It will come as no surprise to anyone as an author of fiction, bibliophile and well, normal human being living in Amsterdam that I love reading books about Amsterdam. There will also be no shock or horror when I say that over the years (six of them living in this brilliant city) I have read many different books about Amsterdam. What is a bit more of a surprise, however, is that it's taken me this long to actually put a list of the best Amsterdam books together.
Best Amsterdam Books - Fiction & Non-Fiction
Well, finally, here it is. Here are my favourite books about Amsterdam, or indeed books that are set in Amsterdam. This is quite an important distinction to make because many of you will be on this page for different reasons. Some of you will be wanting to know about the best novels and fiction books set in Amsterdam (and I have you more than covered with over 20 great Amsterdam fiction recommendations).
Others, however, will be wanting to know about the best non-fiction Amsterdam books that shed more light on this historically and culturally rich city, and there are nearly as many books listed below just for you. Either way if you're looking for books and literature to be a theme in your visit, be sure to check out the book lovers' one day itinerary for Amsterdam in this post.
I've also included my favourite travel guide books for Amsterdam because if you're here as part of some research for an upcoming Amsterdam trip (in which case you definitely need to bookmark this page!), then you should know that there'a reason some Amsterdam travel books are as popular as they are.
FURTHER READING: For more Amsterdam travel tips, you can find over 50 posts about things to do in Amsterdam here. and be sure to check out this Amsterdam bucket list, a list of over 100 free things to do in Amsterdam, and this list of the best hotels and hostels in Amsterdam (to suit all budgets!).
The Best Books About Amsterdam: Reviewed!
Before we go any further, it's important to highlight a few things. Firstly, I have tried to include as many Amsterdam books written originally in Dutch, by local or at least Dutch authors, as possible. While I do believe there is much value in all voices writing about Amsterdam, I would be lying if I said that books written about Amsterdam from Amsterdammers from birth, or those who have lived there for decades, don't have the most insight or depth. It's also true that not all the best books about Amsterdam written in Dutch I found have been translated so are available to read in English, but maybe that's a list for another day!
Secondly, a confession. I have read perhaps 80% of the books about Amsterdam listed on this page. The remaining 20% are Amsterdam books I have ready to read and as and when I do get around to reading them I will update this post accordingly.
With two young kids, work and managing this blog, I just haven't gotten around to reading ALL the best books about Amsterdam that I know there are in the world. So I had a choice; leave any book I haven't read off this list OR add the book to this list and highlight how I haven't read it yet. Of course, I'm going to choose the latter! Now let's get listing some of the best reads about Amsterdam so you can feel inspired for an upcoming trip, or you can revisit this fantastic city through the beauty and power of literature!
DISCLOSURE:This post contains affiliate links. I make a small commission off any purchases made via these links, but they don't cost you anything extra, and often I do a lot of research to find you the best possible deal in the link - yay!
The Best Non-Fiction Books About Amsterdam
If you read only one non-fiction book about Amsterdam before your visit (and it isn't a guidebook - see below) this is arguably the one to read. Written by Dutch historian and author Geert Mak, it charts Amsterdam's full life from small fishing port to world-famous colonial headquarters and then on through its occupation during the war and its recent history as a forward-thinking, liberal city of bikes. Much of what I know about Amsterdam's history is thanks to primarily this book as well as my many museum visits!
Another book about Amsterdam by Geert Mak that is worth checking out is The Many Lives of Jan Six about an Amsterdam-based family dynasty of descendants all called Jan Six, starting with their rise to riches in the Golden Age.
If Geert Mak's book is about Amsterdam's history from a Dutch perspective, this is the book that adds a more external take on Amsterdam's history and reputation on the world stage, primarily from the view of its liberalism and progressiveness.
US-author Russell Shorto lived in Amsterdam for six years and thus made his adopted home the focus of extensive research in trying to understand how the city became so famously liberal both when it comes to many of the vices we associate as bringing in so many tourists, but also in the people's attitudes and open-mindedness which spear-headed many of the country's early adoption of equal rights legislation (the Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage in 2001).
The same author also went on to write The Island at the Centre of the World, all about the Dutch and their capital city's influence on Manhattan and New York City, something that is strikingly obvious once you see it.
