Misunderstood Amsterdam

October 24, 2011

The stereotypical picture of Amsterdam is a drug-dealing, porn-filled, freewheeling city of psychadelic misadventure. That’s not necessarily false – the city is known for its loose laws on drugs, acceptance of legal prostitution, and a fun, lighthearted approach to experimentation.

However, those elements alone do not comprise an accurate picture of the city – and those who do not take the time to meet the “real” Amsterdam do a wonderful city a sad injustice.

Living part-time in the Netherlands now, I’ve navigated Amsterdam’s streets, both on my own and accompanied by a native Dutchman, over a dozen times in the last five years. I’ve poked my nose around many of its corners, sniffing out its various quirks and charms. I’ve interacted with people, from friendly locals to confused tourists. And I’ve been both of those myself.

Travel guide and Europe expert Rick Steves once said that Amsterdam is “a bold experiment in freedom” and “may box your Puritan ears.”

That’s a good way to put it, to an extent. Americans are generally overly conservative, and perhaps the most impressionable and sheltered will bristle in the Netherlands’ capital. The youth, however, flock to it to try legal drugs, enjoy a lower drinking age, and perhaps leave the city grinning stupidly. But they miss out on a world of culture and new horizons.

Consider my perspective: at first visit, I was 18. I don’t smoke, I’m more a wine drinker than a party animal, and as a woman, I had no desire to hire the “services” of the girls in the windows. Yet, Amsterdam didn’t assault me. Rather, I was enchanted – and not just because I was a first-timer on European soil.

Amsterdam is alive, bustling, and teeming with life. Culture awaits behind every corner. History is seeped into the very streets. Art greets you in every possible form: from expression graffiti on the city walls to centuries-old paintings that hang in museum glass cases. Coffee shops sit nonchalantly on public blocks – serving actual coffee and pastries, as well as, yes, your choice of joint.

Canals sparkle in the sun as boats of all kinds float on the water: guide boats for sightseeing, and house boats for cheap floatable living. Tiny cars beep, pedestrians leap out of the way, and bicycle bells ring down narrow streets lined by crooked, multi-colored buildings. Boutique hotels are rampant here – small, homestyle B&Bs with old-fashioned Dutch charm that are overwhelmingly preferred over 5-star hotel chains.

Museums pulse with people, both locals and foreigners. Parks are filled year-round – with children playing, lovers strolling, dogs trotting, and ducks waddling. And everyone stops to enjoy the seasonal beauty: whether it’s the bright green trees and blue sky in summer, or the bare-branched, frozen pond wonderland in winter. The only difference in activity is sun-tanning versus open-air ice skating.

These are the impressions I think visitors are more likely to have of this beautiful city. It’s true they may see gay lovers kissing or gazing fondly into each other’s eyes in open public, prostitutes shimmying in underground windows (though now more subtly and only in specific parts of town), or smell the pungent aroma of marijuana on the streets. And in winter, when the sky is right and the sun is low, the horizon just may be tinged with green. But that’s what gives the city its unique flavor – not its definition.

Amsterdam is so much more than a counter-culture. Its people are friendly and willing to help, in ways that may surprise Americans obsessed with privacy and personal space. Almost everyone speaks English. Contrary to popular belief, the Red Light District is actually quite safe, guarded 24/7 by an army of bodyguards and policemen hired to stand watch. And coffee shops are there only for those who care to try them out.

Consider Amsterdam’s role in World War II. Walk down one of the small street blocks on Prinsengracht – the most beautiful canal in the city – and stop at number 267. Its unassuming homefront, easy to pass by unless you’re seeking it out, hides one of the most famous places in Europe: Anne Frank’s annex. Tour the home and the room of the girl who was forced to hide for years in a tiny attic with ten other people, whispering, tip-toeing, and craving sunshine 24/7, eventually outed, captured, and transported to a death camp at the hands of the Nazis – and she still believed people were good. Explore this sad home-turned-museum and leave with wet eyes.

Join everyone and their mothers in Vondelpark, one of the prettiest and most charming parks in Europe – surrounded by quaint, Victorian-style homes on quiet blocks. Plop down beneath a lush tree in summer to people-watch, or gather at the frozen ponds in winter to watch brave (or perhaps crazy) teenagers test the thickness of the ice and walk across the surface.

Make your way through the enormous Rijksmuseum, which houses Golden Age masterpieces by the likes of Dutch artists Rembrandt and van Gogh. Stop and marvel at the famous Nacht Wacht (Night Watch), which takes up an entire exhibit wall.

