Years ago, a phrase like “alternative Amsterdam” may have conjured up the expectations of more edgy and non-traditional attractions and entertainment. Excessive publicity about legalized commercial sex and drugs tends to divert attention away from the outstanding water-centric and cultural attractions in this city, where I can walk from one end to another in less than an hour.
The alternative I refer to emphasizes a 400-year anniversary (as of 2013) of the famous canal system, and no less than 39 outstanding, unique and easily accessible museums covering every aspect of history and arts, much of it unknown to most visitors. A plethora of world-famous attractions and art objectively include both the bad and the good in Dutch colonial history, going back before English and French influences.
Start with something very different and visit the renowned Anne Frank House which exceeded my expectations, garnered from extensive middle school study. Other famous must-sees include the Amsterdam Museum, Rijks museum, Science Museum, Van Gogh Museum, Zoo, Botanical Garden, Vondel Park, Jewish Museum and Maritime Museum. The extensive displays highlight Rembrandt’s and Van Gogh’s lives from a historical perspective, and, for a treat, visit Rembrandt’s restored house of 1639. Good places to get away from crowds while still in the city are the Zoo, Vondel Park, and Botanical Garden. The last may not be a big deal to some, but is surrealy quiet and secluded for those with a nerdy flair for botanical interests.
Among the most unique water-oriented attractions are canal houses. Once homes, many are now museums and hotels and key to having the canal district added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Cyclists and pedestrians will enjoy exploring the unique architecture, alleys and gardens of the neighborhoods. Try to include the Canal House Museum (Grachtenmuseum) and the Museum van Loon. My favorite common element was the strong theme of maritime and water heritage. The more industrial areas of the navigable city waterfront remind visitors that Amsterdam grew as a port of call for much of the world’s sea traffic. If pressed for time, prioritize the Rijks Museum, Netherlands’ largest and most famous, and Vondel Park, a kind of an Amsterdam Central Park, with safe biking and walking.
Embracing a progressive and green infrastructure, Amsterdam is easily navigated by foot, bicycle, trolleys, buses and metros — just hop on. While not geographically vast, the city is productive, diverse, clean and fun. Everyone speaks English in addition to Dutch and usually another language, that of their origin. I did not observe one rundown or unappealing part of the city, and crime is usually limited to theft and the occasional drunken brawl associated with voetbal (soccer) games.
We can learn a lot from the Dutch in how to re-think transportation and public services. A car is simply not necessary and walking most anywhere is easy, but don’t leave home without good shoes, some time and an umbrella. A huge bargain is to purchase an “I Amsterdam City Card” online or upon arrival at one of the tourist centers (identified by the Dutch acronym VVV). It offers unlimited use at nearly all museums, on public transportation, a canal cruise and for discounts in many restaurants.
Very much publicized, the primary means to get around the city is, indeed, bicycle. Amsterdam is flat and its famous and beautiful network of canals radiate throughout the city as wondrous giant blue tarantula legs, on maps keeping riders geographically referenced and entertained. Despite the latitude, the area has shorter and milder winters than other countries up that way, due to ocean currents similar to those in the UK. Cycling is not just recreation but is taken seriously as basic and affordable transportation, as attested by the number of cycles, cycle stands and dedicated paths. Once, I took a taxi and remarked to the driver that I did not see an overweight person. He joked, saying they are here but you don’t see them because they are in the cars. Riders went everywhere in rain and cold without much protective clothing.
My favorite form of transportation is walking, and is the best way to enjoy exploring the canals, unique historic downtown area, the districts and the various mixed bag of streets and alleys scattered among historic and trendy neighborhoods with their own flair and culture. This might not be practical if one had to hurry, but walking was easy and fun, allowing me to observe and better enjoy the feel of the neighborhoods and people. A good starting point is the city center, well marked by the old downtown train station and plaza and its tourist information office. The popular canal cruises on the long, narrow boats are actually better saved for exploring the downtown harbor waterfront, including the edgy up-and-coming North (Noord) Amsterdam.
The area seems very much at peace with commingling its culture with prostitution and “coffee houses” (euphemism for pot establishments). For better or worse, this is a huge tourism income source for much of the city, contributing to its efficient infrastructure and public services. Something that is not clear to visitors is that Amsterdam does not support, but rather allows this, which makes a big difference–and, through government regulation and licensing, has almost eliminated all organized crime and trafficking influences.
Dining and entertainment opportunities may surprise the first-time visitor, as ethnic eateries seem more popular than the local cuisine of fish, meat and potatoes. A product of its colonial histories and alliances, there are probably more Asian eateries than in most American cities. Common snack and on-the-go foods include their local version of french fries, where mayo is substituted for ketchup, and their pancake which is more like a thick crepe popular for breakfast — or anytime actually. I like the fruit preserve filling, but meat versions are also available and a good alternative to the smoked cold cuts and herring, if that is not your thing.
For entertainment, there are many lively and unique music and night spots (open late), with Irish music bars being surprisingly popular. Street vendors are concentrated in a few famous flea market areas and feature antiques, souvenirs, clothes and tulip bulbs.
Amsterdam is an easy city in which to feel at home, and I knew I had succeeded when, near the end of my stay, I was stopped on my way to the Zoo by foreign visitors who asked directions, as if I lived there. Here is the best part: I knew the answer.
Amsterdam visitor information is so well organized and informative that the National Board of Tourism and Conventions www.holland.com and the City of Amsterdam Tourism www.iamsterdam.com are ample one-stop-shops regarding attractions, activities, transportation, accommodations, the Iamsterdam Card, and specific links to more information by topic.
Amsterdam is not only an easy city to experience, but is also easy to get to. Direct non-stop flights are available from most major cities. Once there, popular ways to get to city destinations from the airport are the train and shuttle, and the information booths are super helpful. While the local train is the bargain method for getting into the city, if jet lagged or you have a lot to carry, go for the slightly more expensive shuttle that makes the rounds to all the major hotels. No need to stay at one of them to utilize the conveniently placed stops. Avoid the taxi if possible to save money. Taxis are accessed at stands and not available to flag down, to assure regulation.
Where to Stay:
The best deals for accommodations are usually the local independent hotels (including canal houses) and rooms for rent in homes. Popular chain hotels abound but tend to be more expensive. They have a place though if familiarity and utilization of rewards points are desired. The most affordable and fun, if you want to socialize and meet others, are the world-famous hostels with dormitory lodging. Summer will be the peak season and most crowded, but other times may not be slow, so plan ahead.