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Dam Square, Amsterdam

Dam Square — The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Dam Square in Amsterdam
Dam Square, in the center of Amsterdam. Vieuwed East-Southeast to West. From left to right: the Royal Palace, the New Church, the National Monument commemorating the victims of the Second World War, and the Bijenkorf warehouse.

Estimated reading time: 18 minutes

Dam Square, Amsterdam’s most famous square, is an ideal starting point for exploring the medieval center of the city.

Built in approximately 1270, the square holds great historical significance as the site of the dam that gave Amsterdam its name.

Although that original dam is no longer visible, Dam Square offers many attractions for visitors to enjoy.

Welcome to our Dam Square guide, in which Amsterdam locals help you distinguish between captivating must-see attractions and forgettable tourist traps.

Peoplewatching

We suggest you first take a moment to orientate yourself. Find a seat, or just stand or sit whereever you want.

Then look around! Just like in the rest of Amsterdam the whole world passes by your eyes.

You’ll see flocks of giggling school girls and small herds of business men on their lunch break; spike-haired youths who have never outgrown the punk era and overdressed ladies trying to look important in their real or fake fur coats; and anyone from evangelists to, well, other tourists.

In fact, try and determine the number of different people groups you can spot. Amsterdam itself is home to people from over 180 nationalities — and the city attracts visitors from literally around the world

De Dam: Symbolic Center of the Netherlands

How to pronounce “De Dam”

While De Dam is Amsterdam’s historic main city square, it is also the symbolic center of the Netherlands. Dam Square is the primary location for official events, celebrations, protests and national commemorations.

Home to the National Monument, it is the site of the annual Dodenherdenking (Remembrance of the Dead) on May 4.

Official state visits take place at the Royal Palace. (You can visit as well!). The 15th-century New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), adjacent to the palace is the site of royal weddings, abdications and incarnations.

Is Dam Square Really Amsterdam’s “Beating Heart”?

There is one thing all guidebooks to Amsterdam fail to mention: though tourists should indeed not skip Dam Square, most Amsterdammers do.

Although Dam Square is described in travel guides as the “beating heart” of Amsterdam, ironically it is not a place where locals spend much time.

Amsterdammers typically try to avoid the square unless they want to visit one of the flagship stores located there. Overtourism is only one reason. More about that later.

Locals view Central Station — just 750 meters north of Dam Square — as the real beating heart of the city. That is because it is Amsterdam’s main public transportation hub. Many train, tram, and bus lines (both local and regional) start and stop there.

And yet, if you – as a tourist – skip Dam Square, you have not really seen Amsterdam.

So let’s explore the square, shall we?

Dam Square in Amsterdam
Dam Square, looking West to East. Behind the National Monument is Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky. On the right in the forefront is another 5-star luxury hotel, Hotel TwentySeven. In the distance is the 17th-century Zuiderkerk (Southern Church). The grey turrets of the 15th-century Waag (Weigh House) at Nieuwmarkt are just visible at left toward the top of the photo. Amsterdam’s famous and notorious Red Light District lies roughly between the rear of Hotel Krasnapolsky and Nieuwmarkt. Note: the roof of the turret of Hotel TwentySeven is clad with copper. Copper oxidizes when exposed to the elements. This process creates a green patina. Every once in a while the turret is cleaned, revealing the original copper color.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Dam Square

From the outset, Dam Square has always been more utilitarian than ornamental, much like most squares in Amsterdam. It was not designed to impress, but rather to serve a necessary function.

Consequently, it does not rival the grandeur of squares like Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, Paris’ Place de la Concorde, or Brussels’ Grand-Place/Grote Markt.

Nevertheless, there are remarkable sights and places in De Dam that are worth a visit — alongside a few places that are best avoided.

We will briefly highlight them here, and where necessary link to more details further down the page.

The Good: The Palace, the Church, the Monument, and the Warehouse

Dam Square is the site of several monumental buildings that you should definitely visit. These include the Royal Palace (Paleis op de Dam), which is well worth seeing, the Nieuwe Kerk (“New Church”) and the huge, upmarket Bijenkorf warehouse.