Aaand if you want to know more about the history of Amsterdam but this book sounds a bit too weighty for your taste, the fact that there is a Dummies Guide to the History of Amsterdam, really is proof that there is a Dummies Guide for everything.
When it comes to understanding how the Second World War affected and impacted the city of Amsterdam, there really is no better book on this than the Diary of Anne Frank. One of only a few books I read countless times as a child, it's so strange to think about my younger self reading this and conjuring up mental images of what the blacked out city looked like outside the Frank family's hiding place, and now I find myself living here.
There are many other books published about Anne Frank, including one by her own father, the only member of the family to survive the war, and I have read a few of them but this one was by far my favourite.
Anne Frank Remembered is written by Miep Gies, an employee of Otto Frank's and the woman who risked her own life for years to help hide the family. In addition to offering new insight into what Anne Frank and her family were like before they went into the Secret Annex, it is also a very tender account of how hard the occupation was on the city of Amsterdam and its ordinary people.
While spanning more of the artist's life than the years he spent in Amsterdam, I really enjoyed this collection of his letters (most of them sent to his much-loved brother Theo) for two reasons. Firstly, what they showed me about life in Amsterdam and the Netherlands at the time (late 19th century) and also the wide, rich insight Van Gogh has about art and creativity, and just how brilliantly relevant it still is today.
This book is quite a lengthy one but it holds your attention surprisingly well. The letters also feature much more than snippets about Amsterdam and creativity, but it really is a great book to read if you are planning on going to the Van Gogh Museum while you're in Amsterdam; you won't help but feel like you know the artist so much better.
So this book is NOT about Amsterdam but of course the city features in this account of a fellow Brit's research and opinion of the Dutch after living in the Netherlands (in Rotterdam) for many years. It's honest and balanced and doesn't sugarcoat hard parts of the nation's history while being very measured in its flattery of what the Dutch have achieved and what they get right (which I of course think because I choose to live in this country with my family).
If you're a non-Dutchie living in Amsterdam or the Netherlands, or you're someone long fascinated by the enterprising, direct, efficient but also fun- and family-focused ways of the Dutch, this book should be on your To Read ASAP list, as opposed to your To Read One Rainy Day list.
I could include MANY photobooks about Amsterdam on this list, but I think that would distract from my intention which is to write a list of great books you can read about Amsterdam, however, I felt this one was worthy of inclusion not least because it tells you so much about Amsterdam's recent history, and the establishing of its reputation as a city of hedonistic, liberal ways, which is one of the main reasons people keep on coming to visit.
One of the Netherlands' foremost photographers and video maker, van der Elsken is a true storyteller in his portraits of Amsterdammers of all shapes, sizes and colour, were mostly all shot spontaneously on the street, and this book which I think is only now available used is a real opportunity to step back in time. It's a book I'm very proud to have on my coffee table!
How Amsterdam came to look like the city it is today is a story that I have heard told from a number of angles and each time I am fascinated and enthralled, not least because it's so easy to see the city's growth and development in the buildings, streets, canals and bridges you find when walking around the city. But if you can't wait to find out for yourself, or you'd like a book documenting this with text, maps, illustrations and photos, then this is the one for you.
It's nowhere close to easy reading as this non-fiction book examines the murder of Theo van Gogh (the artist's great-grandson and a provocative figure in European politics) and the many complicated and heavy issues that were tangled up in the build-up, the act and the aftermath of this violent killing that shook the Netherlands and called into question its world-famous reputation for tolerance.
We talk a lot about the Dutch and their cheese, their canals (or the world-leading engineering this represents) and their clogs, but there really is SO MUCH more to Dutch design, innovation and appreciation of efficiency than all this. And this book, which yes isn't specifically about or set in Amsterdam, acts as something of a confirmation of this.
In 26 objects, you can find out more about Dutch mentality and what it has achieved, thus offering you yet another fascinating insight into the national pysche. Admittedly, not all the objects were originally created by Dutchies, but each one holds symbolic signficance to them for a variety of pragmatically poignant reasons.
If you can't be bothered to read any of the books on this list but you would maybe worry if you were missing out then the book you need to read is this book called City-Pick Amsterdam as it features many of the authors on this list of Amsterdam books including Ian McEwan and Geert Mak. It also features the brilliant humour and insight of writers like David Sedaris and Alain de Botton so consider it an eye-opening, well-rounded and truly entertaining alternative guidebook to Amsterdam.
