While it’s very subjective to rank the aesthetics of cities, Amsterdam is surely one of the most beautiful places in the world. With its famous canals, colorful houses and flower markets, there’s nothing like spending a day wandering the capital of the Netherlands. To really experience the city, however, you might want to supplement a visit with some books about Amsterdam. It’s really the best way to learn the stories behind what you’re seeing.
To give you a few options on where to get started, we collected 10 of our favorite books about Amsterdam. Though far from comprehensive, we chose books from across genres and history so that any reader can find something that sparks their interest. Some of these books were originally written in Dutch — and you should give the originals a try if you’re learning the language! — but they’re all currently available in English.
Nonfiction Books About Amsterdam
For The Historian: Amsterdam By Russell Shorto
One of the best things to do before visiting a city is brushing up on the history. You don’t necessarily need to know every king who ever ruled or every war ever fought, but having the general contours of the past in the back of your mind will help you put what you’re seeing in context. For that purpose, Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam is an excellent introduction. It tells the story of the city from its birth to the near-present, and looks at how its values have shaped not just the Netherlands but the entire world.
For The Diarist: The Diary Of A Young Girl By Anne Frank
The Anne Frank House is one of the most affecting places in Amsterdam, so it was an obvious choice to include The Diary of a Young Girl on this list. The story of Anne and her family hiding from the Nazis during World War II is a landmark of literature. It’s a powerful read not only for its tragic end, but for the fullness of life Anne depicts in her coming-of-age diary entries. Whether it’s a first read or a re-read, this book sheds light on a very dark but very human chapter in Amsterdam’s history.
For The Artist: Rembrandt By Jonathan Bikker
Another must-see spot in Amsterdam is the Rijksmuseum, home to many, many works of art, but perhaps most famous for its collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings. There are many artists considered Dutch masters, but Rembrandt van Rijn may be the most famous. In Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum curator Jonathan Bikker looks at Rembrandt’s whole career through the lens of his works. It’s also filled with the works themselves, making it a beautiful addition to any bookshelf or coffee table.
For The Florist: Tulipmania By Anne Goldgar
One of the most enduring stories in the history of the Netherlands is about tulips. More specifically, it says that in the 17th century there was a massive financial bubble caused by a sudden fixation on the flower. It’s a fun story about the dangers of speculation, but historian Anne Goldgar found that when she looked into the history, many of the claims were overblown. In Tulipmania, Goldgar breaks apart the tulip myths, but ends up unearthing another fascinating story about the entwined destinies of tulips and Dutch society.
For The Cyclist: In The City Of Bikes By Pete Jordan
Amsterdam stands out from many global cities because, rather than car-clogged streets, there is another method of transportation dominating the region: bicycles. Has it always been that way, though? Pete Jordan explores that question with In the City of Bikes, a book that’s part memoir and part social history of the two-wheeled way of life. It shows how bicycles came to take over the roads, and what effect the bicycle has had on the way the city connects and operates.
Fiction Books About Amsterdam
For The Short Story Devourer: Amsterdam Stories By Nescio
The short stories and novellas collected in Amsterdam Stories were written before and during World War I, so it presents a century-old image of the city. Still, his explorations of youth will speak to any reader today. Nescio was the pen name of importer-exporter J.H.F. Grönloh, who wrote in his spare time. While his output was relatively small, his intricate portraits of fictional Amsterdam residents have earned him a place in the Dutch canon.
For The Aimless Wanderer: The Evenings By Gerard Reve
Dutch literature in the mid-20th century is haunted by the specter of World War II. While this book doesn’t mention the war that much by name, The Evenings is heavily inflicted by the mixed trauma and malaise caused by it. It follows a 23-year-old over the course of 10 nights as he moves about the city, drinking and smoking and visiting people. While that may sound like it would make for a depressing read, Gerard Reve transforms the aimlessness of the time into a comedy filled with incisive insights and moments of sheer splendor.
For The Crime Reader: A Cold Death In Amsterdam By Anja De Jager
Crime fiction can be a strange way to learn about a city. Sometimes, it can read like the city was chosen nearly at random to provide an interesting backdrop for a grisly murder. Anja de Jager’s Lotte Meerman series isn’t like that, though, painting a more intricate picture of the city it’s set in. A Cold Death in Amsterdam, the first in the series, follows a detective as she investigates the cold case involving the death of a 10-year-old child. It could be the setup for a cliche whodunnit, but de Jager’s writing brings it to the next level.
For The Those In Search Of A Good Thriller: The Dinner By Herman Koch
The action of The Dinner takes place over the course of a single — you guessed it — dinner. A politician, a history teacher and their respective wives meet up to discuss what to do about their sons. That may not sound like the recipe for a thriller, until you realize that the sons were involved in something horrible, which threatens to shatter their family. The book was a hit in both the Netherlands and around the world, and has been adapted to film three times in three different countries. We don’t want to spoil it, though, so you’ll have to read it yourself to find out what makes it such compelling reading.
For The Historical Fiction Fan: Midnight Blue By Simone Van Der Vlugt
The most recently published novel on this list happens to have the oldest setting: the Dutch Golden Age. Rather than following one of the already famous artists or innovators of the time, however, Midnight Blue is about a young woman in a small town who loses her husband and moves to Amsterdam. She works as a maid in a wealthy household, but starts to move up when she shows a natural talent at painting. Then, as so often happens in stories like these, her past starts to catch up with her, and she has to make decisions that will define the rest of her life.