The National Monument, which commemorates the victims of the Second World War, dominates the eastern part of the square. Behind it is the 5-star Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky [Booking.com link].

Back in the 1970s, when Amsterdam was a destination or stopover for those on the hippie trail, sitting on the steps surrounding the monument became a popular pastime. To date, it still is. If you are a people watcher, don’t miss this opportunity to join in.

At times, buskers ply their trade on the square in front of the Palace, close to the thoroughfare that divides the two halves of Dam Square. Most of them are top artists. But note: while you are enjoying the performance, pickpockets are also at work. Be on the alert!

The Bad: Tourist Trap Pubs & Eateries, Free Walking Tours

The pubs and restaurants on Dam Square are expensive and usually get less than 4 stars on Google Maps Reviews. There are many good reasons why Amsterdammers eat and drink elsewhere.

And yes, we wonder how those gaudy hot dog stands on the square survive at all. Who eats those things? Certainly not you. [Suggestion: Where to eat in Amsterdam]

Instead of spending money in tourist traps, we recommend you enjoy the first-class food and pastries at the Grand Café Krasnapolsky (€€€). The 5-star Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky also includes the Michelin-starred restaurant The White Room (€€€).

If you are looking for something more affordable, visit The Kitchen restaurant on the top floor of the Bijenkorf warehouse. Alternatively, head for ‘t Nieuwe Kafé – a cosy restaurant nestled in the flank of the Nieuwe Kerk. The terrace has an excellent view of Dam Square at the palace side. Caters to tourists and locals alike. Good coffee, breakfast baskets, sandwiches and pastries. Known for its excellent service (not at all a given in Amsterdam) and decent prices. 

Also, hidden at the back of the warehouse, in Warmoesstraat, is Patisserie Bijenkorf. Excellent coffee, and awesome pastries. You’re only a stranger once at this place. A pleasure!

That said, when the DutchAmsterdam team members are anywhere near Dam Square, we usually go to nearby Café Scheltema for something to eat or drink. [A 3-5 minute walk: Map] Over 110 years old, it is a typical Amsterdam Brown Café. This family-run café-restaurant has friendly service and great food. Highly recommended! (We are here so often we jokingly refer to Scheltema as “our office.”)

And yes, you’ll recognize Scheltema as the unofficial HQ for TV’s commissaris Piet van der Valk and his team.

The Ugly: Living statues, Cults, Hatemongers, Believe it or Not

Until 2017 Dam Square hosted an annual fair with a Ferris wheel, amusement rides, cotton candy, and the usual games of chance. The municipality cancelled the event in order to counteract the crowds and nuisance in the city center.

Unfortunately, the Dam also features a number of “living statues.” Some of them can be quite aggressive in the way they demand money from people who photograph them. Don’t fall for this trick, and simply refuse to be intimidated. 1That said, if you insist you must have a selfie with one of the living statues, by all means do leave a tip.

Also at Dam Square: Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the relatively small Madame Tussauds. Surely that’s not why you came to Amsterdam, right?

In our opinion visiting this branch of the famous wax museum is one of those things not to do in Amsterdam. It’s expensive and often quite crowded. But if you do go, you’ll enjoy a great panoramic view of Dam Square and Damrak from the round picture window at the top floor.

Dam is not a nickname

Never use “the Dam” as a nickname for Amsterdam. No Amsterdammer ever does that.

The Dam is Dam Square.

Instead use “Mokum” (or any of these alternatives).

Dam Square is often the scene of demonstrations for a wide variety of causes. These range from large scale events to smaller efforts.

In addition, the Chinese religious cult Falun Gong is a regular presence on the square. So is a pro-Palestine activist with a decidedly nasty attitude. A reasonable discussion, if you are so inclined, has proven to be impossible. And you’ve got better things to do than to be insulted and yelled at.

