“Don’t worry if you happen to see neighbours wandering around nude or semi dressed. The Dutch are very liberal”, says our Airbnb apartment host.
You don’t say.
The Americans may believe in freedom and liberty for all but it’s the Dutch who intrinsically demonstrate these values. They appear to live with the same approach they ride their bikes – with complete abandonment and no helmets.
It seems only fitting (although highly coincidental) that the city of Amsterdam would have a symbol of triple X’s. Scratch the surface and there is, after all, an R-rated city under foot.
Wandering the streets along endless canals, you catch a glimpse inside funky offices boasting baby grand pianos, billiard and ping pong tables. No one dresses in a suit, or what Australian’s would deem ‘office’ attire. There is an anything goes vibe.
When you consider that the parliamentary and financial centre is based 60 kilometres away in The Hague, this (almost) separation of state and church seems to work. It means the city of Amsterdam is free of stuffy encumbrances and the weight of ‘serious business stuff’. Almost like the kids have been left at home on their own without adult supervision.
We’re staying in the Nine Streets district – a grid of, you guessed it, nine streets. It’s a five minute walk to the house of Anne Frank and a ten minute walk to the Red Light District. The irony is not lost on us.
Anne Frank, probably the most famous resident of Amsterdam, is a beacon of hope and faith for millions of visitors each year. Together with her father, Otto, mother, Edith and sister, Margot, Anne escaped Nazi Germany seeking refuge in Amsterdam, a city chosen for its tolerance and acceptance of those in need, irrespective of race or religion. Traits that worked both for and against the Dutch during the occupation.
Whilst the country willingly accepted those fleeing the Nazi regime, often hiding and supporting those in greatest danger, it was this level of acceptance that also saw the nation initially believe that there was little use in fighting the German advance, and was best just to accept it.
Whilst this attitude obviously changed over the course of the war (and resistance built), it’s this underlying attitude of acceptance, tolerance and liberty that we found both exciting and unnerving.
The Dutch believe in personal responsibility, a concept that is becoming less and less evident in Australian society. In Australia, we would never see the co-habitation of bikes, cars and pedestrians as it is in Amsterdam. Helmets? Try riding a bike without one in Australia. In Amsterdam, the idea is that you take responsibility for yourself, your safety and conduct. What a bloody novel idea!
As such, there are fewer rules and regulations. If you want to smoke dope whilst you down a pint, go right ahead. If you want to wander the Red Light District and watch live sex on stage or negotiate with a professional, knock yourself out. The idea of rebelling seems mute. Everyone has a personal style and few, we noted, have tattoos – they just don’t seem necessary.
So why would we find it unnerving? Simple. We come from a country that seems hell bent on regulating and conforming. We seem to have arranged society around the lowest form of human behaviour and created rules to govern ourselves accordingly. For those of us accustomed to this form of control, a place like Amsterdam can be somewhat confronting.
Of course, the opposite feeling is excitement. Essentially, you are a kid in a candy shop of super naughty things.
I liked Amsterdam. Rob loved it.
We learnt we’re both a little out of sync on the liberty scale. I wanted to embrace all it had to offer but struggled with exactly what was freely available in broad daylight. Rob not so much.
And that’s fine. Amsterdam is a city that does not judge.
Where to stay:
Anywhere from the Museum Quarter, to Dam Square to the Nine Streets district all offer great hotels within easy walking distance to the major attractions.
The hotels however can be pricey when compared to renting an apartment or houseboat through Airbnb. We stayed here. This was a one bedroom apartment with roof top terrace, perfect for a single or couple and based in the heart of the Nine Streets district.
Walk! Amsterdam is not a big city to navigate. From our location in the Nine Streets district, we were able to walk to 90% of the attractions and markets. The Hop On, Hop Off bus is available in numerous, easy to spot locations and is a good way of covering the city in one day (although with traffic and bikes, we often found that walking was far more efficient).
A canal tour is also recommended. Again, there are tours available at almost every canal but be sure to check that you get one that allows you to sit outside and has a comprehensive commentary. Even better, if you can hire a smaller boat that offers champagne as you cruise.
What to see and do:
- The Rijksmuseum: a must, maybe even more so than the Van Gogh but that all depends on your interests of course.
- The canal tours are really nice, especially at twilight when all bridges are lit.
- Next to one of the busy shopping areas, you will find this nice cafe. They have their own garden outside of the city where they grow all their veggies.
- Anne Frank museum – needs no explanation. Make sure you get there early to avoid to stand in a very long waiting line (expect to wait around 1.5 hours). A truly moving experience and totally worth the wait.
- Super pretty chapel and amazing garden in the middle of the City centre.
- Nice old distillery, an absolute must see (and drink).
- The Dutch Resistance Museum, tells the story of the Dutch people inWorld War II. From 14 May 1940 to 5 May 1945, when the Netherlands were occupied by Nazi Germany. Highly recommended, and best to visit before the Anne Frank house for greater context.
- Amazing Dutch beers and very nice brewery here. Free tour on Friday, nice place to have beers afterwards.
- The Heineken experience; see how these famous beers are made (though for a cosier place, Bierbrouwerij het IJ is recommended).
- Rembrandt’s house: this was his house and the place where he made a lot of paintings. Close by the Zuiderkerk, Dam square and the Nieuwmarkt. One of the highlight visits for me.
- The red light district is the perfect location for a guided city walk. It’s not only the red light district for which Amsterdam is famous for but it is also the oldest part of Amsterdam and shelters lots of amazing history. A lot of these buildings are owned by the University of Amsterdam and free of entrance.
- Always wanted to know how it would be like to live on a houseboat? Visit the houseboat museum.
- If you are game, you can hire a bike. One option is Orangebike, on Singel 233.
- If you like markets, go and see the Noordermarkt, Dappermarkt or Albert Cuyp.
- Tour offices offer tours to The Hague and tulip fields.
- Broek in Waterland is a beautiful and very picturesque little village. You can rent a silent so called ‘wisper’ boat by yourself or get a guided tour.
Bars and Restaurants:
- Close to the Anne Frank house is Werck (Prinsengracht 277), as is Cafe Wolvenstraat, they also serve good food.
- In the Nine Streets district on Berenstraadt, Nielsen serves good coffee and a great breakfast:
- Get an authentic Dutch ‘biefstuk’ at Loetje, one of the best places to get a Dutch steak. You can’t make a reservation, you will just have to go there (and wait). Order the biefstuk with garlic: it’s very Dutch and old fashioned but the steaks are great. If you want to go all the way: order some white bread with it, and dip it in the gravy.
- Great restaurant with an amazing view on the canals is Belhamel.
- Balthazars Eeuken, Elandsgracht 108.
- Palladio (Italian) on Elandsgracht 64.
- Rakang (Thai) on Elandsgracht 29.