By Laurie Ellis and Shady Hartshorne
When some people think of Amsterdam, they think of a hedonist’s paradise where marijuana and prostitution are legal.
Scantily clad women stand in store windows advertising their “wares” and scruffy backpackers from all over the world cram themselves into cheap hotels for the opportunity to smoke some killer weed and pass out in doorways.
Amsterdam does have all that, but, in fact, pot is not legal, and these attractions are just a tiny part of what this beautiful, centuries-old city has to offer.
You can explore narrow, cobblestone streets and twisting canals, marvel at a Rembrandt or Van Gogh masterpiece or just sit at a sidewalk café watching the constant flow of bicycles, mopeds and pedestrians, and you realize that millions of people come to visit this city, not for its lax vice laws, but because it’s simply one of the most beautiful and fun places in the world.
Almost everyone speaks perfect English
Unlike in other European countries, it’s not really necessary to stumble your way through a few carefully practiced phrases in their language before they’ll help you out. The Dutch are proud of the fact that they speak many languages and they’re not all that interested in hearing your version of the distinctive, gargling sound that is used in so many of their words.
It’s still polite to ask if someone speaks English before you start asking for directions, but most of the time the response will be, “Of course!”
The Dutch are also some of the nicest people in the world, and as long as you remember not to walk in the bike path, you’ll never hear a discouraging word from anyone.
Speaking of Bikes
The first thing you’ll notice about Amsterdam is how many bikes there are. Holland has more bikes than people and you’ll see that in full force here. Hordes of Amsterdammers go whizzing by in every direction. They carry their groceries and their kids and sometimes you’ll see parents or grandparents riding sidesaddle on the back!
Every street has a bike path between the cars and the sidewalk, so be very, very careful before you cross any street. If you’re brave, you can rent bikes to get around, but be aware that there is a lot of traffic, pedestrians, mopeds and all sorts of other hazards.
A Walking Tour
Walking is definitely the best way to see Amsterdam, so bring comfortable shoes and a water bottle. There is an efficient, extensive tram network, but you shouldn’t need to use it. If you do need to use the subway, bus or trams, ask someone to explain the “Strippenkart” fare system before you ride. It’s a little confusing at first, but it makes sense once you get used to it.
Amsterdam is a small, very compact city ringed by a series of canals built ever outward as the city expanded over the centuries. Each canal has a history of its own written by the brewers, tradespeople or wealthy merchants who built their houses alongside them.
Make sure to pick up a good guidebook before you go that can fill you in on some of the history. The older buildings are often capped with decorative gables that come in all shapes and sizes.
At first, when you see that each building has a hook hanging from the highest point of the gable, you might think that it is a relic of days gone by, but actually, those hooks are still in use today because the doorways and stairs of these buildings are so narrow. On moving day, all furniture goes in and out the windows.
Throughout the city, you’ll find cheese shops that sell Holland’s signature Gouda and other cheeses. Here you can pick up some of the aged Gouda that is not available for export outside the Netherlands. Once you taste it, you’ll know why they want to keep it all for themselves.
In the top center part of Amsterdam, you will find the “Old City” that dates back to the 13th century when a dam was first built on the Amstel River. City Hall, the Nieuwe Kerk, or “new church” (built in 1400), and the Royal Palace are in this section.
Down in the lower central part of the city are the exquisite museums featuring some of Europe’s finest paintings. The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum are totally mobbed on weekends, so try to visit them midweek. You can buy a 2-for-1 “combo” pass that offers a discount if you visit both museums. Other multi-use passes are available as well. Check at the tourist office for special deals.
Near the museums, is Amsterdam’s expansive Vondelpark, with fountains and lakes, bandstands and grassy fields where locals go for a stroll or a pick-up soccer game. This is a perfect place to sit and devour all the delicious bread and cheese that you might have picked up along the way.
Heading east from the Museumplein, you enter the Pijp (pronounced “pipe”), which is a funkier, less fancy part of town. It has many nice stores and a terrific street market on Albert Cuypstraat where you can buy cheese, fish, kitchen wares, hats, scarves or those leopard-print weight-lifting pants you need so badly.
The upper right section of the city is called the Plantage and it has the University of Amsterdam as well as some nice parks and museums. The eastern edge of the city has the waterfront with the Shipping Museum and the Nemo.
The Maritime Museum shows the history of Dutch sea power and exploration and it features a full-size replica of an 18th-century sailing ship. Nemo is an interactive science museum and it’s very striking to look at. World famous architect Renzo Piano designed the building to look like the bow of a giant ship.
Heading back to the center, you can find the Red Light district, so if you absolutely must see the prostitutes in the windows, you can find them here.
There are also numerous “Coffee Shops” that sell all kinds of marijuana and hashish as well as magic mushrooms and other herbal supplements. If you’re inclined to indulge in this sort of thing, you should be aware that the Dutch tolerate these establishments, but don’t look kindly on people using drugs in public.
If the madhouse atmosphere of the Red Light District and the Coffee Shop Zone gets to be too much, just walk west to the Jordaan area. It has quaint, funky shops in a quiet residential atmosphere as well as the same beautiful canals, bridges, and architecture as the rest of the city.