There are hundreds of off-beat guide books to Amsterdam, all promising you the best off-the-beaten track tips for secret places you will never find unless you buy that book. Well, spoiler alert, most of them fail to deliver on this promise. and in many ways this one does too because after spending many hours reading this book, I would disagree that there are 500 "hidden secrets" here. BUT there are many, many places in this list that I didn't know about and many more that I would classify as not-very-well-heard-of and that is worth something in this day and age of silly travel blogs like mine sharing ALL the secret gems of a city.
If there's one blog that I always recommend to people visiting Amsterdam who want to know about the most current and hippest places to eat, drink, shop and more, it's Your Little Black Book, so although this Amsterdam City guide written by the blog's founder Anne is a little outdated now (it was first published in 2016), I maintain that it's one of the better guides to Amsterdam.
No matter what you may think of travel guidebooks, and personally, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with them, there is very little denying that Lonely Planet are market leaders in this realm for good reason. Regularly updated, heavily researched and trusted by millions of travellers worldwide, I've dipped into the Lonely Planet's guide to Amsterdam many times over the years and have nearly always found facts, places and experiences I never knew about.
I strongly recommend getting this city guide for researching your trip, and then perhaps also having this one on hand when you are in Amsterdam as it's a more compact pocket guide. But if your travels are going to take you around the country and not just Amsterdam, the Lonely Planet's country guide for the Netherlands would suffice as a good guide for the city too.
Strictly speaking this is very much fiction, and it's very much for kids too, but I didn't feel right putting it in with the slightly darker stories listed below because this book is such a delight. Now available in English this is a lovely picture book showing what the Jansen family get up to on their visit to Amsterdam.
If you're planning on visiting Amsterdam with kids (of any age from 3-10) this book will help to get them excited about just how much they can see and do here. And for more suggestions of books and other gifts that are Amsterdam themed that kids will love, check out this list of the best Amsterdam souvenirs.
The Best Fiction Books Set in Amsterdam
I knew very little about this book before I read it and I have to be honest and say that this made me feel a bit silly because I should have known just how brilliantly it would capture late 17th-century Amsterdam from sights through to smells and sounds. What I did know was that it would feature the beautiful grand doll's house that has its home in the Rijksmuseum.
I love that Burton took as much fact about this work of art and turned it into truly magical love story and imagination-capturing fiction. Read this book and make the Rijksmuseum your first port of call during your visit!
My mother is wonderful for many reasons but one thing I really do love about her is how she always sets aside books for me to read once she has finished them. Over the years I have come to learn that while our taste in literature isn't exactly the same, it's fairly similar although I sometimes do a lot of judging a book by its cover and don't always get around to reading the books she recommends immediately.
Tulip Fever was one such book and my slowness to read it was entirely because of its genre; historical is not my thing at all, and I have read (despite many historical fiction novels on this list!) and so I delayed reading this, but once I picked it up, I couldn't stop. I think I read it in its entirety on a flight to Dubai (in my heady days of kid-free flying!) and couldn't stop thinking about it afterward.
It's best read when you know next to nothing about the history of tulips in Amsterdam so I will say no more, except hunt this book down and read it before you do indeed arrive in this city, especially if you're planning your trip to coincide with finding lots of tulips in Amsterdam or a visit to Keukenhof Spring Gardens.
Another historical fiction novel I nearly didn't read because a) it's just not my genre and b) I have to be honest and say I know very little about French philosopher René Descartes who is the sort of off-centre character in this novel telling the story of his Amsterdam-based mistress, a servant girl who he fathers a child with.
While the book extends to be set in other parts of the Netherlands, the main action (and ahem, saucy parts!) happen in early 17th century Amsterdam and the author does well to capture such a strong sense of place as well as tension and intrigue between the two characters.
I feel a bit cheeky putting this short novel on the list because despite its title much of the action (and honestly, there isn't that much at all) takes place in London, but when a critically acclaimed author like McEwan calls a story Amsterdam, and indeed the book's climax does happen in Amsterdam, you can be sure I'm going to put it on this list of Amsterdam books.
