At the start of this year, I challenged myself to visit 12 new destinations in 12 months. At the time, I had a good idea of the places I thought I would end up in 2016. I’m happy to say, though, things don’t always go to plan. Just two weeks after my impulse trip to Germany, I was packing my bags again and heading out for a long weekend in Amsterdam. I’d been invited along on a group trip by fellow travellers that I’d met in Alaska last year. Just like Frankfurt and Cologne, Amsterdam wasn’t somewhere I’d expected to visit this year, but I’m so glad that I did.
There are a lot of cities I’ve visited where I’ve really felt mis-sold. Take San Francisco, for example. The San Francisco you see in all the movies and TV shows is actually just a very small part of one neighbourhood. The majority of the city looked nothing like I expected it to. What I like about Amsterdam is that it looks exactly how I imagined. Tall, wonky houses line endless canals that are straddled by bridges carrying cyclists. People live on boats, and stopping for a break at one of the many cafes is an essential part of the day. After all, it was Amsterdam’s merchants who introduced coffee to Europe.
The only problem I had with Amsterdam is that I found it so disorientating. It doesn’t take long for the canals to start all looking the same, and there’s not much difference between the design of the bridges for an untrained eye to tell them apart. At one point we walked down the same street 4 times before we realised we were going round in circles. I guess it all adds to the charm when visiting Amsterdam as a tourist, although I think I’d find it frustrating if I had to actually get somewhere.
I started to plot my journey through the city by shops. There are a lot of independent shops here, so that is at least one feature you can tell apart. Vintage shops are particularly common, and anyone who loves to shop and hunt out unique pieces would feel right at home here. Serious cycling shops are also popular, which makes me think a lot of Amsterdam residents keep expensive road bikes at home in addition to the city bikes they hurtle around the city on. The bikes, I have to admit, are one thing I was not prepared for. I mean, obviously, I knew that everyone in Amsterdam cycles. And I knew that there are more bikes than cars in the city. What I didn’t know was that those bikes, and the people on them, speed through narrow crowded streets at about 30mph. The only warning you get is a brief ring of a bike bell, and if you don’t get out of the way quick enough, well that’s your problem. I read a statistic that 12,000 to 15,000 bicycles are pulled out of Amsterdam’s canals every year. I suspect most of these are the result of either tourists trying to manoeuvre rental bikes along the narrow streets, or locals trying to avoid the tourists.
The other fast-moving objects you have to look out for in Amsterdam are trams. If you don’t like the thought of cardio, this is how you get around the city fast. Tickets last for either 1 hour or 24 hours, and the trams operate between 6.30am and 12.30am.
If you’re after a more romantic mode of transport, there are numerous options of boat trip to choose from. Officially made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010, the Amsterdam Canal Ring is made up of waterways that outnumber those in Venice. Amsterdam also has three times as many bridges as Venice, more than any other city worldwide. The canals were built in the early 1600s, after Amsterdam’s population grew beyond its medieval walls and land was drained and reclaimed.
One of the most famous areas of Amsterdam is the Red Light District. Streets so narrow you have to squeeze past the line of people walking in the opposite direction are lined of both sides with windows displaying women who generate about ∈650 million annually. Prostitution was legalised in the Netherlands in 1810, and brothels became legal in 2000. Only about 5% of prostitutes working in Amsterdam were born in the Netherlands. The red light is supposed to be flattering, but to be honest there were so many red lights in such a confined space I could barely see anything, let alone tell you which woman I found the most attractive. Since 2007, city officials have been trying to clean up the district by reducing the number of Red Light windows. Instead, they are encouraging the gentrification of the area by helping fashion studios, art galleries and trendy cafes to open up. It’s a slow process, as they have to find new attractions to replace the tourists who come to Amsterdam for the sex trade.
I can imagine that, if you haven’t experienced anything like it before, the Red Light District could be a shock to the senses. If it does bother you, though, you can avoid the area. You could still visit Amsterdam and avoid bikes and canals if you really have a problem with them. What you can’t really avoid in Amsterdam is the smell of weed. Although cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands, it is tolerated. And this is what makes it such an attractive destination for a lot of visitors. There are strict rules on when and where cannabis is ‘allowed’ to be sold and consumed. However, the ever-present smell of it in the city makes me think there is more smoked than authorities like to admit to. The only place I couldn’t smell weed was outside the cheese shops, because there the only thing you can smell is cheese. As a vegan, I think I prefer the smell of the weed.
So – canals, bikes, trams, cafes, vintage shops, red lights, weed and cheese. As I said, Amsterdam was everything that it was sold to me to be. For a lot of the group I was travelling with, it wasn’t their first trip and I can see why. Once you start to learn the layout of the labyrinth of canals and streets, or you stop caring that you’re lost, it’s very easy to fall into the flow of Amsterdam life.