Four hundred years ago, Henry Hudson sailed from Amsterdam to discover the New World. It’s about time for you to visit the town he left behind.
Amsterdam is not one of those cities (New York comes to mind, actually) that reveals its pleasures and charm only after long periods of wandering its back streets.
No, Amsterdam’s charm is immediate: long canals graced by perfectly preserved 17th-century townhouses, plus just enough new buildings to let you know that the town is still alive and kicking; sidewalk and canal-side cafes everywhere; far more bikes than cars; residents who don’t mind (really) that you can’t speak their language; some of the best art in the Western world; and a genuine lack of the typical European distaste for Americans (after all, it’s the English and German teenagers who are typically found throwing up in a canal after imbibing too much).
But a city can survive on charm for only so long. What keeps many tourists coming back is simply the sex and the drugs (there’s rock and roll, too, but it’s a distant third in that ultimate roster of sin).
In Amsterdam, prostitution is not only legal, but confined within a single garish red light district that blends the venality of Sodom and Gomorrah with the showmanship of Reno. Even tourists who aren’t looking to spend a fistful of Euros for some carnal pleasure still flock to the red light district to see the spectacle of half-naked women displaying their offerings in storefront windows.
Add in cheap beer and widely available legal marijuana and hashish, and you have one long frat party.
Taken together, the historic charm and the modern vice combine into a unique city that you can’t help but love. The best way to see it, of course, is like a New Yorker: neighborhood by neighborhood. Here’s our handy guide:
This former working-class neighborhood on the western edge of Amsterdam has been reborn — Brooklynized, if you will — as a trendy area of shops and restaurants, such as De Twee Zwaantjes (The Two Swans), an authentic old-style Dutch pub (1) or the Cafe ’t Smalle nearby, another old joint with cheap sandwiches (2).
You can’t help but encounter something interesting in this area, including, incongruously, a player piano museum (3).
And, like Brooklyn, there’s even a farmers’ market every Saturday at the Noordermarkt (4) that features the usual produce, cheese and meat, plus crafts, clothes and flea market items.
Amsterdam’s Upper East Side is actually to the west of the medieval center, an area defined by three townhouse-lined canals and three side streets with shops that cater to well-heeled antique hunters, cheese-lovers or cloth horses.
The area’s core is three streets that connect all three canals — an area called, appropriately enough, the Nine Streets (5).
The most important tourist site in this area is the Anne Frank House (6), which now includes two adjacent buildings that feature a museum and contemporary exhibits. It is not to be missed — as the lines indicate. Get there early or, in the summer, get there after 7 pm.
The original core of Amsterdam, dating back to the Medieval period is the egg-shaped wedge south of the central train station (7).
Most of the city’s department stores — and, alas, souvenir shops — are in this area, but before you skip it entirely, check out the red light district (8), which is a classic car accident in progress: you can’t bear to watch, yet you can’t turn away. Some of the women in the windows dance, others preen, and still others look bored as they make cellphone calls as they await a customer.
Also in this area is the University of Amsterdam (9), and its surrounding bookstores, bars and restaurants; Dam Square (10), with its royal palace on the west side and a national World War II monument on the east; and the Begijnhof (11), a community of 15th-century houses behind a barely marked door on the Spui that were built for the Beguines, a non-religious order of women dating back to the 11th century who wanted to do good works, but did not want to take their vows.
To the east of the Medieval core lies plenty of sights. The best place for a drink is along the Zeedijk, which features a mix of gay and straight bars behind the St. Nicolaaskerk (12). A block away, at the top of the Geldersekade canal is the Schreierstoren (13), a tower that was once part of the wall of the city, but later served as the spot from which Henry Hudson began his journey to the New World in April, 1609.
Just to the southeast is the old Jewish quarter of the city, which includes a historical museum and a still active Portuguese synagogue (14). Nearby is City Hall (15), which is not much to look at, but features an expansive flea market every day. And just to the south, along the Amstel, is the new Hermitage Amsterdam (16), a satellite gallery of the famed Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia (see Mike McLaughlin’s review above).
Just off the right side of the map is Brouwerij ’t Ij, a brewpub that was built inside an old windmill. The beers are outstanding, as is the beefy, smoky osseworst, but the atmosphere is relaxing and casual.
Though a bit less scenic, there are plenty of reasons to spend a few hours in the area south of the Singel canal.
Gardeners will love the daily flower market (17) and photo buffs will enjoy the Fotografie Museum Amsterdam (18), which, as its name suggests, offers a wealth of photography.
Stay off the main north-south roads and weave your way around the smaller streets for some antiques shopping. When you’re hungry, head for the side streets off the Leidsestraat (19), where you’ll find a welter of tapas, Argentine, Greek, Italian and Indonesian restaurants, including the excellent Puri Mas, where you can get an authentic Indo-Dutch rijstaffel, a smorgasbord (if you will) of spicy and savory Asian dishes.
Further south is the heart of the Amsterdam art world, including the world-renowned Rijksmuseum (20) and the Van Gogh Museum (21). The Rijksmuseum is still undergoing what is a decade-long renovation, but it’s worth a trip for the billions in Rembrandt’s hanging on the walls.
Van Gogh is a pretty good painter, too.
Two blocks away is the entrance to the massive Vondelpark, which is every bit the equal of Prospect Park (22).
De Twee Zwaantjes (114 Prinsengracht, 625-2729); Cafe ’t Smalle (12 Egelantiersgracht, 623-9617); Pianola Museum (106 Westerstraat, 627-9624); Anne Frank Huis (267 Prinsengracht, 556-7105); Begijnhof (38 Spui, 622-1918); Joods Historischmuseum (2 Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, 626-9945); Portuguese-Israelite Synagogue (3 Mr Visserplein, 624-5351); Hermitage Amsterdam (51 Amstel, 530-8751); Fotografie Museum Amsterdam (609 Keizersgracht, 551-6500); Brouwerij ’t Ij (7 Funenkade, 622-8325); Puri Mas (37 Lange Leidsedwarsstraat, 627-7627); Rijksmuseum (42 Stadhouderskade, 674-7000); Van Gogh Museum (7 Paulus Potterstraat, 570-5200).