Rain or shine, Amsterdam is a city of substance
Pack your galoshes and wind-resistant umbrellas. Amsterdam is a delightful destination, except for its frequently wet and blustery weather. Always historic, aesthetic and scenic, variously trendy, quirky, boisterous and serene, this European city appeals to diverse interests. It's easy to get to, frequently offered at bargain E-Saver prices, and compact - hence a good choice for an extended weekend.
Almost everyone, including tram (streetcar) drivers, speaks English, many without a trace of accent. So don't fret over strings of consonants and profuse "j"s in the language. Also, forget the stereotype of Dutch food as little more than sturdy red and yellow cheeses: Contemporary cuisine thrives in Amsterdam.
Water, water everywhere
In Amsterdam, sidewalks, narrow streets and parking spots line the water's edges. While tourist boats ply the canals, Amsterdammers drive or cycle, zooming hazardously through pedestrian traffic, along narrow one-way pavements. If you hear a bicycle bell, leap aside. Also, watch your step as you stroll: Uneven, cobbled pavements and doggy-doo behoove frequent downward glancing.
Despite these warnings, the grachts define the city's life - both by day and by evening, when gentle illumination augments their romance. During historic periods of prosperity, wealthy citizens - especially merchants involved in colonial trade in the East and West Indies - built tall mansions along the grachts. These handsome buildings, in brick or sandstone, display unique gables in various styles - stepped, bell and neck being the most popular. Another exceptional feature: The Dutch traditionally use attics for storage; large hooks protrude from the facades, above the attic doors, to hoist goods into place. A reliable guidebook, such as the Green Michelin, provides details on the most architecturally notable houses. Just don't miss the House of Heads (Keizersgracht 123) and the Bartolotti House (Herengracht 170-172). The Museum Van Loon (Keizersgracht 672) reveals a typical interior, courtyard garden and "golden age" lifestyle.
Nor any drop to drink
Even the "New Side" is old
The Nieuwe includes Dam Square, a large, busy and rather unattractive open space, with the Royal Palace at one end and a 1956 obelisk war memorial at the other. The current Queen lives in The Hague and rarely visits her palace here. Admire the architecture, then explore the statues in the old Court Chambers and the Citizen's Chamber. Magna Plaza, a Gothic revival former post office just off the square, now encompasses a multi-level, elegantly arcaded shopping complex. Central Station, a grand twin-towered, red and white brick edifice on three man-made islands, took seven years to construct and unfortunately closed off the city from its seaboard.
Damrak, the super-broad main street of the Nieuwe, used to be a canal and part of the city's harbor. Today, it's lined with cafes and shops. On one side, the Beurs van Berlage dominates. Built as the Stock Exchange in 1903, the building has been restored and re-purposed to offer exhibition spaces, a concert hall and other cultural activities.
Old masters, new masters
One tram stop or a five-minute walk away, the Van Gogh Museum houses a must-see collection that gives an overview of the artist's short, intense life and career. While museums around the world own small numbers of Van Goghs, this museum has 200 paintings, 580 drawings, seven sketchpads and 750 letters by the master. A recent expansion greatly enlarged the original 1973 building. The new space exhibits artists who were in some way inspired by the great Vincent.
Right next door to the Van Gogh lies the Stedelijk Museum, a world-class collection of modern art, commencing with the late 19th-century Impressionists and extending to today's creative avant-garde. Significant holdings include American abstract expressionists and pop art, a remarkable collection of Kasimir Malevich's work and representative pieces from the CoBrA group, initiated by artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The museum also runs ground-breaking temporary exhibitions.
Close by, the Concertgebouw, one of the world's great classical concert halls, features an impressive colonnaded facade. Built in 1888, the building was about to celebrate its centenary when collapsing foundations were discovered. Its rescue and restoration marks an engineering triumph. The Museumplein, in the midst of these buildings, is mostly a pleasant grassy area, except for an intrusively noisy skate-boarding track.
Contrary to popular rumor, drugs are not legal in Amsterdam. The police firmly pursue hard drug sellers and users. Registered Koffieshops may sell over-the-counter marijuana and hashish, in small quantities, for personal consumption on premise. That's the official, not necessarily an accurate, statement of policy. Supposedly, this practice results in less street drug use. If so, there must have been an enormous amount before. When passing the open door of a Koffieshop, don't breathe in.
What else to do?
The Joordan neighborhood lies just across the Prinsengracht. Here, recent gentrification and a tranquil, picturesque atmosphere replace what used to be a noisome industrial area. Stroll along Egelantiersgracht and Bloemgracht and also streets that once were canals, like Lindengracht. Here's Amsterdam at its most peaceful.
Even more serene are the "hofjes," inner courtyards of former hospices, now residences. Begijnhof, right in the midst of the old city, offers the ultimate hofje experience. Formerly a convent for the semi-religious, semi-lay Beguine community, this tranquil setting boasts immaculately tended gardens and houses, Amsterdam's only surviving all-timber house, a curiously shaped "secret" chapel and the city's Presbyterian church, which used to be the Beguine place of worship.
Amsterdam has a fine zoo, Artis, in the Plantage district east of the city. The restored Rembrandt Haus, the home and studio built by this artist at the peak of his fame, shows where the master actually worked. De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), moored on the Singlegracht, gives refuge to hundreds of stray cats. There's even a casino.
And, of course, shopping.
|If you go: Amsterdam|
U.S. citizens do not require a visa, except for stays longer than a few months. Currency is the Euro (E), about $1.15 at current exchange rates. All prices for goods and services include the national sales tax, VAT. www.amsterdam.nl is an excellent Web site, packed with information/links on most topics of interest, including special rates at numerous hotels. US Airways flies daily from Philadelphia, and Northwest Airlines flies twice daily from Detroit (avoid the earlier departure, which makes a stop in Boston). There's an ATM in the baggage claim area at the Schipol airport, a nice feature missing from most European airports: Get cash while waiting for your checked baggage. For both speed and economy, take the train to Central Station. The E3.20 fare compares favorably with the E40 taxi cost, but note the many steps to climb on exiting the station. Train ticket machines accept only coins, so if you don't have these, go to the ticket counter. There's no cost advantage in buying a round trip. Do not rent a car, unless your plans demand it. City driving is nerve-shattering, and hotels charge above E30 per day for parking.
Where to stay
Although they are slower point to point than trams, canal boats offer romance and perspectives different from the quayside views. Be aware, though, that a single one-way ride is about E8 and an all-day ticket E14 to E19, depending on the line. Tickets and boarding for all boats is just south of Central Station. Brochures and signs canal-side identify certain stops. A combined ticket with Canalbus for all-day canal riding plus Rijksmuseum admission saves E3. Canalbus, affiliated with Gray Line, operates three lines - green, red and blue. Lovers' Museumboat ticket, $14.25, also entitles you to discounts at various attractions including the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh.
In addition to the regular routes, special guided tours, even evening dinner cruises, are available. The foolhardy can rent pedal boats.