Of course we should mention the pigeons. Tourists tend to love ’em, but most locals consider them to be “flying rats.” Nowadays there are a lot fewer pigeons on Dam Square than there used to be. The City actively combates them by, among other things, removing their eggs.

In the past hawkers sold small bags of corn or other bird food, so tourists could pose with a flock of pigeons on and around them. But as of April 2022, feeding ducks, pigeons, and other birds in Amsterdam is prohibited. If caught doing so anyway you risk a €140 fine.

By the way, the building with the ugly façade — next to Bijenkorf — is an office complex designed by Cees Dam. The architect is also known as the designer of the Stopera — the monstrosity that serves as combination city hall/opera building — as well as the fomer Options Exchange building at Rokin. The latter was eventually modified and transformed, which made it slightly less of an eyesore.

A fantastic drone video of Amsterdam’s famous Dam Square. Thing is: generally, flying a drone in Amsterdam is prohibited. You risk as fine of anywhere between €250 and €500.

Royal Palace on Dam Square

In Dutch it’s called Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam, but most Dutch people simply call it Paleis op de Dam – Palace on Dam Square. The building is considered to be the Netherlands’ most important historical and cultural monument from the country’s Golden Age.

When it was completed, this neoclassical building was referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World2According to Wikipedia, Eighth Wonder of the World is an unofficial title sometimes given to new buildings, structures, projects, designs or even people that are deemed to be comparable to the seven Wonders of the World.. But you have to go inside to understand why anyone would think so.

Granted, the exterior doesn’t promise much – in part because the once-white sandstone façade has taken on a greyish-brown appearance over the centuries. But you’ll be treated to opulent beauty inside.

The building, which dates from 1655, long functioned as Amsterdam’s city hall. Napoleon’s brother transformed it into a palace in 1808. Amsterdam’s Royal Palace is an absolute must-see.

Nieuwe Kerk (New Church)

The Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, is a beautiful and historic church on Dam Square in Amsterdam. It was built in the 15th century and has been the site of many royal and national events such as coronations, weddings and inaugurations.

The church also hosts amazing exhibitions of art, culture and photography from around the world. You can visit the church and admire its stunning architecture, stained glass windows and organ. You can also learn more about the history and stories of the church and its exhibitions. The Nieuwe Kerk is a must-see for anyone interested in history, art and culture.

By the way, after the New Church was built, this side of town gradually became known as the Nieuwe Zijde (New Side) — even though it is older than the area around the Old Church, which at the same time gradually became known as the Oude Zijde (Old Side).

The I Amsterdam City Card includes free access to the Nieuwe Kerk and its exhibitions (and it has lots of other benefits – including free public transport!)

Bijenkorf Warehouse

Bijenkorf warehouse at Dam Square in Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s Bijenkorf warehouse at Dam Square is the flagship of a chain of high end, luxury department stores.

De Bijenkorf (literally, the Beehive) is the flagship of a chain of high-end department stores in the Netherlands. The store started out in 1870 as a small haberdashery on the nearby Nieuwendijk shopping street. The warehouse at Dam Square opened in 1915. Its stores-within-a-store concept offers top brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Gucci, Céline, Prada and Michael Kors.

The National Monument at Dam Square

The National Monument and the Royal Palace at Dam Square in Amsterdam, seen in westerly direction.
The National Monument and the Royal Palace at Dam Square in Amsterdam, seen in westerly direction.

The National Monument (Het Nationaal Monument) was placed here in 1956 to commemorate the victims of World War II.

The monument is constructed of concrete clad with Travertine limestone from Tuscany. It includes several sculptures and reliefs, each of which holds symbolic significance related to the theme of remembrance and the impact of World War II on the Dutch society.

For instance, the central pillar is the tallest element of the monument and represents resilience and strength. It stands as a symbol of the Dutch people’s determination to rebuild and remember, even after the devastation of the war.

