Discovering Amsterdam

Amsterdam is probably the European capital with the most tolerant and laid-back atmosphere.

Many of you probably know it as a metropolis in which you can find prostitutes in windows and where you can take drugs legally. But that’s just a tale. Why? Because it has so much more to offer!

Amsterdam is also known as the “Venice of the North”, as the city is built upon a maze of navigable canals in the form of concentric rings, together totalling over 100 kilometres throughout the city. So it’s as popular to get around using the paths as it is the water.

The advantage that the city has over Venice, and its main difference, is that the lock network in Amsterdam allows the water flowing through the canals to be renewed every three days, preventing it from stagnating and thus the unpleasant odour associated with the Italian city. Its disadvantage compared to Venice, however, is that it’s not filled with dark, handsome Italians!

Amsterdam is practically built on water, resulting in a strange sight with buildings constructed on piers, artificial islands, floating houses… Everything floats in Amsterdam!

In order to give you an idea of the sheer scale of the canals when it comes to crossing them, it’s safe to say that in Amsterdam, it’s more common to have a boat in your driveway than a car… This is why, and as canals are the main way of transporting goods, each house and building tries to have a part of its façade looking onto a canal. It’s also the reason for the houses being so close together and having such long façades.

I’m sure we all have that image in our head, the photo of the hundreds of bridges in Amsterdam peppered with bikes parked along the sides, right? That’s because, on land, this is by far the most common means of transport.

Bikes in Amsterdam

In a city where there are more bikes than people, with canals every couple of steps, very little space to park, plus the pretty big party life… it’s logical that a good number of bikes end up in the water on a daily basis.

The figures show that every year, the council fishes over 10,000 bikes out of the water. This makes bikes in Amsterdam very cheap. It is almost as cheap to buy one as it is to hire one (which could also explain why so many are stolen), but as a tourist, it’s rather strange to walk around the street and see stalls with bikes for sale, where people buy bikes because they’ve lost theirs, it’s been stolen, or simply because they can’t remember where they left it.

Another peculiar thing is the windmills that border the canals.

windmills amsterdam

The traditional Dutch windmills (some of which are still in working order), are used to move the water in the canals and lift it to different levels.

Daily life in the city is characterised by the friendly and respectful nature of the people. At the beginning, it’s quite surprising to see that the houses don’t even have curtains and you can see perfectly into the house from the pavement. Dutch people have a philosophy that “they have nothing to hide”, so while it may seem like the perfect city for gossips and peeping toms, in Amsterdam, nobody looks into the houses as it is considered a lack of respect to invade other people’s privacy.

An exception to the curtains is the red light district, where prostitutes sit in windows to offer their services. When the girls are busy, the curtains close so that no one can see inside (yes, locals don’t have curtains and normally don’t look in the windows, but they shouldn’t have to go past it anyway). These curtains are traditionally red, hence the name of the district.

Something else that really gets people’s attention in Amsterdam is the Coffeeshops. Be wary of these if you’re looking for a coffee and a doughnut, because while some of them will serve that, these are in fact establishments where drugs are bought and taken legally, in all their forms: hash, marijuana… even magic mushrooms!

coffeshop amsterdam

The first time you go into a coffeeshop, the thing that stands out the most is the variety of people that you can see inside: it’s not just groups of young people out having a good time (while there is that too), you’ll also find the housewives who stop for a quick joint on their way back from the shops, and the executives with suit and briefcase puffing on a spliff. Just like that…

Some of these places boast very relaxing decor, including fish tanks for tables or walls where you can watch the fish swimming along peacefully. All have menus available for the customers with the different kinds of grass and their effects: calming, restorative, anti-inflammatory, etc. In fact, asking for grass just to smoke, without specifying the effect that you want from it, is like going into a pharmacy and saying “give me a pill”, without specifying why you need it.

In the red light district, in addition to finding coffeeshops, you also have a very wide and varied offer of pubs and places to go for a night out (if we’re lucky, we might find some dark, handsome Italians here). In contrast to other European cities, in Amsterdam you can party until the early hours of the morning.

In fact, the night life is so important that there are two mayors: one for the daytime and another for the night-time! Which maybe explains why leisure is so well organised: you go for a night out in the pubs or coffeeshops, and what do you get when you leave half drunk in the early hours? Girls in windows, to finish off the night. When it comes to bad marketing strategies, you have to admit that this isn’t one. The downside, however, is that the same offer isn’t available to women.

If you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam, here’s your list of must-see places:

  • The flower market. This is made up of several boats sitting along one of the canals (have I already mentioned that everything floats in Amsterdam?). It’s the only floating flower market in the world, where you can buy all kinds of bulbs and seeds – especially tulips, which are practically a national symbol. You have to stop off here for some beautiful colourful selfies, which will leave your friends green with envy.
  • Dam Square or Damplein. This is the heart of Amsterdam. It’s surrounded by historic buildings including the Royal Palace, Nieuwe Kerk church and the National Monument, an obelisk erected in honour of World War Two’s fallen soldiers.
  • Leidseplein. This square best represents city life: street artists, music, bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, theatres, etc.
  • Coffeeshops. It’s worth at least one visit, even if it’s just to see the atmosphere.
  • Vondelpark. This is the best park in Amsterdam, offering 47 hectares in which to relax and enjoy nature or some outdoor activities.
  • The red light district: we’ve already talked about the famous windows with girls offering their prostitution services.
  • Oude Kerk. This is the oldest and, according to many, the most beautiful church in Amsterdam. You can find it in the red light district, right in the middle of the “sin” zone. It has stained-glass windows and a stunning vaulted wooden roof.
  • Museums. If you would like to add some culture to your trip (which is a must if you have Instagram or want to impress on Facebook), you have dozens of museums and galleries throughout the city dedicated to the most diverse things you can imagine: old doll houses, cats, floating houses, etc. But the ones not to be missed are the National Museum, where you’ll find artwork from Rembrandt, the Van Gogh Museum, which houses many of the painter’s original drawings and paintings, and the Anne Frank House.
  • The Heineken experience.  A bit less cultural but just as interesting, this is an interactive exhibition allowing you to learn about the beer’s history and production process. The tasting session at the end of the tour is one of the most appealing aspects… However, if you spend too much time drinking beer, you might just miss the rest of the tour meaning you’ll have to come back the next day!

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