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Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City
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Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  4,017 ratings  ·  553 reviews
An endlessly entertaining portrait of the city of Amsterdam and the ideas that make it unique, by the author of the acclaimed Island at the Center of the World

Tourists know Amsterdam as a picturesque city of low-slung brick houses lining tidy canals; student travelers know it for its legal brothels and hash bars; art lovers know it for Rembrandt's glorious portraits.

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published October 22nd 2013 by Doubleday (first published January 1st 2013)
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 ·  4,017 ratings  ·  553 reviews

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This is an entertaining read and a good warm-up if preparing a visit Amsterdam. Do not expect a great deal more than that. This book will also be liked more by an American readership since most of the comparisons are made with the US. It is clearly written for them.

Russell Shorto, who as is to be expected is an American, who decided to settle in Amsterdam as a freelance writer. He loves the city and that clearly transpires in the reading. His account is a mixture between personal experiences, hi
Jun 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fic
Ahhh, Amsterdam. Apple cake, hashish, cheese, canals, bikes and seedy red light areas. Or at least, that's largely what tourists see while they revel in the city's legendary liberalism.

What they don't see is that Amsterdam's influence extends far beyond a few stoned backpackers. According to Russel Shorto, Amsterdam is one of the parents of freedom as we know it, a city that helped birth not only the protestant reformation, but modern ideas of tolerance and acceptance of difference that are now
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Amsterdam doesn’t quite fire the imagination for people the same way that Venice and Paris do. Romance, beauty, tragedy, history is what springs to mind when one thinks of Paris or Venice. Now think of Amsterdam. Which jumped into your mind first – drugs, prostitutes, or Anne Frank? Did you think of the famous Nightwatch, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, or pancakes?

Nope, you thought of sex and drugs.

And this is what Shorto elegantly counters in his book about the world famous city
While occasionally interesting, “Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City” was not very thought provoking. I had many problems with Mr Shorto’s thesis. These, I shall enumerate (in no particular order and I would have given page numbers, but reading it it eBook format, page numbers are relative to your fort size and not absolute):
1. Amsterdam was not an independent actor in a vacuum, and what is often most important, is what is happening elsewhere and the interactions of the two. Mr
Mikey B.
Dec 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Mikey B. by: Libby

The Royal Palace of Amsterdam

A marvellously readable book on the history of this city! It goes back to the 1500’s and 1600’s with the author outlining the distinctive features of Amsterdam and Holland in that era.

It was never as dominated by the Church and Royalty as France and Spain were – the two major mainland European powers of the time. This was significant because Holland was not feudal and therefore did not have a top-down society. The Dutch were not subservient to an all-powerful Church
I liked this book so much that when I was listening to the audio I went and bought the book to keep with me for the future. A fascinating trip through the history of Amsterdam as well as The Netherlands.

Inspired by a fellow reader I've gone a small quest to learn more about the country of my ancestors. I have not been disappointed in this book. Although my family did not come from Amsterdam itself, I figured I would glean a little more understanding of Hollanders as well. I ended up learning so
Uncorrected proof via

Dedication: For Pamela, Anna, Eva, Anthony, Reinier, Hector and Benjamin

The opening is a warm family moment that instantly draws a reader in: A day in Amsterdam begins with me leaving my apartment with my toddler son in my arms, strapping him into his seat between the handlebars of my bicycle, working his blocky little sneakered feet into the footpads, then setting off through the quiet, generally breezy streets of our neighborhood, which is called Oud Zuid: Ol
Feb 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, travel
This is a wonderful compact volume sketching the history of the City of Amsterdam from the medieval age to present day. Shorto has a lot of ground to cover, but he strikes a good balance between the key historical elements that make us think of this Dutch city as the world's pre-eminent source of progressive, liberal ideology.