Just between the Jordaan and the center of town, at 263 Prinsengracht, is the Anne Frank house. Anne Frank and her family lived behind a bookcase in this house from 1942 to 1944 before being discovered by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps.
Food and Lodging
There are hundreds of hotels and restaurants in Amsterdam, and they run the gamut from top-tier elegance to seedy and scary. The hotels fill up in the summer months, so reservations are strongly recommended.
A good guidebook will give you phone numbers and email addresses, and everyone speaks English, so you can easily make your reservations by phone or email.
We stayed at the Amsterdam Bed and Breakfast on Roetersstraat in the Plantage area. It was very cute and featured a delicious home-cooked breakfast served by the owner. The rooms are on the second floor at the top of a very steep, narrow staircase, but it’s worth the climb.
Dutch food has a reputation for being kind of bland: meat, potatoes, cheese, and more meat, but when you’re doing all that walking, you sometimes want a nice simple lunch to get you through the afternoon. A Dutch restaurant will provide a great meal of sausage sandwiches on rich brown bread and a nice white beer to wash it down.
You can find plenty of pizza or Greek food, but the ethnic food of choice in Amsterdam is Indonesian. The featured item on any Indonesian restaurant’s menu will be the Rijsttafel, a motley collection of small dishes of meat or veggies in various sauces. We had Rijstaffel at a small place near our B&B and it was kind of gross, with everything swimming in corn syrup.
If you want excellent Indonesian food, you can check out Kantjil & de Tijger on Spuistraat. We didn’t get the Rijsstaffel there, but we got some delicious appetizers.
For upscale cuisine, we had a great meal at Plancius on Kerklaan in the Plantage area. The food was excellent, the service was friendly and they have an extensive list of beers and wines to choose from.
There are other high-end choices but, in general, if you’re a “foodie,” and you’re expecting the kinds of meals you’d get in New York or Paris, you might be disappointed. The cheese is great, though, and we do love cheese!
Day trips: Utrecht and Gouda
You should definitely try to include a day trip to another city in your Amsterdam vacation. The train system is fast, cheap and efficient and the scenery outside your window will be worth the price of the ticket. Central Station can be a bit intimidating at first, but you’ll be able to find the ticket windows and gates without too much trouble.
Gouda is less than an hour away by direct train and it makes a great day trip. This city with the famous cheese name is no longer the central source of the fabulous Gouda cheese, but they still have a market on Thursdays, June-September, in the main square where you can see how the cheese was weighed and traded in the old days.
On the north side of the large open square is the Waag where they used to weigh all the cheese. It now houses the Kaaswaag, or Cheese Museum.
In the center of the square, is the beautiful town hall from the 15th century. Its many windows, with decorative red shutters, make for a nice photo op. While we ate some great sandwiches at De Zalm Café, we saw four wedding parties come by in various vehicles. One bride and groom drove up in an old black VW convertible beetle with a white lace ribbon around the hood.
Fans of stained glass windows will want to check out Sint-Janskerk on Kerkstraat.
Utrecht: Like Amsterdam but Without the Stoners
Utrecht is about 20 minutes from Amsterdam and is the home of a major university. Of the 120,000 residents, 30,000 are students. Utrecht has the same old world charm, architecture and canals as Amsterdam and the students whizzing by on their bicycles gives it a similar energy, but you don’t see the scruffy backpackers passed out in doorways.
There’s an open-air market on Saturdays in the shadow of the Dom Tower, which is the highest church tower in Holland. If you climb to the top, you’ll get a panoramic view of the area. Or if you’re lazy, like us, just sit at a sidewalk café and have a coffee or a beer.
If you stay for dinner, you can get an excellent meal at De Zakkendrager on Zakkendragersteeg – a tiny little alley between Central Station and Dom Tower. We had great food in a romantic atmosphere that was only mildly disturbed when someone’s dog got into an argument with the resident cat. (Dutch people are very relaxed about their pets, as they are with just about everything else!) The desserts were especially good.
If you don’t have time to stay for a meal, but you still want an excellent treat, check out Bond en Smolders on Lijnmarket street. They have great coffee and pastries that will knock your socks off!
Back in Amsterdam
We had a hard time deciding which Dutch city was our favorite, but there’s no denying Amsterdam is the “must-see” capital of the Netherlands.
We loved everything about it except for the fact that almost everybody smokes. If you’re a smoker, you’ll be in hog heaven lighting up anywhere you want. For the rest of us, it stinks, but it all fits with the Dutch attitude of tolerance. They have a culture that’s based on hundreds of years of finding solutions that don’t necessarily please everyone, but that work for the general good.
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Husband and wife team Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis of Arlington, Massachusetts are among our most adventurous travel writers. Whether it’s open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands, house-boating on the Suwannee River, zip lining in Costa Rica or soaring over the Grand Canyon in a Maverick helicopter, they go the extra mile to bring us great stories from all over the world. They live in Arlington, Mass.