And experience the world in a nutshell
Amsterdam is a perennially youthful city — although given its historic and global connections, it is one the oldest European cities I have visited. Established in 1204, it has aged superbly, never losing the essence of youth: always playful, hopeful, and loving. And in return, it is much loved by the gentle folk who inhabit the city and who embody its generosity, and by visitors like me who fall under its spell.
In Amsterdam, you feel an enhanced sense of the self, but not the narcissism of grand or frenetic cities where the monumental verges on the obsessional. The city of Amsterdam and its people retain a sense of balance and perspective in all things. While its private and public spaces may not be as spacious, elaborate, or grandiose as other great capital cities, you never feel consumed by Amsterdam. As a visitor, you are always welcome to observe life in Amsterdam close up — and to be a participant in.
Amsterdam is a city of artful simplicity, but it is far from simplistic. It is a city of bicycles, canals (of course), and people who walk, talk, and enjoy life. It is a city of ease of movement, both literally and figuratively. The celebrated Dutch tolerance for — and respect of — the eccentric, the innovative, and the entrepreneurial underlies the mood of this city. And in like no other city I have experienced, Amsterdam nurtures a creative and pragmatic humanism. To top it all off, the people of Amsterdam have what, in my view, is the most important human trait — a sense of humour.
I like collecting odd things in the places I visit. And in Amsterdam, I took great pleasure in collecting (in translation) famous Dutch quotations and aphorisms. Here are some of them:
“Fear holds children back and makes adults more open.”
“Could you please pick up this form in, let’s say, 6 years? — Sure, morning or afternoon?”
“Americans: People who feel wealthy because they charge each other too high prices.”
“Working too hard is less tiring than working too little.”
“Farmer seeks woman with tractor. Please include picture of tractor.”
“The success of ideas does not depend on their precision.”
“Poetry is the musical expression of silence.”
“All mushrooms are edible, but some you can eat only once.”
“A self-centred person who achieves something in life is called a personality.”
“After having been expelled from the Garden of Eden, Adam stood at the gate, grasped a huge stick and shouted: ‘Where was that paradise?’ In the meantime, Eve covered herself with a fig leaf and said: ‘How do you like my new dress?’”
“In the end, frequent travellers always discover their home.”
“The family that drinks and smokes together, stays together — albeit in close quarters.”
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” — Vincent van Gogh
Amsterdam is a city of alternative tempi; life on a human scale; a template for the microcosm. It is also a great place to be every four hundred years or so — as we were for Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s 400th birthday.
For centuries the world has come to Amsterdam because Amsterdam went to the world. Through trade with the cities of the Hanseatic League, Amsterdam became prosperous. And then as a home port for the Dutch East Indies Company — the world’s first multinational trading company — Amsterdam became connected to the farthest corners of the planet, especially China and Japan. And as a result, this tiny (in geographical terms) seagoing, trading nation brought ancient civilizations to Europe, along with their arts, knowledge, and an expansive worldview. This is the legacy of Amsterdam.
In the 16th century the Dutch told Philip II of Spain that it was not to their liking to be part of his imperial plans and in so doing they asserted their independence, although it required that the Dutch endure the Eighty Years War in order to do so. But the Dutch are persistent and firm in their beliefs. The new Dutch Republic encouraged religious tolerance which in turn attracted wealthy Jews who were being treated badly (an understatement) in Spain and Portugal. And other merchants from around Europe began to find that Amsterdam was good for business. Religious groups like the Huguenots from France also sought refuge in Amsterdam.
And then in the 17th century Amsterdam entered its “Golden Age.” By now it was the wealthiest trading city on the European continent (and the third largest in Europe after London and Paris) and through its worldwide network of commercial enterprises, it began to acquire its own colonies and empire. And so the city grew and grew; its system of canals grew along with it to accommodate the international comings and goings and imports and exports, of the global trading centre it had become. In a half a century the population increased from 60,000 to 200,000, and almost three quarters of these were born elsewhere, another indication of the international flavour of the city. This in turn led to Amsterdam becoming (for a time) the financial centre of the world.