Behind the museum, in a huge city park square, buy a frikadel (minced-meat sausage), and enjoy it either as the locals do – with gobs of mayonnaise and onions – or simply by itself. Meander through the open park to the famous “I Amsterdam” sculpture, snap a photo, and linger to observe a myriad of cultures and walks of life gathered at this tourist point.

At a streetside cafe, order a pint of Amstel beer, not Heineken – which the Dutch turn up their noses at.

And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Yes, Amsterdam would be a glaring red boil in America. But in friendly, comfortable, easy-natured Holland, it’s a city that offers everyone and anyone everything and anything they could want. If you’re seeking out the drugs or sex, there’s plenty. But if you’re seeking culture, art, and history, there’s even more. And that’s why I absolutely love it.

Just as you shouldn’t misjudge Amsterdam by its liberal attitude, you also shouldn’t judge the Netherlands by Amsterdam. Just outside the city borders, rolling fields, grazing cows, and beautiful farm houses make up the countryside – a lovely passing scenery on a cross-country train. Yet you won’t find the image of bonneted, wooden-clogged, tulip-picking milkmaids anywhere except nostalgic paintings. Wooden clogs are the containers for potted plants nowadays. Women wear jeans and t-shirts, just like other Western world women. And chances are you won’t see a tulip unless you know where to look: they grow during limited times of the year, and only in certain regions.

One stereotype is true, however: the bicycles. The Dutch definitely have a love affair with bicycles – and with good reason. They’re efficient, cheaper, cleaner, and much more environmentally-friendly than cars, and with the ease of the “fietspads” (bike paths) integrated all over the entire country, they’re safer, too. Everyone has a bike. I’ve seen children as young as three toddling after their parents on a tiny two-wheeler, balancing perfectly upright without training wheels. Smaller children zip around in little seats attached to the front of their parents’ bicycles until they’re old enough to balance on their own. And once they are, they will continue to ride a bike until the day they can no longer move their legs. Adults in their 90s still ride, pedaling with strong, healthy thighs. I knew a man who was still climbing trees days before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The Dutch are a healthy, strong, handsome race.

The Netherlands is a country of sensible social control, practical politics (for the most part), and a respectful appreciation for its citizens that puts our “land of the free” to shame. Its people are lovers of art and music, beer and cheese, and there’s never a poor excuse to sit with friends or family for a cup of coffee.

Towns are family-oriented, children play in the streets, and public transportation seamlessly gets you practically anywhere you want to go. Shops close at 6pm during the week, and are closed entirely (though some major city stores have limited hours) on Sundays. The city of Hilversum is the Dutch Beverly Hills – home to national celebrities and the major TV network stations. In the south, the residents celebrate the end of the work week with frites (fries) for dinner every Friday.

Other notable towns to visit aside from Amsterdam include the beautifully preserved Nijmegen (NY-may-gen) – the oldest city in the Netherlands, whose recorded history dates back to the first century BC, and which contains several Roman ruins and part of the ancient city wall. Its cobblestone streets and open square are so perfectly Europe, you’ll drool.

Or there is nearby Breda (Bray-DAH), a charming city with a small-town feel. Plenty of trees/parks, cafes, museums, and music performances give travelers a good day or two of low-key relaxation.

But wherever you go in the Netherlands, just as you should do with any city or country in the world, be sure to broaden your mind and take it all in. The Dutch are considered vanilla to their hard-nosed German and eccentric Belgian neighbors, but they provide a friendly, welcoming, and hospitable relief from the intensities of the rest of the continent.

6 Comments
    1. You write so beautifully and so informatively, it makes me want to abandon Nicaragua for a month and go see the Netherlands! THIS is what I love reading. I’ve never had an interest in the Netherlands before, not because I ever had anything against it, but because I grouped it together with “Europe”, which in my mind is a few variations of the same beautiful street. (I’ve been to 3 or 4 countries in Europe and yet I still do this.) But you gave it a personality! Enticed me the whole way through! Thank you.

    1. PS. I bought a Rick Steves Spanish phrasebook after briefly falling in love with it in the book store, believing it would be a good travel companion. Wrong, wrong, wrong. When he sticks to translation, he does just fine. When he dips into social norms and aspects of life you REALLY have to live there to know, I also feel like he gives very skewed representations.

    1. Wow, thank you so much! I’m so sorry I am just now approving/replying to this – your comment was filed as spam for some reason, and I only just saw it. But thank you for the kind words, and I’m so glad you have a better taste of the Netherlands now!

      As for Rick Steves – I’m not surprised to hear that about his phrasebooks. I never use them; I only use his guides because he is quite adept at picking out the hidden beauties of the continent. Sorry you wasted the money. :/ Have you tried Lonely Planet’s phrasebooks?

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