Despite being Europe’s 5th largest airport, Schiphol is surprisingly compact. You can get from your gate to the arrivals area in about a third of the time it takes to do so, say at Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle. A testament to its smart design, no doubt. Throw in a very conveniently located train station, with frequent departures to the city centre, and 15 minutes later your staring down Damrak in downtown Amsterdam! Not surprisingly, the city mirrors just that – a highly efficient design and extreme compactness!
The Warmoesstraat (straat = street) is a 5 minute walk along the Damrak from Amsterdam Centraal and a good place in which to get your bearings. Touristy, yes, but a great introduction to all that you’ve come to know as the Dam’s clichés – Canals, the Red Light District, Coffee shops, and of course, its quaint little alleyways.
The one thing I wasn’t prepared for however, is how everything exists in perfect harmony, is never quite in your face, and the seemingly seedier aspects of it (read sex and drugs!) require no policing whatsoever – moral or otherwise!!
In a country where gay & lesbian culture thrives more than anywhere else, where prostitution is legal, where cannabis is sold openly in ‘coffee shops’ and where alcohol can be consumed guilt free on the street, you stare in amazement and wonder how? The reaction is understandable when you arrive from the somewhat prude United States. But even within ‘progressive’ Europe, the Dutch are more liberal and forward thinking than any other in their continent.
A cursory glance at the history of the Netherlands reveals all. It goes back to the 16th century, when the Dutch rebelled against Spanish occupation, thereafter winning their Independence. What followed was an influx of immigrants from across Europe. Soon enough, the Netherlands established itself as a centre for religious, intellectual and cultural tolerance. Today Amsterdam is home to 176 nationalities – that’s more than even NYC can boast of – and most of its immigrants have no religious affiliation whatsoever!
Nothing quite spells tolerance more than having the city’s oldest church, Oudekerk (kerk = church), in the heart of the Red Light District! At dusk, as the Oudekerk prepares to close its doors to worshipers, sex workers in surrounding streets draw open the curtains to their booths and flick on their red lights, signaling the advent of yet another evening – business as usual in the Dam!
Amsterdam gets its name from the dam on the river Amstel. The river itself terminates in the city centre, connecting to a network of canals, which in turn empty out into the Ij Bay, to the north of the city. The Prinsengracht (gracht = canal) or ‘Prince’s canal’ is the longest and most storied of these.
To most people, canals are as synonymous to Amsterdam as skyscrapers are to the Big Apple. But while tall buildings may not be to everyone’s fancy, the canals of Amsterdam are bound to be! After all, its not called the ‘Venice of the North’ for nothing! The canals split the city into 90 islands, are spanned by 1500 bridges and collectively total over 100 km’s in length! In short, every corner you turn, or more appropriately, every bridge you cross, presents before you the stuff picture postcards are made of!
It is true. The canals are, by far, the most charming aspect of the city and you’d be hard-pressed to tire of them! Sip a cold beer while you lounge by one of them, grab a coffee at a canal side cafe or simply take a stroll along them – what with 60+ route miles to choose from! And if you feel like stretching it a bit, why not rent a house boat?!
In my little book, a city ranks favourably if it is bicycle friendly. In Amsterdam, that’s a given. Instead you begin to wonder just how automobile friendly it is? Answer – its not! For decades, driving a car into or around the city centre has been heavily discouraged – through hefty parking fees, streets closed to traffic, one way streets and so on. Today, biking is the most favoured mode of transport in the city, and along with Copenhagen, that makes Amsterdam the most bike friendly city in the world!
There are more bicycles than there are people in Amsterdam and the city boasts some of the safest streets on the planet. Consider this – in ’07, there were 26 homicides in the city (an amazingly low statistic in itself!) and an even lower number – 18 – lost their lives in traffic related accidents! In Amsterdam, you are more likely to be hit by a speeding cyclist than a speeding motorist. Luckily, the injuries resulting from the former are a lot less severe and almost never life threatening!
