Diversity is embraced here. “Weird” might be the Dutch norm due to pragmatic tolerance.
This trade city has been accustomed to associating with different cultures, ideologies and lifestyles for centuries. Cooperation defines the Dutch. Tolerance makes Amsterdam’s heart beat. Rather than losing control to the social issues that can’t be eliminated through legislation—such as soft drugs, prostitution, same-sex marriage and euthanasia—issues that would otherwise go underground are given a regulated format.
The result is a tolerant society with low rates of crime, violence and incarceration. While certain activities may be intriguing to tourists, their appeal is lost on much of Dutch society and youth as access and awareness have increased. Tolerance, safety and education are priorities.
Just about the only thing the Dutch won’t tolerate is intolerance.
48 hours allowed us to savor this energetic city. Captivated by the setting, architecture and flavors found in the historic center of Amsterdam, we gained a sense of Dutch culture.
The EuroStar pulled into Amsterdam Centraal right on schedule at 1:10 pm. We arrived from London with our teenage boys midday Friday after three and a half hours aboard the high-speed railway. The plaza of Stationplein was bustling with people, trams and bicycles outside as we exited the train station.
From this wide-angle vantage point, Amsterdam Centrum (historic center) radiated outward before us. Its semicircular layout expands from the core where the station is located. The central city is composed of the “Canal Ring”—land segments between waterways—the heart of a greater metropolis.
Careful to avoid the many oncoming bicycles and trams, we crossed the plaza to the tourist info/GVB (transportation) ticket office to purchase tram/metro passes. Over the tracks we rolled our carry-on suitcases with totes slipped over their handles. Packing light enabled us to easily navigate between trains and hotels throughout our trip to Northwestern Europe.
The #24 tram took us from the Stationplein, down the streets of Damrak and Rokin, past the Muntplein, to our flat overlooking the Prinsengracht (canal)—within a short walk to Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square), the floating Bloemenmarkt (flower market), the Albert Cuyp market street in de Pijp (the Pipe) neighborhood, and the Museumplein where the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum surround a central green space.
We were fortunate to find reasonably-priced accommodations in the 17th-century Grachtengordel “Canal Ring,” an UNESCO World Heritage site, not far from a tram stop and within a short walk to restaurants and cafés. From our apartment, we enjoyed beverages in the unusually warm, sunny weather. Our perch provided a view of water activity that we quickly grew accustomed to: rowdy party barges, various-sized tour boats, and charming little boats perfect for the riders lounged with a glass of wine while eating cheese and bread.
After getting settled for the weekend, we set out to explore the sites and taste the flavors of the city. Central Amsterdam is very accessible on foot or by bike. Trams and metros provide even greater access.
Amsterdam is the epitome of picturesque. The 17th century charm is carefully preserved through a fairytale setting and period architecture. Large squares and green spaces create open views to monuments and grand structures. Tucked away courtyards can be found behind obscure doors. The laidback city felt caught in time as we traversed through some very narrow streets—some perched alongside various canals, others squeezed between tall, narrow structures.
Cuisine from around the world can be found throughout the city. Most restaurants typically serve food made to order using fresh ingredients, and as such, dining should be relaxed, unhurried and appreciated. As is often the best approach when traveling, we asked some locals for suggestions.
An array of food vendors is found at Foodhallen, a restored tram depot converted into a chic modern-industrial venue. There we joined lively European football fans to watch the World Cup consolation game between Belgium and England. Bleacher seating and large screens had been brought in for the viewing. We settled ourselves at a table upstairs in the loft bar to watch the game while sampling Dutch bitterballen (breaded meat-roux balls), sushi, wood-fired Italian pizza and frozen yogurt with fresh toppings—I chose berries with bits of meringue and ginger speculoos cookie. It was all great quality, fresh and delicious.
The Dutch are also known for pancakes, which come in many forms, savory or sweet, and are eaten for lunch or dinner—unlike in the US where pancakes are a breakfast fare. We sampled pannenkoeken—large, light, thin, flat pancakes with ingredients baked in—and pofferjes—mini puffed pancakes typically served with butter and powdered sugar (especially delicious with lemon or fresh berries).
Located at Rembrandt Square, Indrapura serves a Dutch colonial feast of an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), a banquet served with a vast array of small dishes.
Exploration continued on a midday cruise along the canals as we a relaxed to enjoy city sites. As a trade city, Amsterdam has been experienced via its waterways for centuries. For an hour we floated past quintessential Dutch architecture—typically tall and narrow with distinct parapet gables, elaborately decorated roof forms. Beams and hooks found at their apex still allow items to be hoisted from below and brought through windows in upper levels using pulley systems. We also saw the many churches and bridges as seen from the canals.
The city epitomizes Dutch “gezellig,” an enjoyable quaint, welcoming atmosphere.
Summer days are relatively long here—twilight extends late into the evening. When darkness did finally set in, the streetlights sparkled off the waterways in the night sky. Through a glistening realization I would lay odds that, even on wet days or in the darkness of winter, this city is still quite exquisite in any season.
- There are a LOT of bicycles. They dominate the roads and designated pathways (share by mopeds), and travel in every directions. We had to take extra care to look every direction.
- People and bikes don’t usually follow traffic signals. Pedestrians go when the coast is clear and yield to bikes, which always have the right-of-way.
- The streets may seem chaotic, but after a while we discovered unwritten rules of courtesy and a rhythm that occurs in the flow of traffic. Find a open path and go for it without eye contact. Bicycles will ding a pleasant-sounding bell to signal for pedestrians to move aside. (A similar rhythm seemed to be true for the water traffic. Faster moving boats find a window of opportunity to slip around slower, relaxed cruisers.)
- Designated bike lanes are also used by mopeds and other motorized bikes, not just bicycles. Traffic tends to move very quickly. These drivers often multi-task by reading or talking on the phone.
- Although Dutch is primarily spoken, English is an official language of Amsterdam, and is widely utilized in the Netherlands.
- We found Dutch people to be generally friendly and grounded with a straightforward sense of humor (sometimes sarcastic, but not necessarily cynical). They speak their mind and are open to hear your thoughts too. It’s refreshing.
- The city is very tolerant of lifestyles and activities. The attitude seems to be “live and let live” as long as no harm is done to another.
- If you want coffee, you go to a Café. “Coffee Shops” do not sell coffee. They are for lounging with some form of cannabis—popular with many tourists
- In the Red Light District, those aren’t Victoria’s Secret mannequins in the window. They are real.
- Maintain an open mind. And eat the cheese! It’s delicious.
- gezellig (huh-SELL-ick) — not directly translatable, but suggests cozy, quaint, warm, friendly; time spent with friendly or loved ones; togetherness (antonym: ongezellig — think sterile, cold, unfriendly)
- gedogen (huh-doh-huhn) — illegal, but not illegal; not legal, but tolerated in practice, as long as guidelines are followed (example: “coffee shops” can sell soft drugs, but are not supposed to purchase; Dutch saying: “The front door is legal, but the back door is illegal.”)
- polder — land created behind a dike
- poldermodel — an approach, especially in business and politics, where efforts are made to reach a consensus on important issues; cooperation despite personal differences, lifestyle or religious views