Personally, I prefer McEwan's earlier works from the late 1970s - so raw, dark and original - like his first two short story collections, but Amsterdam (first published in 1998) still has much of the same authenticity and knack for defiant despondency in his characters.
I only recently finished this book and it was such a painful joy to read and yet I can't fully explain why. I'm sure it had a lot to do with the book's story of how the Second World War impacted one young man, along with its poignantly sparse writing style. I'm also sure it has something to do with the tenderness with which not typically fragile topics like rowing and sport and male friendship are all handled, and also for me personally, there is the special familiarity of reading about streets that I know like the back of my hand.
On the Water is one for fans of literature and it also adds considerably to the dark picture of what Amsterdam was like during the Nazi occupation, and shortly after.
This was another book I read without knowing it would take me to Amsterdam. And yes, admittedly, the majority of the book's action takes place 1000s of miles from Amsterdam but I think it's safe to say that the pivotal moments in the story of Hazel and Augustus take place during their trip to Amsterdam. I particularly love how the book features Amsterdam's famous spring snow (read more about that here in this guide to visiting Amsterdam at spring) and I was so convinced by the author featured in the story that I was quite convinced he was a real person but a number of quick Google searches quickly showed me he was not.
The movie adaption is also a great film to watch to get in the mood for a visit to Amsterdam and it made one particular bench quite the famous landmark (you can find it at Leidsegracht 4) although you may have to queue up for a sit-down and selfie.
I talk a lot about how much I like Amsterdam at Christmastime (despite the cold, grey, rain, wind and sometimes snow of Amsterdam in winter) and it would seem the author of this novel would agree with me as it's when the story takes place. Rotating around a number of mostly unhappy or unsatisfied-with-life characters from different backgrounds Amsterdam plays the role it so often does to many in both fact and fiction; a tempting, illicit and potentially dangerous distraction.
I've not read any other of David Park's novels before but I was very tempted to look them up after finishing The Light of Amsterdam. All this being said, you should maybe read this as a guide of how you don't really want your trip to Amsterdam to go!
What is considered to be this famous Dutch author's greatest worldwide success, and indeed the book was a bestseller for months here in the Netherlands, The Dinner is (somewhat sadly) a book I knew about from the film first before I read the English translation; I ended up watching the original Dutch version on a plane (again in pre-kids days!).
This film version does feel quite loyal to the book - and I can't comment on the Richard Gere Hollywood version as I deliberately haven't seen it - I find it hard to visualise new characters once I have seen a movie adaption and at times this was a little jarring. Either way it's a cracking, cracking story and will make you question what you do or don't know about Dutch people, or just anybody, I guess!
And if you have seen the film, would you like to know which restaurant it was filmed in? It's called &moshik, and yes, you can book dinner there and enjoy those brilliant views of Amsterdam.
Dipping our toes back into historical fiction set in Amsterdam, and specifically the Second World War period, this book didn't grab my attention or hold it anywhere close to others on this list, but I will say that the story's premise was super interesting and there is A LOT of historical detail included, no doubt thanks to the author's meticulous research efforts. But be warned, the book is LONG and while it serves almost as well as a travel guide to Amsterdam as a historical mystery novel, its length alone may put some people off.
Other Fiction Books and Novels Set in Amsterdam
Other fiction books famously set in Amsterdam that you may want to read (and I haven't yet!) include the also intimidatingly-long The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the bluntly named but intriguing story of Rembrandt's Whore by Sylvie Matton, the highly praised The Coffee Trader by David Liss, and the under-the-radar classic The Fall by Albert Camus. In what seems to be a similar story premise (i.e. discontented man walks around beautiful but eerie post-war streets of Amsterdam battling inner turmoils of various sorts), The Evenings by Gerard Reve is often mentioned in lists of books about Amsterdam.
For a second round of tulip fever, there's The Golden Tulip by Rosalind Laker, and if you like YA or fantasy fiction (or both!), there's the novel Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (although I should confess that the story is set in a fictional city but it's called Ketterdam, has very Dutch sounding street names and it's a busy hub of international trade so... yeah, I think we can safely draw some parallels.
