The Zeedijk is known as one of Amsterdam’s oldest streets. It was built originally as a defensive wall by the early Amsterdammers who had settled on a muddy strip of land which sat between the river Amstel and the big, usually overflowing puddles that traditionally make up most of the Netherlands. Over the years it has seen all the changes that Amsterdam has undergone and, in a way, the street we have today very much represents these changes.
Because of its original role as a protective dyke (Zeedijk = Sea dyke) against the sea, this street is seen to be the highest point of Amsterdam, averaging around 1.3 metres above sea level. The ability of the Dutch to work together in defending their settlements throughout history goes a long way in explaining their famous tolerance, especially in Amsterdam. Working together has always been a necessity for survival against the ever threatening tide. Zeedijk is a perfect example of this.
From the 13th century onwards Amsterdam became a hub of business and sea trade. In 1323 the city’s traders obtained a monopoly license to import beer from Hamburg. This and other industries contributed greatly to the hoardes of sailors who would frequent the area around Zeedijk for the next 600 or so years. Zeedijk has always bordered Amsterdam’s Red Light District, and still does. (The Dutch name for this district is “De Wallen” which translates into ‘The Walls,’ indicating the old series of dykes of which Zeedijk is but one.)
The types of business have not changed much over the years, with tourists enjoying bars, massage parlours, inns and brothels as much as the sailors that for centuries preceded them.At the head of the Zeedijk is St Olaf’s Church. Although today it is a hotel and restaurant, it was built by Catholic Scandinavian traders between 1440 and 1450. It was also the site of the world’s first stock exchange, perhaps making the grisly doom-invoking skeletal depiction on its façade an appropriate symbol for the birthplace of modern day money exchange.
Opposite St Olaf’s is the bar In t’Apjen which bears the second oldest and one of only two wooden façades in the old city centre. We recommend going to this famous old bar and inquiring why its name translates into ‘In the monkeys’.No. 65 on Zeedijk is the home of Café Maandje, which holds the honour of being recognized as the first openly gay bar in a city famous for its acceptance of homosexuality and its vibrant gay scene.
Zeedijk is quite obviously the heart of Amsterdam’s Asian community, and is recognized as the oldest Chinatown in Europe. The Chinese community in Amsterdam dates its ties to the city back to the early 20th century, during which time Zeedijk has always been their centre. Today the street bears name-signs in both Dutch and Mandarin.
During the 70’s and 80, Zeedijk received the reputation as one of Amsterdam’s most dangerous areas, if not the most dangerous. In a time when hard drug use had spiraled, seemingly, out of control, and in which organised crime had a hold on De Wallen and its industries, Zeedijk appeared to be the centre of the trouble. Tourists and locals alike were warned not to enter the street at night, if at all. Today, after a proactive effort by police and authorities to clean up the sex industry in Amsterdam and a concerted and intensified targeting of organized crime from the early 90’s onwards, the street is today a safe and friendly hub of activity. It boasts Fo Guang Shan He Hua (The Lotus Flower Buddhist Temple) – the biggest European Buddhist temple in the Chinese style – as well as numerous high quality and multicultural restaurants. The northern end comprises the less hard-core section of Amsterdam’s Gay district, while the southern end leads out onto the beautiful Nieuwemarkt square.
This street has seen much throughout its time, having borne witness to much trade, enterprise, debauchery, excitement and more for nearly 800 years. It has been the city’s main defense and it’s most dangerous spot. Today, ironically and for whatever reason, the Chinese street signs which adorn the walls of the buildings on Zeedijk give it another name entirely. Perhaps it is indicative of all the change it has seen through the years. In Mandarin it is called The Street of Good Manners.