The city of Amsterdam – showpiece of the tiny nation of Holland – draws much attention to the legality of vice within its borders. From the open use of narcotics to the infamous ‘red light district’, the city appears to take great pride in the fact that you can legally do things here that you’re not usually allowed to do elsewhere. Some may call it morally enlightened; others just call it sleazy. Personally, I just avoided it altogether, and as a result had a wonderful time in a must-see city for anyone passing through northern Europe.
Moral relativity aside, Amsterdam’s true appeal comes in its historic nature as the principal city of a former empire that has had a disproportionately large influence on world affairs for such a little country perched so precariously on the short side of sea level. Once controlling strategic ports in both the West and East Indies (and a little place once called New Amsterdam, now known as New York), the world has certainly had its exposure to Dutch culture – from the famed Dutch Masters to the six-pack of Heineken in your fridge. This rich heritage of trade and wealth has resulted in a lovely panoply of narrow mansions set in concentric circles of busy canals that draw more than their fair share of tourists – even those completely uninterested in the less-savory offerings available.
Holland may be small, but its location at the crossroads of international trade means that it is well-connected by road and train. Amsterdam in particular is well-serviced by air carriers from around the world (especially national carrier KLM) with flights constantly passing through Schiphol Airport (AMS). From there it is possible to procure train tickets right to Amsterdam Centraal Station – a great starting point at Amsterdam’s front door for touring the city .
What To See
Provided the purpose of your visit is one of enlightenment and not vice, from Centraal you can either hop on a tram to points around the city, or take a walk down a main thoroughfare called Damrak, which houses tour operator offices, tons of restaurants packed with tourists, and several large souvenir stores, where you can buy all sorts of t-shirts, coffee mugs and bric-a-brac emblazoned with marijuana leaves or in the shape of the genitalia of your choice. If you’re looking to steer clear of such things, stick to the airport shops.
Down in the southwest of the city – past several rings of canals – is the Museum Quarter. Here you’ll find many of the aforementioned museums – some dedicated to diamonds or Van Gogh – but many people come here to see the iconic life-size, block letter I AMSTERDAM sign found just behind the Rijksmuseum. Here you can take your picture on the vowel or consonant of your choice while dozens of other tourists try to do the same. Special Tip: there’s an identical sign just outside the doors of Schiphol Airport that draws far less photobombers.
Following the gentle curve of the canals to the northwest of the Museum Quarter, you’ll soon find yourself strolling through the leafy Jordaan district – a peaceful neighborhood considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its history as a triumph of urban planning. For the modern, urban-planning-ignorant visitor, it is an excellent microcosm for all that is good about Amsterdam. You’ll see characteristic multistory houses, barges and boats aplenty moored along the edges of reflective canals, and more bicycles than you can count as they vie with cars and pedestrians filtering through its historic streets. It is a neighborhood with personality; a ‘retro-chic’ vibe that acknowledges its age, but effortlessly insists that it is cool and hip despite it. This is also where you can visit the Anne Frank house, whose namesake’s diary provided the world with a glimpse into the horrors of Nazi occupation. After that you just might feel so depressed that you’ll be tempted to partake in the city’s vices, so I say beware to all who enter.
Probably the most popular (and recommended) activity is to buy a ticket for a canal tour, which usually run every half hour from a variety of companies all with their own purpose-built barges, complete with glass coverings, multilingual soundtracks and size specifications to navigate the sometimes frighteningly low clearance of many bridges. Tours usually last about an hour (more if you do a dinner cruise) and provide insights into the history of many buildings, along with a backstreet glimpse into the heart of the old city; resplendent with quirky houseboats and mansions galore. For the 15 Euros or so it will cost you, it is definitely worth the price of admission.
Summing It Up
Amsterdam is an international city with a wealth of history and attractions to keep any visitor busy for days – and I haven’t even mentioned all the day trips to the windmills and tulip gardens that make the country so famous. In Amsterdam you can expand your mind and culture in its art museums, architecture and culinary offerings. You can also experiment will all sorts of vice. The choice is yours, but if you like ‘clean living’ you’ll not lack for things to see and do. If you don’t, well, vice is never more than a canal or two away.
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