The Jordaan: a Dutch master in creativity

Once a working-class suburb, this corner of Amsterdam is now a cultural hub, says Laura Holt

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The Independent Travel

Four hundred years have unfurled since the first brick of the Jordaan district was laid. It arose in 1612 during the early years of the Dutch Golden Age, when trade was thriving, industry was booming, and the city was expanding outwards. Built to house the burgeoning working class, it became a neighbourhood where dockworkers, craftsmen, tailors, and carpenters lived cheek by jowl in squalid, often cramped conditions.

But today, this slender, stocking-shaped swathe of the capital has evolved. Much like London's East End, it's now a warren of art galleries and ateliers, design shops and delicatessens, where creative types live in upmarket conversions. This is quiet Amsterdam, removed from the tourist tangle of the centre, set apart from the gaudy glare of the Red Light district – it's the whisper of a bicycle, the unhurried clack of footsteps on cobblestone.

Start with a saunter down Hazenstraat. Here, the lithe buildings lean gracefully over the street, as if bowing to greet passers-by. They were designed with a gentle curve and a metal pulley at their gabled top so that merchants could hoist heavy goods up from the street. As you wander through the Jordaan, you'll also notice stone tablets set above the doors denoting the professions of early residents. A pig for a butcher, a loaf for a baker – but sadly no sign of a candlestick-maker.

You'll find a fine art gallery belonging to Joep Buijs at No 10 (00 31 65 150 2879; joepbuijs.nl). The artist himself features in many of the portraits on display through the wide, open windows and can often be spotted amid the easels, palette in hand.

At the end of the street, hop over the hump above the Lauriergracht, a picturesque canal where Dutch "painter of the people" George Hendrik Breitner once lived. From his humble house at No 8, he used broad brushstrokes to depict the servant girls and factory workers of the late 19th-century Jordaan, in cloudy, muted colours.

Continue on Hazenstraat to the corner of Laurierstraat, where Café Rooie Nelis (00 31 20 624 4167; caferooienelis.com) at No 101, has been serving singers and songwriters since 1937. It's owned by local chanteuse "Blonde Sien". There are myriad photos of her and other Dutch folk musicians lining the wood-panelled walls of this traditional bar. Order a flask of jenever gin, a Dutch speciality, served cold from brown stone bottles (€2).

From here, head north to reach Rozengracht – the Jordaan's main thoroughfare. It was here that the great 17th-century Dutch Master, Rembrandt van Rijn, moved in 1660 after falling from the gilded heights of the Golden Age and declaring himself bankrupt. He was forced to downgrade into a modest, low-rent house at No 184, where the man with the rubicund face and a remarkable talent died nine years later. His remains were interred in an unmarked pauper's grave at Westerkerk, which stands at the eastern end of the street.

Like many of the streets in this quarter, the Rozengracht bears a botanical name, translating as "rose canal". Today, you can take in the area's peaceful, green spaces by stepping into a hofje. These 17th-century almshouses were established by wealthy benefactors as charitable spaces for the poor, elderly and infirm to live and feature pretty inner courtyards. They are now lined with benches, planted with trees, and inhabited by artists and students. There are two on Rozengracht at No 116 and No 147 and many more further north (bit.ly/courtyards).

Rozengracht also brandishes bustling, modern shops and restaurants. There's the industrial-style Mazzo (00 31 20 344 6404; mazzoamsterdam.nl) at No 114, with lashings of concrete, exposed brick and a large, open-plan kitchen. Quirky design outlet, De Winkle van Guus (00 31 20 636 1613; dewinkelvanguus.nl) at No 104, sells radios made of bamboo and bags rendered from reclaimed rubber. And Galerie NU (00 31 20 846 4613; galerienu.nl) at No 58, has walls splashed with vibrant Pop Art prints.

At the end, turn left along the handsome, tree-lined Prinsengracht (Prince's canal), which flanks the eastern edge of the Jordaan. The enclave's creative spirit reaches a crescendo here with spaces such as GO Gallery (00 31 20 422 9581; go gallery.nl) at No 64, which acts as a platform for street art. Look for the 11-metre high mural of The London Police by graffiti duo TLP.

End the walk by turning left off Prinsengracht to t'Smalle (00 31 20 623 9617; t-smalle.nl), a Jordaan institution on the site of an 18th-century jenever distillery at Egelantiersgracht 12. Since the 1970s, it's operated as a picture-perfect, canal-side café. Pick your table on the floating deck. Here you can eat bowls of smoked salmon salad as bicycle wheels whoosh past and swans drift in the water.

Fresh cuts

The Hofjes concerten is a series of free summer concerts that takes place in the hofjes of the Jordaan. Remaining dates for this year are 19 August (Passeerdersstraat 16-18; 3pm) and 1 September (Noordermarkt 44; 2pm).

For an ebullient experience of the district, visit during The Jordaan Festival (14-16 September; jordaanfestival.nl). Boats take to the canals, stages stand in the squares, and the narrow streets sing with the sounds of intimate performances.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Laura Holt travelled with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), which flies to Amsterdam from Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, Southend, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Bristol. Other options include BA (ba.com), Jet2 (jet2.com), FlyBe (flybe.com) and KLM (klm.com).

Staying there

The Eel House is a pretty B&B with three doubles on the Lindenstraat from €90/£70 (eelhouse.eu). The upscale, newly opened Canal House (canalhouse.nl) has B&B doubles from €240.

Visiting there

See Amsterdam has a 90-minute “Jordaan walking tour” (canalcruisesamsterdam.com; €15pp).

More information

iamsterdam.com; jordaaninfo.nl

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