Amsterdam: an understated luxury
It's quite a long time since the day when my future aspirations would be shaped to become my life's biggest dream. Looking back 10 years ago, I can still picture myself on that airplane trying to get rid of the Brazilian Carnival (why would I do that I sometimes ask myself?!); my wanderlust was in search of an exciting new journey to lead to the unknown. That was March 2011 when I visited Amsterdam for the first time. Although it sounds like a cliché, it was love at first sight. Madly.
Let me be clear on something right from the start: smoking marijuana was never the main reason to come to Amsterdam. I might have had a desire to taste the other good stuff (it's Gouda cheese if you are wondering yourself) and likewise a keenness to explore the breathtaking colorful fields covered by tulips. After all, you have got to experience these both at least once in your life! And you better do so as soon as you step onto Dutch soil!
However, to address the misconception that Amsterdam means either cannabis, the Red Light District or flowers, I saw myself compelled to unfold a city that few of my own knew even exists: dynamic but not overwhelming, tidy albeit not boring, full of wonderful museums, parks, schools, cafés, hotels, shops, to name a few. It also possesses a cosmopolitan air enlivened by a sizeable expat population which, in my opinion, is key to a democratic and vibrant place. Every year, around 40,000 migrants come from England, followed by America, India and Germany. It's a magnetic city on an international level.
A capital of around 873,000 citizens that welcomes the future, Amsterdam incites freedom, creativity and quality of life. Some facts speak for themselves: there are more bicycles than residents and 60% cycle daily; the festival, Gay Pride, held in August, is greatly cherished and proves that freedom of choice and respect are at the core of Dutch society; many successful multinational companies settle their headquarters here (e.g. Booking.com, Tesla, Calvin Klein, Netflix) where they find an open business environment enriched by low corporate taxes and highly educated, multilingual workers. It's an extraordinary place in its own right! No wonder why I instantly fell in love with this all.
I agree that seductive virtues can be found everywhere in Amsterdam. I can give you one more reason that makes this place stand out. Think of the 165 picturesque canals brimming with 2,500 houseboats whose owners and free-spirits have such a distinctive lifestyle. An important historic feature, the Canal Ring (Grachtengordel), was recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as a world-acclaimed monument. I find them even more stunning at night.
Despite so many marvelous compliments, climate is definitely a huge downer (btw: amsterdam weer is what Dutch people most talk about!). If you come from a tropical country, like me, the absence of sunlight is something that makes you down. I've never realized how difficult it would be until I experienced an entire wintertime in the Netherlands: there were days of so much struggle that I thought I was becoming depressed. No vitamin D or ginger tea or sauna time were capable to lift my spirit. Unquestionably, the pandemic aggravated this challenging period of time.
Moreover, freezing weeks in a row are really unpleasant and the fact that the gorgeous fire ball in the sky is anywhere but here, well, to me, this is the worst deprivation one can feel. Which is why when the rays of much-needed sunshine appear, the city lightens and blossoms up and turns into wonderland. We can't hold ourselves back and we all take over the parks and canals dressing in the least clothing possible accompanied by a stimulating, cold beer. It's just a sublime feeling!
I won't lie that I find it peculiar to live in a town where some of its trademarks are the weed-infused streets filled with sex workers behind red windows constantly stared at by crowds of boozy backpackers. Even though I never go there, except when Covid-19 ripped-off the madding crowd, this is one of the most authentic city centers in the world.
Yet, a troublesome theme lies at the core of Amsterdam's most iconic essence: the attempt to control drug traffic and the ban on touristic access to coffeeshops. I'm completely in favor of an effective regulation towards this illicit activity that creates harm and danger in so many spheres. However, I firmly believe that if visitors are to become persona non grata in those nirvana places, the city is in desperate need of revamping its global propaganda.
Let's be frank: in the last decades, marijuana, cheese and tulips were pretty much the word of mouth that flew into the world. Actually, the Anne Frank Museum as well. Although it's not easy to change a long-term reputation, I'm confident that the ones in charge of the city's marketing division have great assets in their hands. After all, Amsterdam is a delight for architecture, food, art and music lovers.
As I've always felt motivated to show THE wonders of my Amsterdam to friends and family, apart from the aforementioned stereotypes, I start by sharing the features I consider should not be missed:
The charms of the Dutch capital are much wider than canals, red bricked or black painted houses, bridges and windmills. This is all definitely worth seeing: many times, I would say. But there's tons of unexpected gems in the city's urban planning that are rarely mentioned in the ordinary travel guides.
Take for example the Eastern Docklands (Oostelijk Havengebied). It's a photogenic mix of districts, islands and peninsulas on the banks of the IJ river that once served as a harbor. The Second World War's fallout, though, left it as an abandoned neighborhood whose buildings and warehouses were either demolished by the city or squatted by artists and alike. It was only in the 80's that a smart maneuver came into effect to preserve this historical appendix. Creative foreign architects were commissioned to come up with innovative, functional and eccentric styles that until today encompass the area's buildings. As soon as you go there, you'll feel like you’re in a new Amsterdam.
