When I first told my friends and family that I’d be starting my trip in Europe, the single most frequently asked question I received was “Are you going to Amsterdam?” The answer was obviously “yes,” but whereas it is true that Amsterdam has quite a reputation for being open-minded to most things (and most of it is true), there is also a lot more to the city than the Red Light District and notorious coffee shops. Personally, I found it to be one of the most beautiful cities that I’ve set foot in, with canals winding and criss-crossing in every direction, centuries old buildings that seem to be so thin they can only fit one person across, and with enough open-air cafes and restaurants to rival even the likes of Paris.
If you look at a map, the citty essentially looks like a dartboard, with the bullseye being the city center, which is then surrounded by concentric canals that getting larger and larger the further out you move. This allowed me to partake in one of my favorite pasttimes: simply wandering around the various rings and absorbing the feel of the place. Additionally, the city is actually built on a series of dikes and levies that have gradually been shifting over the last few hundred years. The result is that many of the buildings, even on the same block, have begun to rise or fall acording to the foundations underneath, leaving quite a slant to many facades. From an architectural perspective, this is probably a nightmare, but I’ve found that it added quite a bit of character to any given street or lane you may be passing down.
Well, I’ve avoided it for this long, but I guess it’s time to discuss the “elephant in the room,” in regards to Amsterdam’s other popular tourist attractions. First off, the Netherlands has taken a significantly more liberal stance to virtually every greatly-debated cultural issue, so it isn’t surprising to learn that they have set many precedents in being the first country to allow the likes of gay marriage, regulated euthanasia, legalized prostitution, or turning a blind eye to soft drugs. So whether or not you agree with some of their policies, you have to at least respect the fact that they have taken to carrying the banner for many other cultures and societies to follow, should any of them decide to do so.
The majority of attention gets lavished on what is known as the Red Light District. I won’t go into too much detail — and I certainly won’t share any graphic photographs, not that you’re allowed to take them anyway — but this part of town is notorious for two things: legalized and open prostitution (the “Red Light” refers to the red-lit, open windows in which women are on display, and often quite aggresive) and coffee shops that allow you to indulge your rastafarian side (though still technically illegal). Again, whether these things are you’re cup of tea or not, it is worth a stoll through for nothing other than the life experience. Just be sure to remember, this isn’t what the Dutch are all about, it just happens to be only one small facet of the city.
As one might expect from a town that has hundreds of “coffee shops,” there are plenty of places to pig out on every conceivable gooey, sweet treat that you can imagine, along with dozens of storefronts selling hot food straight out of vending machines (removing any need to interact with a human while filling your stomache). There are also quite a few high-end cafes serving excellent, first-class meals, but as usual, I headed straight for the markets of the town (something I must have picked up from watching too many episodes of Anthony Bourdain).
In addition to the food, there are also hundreds of great beer and wine bars to chose from, but given that my last few posts have been a bit beer-heavy, I decided to take an alternate root and check out the cocktail scene. Right across from the Van Gogh Museum is the House of Bols, the oldest distilled brand in Amsterdam, dating back to the mid-1500′s. Their specialty is genever, which with the addition of juniper berriers and a few spices, eventually evolved into what we now know as Gin. The House of Bols, however, has decided to stick with the tried-and-true classic itself, though they have jazzed it up with 36+ flavor variants.
After a nice stay in Amsterdam, I’m heading out tomorrow morning to Brussels, Belgium — otherwise known as Disney World for beer geeks. I haven’t yet nailed down my next stop past that, but I’ll likely keep moving west into either France or Spain (a much longer train ride). Until then, cheers!