An Atlas Obscura Of Amsterdam

An Atlas Obscura Of Amsterdam
If the Camera Obscura is a darkened room that renders complex reality into something 2-dimensional and discrete through a pin-hole, we might conceive of an Atlas Obscura as a collection of maps that pinpoint the obscure and turn it into the opaque.


Skirting around the tourist traps by illuminating the weird and wonderful, the Atlas Obscura delves beyond the surface of things, championing an active community of creators who’s passionate interest and first-hand knowledge of sites off the beaten track, can transform the way we navigate both familiar and foreign locales.


The Museum Of Death: Amsterdam’s Largest Cemetery

The most appropriate place to start an AO guide to Amsterdam – is at the beginning of the end. The Museum Zot Tover gives life to death by exploring the various funerary rites practiced by different cultures around the Netherlands.

In ‘dying’ to answer the question of how we deal with death, it creates a mostly humorous, honest, and open space for something usually a little more serious and taboo. However Zot Tover is inquisitive without feeling irreverent.

Its focus on culture and conversation, over the anatomical and reductionist, opens up the wonder of our irrationally rational. Spanning collections of post-mortem portraits and photography, handmade urns for pets, and the simplistic and extravagant, via the physical, virtual and ethereal.

The finale is a coffin you can climb into, with a helpful TV screen issuing prompts that encourage the contemplation of existence in its wider context. There are also some striking coffin designs based on the ideas of Dutch mystic and author Jozef Rulof, packed with metaphysical symbolism that facilitate a journey through the cosmos.

Every month, the museum hosts its Dutch-language Mourning Cafes for locals, with guest speakers giving lectures and guiding discussions.


The Hortus Botanicus: A Pharmacy of Plants

Established in 1638 to battle the Black Death, this medicinal herb garden is the embodiment of our entanglement with the regenerative and destructive capacities of mother nature. As a plague of residents had chased off the herb-tending monasteries and gobbled up land, frantic doctors desperately needed a solution for propagating more medicine. The answer lay in the horticulture of the Hortus Botanicus. 

Originally known as Hortus Medicus, it was the Dutch East India Company that stocked it full of rare and exotic plants never before seen in this part of the world. The captivating Cycad Collection in the Palm House is home to one of the most fascinating plants in ‘captivity’ – offspring from the Wood’s Cycad. Other famous residents include a 2,000-year old agave cactus that dates back to the Roman era, and Victoria Amazonica – a water lily celebrating her 150th birthday.

A pilgrimage for plant-lovers everywhere, the Hortus Gardens and Cafe are a welcome refuge providing regeneration of the soul, amidst the raucous of the red light district and cannabis-infused streets of the Dam(ned).


KattenKabinet: The Cat Cabinet

The death of a pet can inspire a number of reactions, but rarely has anyone taken their grief and started a museum, as was the case with The Netherlands’ KattenKabinet. This ‘cat cabinet’ was founded by Bob Meijer in 1990 as a homage to his beloved feline friend, John Pierpont Morgan.

Throughout J.P. Morgan’s nine lives, the feline received birthday gifts from Meijer’s friends such as paintings, a bronze cat statue, and even a recreated American dollar bill with Morgan in place of Washington, and the coda: ‘We Trust No Dog.’

While Meijer and his family still live in the upper floors of the old patrician merchant’s house, the public museum rooms give a glimpse into a world enriched by the presence of our mute moggie mischief makers.

The classy cat collection has even partnered with such austere establishments as the Museum Van Gogh, Amsterdam to present works of both artistic and feline importance. And like any true collection of art, the KattenKabinet have released a catalogue of their own works: the ‘Cat-a-Logue.’

No less than five cats roam the museum giving tours to visitors. All they ask for in return is a little affection and a string of catnip.


The Embassy Of The Free Mind

The Ritman Library or Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is a goldmine of rare books and ancient manuscripts on mysticism, religion and philosophy, housed amongst an embassy of artworks and artefacts that lead the plumbum to the gilded.

Driven by an interest in spiritualism, the library was founded in 1984 by Joost R. Ritman. The collection’s primary focus is the Hermetic tradition, and more specifically, Christian-Hermeticism. But you will also find volumes on Rosicrucianism, alchemy, gnosis, esotericism and comparative religion, Sufism, Kabbalah, anthroposophy, Freemasonry, and others lurking amid its stacks.

A source of inspiration for the complexities of The Da Vinci Code, it could be within the walls of this peculiar and provoking athenaeum that you liberate your inner Dan Brown.


The Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum

An ambassador for the culture of this creative city, with its canals of contradictions, cannabis finds its history and future given centre stage at this hemp hideaway in the heart of the capital.

Featuring its own indoor cannabis garden, complete with oils, tinctures and edibles, the museum is a walk through this incredible plants versatility, spirituality, utility, and controversy through the lens of literature, photography, tools and illustrations.

Popeye the sailor was dreamed up in 1929 by American cartoonist Elzie Segar, at a time when ‘Spinach’ was sometimes used as a slang term for cannabis. Anti-cannabis lobbyists in the 1930s claimed that cannabis made users immune to bullets, giving them superhuman strength and other outlandish powers. Popeye had a similar view of his ever-present, ever-green snack.

As a popular pirate, Popeye was doubtless familiar with exotic herbs and plants, and American sailors were among the first groups known to openly smoke cannabis within the USA.


The NXT Museum

Featuring large-scale, immersive installations fusing technology and creativity with psychedelic light and sound, the NXT museum is a 6 minute ferry-ride away from the centre of the city.

Creating a watery home unto its own inhabited by ‘Unidentified Fluid Others’ and (r)evolutionary events, the exceptionally futuristic artwork encourages a surreal look through our present.

Leave gravity behind as you immerse yourself in new worlds reminiscent of the inner and outer cosmos, enter a virtual reality of ‘Xenopunk’ that defines ‘alien consciousness’ as a dance of rebellion, and allow perspectives to transfigure and transform through this expressive space of infinite possibility.


If you use Foursquare or any kind of location-based service, you are contributing to a new sort of atlas. Now, the idea of an atlas is more like a loose set of associated databases that all offer different ways of revealing space and information about that space. We’re in this constant, collapsing momentum where real world space and virtual space become one layer together. I don’t know what that’s going to look like – Google is going to have to make some fancy glasses or something – but that idea of revealing the hidden persists. – Dylan Thuras, co-founder Atlas Obscura




Open to (nearly) all

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson on Amsterdam’s attempts to attract the ‘right kind’ of tourist.


Amsterdam is one of the world’s most visited cities, hitting a record 22 million guests in 2019. Yet there are fewer than 1 million residents, and some understandably feel swamped. Especially as many of the cities visitors are not here for cultural museum voyages or orderly canal trips.

Seeking a different kind of trip – as night falls, the historic De Wallen red-light district becomes a Saturnalia of stag dos and stoners staggering between bars and brothels. It’s certainly rambunctious but would Amsterdam still be Amsterdam without this freewheeling chaotic heart?

That is the paradox facing Mayor Femke Halsema as she embarks on a plan to, ahem, weed out the troublemakers. It was cooked up during the coronavirus lockdowns, when travel bans transformed the city centre back into the quaint oasis it must have been before mass tourism. But now this vision of tranquility is being put into practice – and it’s not going well.

In February 2023, the city announced its proposal to close about 100 of the 249 brothel windows in De Wallen and relocate the sex workers to an “erotic centre” on its outskirts, offering tantric-yoga courses and lectures on feminism over afternoon tea. Halsema apparently said that she was inspired by the film Moulin Rouge but it’s not clear whether any affected parties were consulted. The sex-workers themselves certainly weren’t: they marched on City Hall saying that the proposed erotic centre and a decision to close the red-light district earlier on weekends would make their jobs more dangerous.

The two mooted locations have also provoked an outbreak of Nimbyism, including from the European Medicines Agency, which the Dutch worked hard to woo from London after Brexit. It issued a statement making clear that it didn’t want “drug-dealing, drunkenness and disorderly behaviour” on its doorstep…

Then in April the city released two videos discouraging undesirable UK tourists from visiting. With bad acting and botched attempts at British slang – “Coming to Amsterdam for a messy night out and to get trashed?” – they fell as flat as Dutch pancakes. Cue the satirists pitching in with their own versions, warning of “overpriced beer”, “oat milk lattes”, and “too many ‘paddos’ [psychedelic mushrooms].”

The campaign contradicts the spirit of Amsterdam, a city built on openness, tolerance, and free thinking. And this isn’t the first bout of puritanism attempting to tame its wild side: successive rounds have already seen bars close earlier and coffee shops culled. So are rowdy tourists in an area that has hosted sex work since the 16th century really the issue?

Perhaps it’s ill-planned gentrification that is really threatening to swamp the city’s characteristic charm and allure? Many say that soaring rents and a housing crisis are pricing out creatives. If Amsterdam wants to remain a celebrated global city, it needs to start thinking about the right kinds of people it wants to attract, rather than berating those it wants to keep away.