The Amsterdam amble
For first-time or even repeat visitors to other great capital cities, arriving can be a daunting experience. Information and sensory overload, not to mention the unaccustomed rush of humanity, can require that you put your travel skills into high gear. It’s a fun adrenaline-gushing experience, but it comes at a price. This is not the case in Amsterdam where integration into city life is a mellow process. It may have something to do with the physical layout of the city which slows down the flow to the very sensible Amsterdam rhythms. Imagine how your personal sense of space and time would be re-engineered if you stepped out your front door and encountered no urban onslaught — traffic, roadways, sprawling megalopolis, and crowds rushing headlong into the mix — just meandering canals, intimate neighbourhoods, and easily negotiable small streets. Imagine if you stepped out your front door and just went for a stroll through great history, art, and architecture.
This is also why Amsterdam is the perfect city for an extended stay and for independent travellers who prefer to make their own choices. Using the virtual realities of Internet travelling, we planned a 10-day stay that corresponded perfectly to our preferences and predilections. Because we are equestrians, this included attended the World Cup Dressage competition which just happened to coincide with our visit. The Olympics of our sport, this was an Amsterdam moment during which we got to watch the top 12 riders in the world! And as we would do after numerous experiences in Amsterdam, my wife and I would turn to each other and concur that we had just had another once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And so, your first and only responsibility upon arrival in Amsterdam is to do the Amsterdam Amble; wandering at will and letting the next delightful sight just up ahead determine where you are headed. After a cursory examination of the city map of Amsterdam, there really is no need to structure your welcome walk. Trust me. Just go with the Amsterdam flow. You will eventually see everything you want to; I assure you that will certainly come across the Amsterdam flower market and then you will wander in and out of the stalls just looking at terrific stuff. And you will note the location of the elegant Rijksmuseum as you pass by, making a casual mental note of how to return there for the time you will set aside to explore at your pleasure some of the greatest art treasures in the world. And you will do the same with the Rembrandt House, or the Van Gogh Museum, or Anne Frank’s House, or the Amsterdam Historical Museum. And please give yourself permission to visit each of these in the same manner and frame of mind as you will visit the flower market. You will not experience any museum phobia in Amsterdam; nor will you feel the pressure to “do” any of the many other great treasures of Amsterdam. That kind of mind set is just not built into the culture of Amsterdam. As a matter of fact it is the antithesis of the city.
So as you amble, just enjoy. And if that little street or that canal may or may not be the one you passed by a half hour ago, or if you aren’t entirely sure where you are (or where you’re going), believe me, Amsterdam will shepherd you along until you eventually end up where you want to be. Oh, and please feel free to just ask any passerby for directions or suggestions. Be advised also that depending on where you come from, your preconceptions about people on the street in a major European capital may need to be adjusted. The people of Amsterdam actually enjoy giving you assistance. How cool is that?
Just so you know…
The city consists of no less than one quarter water and has more canals and bridges than Venice. The city centre is divided into 90 small islands. And every night between 22:00 and 0500, 14 locks in the city centre are closed in order to replace the water in the canals with fresh — flushing out city nightly. Oh, and by the way, there are 165 canals in the city with a total length of 100 kilometres.
From an architectural and urban design point of view, Amsterdam is a role model for a city with “a sense of place” and “a sense of space.” The briefest glimpse of the city leaves no doubt where you are. Amsterdam is visually unique and a city that has evolved organically, a living and breathing entity that epitomizes interdependence. Details are subtle and exquisitely integrated into almost anything that is constructed. History, geography, and topography have taught the people of Amsterdam to use space creatively and well — every inch of it. For architectural and design aficionados you could spend days just studying and photographing roof lines, doorways, windows, facades (note the classic and later baroque styles) and and the odds and sods assortment of centuries-old houses on some of the city’s smaller streets. I grew particularly fond of these personable structures which stand shoulder to shoulder, similar in their overall design but distinct one from the other. Amsterdam also has its contemporary and creative architectural side, and like its historic architecture its modern design also plays with light in a very characteristic Dutch way. This is especially evident in Oostelijk Havengebied, the docklands area near the Central Station. The area has been completely rebuilt and renovated on four peninsulas and is now attracting lovers of modern architecture from all over the world.
