Date of Trip: September 2006
On a recent business trip, I found myself with two free days in Amsterdam. I had never been there before and honestly didn’t know much about it; I just knew that prostitution and pot were legal here, so I was afraid it might be a little too seedy for me.
Boy, was I wrong! I was completely unprepared for what a beautiful city it actually is, with the historic houses lining the canals, the lovely bridges, the houseboats covered in flowers. And the bikes — they’re everywhere! Two days was nowhere near enough time to see what I wanted to here, so I’ll just have to go back someday soon — I’m hooked!
West Canal Ring
This was my favorite part of Amsterdam. I must’ve spent at least two hours just wandering around this area, up and down Prinsengracht and Kreizersgracht and all around the neighboring canals. It took so long because I kept stopping to snap photo after photo of the bridges over the canals, the houses along the canals, the bikes along the canals, the houseboats along the canals…you get the idea! This is the Amsterdam you see in postcards, with the pretty flower boxes and old Dutch houses and bicycles on every bridge.
There’s also one very important attraction in this part of Amsterdam, and that’s the Anne Frank House. This is the place where she and seven other family members and friends hid during World War II before they were captured and taken to a concentration camp. Today it’s a museum, and a very polished one — information is available in about 10 different languages, the displays are well laid out, and traffic moves through the exhibits in a very orderly fashion.
That’s definitely a good thing, because so many people come to visit that the line stretched around the block the day I visited. And yet the crowds didn’t really disturb me once I was inside. You can actually walk through the famous Secret Annex, and see where Anne slept and ate and wrote. You can also see the journals themselves (she filled several of them). This is a very powerful place; I came out of the museum in tears and was incredibly glad I decided to visit.
Also in the area is the Homomonument, the world’s first memorial for GLBT people who have been persecuted for their sexuality. It consists of three different granite triangles located on a square in front of a church. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting (I actually had problems finding the third triangle before I realized folks were using it as a bench), but it was neat to see. It’s apparently a regular occurrence for flowers to be left on the triangle that juts out into the canal.
Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt House
I always like to see some art when I’m visiting a new city, so I decided to stop in both the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandt House. If you’re actually looking for Rembrandt’s stuff, the former is a better bet — it’s got all sorts of stuff by the Dutch masters, including quite a few famous pieces by Rembrandt.
Meanwhile, Rembrandt’s house focused more on his furniture, artifacts from his daily life, and paintings he’d collected by other artists. It was cool to see his studio — to try to imagine the artist at work, and imagine how the light would’ve fallen from the windows across his easel. Well worth the trip!
Amsterdam has several major outdoor markets, including its famous Flower Market. This was another sight that wasn’t quite what I was expecting; I thought it would be mostly fresh flowers, bouquets, that sort of thing, but it was actually lots of bulbs, seeds, house plants, etc. — i.e. stuff that you could use for your own home and garden.
I also wandered into this huge flea market on Waterlooplein, which was offering all manner of interesting junk — clothing, handbags, flip-flops, cassette tapes, incense, used books, everything you could imagine. I was particularly amused by the rather graphic T-shirts promoting the Red Light District.
The last market I visited was probably my favorite — a little book market on the Spui square. They had a surprising number of English-language options there, and I was definitely tempted by a book called “My ‘Dam Life,” written by a British guy about his three-year stint living here. The price was great (only a few euros) and it looked like a fun read, but it was early and I really didn’t feel like lugging a book around all day. The book market was really fun to wander though.
The Red Light District
This is the first thing everyone thinks of when they picture Amsterdam, so I was excited to see it for myself. What I hadn’t realized was that this is actually the oldest part of the city, so there are all these sex shops and brown cafes located near beautiful historic churches and canal houses. I found the juxtaposition fascinating, particularly around the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which is surrounded by the famous red windows.
I came here both during the day and at night, and felt pretty safe at all times. I should note that during the evening I was there with a tour, but even if I hadn’t had any company I think I would’ve felt reasonably safe — there were tons of people around, including a good number of tourists, and I get the sense that this area is policed pretty heavily as well.
The walking tour I was on stopped first at the Prostitution Information Center, where we learned a bit about the industry. Prostitution is very heavily regulated here to make sure the women are safe, have the same rights as any other workers, etc. That doesn’t mean that they don’t still get hurt sometimes or that prostitution is considered a laudable career choice by the general population here, but all in all there’s a remarkable level of tolerance and common sense surrounding the whole thing.
That said, it was still kind of creepy to walk past these windows and realize that there were live women up for sale like so much merchandise — I found myself trying to balance my natural curiosity with my awkwardness about making eye contact with them. It was a disconcerting but fascinating experience all around.
On My Next Visit…
Two days was nowhere near enough time to see Amsterdam, so I will definitely go back. On the agenda? 1. Rent a bike and zip around like the locals do, 2. visit the Van Gogh Museum, 3. spend more time simply wandering up and down the canals, 4. tour a few churches, 5. go back to the book market and look for “My ‘Dam Life.”
I can’t wait!