Amsterdam has long been one of my favorite cities. I love the misty beauty of its historic canal-laced center; its tall, gabled brick houses that are at once elegant and homey; and its polite and good-humored inhabitants.
Amsterdam is a city that was conjured out of the marshy banks of the Amstel river.
I’m also unfailingly fascinated by the city’s remarkable ingenuity. Originally a fishing village next to a dam on the Amstel — hence the name — it required some of the most remarkable hydraulic engineering ever undertaken to become the center of a commercial empire in the 14th and 15th centuries. During its golden age, Amsterdam was the most important mercantile city in Europe, a role spearheaded by the Dutch East India Company — Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie in Dutch, which is often abbreviated to VOC.
The VOC was a publicly traded company that prospered initially as a result of a 21-year monopoly on the country’s spice trade. It was also the precursor of today’s multinational corporations, since it had operations in India and Southeast Asia and issued bonds and shares to the general public. It also ran a remarkable web of trade routes that required cutting-edge logistics and navigational skills, along with shipbuilding skills. A glimpse of the company’s might can be found at one of Amsterdam’s most interesting small museums, the Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum).
Roughly the same size as Boston, Amsterdam continues to thrive as an international business and cultural hub. Today it is also a city that appeals to travelers of all ages and interests. Recently, it has emerged as a gastronomic destination. And it is also a center for shopping, with charming concept stores that provide an antidote to the global brands that line the streets of most of the world’s great cities.