** Quick Note: This trip was taken in 2007, photographed with an 8 megapixel point and shoot camera, and written from the perspective of a 22 year old who had never blogged before. Enjoy :) **
I thought I knew what to expect before arriving in Amsterdam. I had heard people turn up their noses, as if the name was synonymous with debauchery. I guess I almost expected to find the city overtly offensive with in-your-face prostitution and drug use on every corner. After visiting though, my image completely changed. Amsterdam is a charming town. As soon as we arrived, I kept saying that I felt like we were in a cleaner, prettier, little version of Venice. The streets are crowded with outdoor cafes and flower markets. Canals are lined with houseboats and tulip docks, and people call out to each other as they whiz by on their bikes. Most people will probably blush if they walk down certain avenues (though no one will be able to tell as the red lights cast a warm glow on your cheeks anyway), but this is a specific area and you have to seek it out to find it. I have to say, even for those who are easily offended I believe it is completely possible to navigate this city without feeling compromised.
Amsterdam has marketed itself so well with its I AMsterdam campaign. I don’t know why more cities haven’t done things like this, but before you go check out the I AMsterdam site and get familiar with everything there is to do in the city. You can read about the history, book your tickets and tours, and compare hostel rates. It’s an awesome resource.
Any history buff (actually anyone who didn’t sleep entirely through high school world history classes) knows the immense impact that World War II had on this little town. The history is rich and beautiful. You can tour the Anne Frank Huis and Museum, but I would highly recommend that you buy your tickets and print them prior to your visit. This will save you hours in line, as this is one of the most popular things to do in Amsterdam. Buy Anne Frank tickets here.
We stayed at the Hotel Oreloff. I wrote in my journal that the beds were the most comfortable of our trip so far, for whatever that is worth :) The hostel was across the street from a little cafe/gathering area that offered FREE internet. One of the only places on our whole trip that had this!
By the way, if you are headed to Europe, check out the “New Europe” tours. They are available in 14 cities (including Amsterdam) and are consistently the best tours that I have ever taken. The red-shirt clad guides are native English speakers, hilariously entertaining, incredibly knowledgeable and are residents of the cities themselves. It’s an extremely competitive gig to score- and the tours reflect that. The tour is free and guides only make the money that you tip them. (Plan to tip between 20-30 Euro per person). It is worth every penny!!!
I have been told that I might write a little bit too much, but my journal from this trip is chock-full of information from our New Amsterdam tour guide Basilio, and I still find it all so fascinating that I can’t omit it. At the bottom of this blog, I am going to type out my journal entry verbatim. If you are not interested in all the details of our tour though, I will just leave you with these pictures of gorgeous Amsterdam.
Journal entry: 10/7/07
We started our tour at the Monument to World War II- a huge white pillar. As we started walking, our guide Basilio pointed out “Amsterdam humor” which we might have missed had we been walking alone. Right there in the cobblestone street is a hand cupping a breast, cast in bronze and laid as if it was just another piece of stone. There is a very grand-looking church right behind the “red-light district” and he explained that long ago the city used to make a great deal of money because sailors would come in and find “entertainment” in the red-light district and then, overcome with guilt, go in to this church to confess before risking their lives back out on the open waters. To assure them their souls were safe and forgiven the church would impose a high tax. So the prostitutes made money the night before, and the church made money the day after. Quite a system, Amsterdam.
One thing I would never have noticed was that all of the houses lean to the right or the left because the ground is always shifting. The houses are almost comically narrow and built right next to each other because people used to be taxed on the width of their house, not the size. Basically, you could build as deep and tall as you wanted, but only get taxed on the number of feet your house took up on the street-front. The “most narrow house” is only slightly wider than my arm span… I measured! Talk about hard to furnish!
On we went to the old weighing center where the ships had to check their cargo. He showed us the old Jewish district, which had to be renovated after it was burned to the ground during WWII by people who were so desperate to stay warm. Because it was rebuilt in the sixties it has a very “retro” feel. Not at all what I would have expected. Then we walked by the Hemp, Hash and Marijuana Museum. Much to my shock Basilio filled us in on the “real” laws of Amsterdam. Here is something I would never have believed: It is actually illegal to have, sell or smoke pot in the country. I would definitely have lost my millions if they posed that question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But, the country has “de-criminalized” it in an effort to keep hard-drug use down. Go figure.
We saw the Doelen Hotel, which was actually a militia of rich men who hired Rembrandt to do their portrait and he did an action shot. (I LOVE all the art in Amsterdam. I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting that!) We also got a quick glimpse of the Heineken Brewery. We will probably have to come back tomorrow.
Castigatio was the entrance to their old prison and is now a shopping mall, but the wooden doors are the entrance to a public garden shared by women of the ministry (or something like that). So much information, so little time to write it all down!
We also visited an old “boys home” that is now nearly falling into the building next to it because of the shifting ground. Basilio was explaining how difficult any kind of restoration is because everything is so old and so closely built that you can’t try to work on one building without risking the many nearby.
Oh the “Miracle of Amsterdam.” It’s a famed piece of bread that wouldn’t burn, or drown, or anything. I feel like maybe I should come up with my own Miracle after hearing this story. (Check out the link if you want the whole story- I am not taking the time to write out all the adventures of this little piece of bread).
He showed us all of the old building crests that used to depict who lived in each building by their family name, profession, etc. Talk about a different kind of address system! When the French came in they forced the Dutch people to take on “real” last names, so the Dutch often chose names like “well-endowed” in rougher terms to mock the French’s lack of knowledge of the Dutch language. Funny then- not so funny now- because the names stuck. There is also a sculpture of Multatuli that the French inscribed with “I have suffered” only to realize later that the Dutch jokesters had given them the wrong translation and it actually means “I have ejaculated.”
We visited official “squatter” villages that were really close to the old Royal Palace and the church worried that they would “outshine” the church, so they decided to build a huge spire, but then ran out of money so it was never finished.
I forget what the town square was called but there was a tarp of flowers laid out in the middle of a field and people were literally rolling up all the tulips to take with them. There were also a ton of street performers and vendors. Everything is so much prettier than I imagined. Venice has a lot to live up to, because this is even better than I thought Venice would be.
Finally we ended our tour near a floating tulip dock. (HOW cool to have little shops on docks floating down the river?!?) Basilio told up that this particular dock sells the best bulbs in Amsterdam.
That is the entirety of my writing about our New Amsterdam Tour. Now do you see why I think you should take tours every where you go? I learned soooo much about the city that I would never have known otherwise. I think the tour is a part of why I loved Amsterdam so much. It is so interesting to learn about all of the things that you are seeing. (*Note: This is all information that I learned second-hand. It is possible that I heard things wrong, or later wrote things wrong- so don’t count on it all being 100% accurate, but I think it is probably pretty close. Feel free to let me know if there is anything that I have misspoken on.)
I wish all my entries were always this detailed. Sure makes blogging about things after the fact a whole lot easier!
In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.