For me, an architectural highlight in Amsterdam — in this maritime climate with the sea and its mists close by — are the windows which are are particularly important. The idiosyncratic design and placement of them permits light to enter the interiors in very creative ways, thus it seems to me enhancing the transparent nature and guilelessness of Amsterdam.
During its Golden Age growth spurt, three wide canals were built in Amsterdam around its medieval centre; and has time passed more were constructed adding to a city with a literal a figurative flow that is a main element in its unique urban personality. And that flow seems to have preserved a lifestyle that is the antithesis of the frenetic pace of so many other cities. And this, in part, is where the omnipresent bicycle (an estimated 600,000 in the city) comes in.
Just so you know…
There are 400 kilometres of bike paths in Amsterdam, 140 cycle shops, a municipal employee/”Dedicated bicycle coordinator” who is in charge of the city’s official bicycle policy. The City also has special bike routes and you can tour the city on bicycle accompanied by a multilingual guide, or if you want to do it on your own, just pick up a city map for cyclists at one of the tourist offices. Amsterdam is “breakaway” city.
Today Amsterdam has many well-preserved 17th-century homes and other buildings. And if you want to see inside an historic Amsterdam canal house, may I suggest the 17th-century Willet-Holthuysen Museum. The house was left to the city by a widow of the same name, and the house includes a remarkable art collection; a testament to her fondness for Amsterdam. Operated under the auspices of Amsterdam’s Historisch Museum, this grand but Amsterdam-size house has many stories to tell.
Amsterdam’s culture of genius
In keeping with the intimate surroundings and nature of this city, Amsterdam allows visitors to feel as if they have developed a personal relationship with its artists: the greats such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh as well as the contemporary artists for whom the city itself is both inspiration and studio. (An artist is nourished by an environment that is liberal in the best sense of that word.) The “art scene” here has none of the cold and clammy institutional feel that those who tend to be museum-phobic experience. It is a very personal experience and this was indeed how Amsterdam invited the world to celebrate Rembrandt’s 400th. The enormous reproduction of his famous self-portrait on one of the elegant towers of the Rijksmuseum set the tone. This rather whimsical image of the man seems to say, “Please come in and have a look around if you feel so inclined. But please pay no attention to me if I appear to be a bit distracted or preoccupied.”
Just so you know…
This is city of almost 7000 architectural treasures, 40 museums, 61 cinemas, 55 theatres and concert halls, 141 commercial art galleries, and 16,000 concerts and theatrical performances each year. You can see 22 paintings by Rembrandt in Amsterdam, but only one Nightwatch. And while you are at the Rijksmuseum exploring the Nightwatch, don’t miss the museum’s gardens with their collection of sculptures and flea market-like collection of fragments of Dutch architecture.
I have made reference to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and a special exhibit at the stunning Van Gogh Museum was one of them. Imagine a curator coming up with the idea of presenting a comparative study of two artists from two different countries, from two different time periods; two artists that never met, in a museum devoted to the works of a third major artist.
Now that’s artistic courage —and vision. And the comparative study/exhibit was the once-in-a-lifetime Carvaggio-Rembrandt exhibit that was one of the celebratory events of the Rembrandt 400th. And something that you should not be surprised to find in Amsterdam, the city that considers all possibilities, carefully.
Considered to be the two geniuses of baroque painting, Carvaggio and Rembrandt had some quite surprising similarities. From my notes I read the following:
One Protestant, one Catholic. Icons of art history. Parallel use of light and shade … the moment (visually) when emotions reach a climax. Art that resolves the conflict between the noisy jumble of sensory experiences … art that reveals the artist’s code. The grotesque of the crucifixion and the peace and love of the Holy Family. The two poles and extremes .United in this art of two like-minded men who never knew each other but who worked in the medium of light and shadow to the same end; to unite the bilateral human psyche. The images of each artist are both at times terrifying in their power but behind it all there is an innate artistic force more powerful than the (often terribly beautiful) subjects they depict. You can see the contemplative introspection of each artist, especially obvious in Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus. The calm of an adolescent — pale face, eyes downcast — already acquainted with suffering, withdrawing into himself, accessing his conceptual power. The mortal. The ephemeral. The infinite.
