By Becky Mahan — Check out Becky’s Crazy, Loveable Amsterdam guide for tips!
Ah, Amsterdam. The pinnacle of modern European tourism, the free-spirited destination to which college grads everywhere pilgrimage, carries the stereotypical image of being a drug-dealing, porn-filled, freewheeling hub of psychedelic misadventure.
Fortunately, that is an extreme – and inaccurate – definition. Despite a reputation for legalized drugs, acceptance of legal prostitution, and a lighthearted approach to experimentation, defining Amsterdam by those elements alone does a wonderful city a sad injustice.
The crown jewel of a tiny but mighty country (the Netherlands has a long and impressive pioneering history in Europe), Amsterdam is much more than a counter-culture. It is alive, bustling, and teeming with life. Culture awaits around every 16th-century architectural block. History is seeped into the cobblestoned streets. Art greets you in every possible form: from expressionist graffiti on the city walls to centuries-old paintings that hang in museum glass cases. The canals (all of which are protected UNESCO World Heritage Sites) that serve as lifelines are rimmed with food stalls, smoke shops, antique warehouses, and crooked, multi-colored apartment homes.
The best introduction to Amsterdam is to hop onto a boat tour. Nimbly sailing your way down a sparkling canal is one of the grin-inducing pleasures of a Dutch summer, and you can enjoy the commentary of earnest local guides to help you get oriented with the city.
Several blocks from Amsterdam’s Central Station (a magnificent architectural wonder in itself), is the hub of this urban wheel: Dam Square. Dam Square Monument and the Royal Palace head up the most notable plaza in the city, where the queen’s royal procession takes place every National Memorial Day. Stand by to witness peaceful protests or animated demonstrations, and around Halloween, join a bustling carnival plunked right down on the square.
The star of most Amsterdam tourist stories is the famed Red Light District. Contrary to popular belief, the neighborhood known as the “seedy underbelly” of Amsterdam is actually quite safe, guarded 24/7 by strategically-placed bodyguards and police officers. It is this neighborhood that gives Amsterdam its colorful reputation; it is a district where you can watch prostitutes shimmying in red-curtained windows, their craft protected and even subsidized by the government. Explore tattoo parlors with psychedelic decorations that zing you straight back to the 1960s, and check out Electric Ladyland, which is full of eclectic artifacts that the owner, Nike, a modern-day hippie, collected himself. While you are there, ask him to show you the black-light tattoo he gave himself on his arm.
In 2008, the Dutch government swept through Amsterdam and cleaned out its nitty-gritty elements, including cracking down on the sale of soft drugs. This means that, while still legal, marijuana sales are rapidly disappearing from the public eye. The political debates are still flying on this topic, so if it piques your interest, try some legal pot while you can. Keep in mind that Dutch marijuana is commonly mixed with tobacco; for a purely marijuana (herbal cannabis) joint, be sure to specify when you order.
For a “dining” experience with character, check out Cafe In’t Aapjen, a gorgeous authentic wooden cafe complete with a 16th century décor and located conveniently a stone’s throw away from Central Station.
In case you forgot the role that the Netherlands played in World War II, head down the Prinsengracht canal and stop at number 267. Its humble, unassuming homefront houses one of the most famous places in Europe: Anne Frank’s annex (Anne Frankhuis). Inside, visitors can tour the home and hideout of the famous young diary-keeper, who, despite her suffering and cruel treatment at the hands of the Nazis, still believed in the good of humanity. Standing in her bedroom is nothing short of a heart-wrenching, hair-raising experience.
Though set aside from the hubbub of the city center, Vondelpark is worth a visit. Surrounded by quaint, Victorian-style homes on quiet blocks, Vondelpark spans 120 acres and can boast the title of one of the most beautiful parks in Europe. Plop down beneath a lush tree in summer to people-watch, or gather at the frozen ponds in winter for open-air ice skating.
Even if you are not a museum junkie, make time for at least two museums during your stay in Amsterdam. The enormous Rijksmuseum heads up the Museumplein and houses Golden Age masterpieces by the likes of Dutch artists like Rembrandt, as well as the world-famous “Night Watch” (Nachtwacht.) The Van Gogh Museum is dedicated to the Dutch native’s art, but be sure to see it before September 24th, when it will close until April 2013 for major renovations. (You can see the top 75 Van Gogh masterpieces at the Hermitage Amsterdam museum while they are renovating.)
When you’ve had your fill of art for the day, head out to the open park behind the museums and stop at a food stall for a frikadel (minced-meat sausage). If you dare, try it as the locals like it – with gobs of mayonnaise and onions. Wander over to the “I Amsterdam” sculpture to snap your mandatory cheesy tourist photo, then head out to the nearby De Pijp neighborhood to browse the Albert Cuyp Market. Shop the local delicacies, bulk cloth, and handcrafted trinkets – then buy a fresh homemade stroopwafel, the best snack to come out of Holland, to wash down your sausage and onions.
While the Netherlands is a pioneer in mass public transportation, the system has become somewhat of a nuisance for visitors. You must purchase an OV chip card (chipkaart), much like London’s Oyster card, to ride the network of trams, trains and buses – an inconvenience further complicated by the fact that most ATMs in the Netherlands only accept chip-embedded cards (which America has not yet incorporated.)
The solution? Rent a bicycle. The sturdy, resilient Dutch have a love affair with the two-wheeled mode of transportation, and there is a plethora of rental shops from which to choose. Don’t worry about looking touristy – everyone does it, and it is by far the most scenic and efficient way to navigate the city.
The items on this itinerary barely comprise the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is Amsterdam. As the capital of a friendly and easy-natured country, it is a destination that offers everyone and anyone everything and anything they could want. Make time to breathe it in, and you will see that, side-by-side with its bold experiment in modern freedom, Amsterdam is a warm and welcoming city beloved by locals and foreigners alike.
Becky Mahan is a college journalism graduate from San Diego who writes about her travels on Stranger In This Town. She has visited the Netherlands nearly a dozen times in five years, and lived there temporarily with her Dutch boyfriend in 2011. In January 2013, she will head to Australia for the first stop on her round-the-world gap year trip.