Amsterdam is the capital and largest city of the Netherlands, located in the province of North Holland in the west of the country. The city, which had a population of 747,290 on 1 January 2008, comprises the northern part of the Randstad, the 6th-largest metropolitan area in Europe, with a population of around 6.7 million.
Its name is derived from Amstel dam, indicative of the city's origin: a dam in the river Amstel where the Dam Square is today. Settled as a small fishing village in the late 12th century, Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age, a result of its innovative developments in trade. During that time, the city was the leading centre for finance and diamonds. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the city expanded and many new neighbourhoods and suburbs were formed.
The city is the financial and cultural capital of the Netherlands. Many large Dutch institutions have their headquarters there, and 7 of the world's top 500 companies, including Philips and ING, are based in the city . The Amsterdam Stock Exchange, part of Euronext, is located in the city centre. Amsterdam's main attractions, including its historic canals, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, its red-light district and its many cannabis coffee shops, draw 4.2 million tourists annually.
The Amsterdam canal system is the result of conscious city planning. In the early 17th century, when immigration was at a peak, a comprehensive plan was developed that was based on four concentric half-circles of canals with their ends emerging at the IJ bay. Known as the Grachtengordel, three of the canals are mostly for residential development: Those are the Herengracht (Gentleman's Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal), and Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal’). The fourth and outermost canal, the Singelgracht (not to be confused with the older Singel), served purposes of defense and water management. The defensive purpose was established by moat and earthen dikes, with gates at transit points, but otherwise no masonry superstructures. Furthermore, the plan envisaged: Interconnecting canals along radii; creating a set of parallel canals in the Jordaan quarter, primarily for transportation purposes; converting the defensive purpose of the Singel to a residential and commercial purpose; constructing more than one hundred bridges.
Construction started in 1613 and proceeded from west to east, across the breadth of the lay–out, like a gigantic windshield wiper as the historian Geert Mak calls it—and not from the centre outwards as a popular myth has it. The canal constructions in the southern sector were accomplished by 1656. Subsequently, the construction of residential buildings commenced slowly. The eastern part of the concentric canal plan, covering the area between the Amstel river and the IJ bay, has never been implemented. In the following centuries, the land was used for parks, senior citizens' homes, theaters, other public facilities, and waterways without much planning.
Over the years, several canals have been filled in becoming streets or squares, such as the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and the Spui.