Crime, Thriller or Mystery Fiction Books Set in Amsterdam
And now we delve deep in to a surprisingly long list of crime fiction books set in Amsterdam. A number of years ago I jotted down some ideas for a mystery or thriller series of books set in Amsterdam and then realised that many, MANY have already been written so perhaps it wouldn't be as original as I thought! I'm not saying I'll never write a hard-boiled dark noir crime thriller set in Amsterdam myself - because, FUN! - but I'm saying that there are plenty pretty good crime books set in Amsterdam already so enjoy these ones first!
This was the first crime fiction novel set in Amsterdam that I read and I didn't even know that was what I would be reading as it was an impulse purchase from an old book store. I was basically tempted by the vintage cover design, the title and the orange Penguin spine. But this book was a really good read! Not least because the murder in question took place on the streets just around the corner from my then apartment (and weirdly a few months after reading it I was on a run and saw a body being pulled out of the canal - although it wasn't a murder).
Anyway, I've not seen this book listed on any other lists of books about Amsterdam but I think it deserves to be on it, and if you are really curious, a little research will reveal that the detective featured in this book, and a number of others in the series that followed, featured in an ITV television adaption taking his name Van Der Valk, that was filmed in Amsterdam (with all English-speaking actors). I am now very interested in watching this show!
I'd heard of the series of Good Thief Guides many years before realising that the original one was set in Amsterdam. The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam is a as much of a laugh-out-loud action romp as it is a fast-paced mystery. Definitely worth reading for those who appreciate good humour as much as descriptions of a place and its people that pop off the page.
This is another book my mum left for me when I was last back in the UK and I have to confess I haven't actually finished it yet. It's not because it's a slow story - it's anything but! - it's more that it's RIDICULOUSLY SEXIST, quite racist and generally very out-dated and this just gets on my nerves, A LOT. But the story, the suspense and the backdrop of Amsterdam provides both picturesque scenery and lots of temptation for dangerous liaisons for Puppet on a Chain that was promptly made into a movie after it's original publication.
This is a book that intrigued me mostly because of the authors. Yes, authors. Britta Bolt is the name for two authors behind this book and two others in the so-called Posthumus trilogy. One is a German-born ex-lawyer with previous experience working on terrorist cases, and the other is a South-African born author and travel writer, but they both call Amsterdam home and were inspired to write these gritty detective novels with Pieter Posthumus at the lead.
Now let's pause for a second so I can tell you how Posthumus is a real and surprisingly common surname in the Netherlands (a former neighbour was called Posthumus and considering I never saw him EVER I did truly wonder what his name on the top doorbell could mean). Anyway, the Posthumus trilogy has done so well that they have been translated into a number of languages, including Dutch which I think is high praise!
Another series of crime novels that have proved popular in the last few years are those penned by Anja de Jager, a London-based Dutch-born author and daughter of police detective, who says her father inspired these novels set in Amsterdam. I was fascinated - but not surprised - to find out that she writes all her novels in English, but maybe this says more about my poor command of Dutch than anything else because the thought of writing any kind of fiction in a non-native language.
There are now five books in this series and you should start with A Cold Death in Amsterdam, although I didn't (I started with Death on the Canal and I survived!), and while I haven't read them all, I do indeed look forward to doing so!
One of the better known (at least among Dutchies) and longer established series of crime fiction set in Amsterdam are the books by Janwillem van de Wetering. Good news for us English-speakers is that his so-called Amsterdam Cops novels are all available in English and the most recent editions of this series of fifteen books have rather jolly covers too. Outsider in Amsterdam was first published in 1975 and drew on the author's varied life experience living abroad for many years (in South America, South Africa and Australia) and then returning to Amsterdam where he spent some time as a special constable in the Amsterdam police.
Van de Wetering wrote many books in his lifetime but he is definitely best known for the stories featuring police detective partners Rinus de Gier and Henk Grijpstra whose unconventional but dynamic match really carries the many plots in the books. They are especially worth reading as he undertook their English translations himself and there is much magic in his language too.
And that's it! My list of the best books set in Amsterdam or rather, the best books about Amsterdam. I hope to read more over the coming years and when I do, if they're worthy I will add them to this list. And likewise, you can leave a comment to let me know of a book about Amsterdam that you are a fan of - I always welcome reading suggestions!
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Frances M. Thompson
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