Ah, Amsterdam – a city of infinite inspiration. A city of romantic canals and crepuscular red-lit streets, of curious contradictions, of people confident and tolerant and fit, of old and new. I mean where else in the world could you see within a matter of minutes from each other the original building that housed the Dutch West India Company (yes, that Dutch West India Company, you know, that explored and exploited much of the New World and founded New Amsterdam which became New York City) and the current world headquarters of Booking.com?
Amsterdam – a multi-cultural liberal stronghold atop ground that had it been left to its own devices would’ve been swallowed up by the sea. Kindergartens and churches sit comfortably adjacent to the Red Light District, and there is a vibe of very little worry or concern about it. It’s a city where if you are looking for something, you will find it. But there doesn’t seem to be any cultural neurosis or obsessing over it. People just are. They hustle and bustle, but in a laid-back manner. The inhabitants seem to share in a sense of solving problems in practical, efficient, scalable ways – whether it’s reclaiming land for growth and controlling the tides, creating bicycle paths to corral the traffic, or dealing with the darker sides of human nature. And while all of that is there if you look for it, it’s also a city of incomparable history, architecture, art and beauty.
It’s a city I envision myself returning to again and again as no single trip could ever do it justice.
Tips & Observations:
- The entire city proper is walkable (I’ve never walked so much in my life and it felt great though exhausting) and there are more bikes in the city than cars. If you must, there are convenient tram lines, buses, canal taxis, and a small metro to get you to the outreaches. However, for Americans used to grid-like set-ups for big cities and clear street signage, it can be a little disarming at first to try to navigate the terrain. Most of the main streets are set up in concentric half-circles coming out from the city center running parallel to the major canals while the cross-streets spoke out beyond. There are also no street signs. Names of streets (usually) will appear on corner buildings, but in big intersections where sidewalks, bike lanes, tram lines and heavy traffic converge, it’s not always clear where to go. However, once I found my markers, it didn’t take long to familiarize myself with the neighborhood where I stayed, and on my fifth day there I was able to give someone directions to the local super market when they mistook me for an Amsterdammer and asked for directions.
- If you are a first time visitor, a canal tour is highly recommended as you’ll get to see a lot of the city and hopefully learn a few things as well. The Blue Boat Company did a fine job, offering up a 90 minute cruise through the major canals, along most of the hot spots and out into the Amstel River and harbor where you’ll see some of the more modern office buildings (Amsterdam refreshingly has no skyline) which was accompanied by a folksy history lesson/guided commentary offered in over a dozen languages.
- Just like New York City, Amsterdam is a foodies utopia. It’s impossible not to find something to wet your whistle. We dined on Indonesian, Greek, and Italian cuisine amongst more local café-style fare, which included the “best apple pie ever” at Café Winkle 43. Argentinian steakhouses (almost as plentiful as the infamous coffee houses) also appeared to be a big trend. Super cheap and super good Falafel joints are everywhere (and one was right beneath my door). Prices are reasonable most places, though it is a typical big city. When doing the conversion from Euros to dollars the tabs at the nicer places would run somewhere between what you would expect to pay in Philadelphia and what you would expect to pay in New York City – in other words, high, but not too high.
- Though obviously Dutch is the native tongue (and it’s fun to try to learn a bit of it) everyone speaks English – it’s the common tongue of natives, immigrants and tourists alike. However, not all signage and menus are in English, so just be attentive and polite. People will help.
Places to Go & Things to See:
** Note, though we walked all over the place, I stayed with a friend who lives in an Amsterdam South neighborhood just blocks from Vondel Park and the Museumplein so my first four recommendations focus on that area:
- The Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam’s state museum (some photos below) is housed in a magnificent spired building and showcases an array or art (focusing of course on Dutch art). Similar in size to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, give yourself about two hours (longer if the lines are long).
- The Van Gogh Museum – I was shocked by the size of this place, and it does a wonderful job of showing Van Gogh’s evolution through the years and how he was so unique when compared to his contemporaries (some of whom I would’ve mistaken for him before being schooled here). If you are a Van Gogh fan like me, give yourself at least two hours, and the lines for entry can be ridiculously long so add about an hour to that to be safe.
- The Stedelijk Museum – Housed in a building shaped like a tub, I’ve never been to a Modern Art museum quite like this. Some of the pieces were highly questionable (a string of lights pooling from the ceiling?), others astounding, and others downright weird (including a “wheat field” you could walk though in a black room made of LED light sticks that moved and made noises as you passed). Depending on your interest in Modern Art, give yourself one to two hours.
- Vondel Park – Amsterdam’s answer to New York’s Central Park was decked out in fall colors and friendly leisurely paths. We were lucky to catch the Amsterdam Marathon pass through on Sunday morning.
- Dam Square – In the city center, there was a fair going on there, just like the fair featured in Amanda Perino’s Amsterdam set story that appeared in The Stone: Issue Two. There’s also an historic war memorial at its center.
- Wynand Fockink – A great little tasting room not far from Dam Square where you can sample dozens of flavors of local Dutch gin called genever (or jenever). They serve it in unique shot glasses that allow them to create a meniscus of booze that you must bend over and slurp off before picking up the glass. Hands down – best gin I’ve ever had.
- The Anne Frank House – I actually didn’t go inside (maybe next time as you really have to be in the right mood to take in something sobering like this) but I saw it twice, once while on my inaugural Friday night sight-seeing/drinking tour, and once from the canal tour boat. The museum is right next door to the original house, which now has its windows and doors painted over in black, and next door to the whole complex is the famous West Church whose bells young Anne immortalized in her diary. Near the most beautiful part of town, the Jordaan, this is a truly haunting space, especially when you hear the bells toll.
- The Red Light District – truly both surreal and aggressively in your face. Live sex show theater marquees and moodily lit young women in windows look out upon throngs of people (mostly, hopefully, just curious to “see” like we were and not actual patrons). A pickpocket’s dream at night, I would recommend only walking through with a local who knows the streets and quick alley-way exits from this miasma of inequities. How David Lynch has not yet made a film set here is beyond me.
And now for some photos:
Written and Photographed by David H. Schleicher