A small group of very tall Dutch tourists being shepherded by a very sympathetic guide who is helping them put the pieces together of this extraordinary artistic event. She says something. They all laugh. Generously, she gives them comic relief, a release. Ita missa est.
The Rembrandt House
You get a sense of a very special privilege when you visit Rembrandt’s home; it is like being invited to dinner in someone’s home. The exhibit and the house have the same sense of immediacy and intimacy that you feel everywhere in Amsterdam.
The sense of humour and the good nature of the people of Amsterdam are indicative of a welcoming community that doesn’t take life excessively seriously, but at the same time values human rights, progressive social principles, and the common sense inherent in simply being respectful.
It is a city that has always made housing a priority; all of Amsterdam is “downtown” and people of all economic levels live there. The personal residence is fundamental to its urban plan, including the 2500 houseboats. And of course the fact that there are only about 740,000 residents in Amsterdam proper (a little more than a million and a half in Greater Amsterdam) is self-explanatory.
Amsterdam is also a city where the smallest details are not overlooked. In many public places, for example, the ceramic urinals have a strategically placed design of a fly just slightly off-centre to assist gentlemen in avoiding splash back. (Ask your husband or boyfriend.) The people of Amsterdam think of everything.
You can get there from Amsterdam
Accessibility to almost everything is the key to Amsterdam. Very pleasurable and enlightening day trips out and about from Amsterdam itself are very much part of the make-yourself-at-home experience here. In North America, we tend to forget that in some countries you don’t have to “go to great lengths and trouble” to get somewhere else. Travellers to Europe often are surprised how close everything is. And Amsterdam is the perfect hub for exploring some of the most fascinating cities and towns of the Netherlands. And … sigh … public transport and intercity rail service makes its so comfortable and easy.
Anyone interested in hopping on the tram to the Central Station and heading out to one of the destinations below?
The word is so over-used but “charming ” is such an appropriate descriptor for Leiden. This medieval city and the birthplace of Rembrandt is indeed enchanting. It’s historical importance to the Netherlands makes it a must-visit day trip from Amsterdam. Like the city’s famous son, who tried his hand at all genres of art, Leiden is also the kind of Dutch city where you also amble, but not aimlessly. Pick up the walking tour guide at the tourist office. Begin at The Falcon, a tower windmill with seven floors, great views, and insight into a real windmill. And did you know that The Pilgrims (the Mayflower folks) started their migration in Leiden? You might want to consider visiting the Pilgrim Archives or taking the self-directed Leiden Pilgrim Tour. And before I forget, I recommend the Siebold Huis and its Japanese collection, a fascinating story in itself.
Road Notes: The Stedelijk Museum in Leiden. Amazing Rembrandt sketches. Art as storytelling. Adama and Eva, 1638. A rather dumpy-looking Adam and Eve, looking louche, awkward, clumsy, uncouth, obese … even before they tasted of the tree of knowledge … Adam’s upraised hand says, “Hang on a minute. It could be a trick.” Her expression says, “What’s your problem? It’s only an apple.” A Harry Potter dragon-serpent is just waiting for the real fun to start. Rembrandt still doing his own thing, even with Biblical stories. He was always looking for the he interesting psychological moments in the artistic narrative. Painted what appealed to him, universalized the theme and the psychology of the protagonist. He used to study his facial, arm, and hand gestures and movements in a mirror. A funny guy.
In The Hague, “The City of Peace and Justice,” you find once again a creative and innovative physical environment, but also a place of universal principles. And in the Mauritshuis, one of the most beautiful museums architecturally in the Netherlands — known especially for Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” as well as the 17th-century palace in Dutch classicist architecture — there is the art of the refinement of all things.
