The most famous bridge in Amsterdam is lovely, but the “Skinny Bridge” is not really all that skinny anymore.
There’s a reason Amsterdam is called the “Venice of the North.” Riddled with canals and the Amstel River as it is, it has more bridges than any other city in the world… yes, far more than Venice. All this water criss-crossing the city wherever you look calls for hundreds—thousands—of bridges. Some accounts put the number as low as 1250, others at twice that. Apparently, Venice rings up a measly 400. Perhaps Venice should be called the “Amsterdam of the South.”
Arguably the most famous of those hundreds of Amsterdam bridges is the Magere Brug, which translates as the Skinny Bridge.
“Throughout the city there are as many canals and drawbridges as bracelets on a Gypsy’s bronzed arms.”
~Felix Marti-Ibanez, Spanish author
The pretty and delicate-looking white wood structure is a double-swipe “bascule” bridge, which means it uses a counterweight system to make opening and closing its two drawbridge “leaves” easy. That’s a good thing because it opens and closes a lot—on average every 20 minutes throughout the day. A common and perfectly legitimate excuse for being late for an appointment in Amsterdam is “The bridge was open!”
Those of us from the true Nomad Women generation might remember the bridge from the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Ah, for the days of the only real James Bond—and we all know that was the one and only Sean Connery. Seldom mentioned in stories of the bridge is its unhappier memory. It was used as an accumulation point for Dutch Jews about to be shipped east during the Nazi occupation of World War II.
The Skinny Bridge’s first incarnation was built over the River Amstel in 1691. It was apparently so narrow two pedestrians could barely pass each other when crossing the span, creating its popular nickname. If you take one of the famous rondvaart canal boat tours—and you really should—the tour guide will likely tell you a charming but apocryphal story of its name. It goes something like this….
A Delightful Story
Once upon a time, there were two sisters whose family name was Mager. They loved each other very much and insisted on meeting each morning for that much beloved Dutch custom of koffie en koekjes. But getting to each other for this coffee-and-cookies tradition was difficult because they lived on opposite sides of the River Amstel. And so they built a bridge to connect with each other more easily… Poof! The Magere Brug came into being.
The truth is more prosaic, as it so often is. With commerce burgeoning during the 17th-century Golden Age, there was always a need for more means of getting around, running hither and yon, doing business, moving things, making money.
The Skinny Bridge has been rebuilt a few times over its life, first in 1871, when the decrepit little old thing was also widened to allow for more traffic. Fifty years later, the city tried to replace it with a steel and stone construction, but the outcry from the tradition-loving Dutch was loud and long. The new-fangled design was scrapped. The last reconstruction was in 1969, still keeping to the original design. Since 2003, the Skinny Bridge has been closed to all traffic except pedestrians and bicycles.
The bridge is high enough for the low-profile rondvaart boats to pass under it, and it’s pleasant to stand in the center of the span and watch them float past below, especially in the evening when both the bridge and the boats are illuminated.
A Bonus Photo – The Skinny Bridge at Night
You can find the Magere Brug/Skinny Bridge between the Keizsersgracht and the Prinsengracht, where the Kerkstraat meets the river on the east side and connects it to the Nieuwe Kerkstraat on the west. Take trams 9 or 14 or metro line 54 to Waterlooplein, then walk toward the Amstel. If you need to ask directions, you’ll find that virtually everyone you meet in Amsterdam speaks English.