By Amy Lively Jensen
With more canals than Venice, Amsterdam is the glorious capital of the Netherlands. The iconic canals crisscross this city which is also famous for world-class art, progressive culture and bicyclists. They have more bikes than people. As the main source of transportation, the Netherlands has become the cycling capital of the world, according to “Bike City Amersterdam.” As we found out on a recent trip to Amsterdam, it is quite a feat to stay out of the way of those on two wheels. We had to be vigilant about looking at bike lanes in all directions before crossing at an intersection, even if we had a green walk signal. It can also be a hazard for cyclists: around 15,000 bikes end up in canals each year. The city has a barge with a giant magnetic arm to pull the bikes from the bottom of the water.
Half of the Netherlands lies 6.6 feet below sea level but has managed to stay above water. To accomplish this, they built canals in the 17th century. Buildings are anchored on wooden poles, which are about 65 feet in length. They built many narrow houses because in the 17th century, the amount of tax citizens had to pay was based on the width of their houses. The narrowest house measures just about six and one-half feet wide and 16 feet in depth.
Our favorite activity in Amsterdam was a canal cruise which we liked so much we did twice. We experienced the city’s highlights, breathtaking scenery and impressive architecture. Amsterdam has eclipsed Venice with 165 canals. On the banks of the canals are 3000 houseboats bobbing on the water. These floating homes are built on concrete pontoons. Many tourists opt to stay in a houseboat instead of a hotel.
We walked over 10 miles a day to explore the many fascinating sites of Amsterdam. We went to the Van Gogh Museum in the Museum Quarter, which has the world’s largest collection of works by the genius Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. His masterpieces housed here include Starry Night, Sunflowers and the Potato Eaters. The exquisite artworks and narratives gave me a feel for Van Gogh’s life and struggles. His sad history of mental illness made the artwork even more remarkable and poignant.
Nearby is the Rijksmuseum which tells the story of the Netherlands from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. This impressive collection of works from Dutch Masters features the masterpieces of Rembrandt who called Amsterdam home. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant painters in European art history.
One of the most visited places in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House. Her house reveals experiences that Anne Frank and her family endured while in hiding for two years to escape the Nazis during World War II. These eight frightened Jewish people were fighting for their lives and the Nazi killing machine was just outside. Anne’s diary and book illuminated this, so the museum came alive with her story. Anne Frank’s house is a monument to bravery in the face of unspeakable horror. She shined like a diamond of hope that is still evident today. Be prepared for an emotional experience, and pre-book tickets six weeks in advance.
Vondel Park is a great option to escape the urban bustle and soak up local vibes. It is the largest park in the city, which opened in 1865. It is full of life with small ponds, statues, fountains, wildlife and flowers. Relaxing on a sunny warm afternoon in this green space is sublime.
Dam Square is a great location for people-watching. This very busy square is situated right in the middle of the city and always has something going on. Here you’ll find the National Monument, street performers, food trucks and bars and restaurants with a real buzz. Situated in the square is the Royal Palace. Showcasing its beautiful marble works, it is used for state and other official visits, and is also the official residence of King William Alexander. The Royal Palace displays the pomp and grandeur of the royal family.
For flower enthusiasts, a trip to the floating flower market is a must. It is the only floating flower market in the world. The flower stalls stand on houseboats and both locals and tourists have shopped here since 1862. You can enjoy pretty flowers and fragrances year-round. Not surprisingly, tulip bulbs abound. Unique varieties tempt visitors to plant abundantly.
Another market to visit is the colorful Albert Cuyp Market, the city’s largest street market. In this exuberant atmosphere you’ll find boutiques, clothes, housewares, toys and unique gifts. Be sure to come here on an empty stomach as you must indulge in cheap, excellent street food. The variety of aromas from the food stalls lures you to try Dutch delicacies. I became addicted to the classic Dutch comfort food Stroopwafels. They are thin layers of dough filled with sweet, decadent, piping hot caramel syrup. These gooey treats are internationally famous. They are so good that it is estimated that the average Dutch person eats about 30 Stroopwafels per year.
We took a delightful day trip to Zaanse Schans and other nearby towns. This quaint village is known for its historic windmills and distinctive green houses. We climbed up one of the oldest windmills to see how it operates. A steep staircase led us to the top of the windmill with stunning views. Included in this trip were guided tours where we learned about making and tasting famous Dutch cheeses, carving clogs and a tasting of Dutch specialties.
A visit to this city would be incomplete without a detour to Amersterdam’s iconic Red Light District. In this 800-year-old neighborhood, ladies of the night sell their services completely legally; they even pay taxes. It is a network of alleys containing approximately 300 one room cabins rented by prostitutes. Sex workers stand behind a window typically illuminated with red lights and pose for passersby. But the fate of the Red Light District is uncertain. Fueled by ever-increasing numbers of tourists and unruly behavior, a controversial plan proposed moving sex workers to a suburban “Erotic Center.”
Despite knowing that the Dutch cherish their Heineken beer, we were on a mission to track down a pleasant glass of wine in the middle of Amsterdam. By chance we came upon Café ‘tSpui-tje, a retro-local wine bar that had a extensive list of wines by the glass, in addition to an array of beers. But they were not ordinary table wines, instead these wines included a Savigny-lès-Beaune, Sancerre, Meursault, a small grower Champagne and others. What surprised us most was the modest pricing per glass, between eight to fifteen euros. One of co-owners, John Viring gladly chose the best from his list and impressed us with each selection. We ended up circling back to this bar every night we were in Amsterdam and today have fond memories of each visit.
Reminiscing about our fantastic experiences in Amsterdam made me confer the accolade of being one of my favorite cities in the world.