Bridges in Amsterdam
The canal belt
When imagining Amsterdam, many imagine its canals- and, therefore her bridges. We owe the nickname “Venice of the North” to the many bridges that a visitor passes while exploring the city. The complex web that connects the different parts of the city is not merely an infrastructure. The bridges of Amsterdam largely determine the characteristically picturesque image of the city and have been important points of recognition and gathering throughout history.
There are 35 bridges on the oldest map of Amsterdam, dating back to 1554. The amount of bridges has seen an increase throughout history: in the 17th century, Amsterdam had about 200 bridges, at the end of the 20th we had around 350, and today, about 1200 bridges create an intricate web throughout city. We can recognize a variety of artistic styles in the bridges, just like we would in architecture. From the start of the 20th century onwards, the work of the Amsterdamse School started to become popular. This style is evident in the design of the Koningssluis, between the Koningsplein and the Leidsestraat, by P.L. Kramer. This bridge has become a Rijksmonument, just like many other bridges in Amsterdam. Another bridge designed by P.L. Kramer in the typical Amsterdamse School style is the Kikkerbilsluis at the Prins Hendrikkade.
Oldest map of Amsterdam. Stadsarchief Amsterdam: Cornelisz Anthonisz, 1554
Uitzicht op de Amstel. Stadsarchief: Gravure Daniel Stoopendaal, uitgegeven Nicolaas Visscher. 1702-1713
Construction of bridges
The construction of bridges in the Netherlands started to develop already in the early Middle Ages. By utilizing the experience of the vault construction in churches, , we were able to build stone bridges on our soft soil. As a consequence of developments in shipbuilding, probably around the end of the 14th century, a new need for mobile bridges like drawbridges emerged. These mobile drawbridges formed an important characteristic of the landscape of the 17th century Northern Netherlands. But, because of the increase in car production and popularity at the start of the 20th century, many high and steep vault bridges were replaced by steel bridges, and drawbridges were replaced by fixed bridges. This is probably the reason why the Blauwbrug over the Amstel, originally dating back to 1839, was replaced in 1938. The majestic bridge, designed by De Greef and Springer, is eclectic, and probably inspired by bridges over the Seine in Paris. A little further down the Amstel river you can find the Magere Brug (or ‘skinny bridge’). On this spot, a ‘skinny’ wooden pedestrian bridge existed already in 1640. The bridge was transformed into a double drawbridge in 1840, and changed again in 1871, when it got its current form. On this print from 1702-1713 we see the Amstel sluices, the old Magere Brug and the old Blauwbrug, seen from the Amstel bridge.
De Vierheemskinderensluis (1836), next to the Museum of the Canals. Stadsarchief: Bernard F. Eilers. 1912-1916
“Kikki” de Kargadoor, die de Reestraat bedient. Stadsarchief Amsterdam: Berg en Co., ca. 1912
Those who have biked through Amsterdam, might have noticed that the bridges can be very steep. In this photo, made at the beginning of the 20th century, we see the Vierheemskinderensluis from 1836, which is the bridge next to the Museum of the Canals. In this winter scene we see a so-called Bruggentrekker (‘bridge puller’), also known as a kar-ga-door. These people helped those passing by to pull their barrows across the steep vault bridges of the city. A well-known and popular ‘kargadoor’ from Amsterdam was ‘Kikkie van de Prinsensluis’, who worked at the bridge over the Spiegelgracht in front of the Prinsenstraat. Before that, Kikkie worked at the Reesluis, and during this time there even appeared a post card with his picture on it. Kikkie de Kargadoor, whose real name was Christiaan Smit, died in 1940 at the age of 82, as the very last of his guild.
While the village square might have been the place to gossip and exchange news in the village, in Amsterdam this place was the bridge. The Oude- and Nieuwebrug (Old and New Bridge) were particularly busy: here, people discussed the news, and did business with each other. On the Oudebrug, this liveliness was increased by the presence of skipper shops, where the news that sailors brought with them from worlds far away was eagerly listened to. The Oudebrug was a bridge over the Damrak, and was torn down at the end of the 19th century. News from other worlds was also spread at the ‘Paalhuis’ on the Nieuwebrug. The Paalhuis was torn down in the middle of the 17th century. The Paalhuis was an office, where ‘Paalgeld’ had to be paid, which was a form of tax for ships in the harbor. These bridges often had merchant stalls, which attracted even more activity. Thus, the bridges were the focal point of the busy and social city life.
The Nieuwe Brug with the Paalhuis. Stadsarchief: S. Webbers, 1665
The bridge additionally satisfied another need. Already in the 16th century, there was a need to keep the city clean, and there were fines to prevent public urination. To let the passerby fulfill their need, there were ‘stilletjes’ underneath the bridges. These ‘stilletjes’ were little wooden stalls, an early form of the public toilet. These public toilets were nasty places, where sometimes even bodies were found. But, these places were also where outsiders of society found each other. For instance, men looking for homosexual contacts came to these wooden stalls, and it was a place to sleep for the homeless. In this way, the bridge, and the public toilet beneath it, were at the heart of Amsterdam’s street life.
Openbaar secreet op de Oudezijds Voorburgwal ter hoogte van de Nieuwezijds Kolk. Stadsarchief: Pieter Veldhuyzen, 1835
Gosse Bouma, Your memory won’t fade, 2021
Today, we don’t need to use a ‘stilletje’, we don’t rely on foreign travelers to bring us news from different parts of the world, and while many bikers might like it, there are no Kikkie’s to pull us over the bridge any more. But the bridges of Amsterdam are still here, and remain the skeleton of the city – where we find our way, meet each other, and enjoy the city.
Open from Tuesday to Sunday: 10:00 to 17:00.
Closed: every Monday, December 25th, January 1st and April 27th.