I’ve recently visited Amsterdam, Netherlands. As part of my “job” I get to tell people why they should visit the city and what they should see and do during their stay. You can insert the classic response: “it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it”, but that actually is part of my job. I do hope I can entice you to visit the city by sharing my experiences. It would be easy to sum up Amsterdam with the 3 “B’s”: Bicycles, Boats and Beer but Amsterdam is more complicated than that. The city has a unique and open culture that works well for them. The locals only ask that you respect their freestyle living and get out of the way of fast rolling bikes. Known as the Venice of the North, Amsterdam has almost 1300 bridges (an extra “B”!) crossing 165 canals. Bicycles are the primary mode of transportation for most Amsterdammers but you also find public forms of transportation that include trams and buses. The congested traffic provides proof that there is an abundance of automobiles as well. You will sometimes see drivers dare to challenge a bicyclist for space and usually lose. The Dutch version of the family station wagon consists of mom on a bike with a basket full of groceries. Dad is rolling alongside with one kid in front of him sitting on the handlebars and a younger child behind him in a special bicycle seat. It was not unusual to see a family travelling together on bicycles with the youngest child using training wheels. They deftly and daringly weave in and out of busy 6 lane traffic, assuming that they have the right of way. Even if it weren’t a given right, they would still claim it for their own. Most bicycles are equipped with bells and you will hear the ting, ting as a bicyclist whizzes past you leaving you wondering how they seemingly came out of nowhere. Bicycle parking lots dot the streets with some housing thousands of bikes at a time. I could not determine a system that easily allowed a bike owner to retrieve his or her bicycle and quite frankly, one bike looks like another to me. Perhaps the riders just took the most easily accessible bike at the moment. Many riders will use bicycle chains and you will see bikes secured to fences, sign posts, light poles, store fronts and even to other chained bikes. According to the official Iamsterdam.com website “an estimated 800,000 people or 63 percent of the population use their bikes on a daily basis. 32% of traffic movement within the city is by bicycle compared to 22 percent by automobile and only 16 percent by public transportation”. In the very center of the city 48 percent of people get where they’re going by riding a bicycle.
Boats are also popular as an alternative transportation choice thanks to the 100 kilometers of canals that wind through the city. To us non-metric Americans, that’s 62 miles of water flowing past beautiful historic homes and buildings. Floating through Amsterdam offers an easy alternative and unique way to navigate a congested city. In addition to the privately owned boats, hundreds of public sightseeing vessels allow visitors the chance to see the city from a different perspective at water level. It’s relaxing and depending upon the time of day you might also be able to enjoy a luncheon or dinner cruise. Commercial exchanges such as floating bars and restaurants and souvenir shops are common but my favorite use of a boat was the De Poezenboot. Translated as “the Cat Boat” it’s a loose play on words referencing Puss in Boots and is a floating cat rescue and adoption organization.
Beer! If your first thought is to grab a Heineken in downtown Amsterdam you’d be surprised at how wrong that answer is. The locally brewed beverage is not the local favorite apparently due to the Amsterdammers’ distaste for the company’s perceived gross capitalism. In a city where one bar alone serves over 200 types of bottled beer and at least a dozen more on tap, you could grab a craft beer every night for 9 months and never repeat a variety. Unless of course you chose to do so. This is a city that takes its beer seriously, very seriously. The history of beer making in Amsterdam goes back to the Middle Ages when a lack of clean drinking water forced the locals to seek options that didn’t include a side of dysentery. Beer had the additional bonus of making homely wives more desirable, work places more tolerable and dinner time more sociable. There’s no doubt that that the Dutch share recipes with the local neighbors Belgium and Germany, two countries that also know a thing or two about hops. As a non-beer drinker I must rely on the locals who informed me that the best beers on the Dutch market are produced by companies most of us won’t recognize. Breweries such as La Trappe, De Molen and Emelisse, consistently top the “best Dutch beers” lists. Each brewery produces multiple varieties giving beer connoisseurs lots to taste and talk, or perhaps argue, about.
There is a 4th “B” – one that is whispered about in the States but spoken of openly and is on display in “Anything goes Amsterdam”. I’m coyly referencing “Babes”. Amsterdam has a very active Red Light District. Yes, it’s legal but obviously there have to be some limits so, photos of the women on display in the windows are not allowed. There are very big men who will not so gently remind you of this by confiscating your camera. Within this Red Light District, you will occasionally find a blue light indicating that while the “women” in the windows might look like women, looks can sometimes be deceiving. Buyers might want to beware.
Acceptance is both a choice and a lifestyle in Amsterdam and seems to work extremely well for the locals. It might be a bit shocking for others but if you approach the experience with an open mind it might be the most interesting vacation you’ve ever had.