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Rokin: part of Amsterdam’s ‘Red Carpet’ into the city

Quick facts about Rokin, Amsterdam

  • Main thoroughfare between Dam Square and Munt square
  • If you’re in Amsterdam for any length of time, you’ll often find yourself traversing this street
  • Trams 4, 9, 14 and 16 have stops at Rokin
  • Before it was filled in Rokin used to be part of the river Amstel
  • One-third of Rokin is still a canal
  • Currently messy due to construction of new subway and ‘Red Carpet’ project
  • Rokin’s erstwhile allure has eroded
  • …But the street is still rich in culture; historic buildings
  • …And it is being marketed as a shopping destination

The thoroughfare between Dam square and Munt square is called Rokin. Rokin is part of what the city of Amsterdam considers its ‘red carpet’ into the city. This Red Carpet runs from Central Station via Damrak, Dam square and Rokin to Munt square and beyond.

If you’re in Amsterdam for any length of time, you’ll often find yourself travelling along this street either on foot or by tram.

Trams 4, 9, 14, and 16 have stops here. (Travelling north, all but 14 go to Central Station).


View Rokin, Amsterdam in a larger map
Shown are Dam square (red marker), Munt square (green marker) and Rokin (blue line)

In the 19th century this is where the well-to-do shopped.

Nowadays if you can look past the over-abundance of low-class mobile phone shops, cheap souvenir stores, as well as the seemingly interminable Noord/Zuidlijn subway construction project, you’ll still find a street rich in culture.

Rokin includes lots of historic buildings, a canal, a top-class archaeological museum, and plenty of clues to the history of this part of medieval Amsterdam.

Rokin buildings

Old and new buildings line Rokin in Amsterdam

Shopping Street

That said, just as with Damrak, over the decades much of Rokin’s erstwhile allure has eroded.

Many classy stores have made place for cheap commerce aimed at tourists — including souvenir tat, hole-in-the-wall ‘supermarkets,’ mass-market junk food stores like Duo Penotti and Nutella’s Ice Bakery, the equally ubiquitous (and super ugly) Tours and Tickets, and the hugely forgettable ‘Amsterdam Dungeon’ tourist trap.

At the same time, things are looking up. The Rokin shopkeepers’ association is making efforts to market the street as a shopping destination.

Rokin Plaza, on the west side of the street, features US fashion chain Forever 21 and Spain’s Pull and Bear.1

Recently, Scheltema — one of the largest bookstores in the Netherlands — opened a 3200 m², five floors store at number 9, just off Dam square. Among its collection, displayed on five floors, you’ll find plenty of English-language books and magazines.

A few doors down, Canada’s Hudson’s Bay warehouse will open its doors in the summer of 2017. The huge edifice, currently under construction, was supposed to have become a flagship store for Britain’s Marks & Spencer warehouse. But having been “made an offer we could not refuse” the company pulled out.

Scheltema, Hudson’s Bay, and older companies are located on the east side of the street.

That is where a tree-lined boulevard — complete with a fountain, benches, terraces — will soon replace the current subway construction mess.

Rokin boulevard

Artist’s conception of the boulevard that will line Rokin as part of the city’s ‘Red Carpet’ project

The Rokin metro station for the Noord/Zuidlijn — expected to be in operation in the summer of 2018 — will be located halfway between Dam square and Munt.

metro entrance Rokin

Artist’s conception of the entrance to the Noord/Zuidlijn metro station at Rokin.

Metro station construction mess

Part of Rokin has functioned as a building pit for several years now, due to the construction of an underground station for Amsterdam’s problem-plagued new metro line.

Local merchants have had a hard time making ends meet as customers have stayed away because of the construction work. Some top shops have simply closed their doors and moved elsewhere.

Rokin, Amsterdam

Rokin: beautiful buildings and construction work for the new metro line

Mind you, the lack of adequate, affordable parking anywhere in the center of town also plays a role. Famous auction house Sotheby’s in 1998 moved from Rokin to the Amsterdam suburb of Buitenveldert, at the edge of town. It cited poor accessibility by car, as well as the then promised construction of the subway station which would turn the area into a construction zone for years to come.

How right they were… Originally scheduled for completion in 2011 the Noord/Zuidlijn is now said to be ready in February 2018. No Amsterdammer in his right mind believes that will happen.