And as we saw at the Mauritshuis, that desire for aesthetic refinement created a special bond between Dutch artists and the classical world. But it was not a servile and excessive admiration of antiquity. Dutch artists, especially Rembrandt, also wanted to find the thread between then and now. The great classical lessons learned from interpreting antiquity became the conceptual and artistic base for contemporary thought.
In some respects, a visit to Delft is also a lesson in 17th-century Dutch entrepreneurship— the Dutch East Indies company. In addition, it may well be where you will come to a deeper understanding of why Dutch culture is so universal. I strongly recommend a visit to the “Delftware Factory” (Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles) which in itself is a visit to the history of the Netherlands, why it developed such a global commercial presence, and why “the arts of the Orient” had such an influence on European culture.
If I have given the impression that Amsterdam and region consist only of tidy, one-on-one, close encounters of the Dutch kind, please let me assure you that during your Make Yourself at Home stay in Amsterdam, you will also find the lofty ideals, the grandeur, and the high and the mighty (in the best sense of the word.) This is especially true in Haarlem.
The great soaring Gothic Church of St.-Bavokerk, will stir your spirit and enlighten you. Just as it was in Medieval times, when we arrived, there was a carnival was in progress (a bit more glitz and neon perhaps than way back when), but on the same spot where miracle plays were once performed. (Miracles come in all shapes and forms.) The entire floor of this stupendous structure consists of gravestones, an apt metaphor perhaps. But if you have concerns about treading on the dead, opt for the roller coaster ride in the square.
Much more muted but equally exquisite — on a more human scale — is the Frans Hals Museum. This is arranged around a square courtyard designed in the original 17th-century style. The artwork offers a an overview of Dutch painting when it was at its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries: portraits, still lifes, landscapes, historical and narrative works. But it is the and scenes from everyday life that will resonate with you, especially if you have become smitten by Dutch culture.
At some point during our stay in Amsterdam, someone made reference to “the tyranny of flowers.” Spring bulb time in the Netherlands is of course what many people travel here for — and for very good reason, as we discovered. But flowers can be unpredictable, given that they work in concert with the equally unpredictable weather. Seeing the Netherlands when the spring bulbs are at their peak is a chancy endeavour, especially when we went. We had expected to arrive at the tail-end of the great annual floral gala but (fortunately for us) winter hung around a bit later this year.
On the train from Amsterdam to Leiden, we got a hint of another one-in-a-lifetime experience that awaited us. The fields on either side of the train were carpeted in primary colours: reds, yellows, blues — as far as the eye could see.
And then we saw Keukenhof.
Pictures do indeed say a thousand words. And thousands upon thousands of Dutch bulbs in full bloom under cornflower skies were a symphony of eloquence.
Great Amsterdam moments
Great travel experiences are a collection of enduring moments that live on. As my dear friend Barbara once said, “The thrill of anticipation that comes with researching what you hope will be a successful trip is of course fully realized when you actually arrive. However the travel experience doesn’t just end there; it is continuously renewed through delicious long-term memory moments.” (I may have paraphrased her; Barb is a not a woman of few nor insignificant words.) And Amsterdam is a city of great moments. Here were some of my favourites.
How do you define good clean fun? Ask the Dutch about their national holiday, officially to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. Quite frankly, it’s a national party that is like no other national festival I have seen. There is little pomp and circumstance to this national festival; no Stars and Stripes, no Tricolor, no parade of nuclear missiles — just a lot of good folks dressed up in orange doing their thing. Why orange, you fondly ask? The royal family of the Netherlands is of the Orange-Nassau lineage. William the First of Orange was primarily responsible for the the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, which eventually (after the Eighty Years War) led to an independent Dutch state. So there’s a lot of national pride involved in Queen’s Day, but nothing chauvinistic or excessively nationalistic, I can assure you. We were there! Yes, another Dutch once-in-a-lifetime experience. How lucky can you get?
And Queen’s Day is all about street markets, street entertainment, and what in North America would be seen as the largest one-day garage sale in the world. (“Garage” doesn’t quite work, but bear with me.)