There are other benefits to cycling to – good health for one, and women with very fit behinds 😉 Posteriors aside, the Dutch are an exceptionally tall race and their obsession with cycling ensures that you’d seldom see an overweight man or woman – to that end, they’re an impressive looking bunch to. Heck, they even make rush hour look good!
Bike lanes, special bike signals, bicycle friendly trains, biker friendly cafes, bike lockers, streets reserved only for two wheelers – if your a biker in Amsterdam, your most certainly spoiled for choice!
City planning in Amsterdam takes it a step further. On major thoroughfares, cyclists have their own wide lane, there’s a single lane for motorists and one reserved for trams and buses. Add to that spacious sidewalks and you have an environment of equal respect for all road users. An environment that is designed, more than anything, to ensure the motor car does not rule!
Bikes come in all shapes and sizes here, and for different uses to – from daily commuting to ferrying cargo! Everyone owns one, if not two, and never mind if they aren’t able to operate theirs yet, they get to ride on one nevertheless!
Architecturally speaking, the city does boast a few gems but doesn’t quite match up to the likes of Paris, London, Prague or Rome, to name a few! Neither can it boast of an impressive skyline. Nevertheless, it is a city of towers and churches and what better way to see such a cityscape than from the highest church tower in all of Amsterdam – the 17th century built Westerkerk!
At a height of 280 feet, it isn’t exactly that tall, but a €5 half hour tour up the steepest stairways, through the narrowest passages, and past several bells weighing over a ton (the heaviest is 7.5t), is exhilarating enough for anyone. And once on the viewing deck, the views are suitably rewarding to!
The Dutch artist Rembrandt was amongst many notables buried at the church. He spent the last years of his life in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam, of which the Westerkerk is a part. Today, whether by coincidence or not, Jordaan is host to several art galleries, most of them catering to modern art.
Dutch art and design, however, isn’t restricted to Jordaan alone. It can be experienced across the city. After all, the Dutch are second to none when it comes to creative quirkiness, a strong sense of aesthetics and design that is both pleasing to look at and functional. Alright maybe the Swedes, Finns, Germans and Danes (who else am I leaving out?) would take offense to that but I can’t help it, I’ve always been bias towards the Dutch in matters of creativity!
And I wasn’t disappointed at all – the Dutch more than lived up to the reputation they have earned. From chic galleries, to intelligent public spaces, to amazing signage, to modern architectural marvels, to intriguing window displays. At times, things that were just to cool to describe in words!
Not far from the Jordaan neighbourhood (nothing is far in Amsterdam!) is Museumplein (plein = square), home to four museums. The Rijksmuseum, or ‘State Museum’, is amongst the city’s architectural jewels, and its arts exhibits include the works of Rembrandt. Across the square from it is a much more modern structure housing the collection of another reputed Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh!
With 50 museums to choose from – a museum each dedicated to Torture, Sex and Vodka amongst them – there is no shortage of choice in the city! But for a different kind of experience and to pay homage to a country of fine beers, head to the Heineken Brouwerij, where a €15 entry includes the brewery tour, two glasses of chilled Heineken, and a chance to see firsthand, the unique Dutch way of pouring beer!
Hungry with all that drinking? Worry not for there are gourmet options galore! From ‘spicier-than-any-Indian-can-handle’ Indonesian food at Tempo Doeloe to the much more harmless option of Dutch style pancakes, from fabulous Frites street side to kiosks selling Herring on a roll topped with onion and pickles! Or perhaps some pub grub at the very ‘local’ Café Thijssen, where assorted Dutch treats can be enjoyed with even more chilled beer!
If this post hasn’t made it obvious enough, there is plenty to eat, drink, sniff (!), see, do and experience in the amazing Dutch capital – a complete city experience in every sense of the word!
Another truly great European destination checked off my ’09 list, and yet another reason to return to the continent in 2010 😉
For a full set of pics, click here.