In essence, Shorto believes the fact that the city was literally built as a dam and polder works to drain farmland by the locals themselves, rather than having a feudal lo
Apr 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Travelers and lovers of history
In preparation for a summer trip to Amsterdam (and Ghent), I wanted to immerse myself in the history of this well-known city and learn more about the people, events and natural forces (i.e. the encroaching North Sea) that shaped this capital of commerce. Russell Shorto is the perfect guide for this purpose. He is an American writer who lives in Amsterdam. His prose is crisp and colorful as he weaves his day-to-day life with the powerful narratives that forged, not only the beginnings of capitali ...more
Dec 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
An extremely interesting book for anyone interested in European history, because it covers much more than the history of Amsterdam. Which makes sense when you consider that no city can come into existence in a vacuum.

Starting with the first efforts of man to reclaim land from the sea and continuing on through wars, religious and political; economic developments; exploration and colonization of the outside world; and the lives of philosophers and kings, among others, the author ends the book wit
Tim Robinson
Aug 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Not entirely satisfactory as a history either of Amsterdam or of Liberalism. Nevertheless, an interesting read.

Shorto argues convincingly that Amsterdam at the beginning of the 17th century was most liberal city in the world: the most financially advanced, with the first stock exchange, the most commercial, the best planned, the most tolerant, the most polyglot, publishing 30% of the world’s books, the greatest science hub, with the best lenses for telescopes and microscopes, and the most republ
Jun 20, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: the-netherlands
This was just okay. I skipped through the boring parts, which were quite a lot, possibly because I’ve been reading quite a bit about Amsterdam lately! Some of it was fine, but the rest was a bit monotonous and tedious for me. One part that I thought was particularly interesting was towards the end of this book, the author reminds us of the story of “The Boy Who Held Back the Sea” – one that many are familiar with. I had previously read that this is not a Dutch story, but was actually written by ...more
Adam Floridia
Apr 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-star-books
This book is amazing! I have always found history incredibly boring, so much so that I typically have trouble retaining anything I read/learn. Yeah, at one point I knew the order of ascension of the British monarchy...not anymore. Heck, I read an entire book ABOUT Spinoza, yet the first time he was mentioned in this book the name was new to me. So you get the point: my memory sucks. Even though Shorto manages to somehow make every aspect of Amsterdam's history rich and engaging, I worry that all ...more
Elizabeth  Higginbotham
Jul 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I read this book while flying to and traveling around Amsterdam and the Hague. It really helped me to appreciate the past and the present. It provided a context for understanding the choices that people in the Netherlands make--as you have to negotiate streets with bikes and trams. As I visited museums and looked at all the portraits, I could understand the nature of the civil society. It is a real contrast to visiting England where there are portraits of kings, queens and nobles. Russell Shorto ...more
Margaret Sankey
Dec 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Compelling and fascinating popular history of Amsterdam from Shorto (who previously wrote about Dutch-founded New York), highlighting the people and events from the Reformation, through two world wars and Nazi occupation, the social welfare state, the 1960s and Amsterdam's present strains of emigration and religious toleration. Shorto has an eye for juicy detail and a gift for explaining complex political history. ...more
Steven Walle
Jul 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a very well written and historically accurate history of the most liberal city in the world. The author is an American who chose this city as his home for seven years. The writing shows his love for the city and his understanding of the polatics and history of it.
I recommend it to all.
Enjoy and Be Blessed.
Janet Kane
Feb 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This book is fantastic. It’s amazing that I could be interested in a book about a city I have never been to. But the author kept me reading.
Noah Goats
Aug 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City, Russel Shorto briefly, and lovingly, outlines the story of Amsterdam while arguing that the reason that liberalism developed so early there is because of its unique history. Because the land in and around the city wasn't owned by feudal barons but by individual members of the community who had to struggle together to push back the water, the people developed a strong sense of both individuality and community.

