completely restored in 1986. The building still offers daily riding classes to young and old from its stable of around 50 immaculately groomed horses and ponies. It may all seem (and smell!) somewhat out of place halfway down a busy urban road, but De Hollandsche Manege has a special place in Amsterdam’s affections. In fact, its presence perfectly underlines the perfect pick-and-mix character of West – around here you never know what you’re going to get.