Amsterdam will float your boat! Discovering the Jewish side of the ‘city of sin’

Amsterdam will float your boat! Discovering the Jewish side of the ‘city of sin’

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Stephen Oryszczuk discovers there’s a whole lot more to Amsterdam than cobbled streets, tulips and sleaze.


An honest, first-hand account of a trip to Amsterdam is unwise in a family newspaper, so I defer to a quote in my opening paragraph. “Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom – and in freedom, most people find sin.” So says John Green in his book The Fault in our Stars (2012). It is a truism of this vibrant, layered city which – sins aside – spoils those who like a taste of Jewish culture.

Rembrandt commemorated in stained glass
Rembrandt commemorated in stained glass

Only 20,000-strong, the community today is vibrant and diverse, boasting film and music festivals, a yeshiva, kosher cafés, Jewish newspapers and – this being Amsterdam – a sizeable progressive/liberal movement. While French and Belgian Jews have had a torrid time recently, the storm-battered Chanukiah we encountered on a bridge into the Old Town in our December visit seemed as big a challenge as Amsterdam’s Jews have faced of late.

For the backstory, go to the old Jewish Quarter and the Jewish Museum, housed in four former Ashkenazi synagogues built by Jews from Germany, Russia, Lithuania and Poland. Learn how Marranos and Sephardic Jews fled there from the Spanish Inquisition and how they interacted with Dutch society.

The beautiful, quiet, authentically-preserved Portuguese Synagogue, which dates from 1675, lifts you back to that time. At the back you’ll see some ‘stumbling stones,’ the ongoing project of a German non-Jew who, in 1994, decided to help to remember Holocaust victims with these little brass plaques laid into the ground.

The name and concept have their origin in an anti-Semitic phrase oft-used in central Europe at the time: that if someone stumbled over a protruding stone, they’d say “there’s a Jew buried under there”. Together with the city’s Holocaust Memorial, they help to commemorate the 104,000 Dutch Jewish victims of the Shoah.

This brings us to Anne Frank’s house, an important and well-documented experience, and one for which the queues should be suffered. Bear in mind though that this tells only one episode in the complex and illuminating story of Dutch Jewry. There are so many other Jewish influences on Amsterdam that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Take the Van Gogh Museum, for instance. Here, you’ll see paintings by Jozef Israëls, an important Dutch artist and an inspiration for young Vincent, who studied the Jewish master’s techniques.

The artwork in question is located in the chic Museumplein, where we find the first of the city’s three best accommodation options. The Conservatorium is known in these parts as the stars’ choice – both Madonna and Justin Bieber have been besieged here.

amsterdam 3
Stephen and ‘Mrs O’ against an authentic Amsterdam background …. and a Chanukah greeting!

The hotel itself, a former bank and music hall, is now a sympathetic blend of modernist glass and 19th-century brickwork, all clean lines and elegant shades. Its Japanese restaurant serves some of the best food we’ve had in years, while our tech-obsessed two-tier room overlooked an atrium in which the great and the good met over coffee and cake, where everybody looked like a somebody and where the mingling was as artful as its surroundings. If ever a Jewish paradise there was…

If you’d rather go for small and intimate, opt for The Dylan. Luxury in an unbeatable location, it did everything well and nothing it needn’t. A former theatre and poorhouse, it overlooks one of Amsterdam’s most picturesque canals in a fashionable district known as the Nine Streets. Its 40 rooms feature everything from exposed beams to “raspberry red and elephant grey” contemporary, all feel warm and homely, while the food and furnishings would be top-end in any city. To call it five-star doesn’t do it justice, which is just as well, because some of the rooms are eye-wateringly expensive, but if you’re lucky enough to afford it, grab a canal-side crib and cuddle up next to the fire in the lounge either side of ‘high wine’, an experience that pairs food to wine and helps you to forget that you’re supposed to be reviewing the city too.

Further afield, consider The Okura, from a Japanese chain of high-end hotels found mostly in Asia. On the face of it, this is a 300-room high-rise monster, but two doughnuts waiting in our room on arrival showed that ‘big’ and ‘personal’ can coexist. You’ll be tempted here by the staff, the views and the unrivalled cuisine (not many hotels can boast three Michelin-starred restaurants and a fourth with a prestigious Bib Gourmand). That, and one of Europe’s biggest suites, tempted President Obama here during his stay.

All three hotels come at a cost, and both the Okura and the Conservatorium have ridiculously good spas that will cost you more, but budget airlines fly between London and Amsterdam for the cost of a long taxi ride, so bag the savings and treat yourself to a classy dose of Europe’s very laidback city of sin. Then work out how to avoid saying what exactly you did there.

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