Sidewalks

Meanwhile Rokin remains a busy street, with traffic flowing one way (from Munt to Dam). There’s a wide sidewalk on the West side and a narrow one on the East side.

Due to the metro station construction work there currently are not many opportunities to cross the road. When you do cross, mind the bicycles. They can come from either direction, and many local bicyclists have Kamikaze blood running through their veins.

Do also not get hit by a tram. The street trolleys can come from either direction. It is best to cross at a designated crosswalk. If you see people directing traffic, pay attention to them. Ignoring their orders may result in a ticket.

Notable buildings and other highlights

Still, there is plenty to see and experience at Rokin.

Sure there are a few buildings from designers who apparently hate the city. Why else would they come up with monstrosities that are completely out of step with their surroundings? As a for instance we’re referring to the Options Exchange building at number 65. It was designed by Cees Dam, the same ‘architect’ who can be blamed for the Stopera — the oversized ugliness that serves as combination city hall/opera building — as well as the hideous office block that defaces Dam square, right next to the beautiful building Bijenkorf warehouse.

But on either side of Rokin you will also see many beautiful gables and facades.

Among them are:

  • The Marine Insurance Company Limited, or at least its former offices. A Jugendstil (also known as Art Nouveau) building dating from 1901. It was designed by Dutch architect Gerrit van Arkel, who designed many of Amsterdam’s most prominent Jugendstil buildings. This office building is an example of a more sobre approach, than van Arkel usually took. (Rokin 69)
  • Magazijn De Gouden Bril, the oldest remaining optician in the Netherlands. The interior of this shop, built in 1918, is still largely in its original condition. The furniture is made ofCuban mahogany. Note also the decorations on the outside. They include a picture of Zacharias Janssen (ca.1588 – ca.1632), believed to be the inventor of binoculars. On the roof a carved monkey with binoculars peers at passersby. At the front of the shop are the heads of two men carved into sandstone; one with glasses, the other without. (Rokin 72).
  • Hajenius A world-class tobacco shop founded in 1826 but located at Rokin since 1914. Even non-smokers will want to take a look inside this shop. It has a dressed stone exterior and a superb Art Deco interior. The sculpted Royal Crown above the entrance signified that Hajenius was one of the suppliers of the Royal House. In fact, Hajenius became the official supplier to several European Courts. Inside you’ll find a rich decor: marble walls and counters, beautiful crafted bronzes and gorgeous brass chandeliers. The tobacco jars are Delft pottery. There is no paint since everything in the store is dedicated to preserving cigars under the best possible conditions. (Rokin 92-96)
  • Arti et Amicitiae ‘Art and Frienship’ — an artists’ society and art gallery at the corner of Rokin and Spui. It was constructed in 1840 and designed in part by Berlage. This was long Holland’s leading art society. When during the eighties of the nineteenth century young artists started their own societies Arti started losing supreme authority. The building has undergone many renovations, during the last one of which the original exposition hall was restored to its old glory. (Rokin 112)
  • The house of Pieter Janszoon Sweelinck, built in 1642/1643 under the direction of Philip Vingboons, with a splendid example of a raised neck-gable at the top of the building. Vingbooms was, in fact, the inventor of the neck-gable. (Rokin 145)

What does Rokin mean?

Rokin used to be a part of the delta of the river Amstel and was simply called Amstel. This branch flowed through what is now Dam square (Dam in the river Amstel: Amsteldam) and Damrak and then — beyond where you nowadays find Central Station — to the river IJ.

In Old Dutch rak meant a ‘straight body of water,’ but city experts say Rokin did not get its name from that word. At first the houses at Kalverstraat extended to the water of what was then still called Amstel. At that time there were no quays.

In the sixteenth century the facades of those houses, starting at Dam square, were pushed back for the contruction of a quay. Segments of those houses were simply removed. This drastic ‘retreat,’ inrukken in Dutch, is said to have given the later street its name.

Amsterdam historians say that in 1559 the name Ruck-in was used. A few years later this became Rock-in, and later still Rokin.

Of course there are also those who think the name came from rak plus in (e.g. the straight canal inside the city).

