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Rick Steves: Sensory Amsterdam

Good travelers travel with all their senses, taking in a place’s sights, sounds, and flavors to get the full experience. So, this past summer in Amsterdam, I engaged all my senses to connect with the culture. A key for really enjoying Amsterdam is to go local—feeling the bricks and pavement beneath two wheels. I always rent a bike here. The clerk at the rental shop explained why they don’t carry mountain bikes in this very flat country: “Mountain bikes in the Netherlands make no sense at all. When a dog takes a dump, we have a new mountain.”

The lack of hills makes biking a breeze. Much of my Amsterdam experience is framed by my black bike’s handlebars: the shiny wet cobbles, getting pinged by passing bikes and pinging my bell to pass others. I wish I had a bigger periphery, as cars, trams, bikers, and pedestrians seem to float by from all directions in silence—their noise lost in the white noise of this dreamy city.

Heading through the pungent smells of pot smoke and urine in the Red Light District, I notice an abundant and jaunty woman in a cliche of lingerie eyeing me seductively from a window, framed in red. The district is now a little more compact than I remember; windows promoting fashion and artists are now spliced in among the windows with enticing women. Amsterdam’s leaders recognize that legalized marijuana and prostitution are part of the city’s edgy charm but are working to cut down on the sleaze. So, they’re not renewing some leases, giving them to more preferred businesses.

Amsterdam still looks much like it did in the 1600s—the Dutch Golden Age—when it was the world’s richest city, an international sea-trading port, and the cradle of capitalism. Wealthy, democratic burghers built a city upon millions of pilings, creating a wonderland of canals lined with trees and townhouses topped with fancy gables. You can get a grand city view with a tour of the tower of Westerkerk, Amsterdam’s landmark church, but I’d opt to get a beverage at the rooftop lounge of Doubletree by Hilton to take in the vista 11 flights up.

Though the city itself is picturesque, there’s plenty more visual stimulation. Amsterdam’s big three art museums gather at the Museumplein—where the big red-and-white “I amsterdam” sign attracts photo-hungry tourists. Long lines plague the Dutch Master–filled Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum—both understandably popular. But there’s almost no wait at the recently revamped Stedelijk Museum, which combines striking architecture (it’s nicknamed “the bathtub” because of its odd shape), 20th-century favorites (Dali, Picasso, Kandinsky), and crazy contemporary art. I’m not a big fan of the abstract style, but the artwork at the Stedelijk is really fun. (If you’re into marijuana—which is sold in the city’s “coffeeshops”—I can’t think of a better space than the Stedelijk in which to enjoy its effects.)

The classical music hall Concertgebouw is also on Museumplein—but Amsterdam’s best acoustics are found underneath the Rijksmuseum, in a public atrium where street musicians perform everything from chamber music to Mongolian throat singing. Vondelpark is just a short pedal away, where I’m privy to conversation snippets of the Dutch—families with little kids, romantic couples, strolling seniors, and hippies sharing blankets and beers. A free summer concert is my aural dessert. But I’m ready to actually taste something. The ritual dish for tourists in Holland is Indonesian rijsttafel (literally “rice table”). Though not a true Indonesian meal, it’s a Dutch innovation designed to highlight the best food of its former colony, especially all the great spices that were a big part of what originally motivated the colonial age. For around $40, you get about 20 dishes and a rainbow of spices with white rice to mix and mingle on your palate.

But instead, I go for a cheap plate of herring with pickles and onions—and later indulge my taste buds at a Dutch cheese-tasting class. After a short video that’s somewhere between an ad for cheese and dairy soft porn, I guillotine six different cheeses and study, smell, and taste them with a wine accompaniment.

While the 20-somethings line up for the Heineken Experience—a malty, yeasty, amusement ride of a brewery tour—I join an older crowd at the slick House of Bols: Cocktail & Genever Experience. Here, I learn about the heritage of Dutch gin and test my olfactory skills at a line of 36 scents. I fail miserably, getting only butterscotch correct. But I’m consoled by the opportunity to design the cocktail of my dreams at a computer kiosk and take the recipe to the nearby barista to mix for me.

As lively and stimulating as ever, Amsterdam never fails to bring new joys to all five senses.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at and follow his blog on Facebook.

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