The 22 meter (70 foot) tall obelisk features a relief entitled De Vrede (“Peace”), which consists of four chained male figures representing the suffering endured during the war. On either side of these central figures are two male sculptures representing members of the Dutch Resistance, with the left-hand figure symbolizing the resistance of the intelligentsia and the right-hand figure the resistance of the working class. At their feet lie weeping dogs, symbolizing suffering and loyalty. Above the central relief is a sculpture of a woman with a child in her arms, surrounded by doves symbolizing victory, peace and new life. A relief on the back of the column shows doves soaring into the sky, symbolizing the liberation.

The semicircular wall that surrounds the back of the monument contains eleven urns with soil from World War II execution sites and war cemeteries in each of the Dutch provinces 3The Netherlands had 11 provinces until Flevoland in 1986 became the 12th province and a twelfth urn with soil from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

Hippies, Dam Sleepers, and Dam Sitters

Visitors often wonder why people are allowed to sit around the monument, but the Dutch government says it is simply a reflection of the freedom we enjoy in the Netherlands.

Matter of fact, architect Jacobus Oud deliberately placed large steps around the monument so that people can walk, sit and talk. He said the monument had to be at the center of society.

In the late Sixties Amsterdam was a mecca for hippies. They held their love-ins at Vondelpark, where many also spent the night. The Dam was another popular meeting point, and many hippies slept there overnight — the so-called ‘Damslapers’ (Dam Sleepers). Here’s what that looked like:

Damslapers (Dam Sleepers) in 1970. They had to get up by 6:00 am, when members of the city’s cleaning service washed down the monument.

A new city ordinance brought an end to the Damslaper practice in August 1970, largely due to the nuisance the hippies represented — but also because many older Amsterdammers wanted to see more respect for the war monument.

The law came into effect on August 24, 1970. Riots ensued and continued through the night. On the next day about 80 off-duty marines took the law into their own hands and cleared Dam Square. They were later discipline for doing so.

The hippies moved to Vondelpark, which was already a popular gathering spot for free spirits. As Dutch Daily Het Parool says, “The park transformed into the world’s most wonderful and largest open-air hotel, with around six hundred overnight stays every day. During the day there were about a thousand hippies lazing about.”

The Municipality also set up two so-called Sleep-ins — dormitories where travelers could spend the night at rock-bottom prices. That summer, 55,000 hippies made use of the accommodation.

When the hippies were long gone, sitting on the steps of the monument gradually became an accepted practice. It is just one more example of the freedom Amsterdam represents. [See also: Why is Amsterdam so tolerant?]

Remembrance Day Ceremony at the National Monument

Since both the Royal Palace and the National Monument are located here, Dam Square is the center of events of national importance. These include the annual Memorial Day (May 4), when the Dutch commemorate the victims of World War II and subsequent armed conflicts.

In 2010, a man caused a panicked stampede during the Remembrance Day ceremony.

Flagship Stores

Aside from the Bijenkorf, there are a number of other flagship stores at Dam Square.

Peek & Cloppenburg is a German company that grew into an international brand with fashion department stores in several countries. Madame Tussauds is located in a corner of the imposing building.

That neo-Classical building, to your left when you face the palace, was opened on April 17, 1916. At the time it was viewed by many as a “dull and lifeless structure,” but it is now listed as a national monument. Locals long referred to the store as the ‘Trouser Palace.’

Take a close look: the façade sports 14 gable stones that are reminders of the houses and businesses that used to be at this location prior to the contruction of the P&C building.

H&M: The Amsterdam flagship store of Swedish fashion chain Hennes & Mauritz is located in an historic building formerly occupied by the ABN-Amro bank. Originally this location housed several buildings that over time were combined and reconstructed a number of times. The buildings, which through the years have served several functions, have now again been reconstructed.

Gassan Dam Square. This high-end watch store is part of the House of Gassan – world renowned for its diamonds. You can visit and tour its diamond polishing factory and Rolex Boutique (both at a different location that the Dam Square store).