A woodcut made by Cornelis Anthonisz in 1544 helps you visualize the situation. Small ships ferried goods from merchant vessels anchored in the harbor to Dam square. From there traders either carted the wares to Kalverstraat (where there was a market, inlcluding one for cows and calfs) or beyond. Other goods were re-loaded onto cargo boats that sailed inland via the river Amstel.

Two-thirds of Rokin was filled in in 1936.

Rokin old photo

Rokin as it was in 1922.

Canal Tours

From Spui to Munt square the water still flows in what Amsterdammers sometimes refer to as the ‘Natte Rokin’ (wet Rokin).

At the start of the water you’ll find Rederij P. Kooij, Amsterdam’s biggest canal tour company.

Taking a boat ride through the canals of Amsterdam is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. For us, the publishers of Dutch Amsterdam, Rederij Kooij is the canal tour company of choice.

The site of its present-day offices was once home to the barge house of Glasius & Hopman, local cargo transporters.

The canal tour company was started by Piet Kooij. As a schoolboy, Piet found a discarded bicycle. He fixed it up and exchanged it for a broken-down motorbike. Once he had finished restoring it he traded it in for an old boat, which he promptly sold for 500 guilders (€ 226; $ 327) — a small fortune at the time .

In the winter of 1922 he stumbled across a motorboat moored at Rokin. He bought and fixed it, and since the boat came complete with a launch license decided to offer tours of Amsterdam’s canals.

If you decide to take a trip with Rederij Kooij either walk there (it’s about 10 minutes from Dam Square and 5 minutes from Munt square) or take the tram to stop ‘Spui‘ (which english-language foreigners and quite a few tram conductors pronounce something like ‘spooy‘)

You can buy something to drink and get a candy bar on board of the tour boat but you’re better of bringing something yourself. The boat ride takes one hour. There is a toilet on board.

Natte Rokin, Amsterdam

The ‘wet Rokin’ is home to canal boat tour company Rederij P. Kooij

Something to eat and drink

There are a number of small eateries with outdoor seating along Rokin. Many are forgettable at best. Did you really come all the way to Amsterdam to eat crappy pizzas, Nutella, mass-produced ice cream, or dime-a-dozen sandwiches?

Tip: make your way up the little alley (Grimburgwal) across from the Rederij Kooij ticket office and settle down at Café ‘t Gasthuys. Inside is fine; outside at the terrace alongside the canal is — weather permitting — better.

Mind you, the coffee is pretty bad but the beer and food is good.

At Rokin itself Brasserie Beems (at number 74) is a good choice for lunch or dinner. Good food, friendly service, fair prices, nice atmosphere.

Many years ago The Tara, at Rokin 85-89, was one of our favorite hangouts. That changed when they modernized part of the bar, and when prices kept going up while quality and service kept going down.2

A few doors away, at number 75, you’ll find the Bierfabriek — beer factory. A brewery serving craft ales and organic grilled meals, it is the type of pub that you makes you feel good.

And then there is De Drie Graefjes at Rokin 128 — an excellent place for a (late) lunch. It also has a very well-deserved reputation for excellent, American-style cakes and pastries.

Rokin: then and now

If you speak Dutch, or are studying the language, you’ll enjoy this brief report on Rokin:

The old footage shows a ferry that used to cross the now filled-in water of the Rokin. The vessel carries a advertisement for Turmac, a Dutch brand of cigarettes at the time.

Among other things the narrator explains that in the old days people used to dump their trash straight into the river. Therefore archeologists are working alongside the metro station construction workers. The Amsterdam Museum will at some point no doubt feature an exhibition with many of the items found during the Noord/Zuidlijn construction process.

By the way, during summer evenings the intersection between Spui and Grimburgwal — at the Rederij Kooij offices — provides some unique entertainment:


Note: as with any entry in DutchAmsterdam, this article on Rokin will be updated from time to time.

Notes:

  1. The modern Rokin Plaza building — which is also home to many offices — occupies the spot where, in 1977, Hotel Polen burned down in one of the largest fires in Amsterdam’s recent history. The fire, started by someone who smoked in bed, caused 31 deaths.
  2. If it’s an Irish pub you’re after, head for nearby O’Reilly’s (a 10-15 minute walk from Rederij Kooij) for a fantastic experience. Mulligans Irish Music Bar, at nearby Amstel 100, is another good choice.
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This post was last updated: Jul. 17, 2016    

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