Shorto traces the growth of l
Aug 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review is mostly for Natalie, my Amsterfam pal, but anyone is obviously welcome to peruse my A’dam-related thoughts. This book was a super interesting look into the history of my favorite city. I knew a surprising amount of it (Multatuli, anyone??!) from my classes over there, but there was still plenty of new stuff to learn. I liked when the author broke through and made the narrative more personal; it made those chapters much more captivating and sped up my reading. (This book took me 4 m ...more
Laura Hoffman Brauman
Very interesting look at the history of Amsterdam. Shorto is an engaging writer and I appreciated the way he layered on the economic, religious, political, and cultural factors through the last 500 years to help understand why Amsterdam is the city it is today.
Jun 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
I normally don't like history books much, but this was very well written. I enjoyed it even though it was a bit long. ...more
Matt Bender
Feb 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is the story of the birth of classical liberalism, modern finance, and globalism while describing the unique dynamics of Amsterdam and the Netherlands that created the spark. Major themes are the early republic’s standoff with political and religious tyranny and its communal ethos, economic mobility, and pragmatic tolerance.

The history of Amsterdam as a sanctuary for dissent, pluralism, art, and intellectual debate is well described. Many significant residents such as Spinoza, Rembrand
Emre Sevinç
Mar 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Amsterdam certainly doesn't need any introduction: being one of the centers of enlightenment, intellectual freedom, scientific revolutions, and fine arts, the city deservedly attracts tourists from all over the world every year.

If you want to learn what made Amsterdam as we know it, and place it in its historical context, tying things to tumultuous religious-political wars and tragedies, as well as the effect of its unique geography on its collective mentality towards community organization, th
Jul 05, 2015 rated it it was ok
While Shorto does a fine job of distilling key events in the the history of Amsterdam, this depiction was very much a blatant promotion of the city rather than a frank and balanced analysis of its past. I read it just before traveling to the Netherlands for the first time and everything in the book was repeated ad nauseum in every museum. The text glosses over the nastier bits of history like the VOC's hand in Dutch colonization - it is mentioned but very briefly. He goes into more detail descri ...more
Erin Rouleau
Feb 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I finished the audiobook, but am reading this also because this is incredibly rich in idea and history. I could re-read this constantly. I love when someone theorizes connections you never would have thought of yourself and this book is full of those.

I also loved the Auschwitz survivor who said there is no meaning in life, but there's beauty and wonder and we should enjoy that. <3
Emily Koo
Jun 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Amazing. Goes beyond the history of Amsterdam and synthesizes eloquently and concisely how forces of liberalism are epitomized in the city of Amsterdam and the effect it has had on modern society as we know both in Amsterdam and internationally. There is a wealth of information in this book - intellectual, geographical, historical-. Highly recommended for anyone interested in western history and development of its ideals in the special case of Amsterdam.
May 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
I was almost finished, and then I left the book on top of car and besmirched my wife's library account. Hopefully my actual trip to Amsterdam goes better. ...more
Dec 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really good, engaging history and storytelling.
Feb 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
With this book Russell Shorto takes us on a historical tour of Amsterdam using a number of pivotal personalities from its history, like Willem of Orange, Spinoza and Rembrandt to explain the city's role in the development "Classical Liberalism". Along the way he explains how a non-feudal past and a long held tolerant society led to Amsterdam being the engine of the Social/Business/Banking and Culinary advancement in the early renaissance. And how their struggle for independence served as templat ...more
Mar 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I got this book on my way back from my first ever trip to Amsterdam, which lasted for two weeks, and read this along with two other books that revolve around all that is Dutch not only Amsterdam. The city took me completely by surprise, and I found myself helplessly head over heels, and instantly mesmerized by it, that I went back for another visit after only 29 days since my last visit, though unfortunately this one only lasted for 76 hours, yet it was worth all the red flags in the world, for ...more
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Russell Shorto is the author, most recently, of Revolution Song, a new narrative of the American Revolution, which the New York Times called a "remarkable" achievement and the Chicago Tribune described as "an engaging piece of historical detective work and narrative craft." He is also the author of The Island at the Center of the World, a national bestseller about the Dutch founding of New York. S ...more

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