Few European cities are steeped in contrast and contradiction to the same extent as the Dutch capital, Amsterdam. The romance and culture surrounding its many canals, cobbled streets and museums, combined with a liberal attitude toward drugs and prostitution, make it a memorable destination – whatever your intentions.
Having booked an apartment through AirB&B, my girlfriend and I arrived on a late flight from London and navigated our way to our accommodation with surprising ease. Being from London, you expect the public transport in a major European capital to be both uncomfortable and unreliable, but apparently that’s just a London thing. A quick train, followed by a free ferry across to the north island, and we were there.
Our first day began with a walk into the centre of Amsterdam. With just the weekend at our disposal, and so many possible things to do, we had to prioritise. By prioritise, I mean of course that my girlfriend had certain things on her agenda, including a visit to the world famous Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank’s house, and a wander round the infamous red light district. We began with a walk through the canals, the romance of which was slightly undermined by the presence of the annual gay pride festival. Nonetheless, it was a great example of the aforementioned contrast, with hundreds of people clad in pink and partying in the streets and on the water.
Our afternoon was spent in the Rijksmuseum, wandering through the mass of famous artworks painted by numerous Dutch artists. I’m not really one for art, but I was more than able to appreciate the works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer. Almost as interesting as viewing the paintings themselves, was watching people viewing the paintings. In particular, the scene in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch was reminiscent of commuters on London’s public transport, as tourists hurried to the front, cameras at the ready, in an every man for himself kind of fashion. It probably wasn’t that bad, but it’s nice to picture a scene involving cultured people behaving like some kind of Baroque fuelled mob.
On Sunday we began with a trip to one of Amsterdam’s notorious coffee shops. A combination of not being a big smoker and the intimidating tattoos on the barman’s (?) arms led me to purchase a couple of space cakes. I can safely say that they were the most expensive muffins I have ever bought, but they definitely made our Pedallo tour around the canals a tad more entertaining. After an afternoon improved by marijuana and a tranquil journey through the canals, things took a rather more sombre tone as we decided to go and visit the Anna Frank Museum; situated in the very house in which Anne wrote her diary. If I am honest, this was the only part of Amsterdam which left me disappointed. The museum was mainly made up of diary quotes written on the walls, as well as television interviews with people who knew Anne. Maybe it’s harsh to expect anything more, given that the house has been left empty, but there was little in the whole experience to justify the large queue and entry fee. It seemed to be more a way to make money out of tourists than the solemn memorial her story deserves.
Our evening took a turn as we decided to go and visit the red light district. Although I had heard about Amsterdam’s De Wallen, it really was one of the most surreal things I have experienced. Our walk started out pretty low-key, with alleyways filled with bars and sex shops, similar to London’s Soho. After a few minutes though, we turned onto what must be the main strip where all the ‘action’ is. It was completely identical in every way to all of Amsterdam’s other narrow, cobbled streets, with stone bridges arching over the canal running through the centre. Different though, was that instead of quaint cafés and boutique souvenir shops, the streets were lined with small, one room cabins illuminated in red. Inside each was a prostitute, standing behind the glass and attempting to entice passers-by with a combination of flesh and feminine charm. Maybe it was the fact that I was walking through these streets with my girlfriend, or perhaps just the surreal, meat-market atmosphere, but I struggled to find myself attracted to these women. Whilst in many ways they ticked all the boxes for a casual sexual encounter (apart from having a price, obvs) what they all had in common was an element of desperation. Their cold, robotic nature was not helped by the nagging sense that you were just a spectator, walking through some kind of porn aquarium. Despite all this, I would definitely recommend a visit. It’s a must see, and I’d say there was about a 50/50 split between curious tourists and the seedier characters.
Time flew by and it was time for us to leave the next day. A weekend is nowhere near long enough to appreciate Amsterdam to the full, and I will definitely be returning one day.
Useful things I learnt about Amsterdam:
- Watch out when crossing the road. It’s not only cars, but there really are so many bicycles and scooters racing around the cycle lanes. This is made more difficult if, like me, you are used to checking right when you cross, not left.
- Take a map with you. Around the canals, every street looks pretty much the same, and it’s easy to lose your bearings- or maybe that’s just me.
- There’s always another cosy café or coffee shop around every corner, so keep walking.
- Get on the water. A great way to explore Amsterdam is on the many canals and waterways that wind through the city. We took a pedallo, but there are plenty of canal cruises and boat rides you can buy tickets for.