Lindsay and I are now two weeks into our whirlwind Eurotrip, and I want to write about the beginning of the trip before too much time goes by. My plan is to write a post about each city we visit, since I have a lot of observations (and of course pictures) about each place.
We started off in Amsterdam, a city I have been wanting to visit for years, ever since I studied abroad in Spain and had a real opportunity to travel in Europe. Amsterdam did not disappoint! I fell in love with the city a bit more every day we were there, and when it was time to leave Amsterdam and head to Paris, I wasn't ready to say goodbye.
Before the trip I had briefly looked up some attractions in Amsterdam that we might want to visit, but we had only a very vague idea of what we were going to do once we got into the city. That gave us a good excuse to roam around on foot and discover things as we came upon them, which is what I've been inclined to do recently while traveling. All in all, we spent 4 full days in Amsterdam (5 nights). In that time we did a lot of walking and simply taking in the buildings, canals and bridges that give Amsterdam it's charming look, as well as walking around the famous red light district. (I didn't take any pictures in the red light district but here are some from other parts of the city we walked around in. The first one is by far my favorite picture that I took in Amsterdam.)
We also went to the Van Gogh museum, the Heineken Experience, the Anne Frank House, the Museum of Prostitution, and a place called the Cannabis College where you can go and ask any and all questions you might have about Amsterdam's "coffee shops" and its permissive cannabis culture. I highly recommend the Van Gogh museum. It is, in my opinion, one of the best organized and cohesive art museums I've ever visited, and I left with a much greater understanding of Van Gogh, his life and his art. If you like beer I also highly recommend the Heineken Experience. Part brewery tour, part history lesson and part beer tasting, it is a very fun way to spend a few hours, and you get a free boat ride and a free gift at the end as well as 2 (almost full sized) beers and a sample during the tour. The ticket price is a bit high (18€) but you get quite a bit for your money, and you can save a few euros if you book your ticket online. And of course, the Anne Frank House is a must-see in Amsterdam which I also recommend and a powerful reminder of history that must never be forgotten.
Besides the attractions we visited, here are some of my observations about the city:
The first thing that became apparent as we wandered the first day is that Amsterdam is a wonderfully, beautifully cute city. It has a very cohesive, consistent architectural style that I really like. You can tell that it is old and that the buildings were built with care and attention to a certain aesthetic that is carried over into the entirety of the city center. It just looks so Dutch and it's almost exactly what I was expecting Amsterdam to look like.
One of the side effects of it being old, however, is that many of the buildings seem to be leaning rather precariously. It's not so obvious in the pictures I've posted, but it was sometimes a bit startling. Let's hope they hang in there for a while!
The next thing that became apparent in our wanderings was just how walkable the city center is. I was expecting to have to take the metro or other public transportation to get from place to place, but Lindsay and I walked everywhere without any trouble. The metro doesn't even have stops in the city center because they are simply not needed. It mainly serves the neighborhoods farther out from the center. The only transport we had to take consistently was a ferry, since we were staying in the northern part of the city on the other side of the river, but the ferry ride was quick and free.
Perhaps the most obvious thing we noticed the first day was just how many bikes there are in Amsterdam. Bikes outnumber people in the city and that is blatantly obvious to anyone spending even a few minutes walking along the streets. This can be hazardous for pedestrians who aren't used to bikes, and even pedestrians like me who are used to keeping an eye out for bikes can have a hard time navigating the heavy bike traffic. Crossing the street became a hazard and a source of momentary panic as we risked being run down by a bike speeding around a corner or appearing seemingly out of nowhere. And even when they are not moving, bikes are still everywhere, as this picture shows.
Another noteworthy aspect of Amsterdam was the pervasiveness of English. English would be everywhere even if only because of all the tourists; it seemed like every other tourist we saw was either American or British. But even more so than the tourists was the fact that every Dutch person seems to speak flawless English. You could say it's only because they need to communicate with all the tourists, but it's much more than just that (Parisians, for comparison, encounter just as many tourists but as a whole don't speak nearly as good English as the Dutch). The Netherlands, like all of Scandinavia, teaches English in school from a young age and the results are obvious. Of course the Dutch people also speak Dutch, but I heard much more English than Dutch during my time in Amsterdam, even from the Dutch people we interacted with. I would have liked to hear more Dutch being spoken, since I think it's fun to listen to. It's similar to German, so I can sometimes understand it, but the accent is different. The best comparison I can make is that Dutch sounds like German but with a Scottish accent.
Besides being a beautiful city with a lot of interesting history and culture to explore, Amsterdam (and the Netherlands as a whole) is also fascinating because of its acceptance of certain aspects of society that are almost universally considered taboo, specifically prostitution and marijuana use. The Dutch government realizes that these things are going to happen regardless of their legality, and rather than taking the route that most countries take of imposing a moral standard on its population via restrictive laws, the Netherlands seeks to make these practices, which come with certain inherent risks, as safe and as transparent as possible. I think this approach is incredibly practical and I like the emphasis on safety. This is especially important in the case of prostitution, because it gives sex workers access to adequate legal protection against clients who seek to take advantage of or mistreat them. In countries where prostitution is illegal, sex workers who are abused receive no legal protection because reporting abuse to the police would also put them in danger of arrest and prosecution. We know that prostitution happens in every culture in the world, so why not bring it out in the open and make it as safe for sex workers as possible? The Netherlands does that very well. Unfortunately legalization doesn't put an end to the human trafficking that often goes hand in hand with prostitution, but legalizing the practice of prostitution itself gives women who have been trafficked more options and a greater chance of escaping an exploitative situation.
The case of cannabis products is a bit less cut and dried (no pun intended). Technically, producing, selling and consuming cannabis products is illegal according to Dutch law, but the government has essentially decided to ignore its own laws and create a secondary set of guidelines for those who choose to produce and sell such products. Interestingly, the Dutch public is not entirely happy about this; many Dutch people feel that the image of Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general is unfairly tarnished by the association with prostitutes and weed. The vast majority of the people who visit coffee shops (the euphemism for cafés that sell weed, joints and other marijuana products) are tourists from other countries taking advantage of the "legal" availability of marijuana. Among its citizens, the Netherlands has one of the lowest marijuana use rates in Europe.
I hesitated before deciding to write this in my blog, since I wasn't sure how it would be received, but Lindsay and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity Amsterdam provided us and visit a coffee shop during our time there. We visited the Cannabis College first to ask a bunch of questions and to get a recommendation for which coffee shop to visit, and on our third afternoon there we took the plunge and went to a coffee shop called The Greenhouse Effect. It was a small, cozy place, much like a normal cafe except they just happened to have a weed menu as well as one for hot drinks. The staff was helpful and professional, it didn't feel sketchy at all like it would if we were buying weed from a random dealer on the street, and the few hours we spent there ended up being much cheaper than I was expecting. The whole experience was very positive and comfortable, and it was a nice way to relax and take in a part of Amsterdam's unique culture.
All in all I had a great time in Amsterdam, and I'm already looking forward to my next visit. I would like to go in the summer when it's warmer and visit more of the museums (we decided against several museums because we were trying to save money). I recommend this city to other travelers without hesitation.
The next installment in my travelogue-style posts will be about Paris (click here!)