Dam Square – a Bit of History

How Amsterdam originated and developed

Not enough is known about the early history of the settlement that eventually became Amsterdam. But we do know merchants, fishermen, and tradesmen settled in the delta of the river Amstel. The river flowed into the IJ (a diphthong, pronounced somewhat like eye), which back then was an inlet of the Zuiderzee (“South Sea”).

As far as is known, Amsterdam was founded in the 13th century AD as a small fishing village. To protect themselves from floods, the early inhabitants had to build dikes on both sides of the river, and in about 1270 they built a dam between these dikes.

This dam connected the settlements at Warmoesstraat and Nieuwendijk, on opposite sides of the river.

As the dam was gradually enlarged, it became Amsterdam’s first market square.

Initially, boats could sail down Damrak up to the square — to unload Baltic grain and take on vats of herring.

Back then, grain and other goods were loaded onto carts, or onto smaller boats in the Rokin — a canal at the other side of the square. The wares were then distributed to various markets and warehouses, both locally and in other cities and villages.

As mentioned, the original dam in the river Amstel is no longer visible. But water from the river still flows beneath the ground. A culvert runs from the remaining water of Rokin underneath the Dam — in front of the National Monument — and underneath both the Bijenkorf warehouse and the old stock exchange building to the remaining stretch of water at Damrak.

Redesigned Dam Square: “Beautiful, Clean, and Empty”

For the most part, Amsterdam isn’t a city of grand cathedrals, opulent palaces, and other monumental buildings. And although the city has many squares, most of them are rather modest. Dam square, one of the largest squares in the city, is a good example.

The square was last redesigned in 2001. At that time, city councilor Guusje ter Horst wanted to clean up the public space in the entire city center under the motto ‘beautiful, clean and empty’.

At Dam Square, city planner Simon Sprietsman made part of the asphalt disappear, rerouted some of the traffic and replaced the square’s characteristic boulders with other distinctive Portuguese boulders. These run slightly curved from facade to facade – a design that makes the square appear visually larger than it actually is.

How to get to Dam Square, plus Map

Map of Dam Square in the center of Amsterdam
Aerial view of Dam Square. Highlights: 1) Royal Palace, 2) Nieuwe Kerk, 3) National Monument 4) Bijenkorf.

Also, popular but not recommended by us: A) Ripley’s Believe It Or Not B) Madam Tussaud’s.

Get something to eat at C) ‘t Nieuwe Kafé, D) The Kitchen, or E) Patisserie Bijenkorf.

This is a screenshot of Google Maps, annotated by DutchAmsterdam.nl. Note: this photo was taken in 2023, when the monument was being restored.

Dam Square can be reached on foot from Amsterdam Central Station via Damrak in about 10 minutes. The vast majority of shops, cafes, and “restaurants” along this street are aimed at tourists. Just saying.

The folks at City Hall want you to think of this gaudy main street as a “red carpet” into the city. Trust us, you’ll want to avoid most businesses here.

Instead of walking you can take streetcars 4, 14, or 24 and get off at the first stop, opposite the Bijenkorf warehouse.

Past the square the street is called Rokin, the main artery between Dam Square and Munt Square.

If you prefer, you can stroll to the Dam via the Nieuwendijk shopping street, which joins the Dam in front of the Palace.

Opposite Nieuwendijk, the shopping street continues as Kalverstraat, which runs between the Dam and Munt Square.

Hotels at Dam Square

While Dam Square is easy to reach on foot or by public transport from anywhere in downtown Amsterdam and its surrounding suburbs, many tourists prefer to stay at or near this central location. Here is a listing of hotels at or near Dam Square. [View them on a map]

What to do next: Cultural Inner Amsterdam City Tour

As mentioned, Dam Square is a great spot from which to explore downtown Amsterdam.

Take a city walking tour, or visit the Red Light District (just around the corner)

About the Authors

This article is written and kept up-to-date by the DutchAmsterdam team — Amsterdam locals with a passion for their city. We’re the locals, the Amsterdam Experts.

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