Amsterdam. For the uninitiated, the name conjures up stereotypical images – the Red Light District, where a vast array of women of all ages sell their sexual wares, and cafes where you can order coffee and pot and happily alter your consciousness without fear of getting busted. More than that, Amsterdam, recognized as the largest historical inner city in Europe, is a place of vast beauty with 165 fresh water canals which are flushed daily and 1,281 quaint bridges.
This small metropolis is crammed with tourist attractions as well as lesser-known adventures easily accessed by using Amsterdam’s extensive tram, train and bus transportation with an I Amsterdam card, or simply exploring on foot the winding side streets dotting the canals, hiding charming restaurants and quaint shops.
Unlike many other destinations, you can discover Amsterdam without spending a lot of Euros, as there are plenty of free attractions. The Schuttersgallerij (Civic Guards Gallery), a passageway between the Kalverstraat and the Begijnhof, contains 15 enormous paintings including portraits of the Amsterdam Civic Guards from the 17th Century and Bridge of 15 Bridges at the crossing of Reguliersgracht and Herengracht. The Rijksmuseum Garden is one of the least known free sightseeing attractions and is filled with beautiful flowers, fountains and a sculpture collection. Another interesting freebee is the narrowest house in the world located on the Singel, no. 7, and is barely wider than a front door
Bicycles, numbering around 600,000, are the main source of transportation for many residents, and some of the bicycles are free to the public. Just park the bike when you arrive at your destination. But, be careful: they are everywhere, so you must get used to checking the narrow roads before crossing. Also, be careful where you stand as there isn’t always a delineation between the sidewalk and the street so you could find yourself standing in the way of an oncoming tram.
The “Red Light” image should be fading by now as Amsterdam is one of Europe’s leading cultural centers, boasting 42 museums, including the Rijksmuseum, which houses a collection of Dutch Masters, with Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch,” the centerpiece of the collection. Nearby is the Van Gogh Museum, which contains the world’s largest collection of this great painter’s works – 200 paintings and 400 drawings. Of course, one of the most famous tourist attractions is the Anne Frank House, where the ill-fated young Jewish girl and her family were hidden for two years during World War II. Try to go during off-hours to avoid a long wait.
Lesser known museums include the Jewish Historical Museum, housed in the Ashkenazi synagogue complex comprised of three combined synagogues dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The museum has both permanent and temporary exhibitions, including a presentation on the history of Jews in the Netherlands from 1900 to the present day. Giant rear screen projections of Jewish life fill the towering walls, and the multiple listening stations scattered throughout the buildings give detailed descriptions of Jewish life. It is also a showcase for ancient art and artifacts, some of which are loaned out during the High Holy Days. Far from a depressing experience, the museum is a celebration of Jewish life and can be enjoyed by all.
One other museum, which is a must, requires a very pleasant train ride through the countryside to Enkhuizen, home of the Zuiderzee Museum, which consists of indoor and outdoor “living” exhibitions. The indoor museum boasts the largest collection of ships in Holland, while the outdoor museum is a working Dutch village with a church, blacksmith, candy and cheese stores, as well as demonstrations on making fishnets and the preparation of smoked fish, which takes about three hours to complete. Awarded the European Museum of the Year Prize, arts and crafts experts are eager to explain their traditions in a most informative, lively manner.
If you love music, welcome to musical paradise as this relatively small city of less than 750,000 inhabitants houses two symphony orchestras – the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, both of which perform in the Concertgebouw, the acoustics of which are acknowledged as among the best in the world. In addition to the many street musicians, the brightly-painted barrel organs and the centuries-old carillons high in their towers which play a happy melody every fifteen minutes, there are free concerts every day appealing to a broad range of musical tastes from jazz to classical to light opera.
For anyone wanting a more intimate, non-touristy experience, a small company run by three young women called “Like-A-Local” offers another approach to your vacation by providing a variety of personalized alternatives, such as housing in private homes, cruises through the canals on a private boat where you will be served wine and cheese while given a historical perspective on the unique canal homes dating back to the 16th century. You can also choose lunch or dinner in a private home. A very memorable experience was lunch in the town home of Mattijn van Ling, a hospitable young man, who prepared a feast that included an assortment of breads, Dutch cheeses, haringsalad and Haagse bluff, which is egg white with cranberry juice.
One more “don’t miss” is having coffee in one of the Brown Cafés scattered around the perimeter of the canals. Residents can be found at all hours of the day and night sipping coffee or drinking genever or beer and, alas, smoking, which is how the name Brown Café evolved. The walls became brown from a combination of age and cigarette smoke.
Whichever way you choose to explore Amsterdam, and its outlying gorgeous countryside, you will surely have an experience that will be warm, friendly, cultural and just plain old fun. As for the windmills, dykes, locks and shopping…well, that’s another story…