A Coffee House in the Red light District
Personally, I found the Red Light District rather ho hum, at least in terms of the personal services offered there. But as a slightly riotous fun place to be in Amsterdam on Queen’s Day, it’s very cool! And popping into a local coffee shop (depending on your generation or your remembered youth), and choosing something special from the menu, may or may not be your way of sending birthday greetings to the Queen. In true Amsterdam style, it’s up to you.
Let it be known that there are indeed great open public spaces in Amsterdam where the locals and visitor-tourists mix and mingle. A favourite of mine is Vondel Park, a casual stroll from the Rijksmuseum. Like so many European public parks, Vondel Park is perfect for the kind of social interaction for which I have been applauding Amsterdam — great people-watching too. Created in 1864 and designed by the famous garden architect Jan David Zocher, it was opened to the public in 1865 and named after Joost van den Vondel, a German-Dutch writer, playwright, and advocate for religious freedom. For a Google satellite view of the park, click here.
The Hermitage: Russian Treasures in Amsterdam
Yes, you heard me correctly. The Hermitage Amsterdam is a branch of the great museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Imagine rediscovering treasures hidden in a museum. One would think that curatorial and classification skills organization would be what a museum was all about. However, The Hermitage in Russia is so large and contains so much stuff that some of it gets lost from time to time. This was the case with “Silver Wonders From the East: Filigree of the Tsars,” an astounding exhibit that demonstrates once again how the sea trade with the East brought to Europe priceless art work. Especially impressive in the collection were two toilet sets belonging to Catherine the Great, one from China and the other from India. Given that the remarkable filigree method of producing objects of fine silver threads and its vulnerability, this particular exhibit and the Museum itself (which is expanding) are further evidence of how Amsterdam was a microcosm for global society. So to see a little bit of the great treasury of the Hermitage spend some quality time in Amsterdam.
Anne Frank’s Letters and Personal Effects
Anne Frank’s House is one of the most visited historical sites in Amsterdam and to say it is poignant is an understatement. During our visit to Amsterdam, there was another Anne Frank exhibit at the city’s superb Historisch Museum. Titled “Her Life in Letters,” the exhibit gives a deeper sense of what was lost during the Holocaust — the innocence of a child who had all the makings of writer. Although the letters and post cards she wrote are the focal of this exhibit, also displayed are many ordinary day to day objects — a pair of skates — from her life.
Jeroen Bechtold: Ceramist and Free Amsterdam Spirit
As a travel journalist, I am often very fortunate to meet with individuals in the destinations I visit who epitomize many of the values and principles inherent in their culture, and who also represent universal issues that transcend all cultural boundaries. Jeroen Bechtold is one such example and a person who now is for me the embodiment of the liberalism and creativity of this city. I strongly recommend a visit to Jeroen Bechtold’s website and his virtual art gallery. To read more about Jeroen see my article “The Virtual and Other Realities of Jeroen Bechtold.”
How to make yourself at home in Amsterdam
The following are useful sites:
(c) Holland by train
(d) IAMSTERDAM Check out the IAMSTERDAM Card which can save you money on transporation and admissions to attractions.
(e) Have you considered a Make Yourself at Home stay on one of Amsterdam’s delightful houseboats? Many companies rent them, but you might check out Frédéric’s Rent A Bike. Yes they also rent houseboats! But you will have to email them and ask. Don’t be shy. They are very accommodating. (f) Two hotels that met our needs quite nicely were the NH Amsterdam Centre (excellent location for the museums), and Hotel Amsterdam De Roode Leeuw (when you want to be near the busier Dam Square and within walking distance to the Central Station).
(g) Dining: For a traditional Dutch meal with lots of atmosphere, visit Haesje Claes. Do not miss the Indonesion Rice Table (rijsttafel) dining experience when you are in Amsterdam. We recommend the Puri Mas Indonesian restaurant. For a quick meal near Dam Square, we also appreciated the Shiki Japanese Restaurant (Zoutsteeg 5, Tel: 020-421 00 87). Aside from these, note the many local restaurants as you do your Amsterdam Amble.