Perhaps it doesn't cross all people's minds that Amsterdam has a fortunate Art Deco heritage. From cinema, museum and sauna to cafes, restaurants and hotels, these places reveal marvelous unnoticed stories. Some of the most splendorous examples are Café Schiller, the restaurant of the American Hotel, The Movies (a veteran art house movie theater) and the Tuschinski Theatre which celebrates a centenary in 2021. Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf are among its most distinguished performers.
Culture and art
Diversity, liberalism and pragmatism play important roles in the everyday life of Dutch people. The centuries of mercantile and explorative activities also designed much of the country's mind-set along with plenty of foreign influences. It's a melting pot of cultures and customs that mostly runs in the veins of the capital.
The cultural life is varied and exciting in Amsterdam. The city holds extraordinary parties and music festivals; it would be hard to choose the best ones although my preference goes for the Milkshake Festival, Gay Pride and King's Day. However, Nederland and Dekmantel are also references worthwhile attending if you are into the electronic scene.
As for those looking for art, it's no secret that some of the world's most applauded and visited museums are based in this capital. I have my favorites (such as the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam or the Van Gogh Museum) where the striking works of Van Gogh are celebrated along with the old-masters in Dutch painting such as Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn.
Where to stay in Amsterdam & neighborhoods
There's no better choice than De Jordaan or De Pijp for those who cast about for a good dose of youthful energy: these are the most vibrant areas with an infinite option of bars, cafes, restaurants, parks and shops. De Jordaan's streets also come with a bonus: they reveal the most beautiful canal views. Even though I would not normally recommend staying in De Wallen, known as the Red Light District Amsterdam, I'm sure this neighborhood can please those free-spirited, adventurous visitors.
In case you are not a newcomer and wish to feel the pulse like a local, Amsterdam-West won't disappoint you. Last but not least, the surrounds of Vondelpark are just superb: museums, fancy shops and delicious restaurants are all close by. Before I forget: in this link you can find a concise list of the hotels I most love in Amsterdam.
Where to eat in Amsterdam
It has never been a city coveted as a gourmet destination. But it has great potential to become one. If you know where to search for, you'll be surprised by how amazing bars and restaurants are hidden in the city. You can find a comprehensive guide of where to eat very well (including meat-free options) at this link.
Where to shop in Amsterdam
The retail scene in Amsterdam is pretty much in line with the Dutch ethos: it has a little bit of creativity along with sharpness and temperance. There's no room for excess. Which is why low-key is prioritized over extravagance. This reason explains why only a few lavish brands install their business here while most have meagre shops compared to the ones in Paris, London and New York.
Amsterdam doesn't praise the fashion scene like other capitals. However, make your way to De Bijenkorf or the Pieter Cornelisz Hooftstraat if you want to dress up with high-end labels. If not, whilst authenticity and coolness remain important to you, it's worth noting the assertive curatorship of shops like Hutspot, Restored, Things I Like Things I Love, Concrete Matter and Afura.
Parks and nature
The city's appeal is granted also in part because of its abundance of nature. When we take into account that Amsterdam is not big, still it manages to carry around 30 enlivening parks which tells you something about how keen dwellers are to nurture a close relationship with the greens.
What I most find amusing are the numerous possibilities that drive us to occupy these spaces, leading to great conviviality between citizens and public areas. Parks in Amsterdam are versatile and cater to all: sportspeople, small children, couples in love, friends hanging out, picnickers, home-workers, meditation practitioners, sunbathing seekers (as long as the sun doesn't play hide and seek!).
Music and gastronomic events also corroborate the fact that making the most of public areas is essential to a hearty urbanization. In my favorite Westerpark, for example, not only do we find many excellent cafés and restaurants but also a few food markets take place there every once in a while; besides this, the LGBT annual festival, Milkshake, is also held here every last weekend of July.
Culinary art is likewise cherished at Frankandael, home to the top-notch restaurants, de Kas and Merkelbach, or the monthly organic fair, Puur Markt. The adorable, compact Erasmus Park is the shy brother of the always packed but unmissable Vondelpark, while the myriad forest called Amsterdamse Bos proves that size can, sometimes, matter: it's three times bigger than Central Park!
Just as importantly, stopping by at the Hortus Botanicus can be a time very well spent for anyone horticulturally minded (especially from a tropical perspective). Originally established in 1638 to grow herbs for medicinal use, it's one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Its 3-acre area conserves an impressive array of more than 6,000 plants (from desert regions, the tropics and the subtropics), many of which are exotic species. Highlight: the splendid palm greenhouse.
Bovendien, welkom naar Amsterdam! Geniet ervan!