An “island getaway” is hardly the way most people would describe a visit to Amsterdam. Better known for its buzzing vibe and plethora of cultural attractions than for white sand beaches and swaying palms, the Dutch capital boasts far more museums, historic landmarks, bars and coffeeshops than it does enclaves of calm serenity.
Thankfully, there are places to chill in peace if you know where to look. When the stream of tourists, bikes, trams and ever-present marijuana smoke begins to overwhelm you in the Dutch capital, an escape to bucolic Prinseneiland might be just what you need. While it’s been around since the early 17th century, this man-made island on the city’s western edge is little known by locals and on few tourist agendas.
Delight Yoga reflects the Zen of Prinseneiland, a man-made island with vistas of gardens, moored boats and historic warehouses-turned-apartments.
Expansion Launches Amsterdam into the Golden Age
Set off the Jordaan, northeast of Haarlemmerplein, south of the River Ij and north of the train tracks linking Amsterdam Central Station with Sloterdijk, Prinseneiland is one of three man-made islands created between 1611 and 1615. The project was part of a third expansion that launched Amsterdam into the Golden Age by enabling more ships to pass through its harbor, massively increasing trade.
Initially called Vooreiland (Front Island), Middeneiland (Middle Island) and Achtereiland (Back Island), the new land forms were renamed Bickerseiland, Prinseneiland and Realeneiland. Collectively, the trio is known as the Western Islands (Westelijke Eilanden) today. Bickerseiland and Realeneisand commemorate 17th-century merchant families. Prinseneiland, the smallest of the three, is named for the first three Princes of Orange.
Of the 900 warehouses in Golden Age Amsterdam, more than 100 were on Prinseneiland on the city’s northwestern edge.
Capitalizing on their strategic location, Golden Age traders used the Western Islands as a base for warehouses, shipyards and other small businesses. Unlike Amsterdam’s Eastern Islands (Oostelijke Eilanden), they were not involved in trade with the Dutch East Indies Company in the Netherlands’ commercial heyday.
Instead, allied with the Dutch West India Company, Western Island merchants exchanged goods with the Middle East and Baltic Sea. Their warehouses stored grain, tobacco, wine, salt, herring, anchovies and tar, the latter to preserve ship walls, sails and fishing nets. Many streets still bear the names of goods that were stored on these islands in previous centuries.
Before houses were numbered and people became literate in the 19th century, gable stones offered clues about homeowners‘ names and the purposes of businesses.
Rise and Fall of the “Mokum Archipelago”
While gaining a reputation for shipbuilding, fish smoking and grain storage, the Western Islands also became known for the salty activity of sailors around the harbor. On Galgenstraat (Gallows Street), which runs across Prinseneiland, people could watch as criminals were executed. The public hangings may be consigned to history, but the street’s name remains as an unfortunate relic of the past.
Although the Western Islands were used for commercial activity in the Golden Age, shipbuilders and merchants also lived there, in a thriving maritime community.
By the end of the 19th century, ships had become too big for Western Island ports, ending two centuries of trade. As activities relocated to Amsterdam’s developing Eastern Docklands in the first half of the 20th century, the Western Islands fell into decay. Largely abandoned until after World War II, the little archipelago was rediscovered by artists, actors, musicians, furniture makers and other creatives in the 1950s. After decades of neglect, the brick warehouses with their Golden Age façades and bright, decorative shutters were restored, their interiors subdivided into apartments and shops now fronted by houseboats and other moored vessels.
Today, what’s been nicknamed the “Mokum Archipelago” encompasses several off-the-beaten-path residential and business neighborhoods. While minutes from Amsterdam’s heady buzz, all feature Old World charm, virtually no motor vehicle traffic, and a serene, village-like vibe.
Often used for filming, the Western Islands are worlds apart from the Dutch capital, despite their proximity to Westerpark, Haarlemmerbuurt and Amsterdam Central Station.
To reach Prinseneiland from Haarlemmerplein, pass through the dark tunnel behind the HEMA store that crosses the railroad tracks. Once through, turn right and the white wooden bridge that brings you onto the island appears. Continue over the bridge for the big reveal: a row of traditional brick buildings with bright red shutters, polished and restored for contemporary residents.
Cross a majestic wooden drawbridge to reach Prinseneiland from Haarlemmerplein. The bridge is one of eight that connect the Western Islands with central Amsterdam.
Wander Prinseneiland’s cobbled lanes to enjoy vistas of historic warehouses and wharves, moored boats, and gardens replete with bohemian knickknacks. Find a waterside bench or patch of grass to read or enjoy a picnic, but stock up at the Albert Heijn on Haarlemmerplein as you won’t find provisions on the island. Upside Down, a popular Middle Eastern café on the northern edge, offers falafel wraps and upside-down bowls, but that’s about it for local take-out fare. Better to bring your own or dine in the neighboring Jordaan, a five-minute walk from this secluded island oasis.
What Prinseneiland lacks in markets, restaurants, shops, pubs and bars, it makes up for in quiet serenity. Come to think, wander and chill, but don’t expect anything more exciting than a few possible exchanges with local dog-walkers. Despite the passage of time, this insulated oasis remains a calm, relatively undiscovered enclave in a sometimes crowded and overwhelming international capital.
Traditional brick buildings with bright shutters are now comfortable apartments for typically artsy residents.
Over Three Herring Bridge to Realeneiland
Drieharingenbrug (Three Herring Bridge), named for a brandy distillery torn down in the early 18th century, links Prinseneiland with Realeneiland. Built in 1676, the bridge replaced a pontoon that retracted to let ships pass in earlier eras.
Over the bridge, turn right to discover a picturesque yacht harbor and row of captains houses along Realengracht. On Realeneiland’s eastern shore, check out the Zandhoek, a 17th-century market where ship captains bought bags of sand for ballast. Nearby, Reael Bed & Breakfast offers upscale accommodations. There’s fine dining at The Gouden Reael, a French bistro with a menu that changes with the seasons.
Touring The Western Islands
However you choose to explore the Western Islands, you’re likely to return to central Amsterdam thinking you’ve been on another planet.
The Western Islands are small enough to be easily explored on your own, by foot or bike. For guidance, follow Lulu’s Leafy Walks’ 1.4 mile/2.3 kilometer route encompassing highlights of Bickerseiland, Prinseneiland and Realeneiland. Check out Amsterdam Experiences for small, guided walking and cycling tours of the area. Or request a Gilde Amsterdam tour covering some of the islands’ public gardens, Amsterdam’s only surviving small shipyard, workshops and residences of famous photographers and artists, and stories about the Giant of Bickerseiland.